A Brief Biography of Mary, Queen of Scots

 Mary, Queen of Scots, portrait at Hatfield House

Early Life

Mary, Queen of Scots by an unknown artist, circa 1560-1592. Owned by the National Portrait Gallery
Mary, Queen of Scots by an unknown artist, circa 1560-1592. Owned by the National Portrait Gallery

Mary, Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow Palace, Scotland on the 8th of December, 1542 and was the only legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, and his wife Mary of Guise.

She was the great niece of Henry VIII, and a cousin of Elizabeth I. due to her grandmother being Henry VIII’s sister.

James V died when Mary was 6 days old and she acceded to the throne of Scotland, which was ruled by nobles.

She spent much of her childhood in France after leaving Scotland at the age of 5 as she was betrothed to marry Francis II of France, to whom she married at Notre Dame in Paris in 1559.

She was Queen Consort of France for a brief period from 1559 – 1560 when her husband sadly died.

Notre Dame in Paris, where Mary married King Francis II in 1559
Notre Dame in Paris, where Mary married King Francis II in 1559

After the death of her husband, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 in mourning. She seemed to have been quite fond of her young husband, and it is thought she wrote the below poem about him:

“By day, by night, I think of him
In wood or mead, or where I be
My heart keeps watch for one who’s gone
And yet I feel he’s aye to me”

Mary in widow's clothing on her return to Scotland. Portrait at Holyrood House
Mary in widow’s clothing on her return to Scotland. Portrait at Holyrood House

Although a staunch Catholic, Mary kept many of the existing Protestant advisers within her Privy council.

Marriage

Holyrood Palace, where Mary married Lord Darnley in 1565
Holyrood Palace, where Mary married Lord Darnley in 1565

In 1565, Mary married her 1st cousin, Lord Darnley at Holyrood Palace in what was an unpopular match. Elizabeth I was threatened by the marriage due to the fact that both Mary and Lord Darnley had their own claims to the English throne.

Darnley became arrogant and difficult, he was not willing to accept being a simple consort.

He wanted Mary to sign the crown over to him if she died without issue.

Mary refused this, and their relationship was not a happy one. He murdered her private secretary David

Edinburgh Castle, where Mary gave birth to her son James in 1566
Edinburgh Castle, where Mary gave birth to her son James in 1566

Rizzio in front of her through possible jealousy, which shows what kind of person he was!

Despite their strained relationship, Mary gave birth to their son James in 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. He would become the Tudor successor, James I.

Scandal followed Mary throughout her life, and it was the murder of Darnley in suspicious circumstances in February 1567 that was a catalyst.

It was generally thought to have been at the hands of James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, a man who Mary had recently spent time with. There were rumours already that Mary and Bothwell were lovers.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

However, Mary agreed to a trial to investigate Bothwell, but the trial to convict him collapsed in April.

On her way back from visiting her son in April (sadly she would never see James again), Bothwell kidnapped Mary and took her to Dunbar Castle.

Remarkably, Mary and Bothwell were married one month later.

This was an incredibly unpopular marriage, many believing it was unlawful as Bothwell had been married and had divorced to marry Mary.

26 Scottish peers eventually raising an army against the couple. Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in favour of her son James, and Bothwell was driven into exile.

Abdication and Imprisonment

Mary escaped imprisonment in Scotland and fled to England, hoping that Elizabeth I would help her to reclaim her crown.

Bolton Castle, where Mary was held in 1568
Bolton Castle, where Mary was held in 1568

Elizabeth proceeded with caution and ordered an inquiry into the Scottish lord’s conduct, but ordered local officials to take Mary into their keeping at Carlisle Castle.

She was then moved to Bolton Castle in Wensleydale, due to it’s distance from London and the Scottish border.

In 1569 she was moved to the keeping of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire.

Approach to Bolton Castle
Approach to Bolton Castle

Elizabeth was extremely wary of Mary, due to the claim Mary had to her throne, the issue that she had asserted her right to it in the past and the fact that she could be used as a figurehead for the Catholic cause.

Her advisers William Cecil and Francis Walsingham were consistently looking for plots against Elizabeth that Mary was involved in, and placed spies in her household.

In August, 1586, Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot. This plot was a plan to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne through a Spanish invasion and the restoration of Catholicism in England.

The Courtyard at Bolton Castle
The Courtyard at Bolton Castle

A letter written by Mary was intercepted by Walsingham where in which she had consented to the assassination of Elizabeth, and this was the proof he needed to take to Elizabeth and end the threat to her throne once and for all.

Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in September and a trial was conducted where in which Mary defended herself admirably. It was to no avail, she was convicted in October and sentenced to death.

Execution

The Church of St. Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay
The Church of St. Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay

Despite the conviction, Elizabeth remained incredibly reluctant to execute Mary, even though she was under pressure from her advisers.

She feared that if she executed Mary, an anointed Queen, she would be setting a precedent that would put herself at risk.

On the 1st of February, 1587 Elizabeth finally signed the death warrant and gave it to William Davison a privy councillor for safe keeping – she was still trying to avoid it!

But William took it to the council and Cecil, and without Elizabeth’s knowledge it was decided that the warrant should be acted on at once.

Original Burial Place of Mary, Queen of Scots at Peterborough Cathedral
Original Burial Place of Mary, Queen of Scots at Peterborough Cathedral

The execution was conducted on the 7th of February, and Mary was dignified and strong right until the end.

Her clothing was strong with symbolism, with the underskirts red, the colour of Catholic martyrdom.

By the time of her execution, Mary had been imprisoned for 18 years and she said to the executioner who had asked for her forgiveness: ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles’

Brutally, it took two strokes of the ax to sever her head, and her wee dog was found hiding in her skirts.

Elizabeth was furious when she found out that the execution had been carried out. She had William Davison arrested and placed in the Tower of London until William Cecil interceded and freed him 19 months later.

The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral
The West Front of Peterborough Cathedral

Mary had asked to be buried in France, but Elizabeth denied her this final request and she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral to the right of the altar in July 1587. This was 5 months after her execution, she had been left unburied in a secure lead coffin until her funeral.

In 1612, her son James I ordered that she should be reburied in Westminster Abbey where she lies in a glorious tomb today, across the aisle from the tomb of Elizabeth I. Her tomb is as grand as Elizabeth’s.

In closing

Mary is a character of history that divides strong opinion. She was a ruling Queen of two countries and died at the hand of her cousin whom she had never met. I don’t think she helped herself in many ways, her 2nd and 3rd marriages were ill advised and helped to put her in her final position, and led to her never knowing her son, James I. I can’t help but feel sympathy for her, 18 years imprisonment (however comfortable) must have been soul destroying.

The North Front of Westminster Abbey, where Mary was re-interred in 1612
The North Front of Westminster Abbey, where Mary was re-interred in 1612
Please visit my flickr if you are keen to see more photos from my visits to Edinburgh, Bolton Castle and Peterborough
References:
National Portrait Gallery
Wikipedia – Mary, Queen of Scots
EnglishHistory.net – Mary, Queen of Scots
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