Posted in Mary Queen of Scots

The life of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland

As King James V of Scotland lay on his sick-bed at his Palace in Fife in 1542, his French queen consort was giving birth to their daughter at Linlithgow Palace. James had just suffered a bitter loss to Henry VIII’s troops at the battle of Solway Moss and aged just 30 he was a broken man.

Legend says that James turned his head towards the wall when he heard the news of his only legitimate child’s birth and said, ‘Woe is me. My dynasty came with a lass. It will go with a lass.’ King James was right his Royal House did end with a woman but that woman would not be his daughter because the his blood line did not end until a century after his death.

James died six days after his daughter’s entrance into the world leaving her a vulnerable infant queen and his wife the Regent of Scotland. The new baby’s Mother was Mary of Guise. The baby was well connected being a relative of the French Royal Family and the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor. Margaret was the Tudor princess who had married the Scottish king James IV in 1503. This family connection made little Mary a Catholic heir to the English crown.

Henry VIII planned to control Mary and her nation by marrying her to his son, by Jane Seymour, Prince Edward.

Prince Edward and his father Henry VIII

The treaty of Greenwich and was signed on 1st July when Mary was six months old. The treaty said that Mary would marry Prince Edward and move to England aged ten. The plan was for both countries to be legally separate and if the couple did not have children the union of both nations would dissolve. Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland in the chapel of Stirling castle on 9th September 1543 aged nine months.

Henry VIII was livid when the Scottish Parliament rejected the Treaty of Greenwich in the hope of a French marriage for their queen. The English king meant to impose the marriage of Queen Mary by force if necessary. The battles launched on Scotland and France was called, ‘the rough wooing.’

Henry commanded his army to put all Scot’s, men, women and children to fire and to the sword. Henry was so furious that he ordered his troops, led by the Earl of Hertford, to destroy as much of Edinburgh as possible. English forces also launched a series of raids on French territory. Marys Mother was terrified that her five year old daughter would be kidnapped by the English and be forced into an unwanted Royal marriage. It was undoubtedly  a  great relief to her when the king of her native France offered the Scots military assistance. Henry II, also offered Marriage between his three year old son and heir to the young Queen. On 7 July 1548, the Scottish Parliament officially agreed to the French marriage treaty.

Mary’s parents: King James V and Marie de Guise

The French navy sailed to the north coast of  Scotland to avoid the English and to rescue the Young Queen. The French fleet docked at Dumbarton to collect Mary and her court. Mary left her grief stricken mother, Marie de Guise, who continued to govern Scotland as Regent. Mary’s court sailed on a potentially hazardous journey to France. Mary would spend the next 13 years growing up in the magnificent French Royal Court and living in beautiful Châteauxs.

Many children from Scotland’s noble families travelled with Mary. This included four girls also named Mary or the four, ‘Maries’. Her entourage included her three illegitimate brothers along with high born Scots adults and her governess.

According to (Dunn: 2003): Scotland was still considered by the French to be barbaric in its climate, terrain and the character of its people. Mary’s beauty and charm of manner was celebrated all the more because of this piquant contrast. 

King Henry II said, ‘The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen.’

Mary’s betrothed, the Dauphin François became close and affectionate to his wife to be and Mary seemed to share his feelings. She was to have the sophisticated education of a French Princess. She learned to dance, sing, to play the virginals and the lute. She spoke Scots, French, Latin, Italian, Spanish and Greek. Mary was also an expert at horsemanship. She grew up surrounded by strong and dominating French women and throughout her life she would have many close women friends. Her great nemesis Elizabeth of England conversely grew up in a court dominated by her father’s whims and she prefered men to women. Life for Elizabeth was a battle and she learnt statecraft, diplomacy and survival from the cradle. Although Mary was safe and pampered in France she grew up unaware how much her mother struggled to keep Scotland for her daughter. Had she have stayed in Scotland Mary may have come to understand the complex politics and the religion of her people. Mary was trained to become the queen of France. Her Royal education was designed solely to give her the very best tools and have the polish to carry out this role.

Mary with her husband the King of France and dressed in white.

Mary married François the French heir at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1558. The bride wore white which was a flattering (see above) but controversial choice. White was worn for Royal mourning in France.

