Mary, Queen of Scots had the potential to be one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. 450 years after Mary’s abdication, Nicola Rayner asks: where did it all go wrong?
Mary, Queen of Scots had the sort of charisma that could make people feel as if they were the only one in the room. Nine years younger than her cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary was tall, beautiful, bright and impetuous.
While not as bookish as Elizabeth, she was nevertheless her competitor “in every way that mattered”, according to Tracy Borman in The Private Lives of the Tudors. If the Virgin Queen’s life is celebrated for its restraint, for the way her head ruled her heart, Mary is known for the opposite. Perhaps for this reason she failed as a queen, forced to abdicate 450 years ago, while the reign of Elizabeth is still celebrated today. Yet there was a strong bond between the two women, despite their contrasting qualities: both were anointed queens; both believed in the divine right of monarchs. That connection was something that would haunt Elizabeth forever when it came to signing her cousin’s death warrant.
Born in 1542 in Linlithgow Palace, a resting point for journeying royals between Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, Mary lost her father, King James V of Scotland, just six days after her birth. He died in Falkland Palace, after defeat by the English at Solway Moss, saying of his daughter’s birth: “It came wi’ a lass, it’ll gang wi’ a lass”, meaning the dynasty had started and would end with a female ruler.
Mary was born into conflict. With a French mother, Mary of Guise, and a Scottish father, she was promised in marriage as an infant to Edward, son of King Henry VIII. When this promise was renounced, Henry attacked Scotland to force the matter in what is known as the Rough Wooing. This was not just diplomacy: it was effectively war. Mary was taken to Stirling Castle for protection, where she was crowned aged just nine months.
The Queen of the Scots would end up spending much of her youth abroad in the court of France. She was moved from Stirling, first to Inchmahome Priory and later to the impenetrable Dumbarton Castle, but by 1548 her homeland was no longer considered safe for her. Her mother’s family stepped in to help and the Treaty of Haddington in 1548 betrothed Mary to the son of the French King Henry II, the Dauphin Francis. To the French, Mary was not only considered to be the Queen of Scotland and, one day, France, but also the rightful heir to the thrones of England and Ireland as well. The Catholics – and, crucially, Mary was Catholic – considered Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be illegitimate. As Mary entered chapel in France, ushers would cry, “Make way for the Queen of England!” It was deliberately provocative.
In April 1558, Mary married Francis in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, her auburn hair and pale complexion dazzling in the lavish white gown. When Francis became king the following year, the French and Scottish crowns were briefly united, but an ear infection caused his untimely death the following year. Mary returned to Scotland aged 18, unfamiliar with the land she ruled – a devout Catholic in a Protestant country.
Accustomed to the luxury of French castles, Mary took time to adjust to more frugal life at the Palace of Holyrood House, but she ruled with diplomacy initially – despite the fact her first mass was held in the chapel with public uproar at the gates. Things began to unravel, however, with the appearance of the dastardly Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – “the lustiest and best proportioned lang (tall) man” Mary had ever seen.
Mary married Darnley, a grandchild, like her, of Margaret Tudor, at Holyrood in July 1565. She fell pregnant soon afterwards, flaunting her fertility in a letter to Elizabeth, in which she blames her handwriting on being “in her seventh month”. The birth of the boy who was to become James VI of Scotland and James I of England was undoubtedly the high point of Mary’s life; it took place in a small room in Edinburgh Castle, but his baptism at Stirling was an opulent affair, with feasting, costumes and the first fireworks to be seen in Scotland.
The marriage, however, fared less well. Darnley was conspicuous by his absence at the baptism, throwing suspicion on James’s paternity. Darnley’s arrogance had been quick to reveal itself once he was married – as had his desire for the crown himself – reaching a nadir with the murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s Italian secretary, whom rumours suggested was James’s real father.
In Mary’s apartments at Holyrood, a plaque commemorates Rizzio beneath his painting. It’s also possible to see the tiny supper room, in a turret off Mary’s bedchamber, where they dined before the murder took place. Mary’s screams, as her close friend was stabbed by Protestant conspirators, Darnley among them, are said to have brought men rushing from Edinburgh taverns with makeshift weapons, but she was forced, at gunpoint, to dismiss them.
It is hard to imagine how the marriage could have survived that. While Darnley plotted to imprison Mary and rule on behalf of James, conspiracies began to form against him in turn. As the queen convalesced following a postnatal illness in Craigmillar Castle, a pact known as the Craigmillar Bond was made between leading nobles to kill Darnley. The manner of his death, when it occurred in the early hours of 10 February 1567, would become one of the great mysteries of the Tudor age: after an explosion blew up the Old Provost’s Lodging in Edinburgh where Darnley was staying, his body was found unsinged yet apparently strangled in the grounds of Kirk o’ Field nearby. Tellingly Mary was absent, attending a wedding party at Holyrood.
While there is no proof that Mary was involved in Darnley’s murder, her reaction to it did not help matters. The Memorial of Lord Darnley, a painting commissioned by his parents, the Earl and Countess of Lennox, makes clear their view of Mary’s role and that of the Earl of Bothwell. A letter written by Elizabeth at this time is a clear warning to her passionate cousin.
Nevertheless Mary married Bothwell just three months after becoming widowed for a second time. Today, Mary, Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh is remembered as the place she stayed while riding to visit him in Hermitage Castle as early as October 1566, which undercuts a counterclaim that she was forced into the marriage (“Would that I died in Jedburgh,” she later sighed). Either way, public feeling violently turned against the couple, not least because Bothwell divorced his wife a matter of days before the wedding, and the Scottish lords rebelled.
At Carberry Hill, where a stone on Queen Mary’s Mount commemorates her, the queen rode boldly into battle in red petticoats and a velvet hat, but she was defeated. Imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, isolated on an island in the eponymous loch, Mary suffered loss after loss, with the miscarriage of her twins by Bothwell, the exile to Denmark of her husband and, finally, her forced abdication on 24 July 1567.
There was fight in her yet – escaping during May Day festivities in 1568, she fought one more battle at Langside near Glasgow before her final defeat to her half-brother, the Earl of Moray. Afterwards, she fled to Elizabeth and England, which proved a mistake. She was not received by the queen in London but taken into protective custody at Carlisle Castle and lived for no fewer than 19 years under house arrest in a series of English stately homes and strongholds. In the end, a conspiracy known as the Babington Plot was Mary’s undoing in 1586. Against advice, she wrote in reply to Anthony Babington, who planned for the “dispatch of the usurper” Elizabeth. The English queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, intercepted her letter of approval.
Mary’s was a messy death. On 8 February 1587, she ascended the scaffold in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. “Double chinned and hazel eyed [and with] borrowed hair”, she was almost unrecognisable as the beauty she had once been. A flicker of that spirit remained: her under-dress was scarlet, the colour of martyrs, and she reminded those gathered of her status as anointed queen. The executioner did not sever her head until the third blow, at which point her little dog scurried from its hiding place under her skirts.
Elizabeth went into a frenzy of grief. To some extent, it was a diplomatic reaction to a situation that would inflame fury abroad, but there was enough genuine regret for her to whisper Mary’s name on her deathbed. “In my end is my beginning,” embroidered Mary on her cloth of state during her imprisonment. It was, after all, her son, James, who was to succeed Elizabeth and he, too, who moved his mother’s body in 1612 to London’s Westminster Abbey, where it lies in the Henry VII Chapel, not far from her “sister queen”.