Mary Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots / Kings and Queens

  • Name  : Mary, Queen of Scots
  • Born  : 1542
  • Died  : 1587
  • Category  : Kings and Queens
  • Finest Moment : Returning to Scotland, on 19 August 1561

Oh Dear! Oh Dear! Oh Dear! No modern screenwriter could have written this one. No one would have wagered a happy outcome. A daughter of a Scottish King and his French wife, Queen of Scotland aged six days, essentially brought up in France, a Roman Catholic, tall (five foot, 11 inches), red-haired and pretty in late life, and, to cap it all, with another red-haired woman Queen of England. No, this novel would not have a happy ending. Except it was not a novel.

Mary Stuart was the sole child of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, his French wife. She was born at Linlithgow, just north of Edinburgh, on 8 December 1542. Six days after her birth James V died, depressed and worn out. The struggle for the throne of Scotland started all over again.

After a short period when it looked as if the pro-English faction would win, and Mary was bethrothed to six-year old Edward, son and heir of Henry VIII, the Catholics retaliated and Henry invaded Scotland several times, a phase known amusingly as the Rough Wooing. Mary had to retreat for a while to the island priory of Inchmahome. A deal was struck between the Scots and the French, the French backing the Scots if Mary were sent to France.

And so, at the age of five, Mary was sent to France, to be brought up at the court of King Henry II with his wife Catherine de Medici. The all-powerful Guise family hovered about there too. Her education there assured that she would become proficient at hunting, dancing (very important then), and also handy in Latin, Italian, Spanish and a little Greek.

Two crucial events took place in 1558; in April Mary married the 14-year old Francis, eldest son of Henry and Catherine, and in November Elizabeth Tudor succeeded to the English throne. Mary, through her Tudor blood (Henry VIII of England was a great-uncle), was now next in line to the English throne. There was just the problem of France, casting an eye on not only the Scottish throne, but also the English throne. Many Catholics supported Mary, and so Henry II claimed the English throne on Mary's behalf.

The following year, 1559, Henry died, and with Francis King of France, Mary was now the queen consort of France. But then he died in December 1560, making her a very pretty widow, aged 18. Mary's mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, disliked Mary, but at the same time an anti-French revolution had begun in Scotland. Between a rock and a hard place, Mary chose to return to Scotland, which, to some degree, she still felt was home. And so the stage was set for tragedy.

She returned to Scotland which was now firmly in the grip of John Knox's Calvinistic brand of Protestanism. Worse, Elizabeth in England refused to recognise her right of succession to the English throne. Worse than that even, the Scottish nobles were too busy bashing each other to risk supporting a 'young Frenchwoman'. Despite these near-impossible barriers, with the help of her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, Mary got off to a reasonably good start. While continuing to practice Mass in private, she supported the religious reforms; this religious policy of tolerance went down well, and Elizabeth offered her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, as a husband to Mary. Then it all went pear-shaped.

In July 1565, Mary married her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. The marriage was a Roman Catholic one (even though Darnley was a Protestant). It was a marriage of love by all accounts; Darnley struck a dashing pose. But he was a poser, weak, vicious yet ambitious, the worst of combinations. In England, Elizabeth was of course very miffed by all of this, as were, naturally enough, the Protestant Scottish nobles. Mary had to suppress a rebellion from them, which she did well enough, but was soon disgusted with Darnley and became estranged from him. One of those she became reliant on was David Rizzio, an Italian musician who became her French secretary.

The inevitable took place. Protestant lords suspected Rizzio of being a papal agent; Darnley thought the two were intimate. Rizzio was murdered by Darnley and some of the lords on 9 March 1566, at Holyrood. Mary, who was then six months pregnant, was certainly close by, and may even have witnessed the scene. It did not prevent the birth of her son James in June. He would become James VI of Scotland, and James I of England.

By the end of that year, 1566, Mary had turned to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. They may have been lovers, though there is no good evidence. What is certain is that on 10 February 1567, the odious Darnley, lying ill in bed at Kirk o' Field in Edinburgh, had his house blown up and was later found strangled in the garden. Bothwell was acquitted following a show trial. On 24 April, probably with her agreement, Bothwell abducted Mary and obtained a divorce from his wife two weeks' later. Another two weeks on and they were married. Though the wedding this time was a Protestant one, she had by now lost almost all support in Scotland.

She was beaten by the nobles at Carberry Hill on 15 June 1567, saying goodbye to Bothwell. She surrendered and was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle for a while, being forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year old son James on 24 July. She escaped on 2 May 1568, and with some support fought and lost the Battle of Langside on 13 May, to the south of Glasgow. She decided to flee south to her cousin Elizabeth, who promptly locked her up.

Imprisonment in England was to last for 18 long years. Elizabeth was never really going to allow such an incendiary woman as Mary free to raise support from her disloyal Catholic subjects. Mary, weary of being jailed, had by now turned to plotting, including some against Elizabeth in person. She was tried in an English court, found guilty, and condemned to die. She was beheaded on 18 February 1587, in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle, near Peterborough, where she was buried. Later, her body was removed to Westminster Abbey, where her son James raised a monument to the mother he had not seen since childhood.

Drive south on the M80 towards Edinburgh, and a short distance south of Falkirk, to the west, you will see the ruined palace of Linlithgow, where Mary Stuart was born. The winds now moan and keen through the spaces where once there were windows and a roof, and a young, red-haired girl must have danced and skipped for a time.

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