Mary was then proclaimed queen of England, and she ordered that the royal arms of England be quartered with those of Scotland, Ireland and France. It was reported that when Mary entered her chapel her gentlemen cried “make way for the queen of England”. This act was encouraged by her ambitious father in law as a calculated insult to Elizabeth. It would have serious repercussions throughout Mary’s life and with her relationship with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth could not have been a Catholic queen, even if she wanted to be. The Catholic Church rejected her right to be queen because her parents marriage, Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII was not accepted by them as legitimate. This meant that if Elizabeth wanted to be queen she had to be a protestant because she was seen as a bastard in Catholic Europe. The Catholic choice for the English crown was Mary Queen of Scots.

During magnificent peace tournaments held in France in 1559 English ambassadors could not fail to notice that England’s arms had been embroidered on the front and back of the French Royal heralds tunics. On the third day of the celebrations the king of France entered the lists and won several courses. Henri was in a buoyant mood and despite being urged by many to retire decided run one more course. A large splinter from his opponent’s lance punctured the king’s eye and entered his brain. He died ten days later in horrendous pain he was just forty one. The Dauphin became king of France and his wife Mary who had been married for just over a year became his queen consort.

Rural Scotland

Elizabeth  was delighted at the news of Henri II’s death but she had serious problems of her own. Her favorite Robert Dudley’s wife had been found dead at the bottom of some stairs. There was talk of poison and rumours spread that Dudley had killed his wife to make room for the queen in his bed. Elizabeth was 27 and the scandal if not handled well it could have led to her abdication or a civil war. Elizabeth dismissed Dudley from her court and he did not return until a jury found his wife’s death to be accidental.

There were riots in Scotland within a week of the French kings death. The new king of France was seen as young and weak and the protestant Lords of Scotland, fed up with their Catholic Regent dowager queen, asked Elizabeth to aid them push the French out of Scotland. Elizabeth sent an army of eight thousand men to Scotland and held the French under siege. Briefly, Elizabeth became more popular with the Scots than with their own distant queen. The result of this was the treaty of Edinburgh which agreed that everyone would accept Elizabeth as queen and renounce the French claim. The Catholic mass and the Pope’s power in Scotland was revoked and replaced with the reformed faith. The French and English also agreed to withdraw their troops from Scottish soil.

The 17 year old Mary repeatedly refused to sign the treaty and continued to openly bare the arms of England and Ireland. Mary was greatly troubled after discovering that her mother had died in Scotland hiding out from the Scots Lords at Edinburgh castle. It was 11th June and Marie de Guise was aged 44.

In November the new French King was struck by a painful earache.  Mary and the King’s mother kept vigil by his bed as he died aged just sixteen. Mary’s dream of ruling a French empire died with Francis. She wrote, “My heart keeps watch for one who’s gone.”

François was succeeded by his brother, the ten year old, Charles IX . Mary had lost her status as the French queen and being childless she had no further role to play. She went home to Scotland nine months after her husband’s death. She had lived in France since she was five and she was now the Polished French princess her late mother had dreamt of but nothing in her sophisticated education would prepare Mary for Scottish politics and the culture that she had left behind.

When, Mary asked Elizabeth for safe conduct through English waters for her journey home Elizabeth refused. Mary was still refusing to sign the treaty of Edinburgh. Mary wrote that she had never wanted to claim England and that her French family had forced her to quarter Elizabeth’s arms with her own. She claimed that she had opportunities to turn Elizabeth’s people against her but she had refused them all. Implying that Elizabeth had done her a great wrong in encouraging her people to rebel against her mother. Mary could prove to be a formidable enemy. Elizabeth relented and sent Mary a passport but it arrived too late Mary had already left France.

During her Royal entrance to Edinburgh she was given the keys of the city, a book of Psalms and a Bible. The celebrations for her homecoming openly attacked Mary’s Catholicism. The Protestant reformer John Knox preached against Mary, condemning her for hearing the Catholic Mass, for enjoying dancing, and dressing elaborately. Mary had five audiences with Knox and where she rebuked him for his rudeness and he compared her to the Tyrannical Roman emperor Nero. Mary told Knox that he would cause an armed rebellion against her and she refused to back down but after he left she wept.

Mary wanted to meet Queen Elizabeth hoping to convince her to name her cousin as her heir presumptive. Elizabeth knew how dangerous naming any heir could be and refused. Arrangements were made for both queens to meet in the north of England in summer of 1562 but the plan was abandoned because of a civil war in France. Elizabeth also contracted smallpox.

A satellite picture of Scotland

Elizabeth attempted to neutralise any danger Marys marriage might cause her by suggesting that she marry the English Protestant Robert Dudley. He had been made the Earl of Leicester in the hope that Mary would marry him. Dudley was a great favourite of Elizabeth and she trusted him completely. Elizabeth sent the ambassador, Thomas Randolph, to tell Mary that if she would marry the English nobleman, Elizabeth would give her the title to be, “our heir.” The offer came to nothing, Dudley was unwilling and rumours about the suspected murder of his wife and his love affair with Elizabeth can’t have helped the situation. Mary was insulted and declared she had no intention of marrying ‘Elizabeth’s horse keeper’.

Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England

Mary fell passionately in love with the English, Lord Darnley after meeting him in Fife. She thought he was, ‘the lustiest and best proportioned long lad that she had ever seen’. Nicholas Throckmorton said that Queen Mary was bewitched and that the marriage could only be stopped by violence.

Darnley was a Catholic  and like Mary he was the grandchild of the Scots queen Margaret Tudor. Catholic law did not permit cousins to marry without the Pope’s permission. They married anyway without it at the Chapel Royal at Holyrood Palace on 29 July 1565.

Mary as a widow dressed in white and Henry Darnley.

Elizabeth felt threatened by the marriage, both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and any children they had would have an even stronger claim. She was angry too because Darnley was her cousin and an English subject who had not asked her permission to Marry. The wedding announcement was met with silence. Only Darnley’s father cried ‘God save His Grace’.

Opposition to the marriage came from Mary’s Protestant half-brother the Earl of Moray, who feared that Mary’s marriage to another Catholic would destroy the protestant movement in Scotland. He led an open rebellion with other Scottish Lords to overthrow her. Mary set out from Edinburgh to confront the rebels in August, and on the 30th Moray entered Edinburgh, but failed to take the castle and left the city. Mary returned to Edinburgh the following month to raise more troops. The two armies roamed around Scotland without ever having any direct combat. The rebellion was called the ‘Chaseabout Raid’.  In October Moray fled Scotland and gained asylum in England.

Henry Lord Darnley was proving to be an arrogant young man who demanded to be crowned with the Crown Matrimonial. This would give him the right to keep the Scottish throne for himself  even if he outlived his wife. Mary refused. He was jealous of the friendship she had with her private secretary, David Rizzio. There were rumours at court that David was the real father of her unborn baby. In March 1566, Darnley plotted with Scots Lords to be rid of Rizzio. A group of the conspirators, accompanied by her new husband, murdered Rizzio who fought and begged for his life as he was stabbed to death in front of Mary at Holyrood Palace. At one point Mary claimed that a gun had been held to her pregnant belly. Darnley seemed to become increasingly more drunk and dangerous as the days past and he was unable to choose which group to follow switching sides over and over again for the next few days.

David Rizzio

The murder of Rizzio must have made the queen see beyond her husbands handsome veneer perhaps for the very first time. It’s possible that she could now see Darnley’s as the dangerous, egotistic and foolish young man that he was proving to be. His disloyalty to her personally was outrageous but he had also put Scotland’s heir and its Sovereign in great physical danger. This ‘love’ marriage was not turning out to be pleasurable one she had hoped for. Mary must have felt afraid.

James VI of Scotland

Mary’s son, James, was born on 19 June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. He was later to succeed Elizabeth I of England. He became the first Monarch who ruled both Scotland and England. James had dreams of building a new nation called the ’United Kingdom’ or ‘Great Britain,’ because of the new nation’s great size. He is the ‘King James’ who had his Bible translated into English and named after him. James also survived Guy Fawkes’s gunpowder plot. This traitor’s execution has been commemorated in Britain since 5th November 1605. Guy’s effigy is traditionally burned on bonfires, commonly accompanied by fireworks displays each year in a similar way to Independence Day is celebrated in the USA.

The execution of Guy Fawkes

Fawkes is sometimes toasted as “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions” which is why after appearing in Internet forums, Guys face mask has become a well-known symbol for the online hacktivist group Anonymous. Guy’s face was used by the Occupy movement, and other anti-government and anti-establishment protests around the world.


Guy Fawkes mask

Shortly after the birth of her baby son, Mary developed a serious illness that made her vomit, lose her of sight and her speech. She had convulsions and became unconsciousness several times. The queen was thought to be near death. The cause of the illness is unknown but it is often speculated that she had the blood disease Porphyria. She is said to have passed this through her bloodline to, ‘Mad King George III’ who became so sick that his son had to become ‘Prince Regent’. George III’s ‘madness’ is often blamed for the loss of the English colony of America.

The Prince Regent

Mary had a meeting with her nobles about the “Darnley problem” with her in November 1566. Divorce was probably discussed at some point. It’s possible that a bond was sworn between the lords to remove Darnley by other means. Darnley feared for his safety and after the baptism of his son at Stirling shortly before Christmas, he went to stay on his father’s estates. At the start of the journey, he was afflicted by a fever, possibly smallpox, syphilis, or the result of poison, and he remained ill for some weeks.

The death of Henry Darnley

On February 10, 1567, a huge explosion of gunpowder erupted at Kirk o’Field in Edinburgh where Darnley was recovering from his sickness. His body was discovered in the garden. He had died from strangulation. The circumstantial evidence implicated Mary and James Hepburn Earl of Bothwell but this has never been proved.

Bothwell was tried and acquitted of Darnley’s murder but he kidnapped Mary with 400 men on horseback. She was returning from Stirling, where she had been visiting her son. He took her to Dunbar where Mary claimed he raped her.

Two weeks later the couple were married in a Protestant church. Bothwell had divorced his first wife twelve days before and had been recently raised to the Dukedom of Orkney. Gossip about Mary’s reputation became the talk of Europe. The lairds banded together wanting revenge for their king’s ‘murder.’

James Bothwell and Jean Gordon the wife he divorced to marry his queen

After a skirmish at Carberry Hill, Queen Mary surrendered and Bothwell escaped to Denmark and Norway where he lived imprisoned for most of his life. The Queen was taken back to Edinburgh where the crowd yelled at her ‘Burn the whore!’, ‘Drown her!’, ‘Kill her!’ and ‘She is not worthy to live!’

At Lochleven Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one year old son James who was crowned king on July 29th at Stirling. In her distress Mary miscarried Bothwell’s twins. She never saw her son James again. When she escaped from her prison she headed over the border to England.


Elizabeth was cautious with her unexpected ‘guest.’ After all, Mary was a Catholic who believed that she had more right to the English throne than Elizabeth did. She was also in the North of England where for decades Tudor Catholic rebellions had begun. There would be many Catholic plots in the years to come which would attempt to release Mary from her captivity and put her on the English throne. Mary had refused to sign Elizabeth’s peace treaty many times and had quartered her Scots and French arms with English ones for many years. Elizabeth saw Mary as a threat to her own safety. She ordered Mary to be detained From 1568 to 1587.

George Talbot the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick became Mary’s jailer’s for most of the next fifteen years. George’s affection for the Scot’s queen soured his marriage as did the cost of Mary’s imprisonment which Elizabeth did not reimburse them for.

Sewing by Mary Stewart and her jailer Bess of Hardwick can be seen at Oxburgh Hall

Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham made Mary legally responsible for any plots made in her name even if she knew nothing about them. Mary was secretly corresponding with her supporters and was unaware that Walsingham’s agents were intercepting her letters. In these letters Mary agreed to a plot with the Catholic Anthony Babington, to assassinate Elizabeth I and make Mary the queen of England.

Mary’s execution and her son as ruler of Great Britain

Mary was forty-four when she was executed and had spent nineteen years in captivity. It took three strikes of the axe to behead her. She was interned at Peterborough Cathedral and in 1588 King Philip of Spain sent his Armada to England to avenge Mary’s death and invade England. The attempt failed and Elizabeth I was victorious. When Elizabeth died, Mary’s son James VI of Scotland succeeded her and became the King of both nations. He reburied his mother in Westminster Abbey.

Mary queen of Scots tomb in Westminster Abbey



Elizabeth and Mary Cousins rivals Queens by Jane Dunn (2003) Harper Collins London page 103

Elizabethan Secret Services by Alan Haynes (2004) Sutton Publishing Gloucestershire

Scottish History-The Official gateway to Scotland website accessed  22:52 31/05/2017

Mary Queen of Scots: And the Murder of Lord Darnley (2008) Vintage (Audio) by Alison Weir

Scottish Tourism website:




I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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