Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow on 8 December 1542. Her father, James V survived her birth by only six days, dying of acute depression following the defeat of the Scots at the hands of the English at Solway Moss. The English were soon hoping to establish a Scottish alliance to prevent having to defend their northern frontier while involved in military incursions on the Continent. They proposed that Mary should marry Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward, but Henry overplayed his hand by authorising a series of punitive strikes into Scotland, known as the ‘Rough Wooings’ to encourage Scottish agreement. This pushed Scotland into the hands of France. The French King, Henry II, offered to defend Scotland, if Mary became betrothed to his son, Francis, the Dauphin of France.
riccOn 29 July 1548, Mary set out for France on a French galley, accompanied by a large entourage including the four Maries, daughters of well-connected Scottish families, all co-incidentally called Mary, to act as companions for the young Queen. Her mother, the French Mary of Guise, remained in Scotland to preserve the Scottish Crown for her daughter, supported by a substantial garrison of French troops. After a stormy crossing Mary’s galley landed at St Pol de Leon in Normandy, from where she travelled overland to the River Loire to join a boat up to Orléans to meet her Guise relations. Second to the French Kings, the strongly Roman Catholic Guise family were the most powerful in France, adept both as generals and politicians. It was agreed that Mary should be brought up with Henry II’s children, and she enjoyed a life of great luxury despite a continuing shortage of Scottish funds to pay for her lifestyle and clothing.
Following the capture of Calais by Francis, Duke of Guise on 1 January 1558, the Guise star was in the ascendancy allowing Mary’s marriage to the Dauphin Francis to take place on 24 April. Mary was now fifteen, and towered over her stunted sickly husband of fourteen. Despite appearing incongruous they were devoted, although the Dauphin was almost certainly impotent. Following the death of ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor in England seven months later, the Guise family tried to promote the young Queen-Dauphine, as the rightful English Queen, with Elizabeth being considered illegitimate in Catholic eyes. Mary was the grand-daughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest sister, and was dynastically next in line to the English throne after Elizabeth. The Protestant English Government harboured no doubts over Elizabeth’s legitimacy, and she became Queen, but from now on Mary was the focus of all attempts to achieve a Catholic Counter-Reformation in England.
On 30 June 1559, Henry II was mortally wounded in a jousting accident in Paris, dying ten days later. Mary was suddenly Queen Consort of France, a position which allowed her Guise uncles to establish control of French Government. Despite their imperialistic ambitions, France was exhausted by war, and Francis II and Mary were obliged to recognise Elizabeth as England’s rightful Queen. In Scotland the Reformers were making strong progress against the French troops of Mary’s mother and, on 11 June 1560, she died from dropsy. This was not the only death affecting Mary; on 5 December 1560, Francis II, who had been suffering for some time from an abscess behind his ear, also died. Francis’s mother, Catherine de Medici stepped in to take control and to temper Guise ambitions. Which the Guises tried to arrange for Mary to marry Don Carlos, son of Philip II of Spain, it was clear that the Spanish were not enthusiastic, and it later became clear that Don Carlos was even more disabled than Francis.
With Mary of Guise’s troops being defeated in Scotland, it was by no means certain that Mary, as a Catholic would be able to return to her Scottish throne. Yet her illegitimate half-brother, Lord James Stewart, visited her in France to propose a basis for her return, agreed beforehand with William Cecil, the English Secretary of State. So long as she made no attempt to interfere with the Scottish Reformation, she would be permitted to worship as a Catholic in private. Lord James would also try to negotiate with the English to establish her as heir to the English throne. Mary accepted the deal and arrived back in Scotland on 19 August 1561, with Lord James as head of her Government and William Maitland of Lethington as her Secretary of State. Maitland immediately set off to England to discuss her claim to be Elizabeth’s heir. Yet he did not realise that this would never be acceptable unless she became Protestant.
Mary behaved like a model queen, despite hostility from John Knox and other hard line reformers. When the Catholic Earl of Huntly planned to raise the north in an attempt to restore Catholicism, she went with Lord James Stewart, now Earl of Moray, to defeat him. The unrest was ended when Huntly died during the Battle of Corrichie on 1 November 1562. On her return to Edinburgh she refocused on the negotiations to gain acceptance as Elizabeth’s heir and, as these thus far had been unsuccessful, she concentrated on finding a husband. Not realising Don Carlos’s incapacity, she was continuing to press her suit, but the English made clear that they wanted someone born in Britain. Elizabeth put forward her favourite, Lord Robert Dudley, but Mary felt this demeaned her unless it came with the promise of the English succession.
Elizabeth now asked Mary to restore Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox to his Scottish estates. He had been attainted for supporting Henry VIII during the Rough Wooings, and Mary jumped on the chance to act in accordance with Elizabeth’s wishes. She also wanted to meet Lennox’s son, the good looking Henry Lord Darnley, the dynastic heir to the English throne after herself. Despite having a veneer of courtly skills and being a virtuoso player of the lute, Darnley was a Catholic and an objectionable prig, being morally depraved and lacking common sense. Cecil may have believed that Mary would not give him attention for long, but he hoped that if they married, it would make Elizabeth realise that they were quite unsuitable to be recognised as her heirs. On arrival in Scotland, Mary fell for ‘a fantasy of a man’ and they were quickly married. Darnley saw this as a stepping stone to become King in his own right and obsessively demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would have allowed him to succeed Mary if she died without children.
As a Presbyterian, Moray realised that he would not be able to remain as head of Government. With support from the English, who were suddenly concerned at the Catholic leaning of Mary’s Government, he took up arms against the couple, but failed to receive support from other members of the Scottish nobility, who were slow to realise the problems that Darnley was causing. With insufficient support, he was forced into exile in England after avoiding a conflict in what became known as the Chaseabout raid.
Maitland also found himself left out of Government and was replaced as acting Secretary of State by David Riccio, a court musician, who had befriended Darnley. With Mary being pregnant, Darnley spent long periods away from Edinburgh apparently hunting with his father, but in practice seeking Continental support for a Scottish Counter Reformation designed to gain him the throne. Maitland hatched on a plot, supported by the English Government, to suggest to him that Mary was spending more time with Riccio than was proper. Although this was untrue, the nobles promised him the Crown Matrimonial if he would retain the Presbyterian religion and arrange Riccio’s murder. The nobles had no intention of honouring their agreement, but hoped to implicate Darnley and, by association, Mary, allowing Moray to be restored as head of Government or even King. Extraordinarily, Darnley agreed to the deal. He arranged for the murder to take place in Mary’s presence, in expectation that the shock would cause a miscarriage and death. Although Riccio was murdered, Mary did not miscarry and managed to separate Darnley from his fellow conspirators led by the Earl of Morton. With help from the Earl of Bothwell, she escaped to Dunbar and was able to return to Edinburgh in triumph. She forced the other conspirators into exile, but she could not charge Darnley, without prejudicing the legitimacy of her unborn child.
On 19 June 1566, Mary gave birth to a son, James, at Edinburgh Castle. Darnley was now out of favour and continued to spend much time away from Edinburgh. In September, Mary attended an assize in Jedburgh, where she suffered an abdominal haemorrhage. For a time her life was despaired of, but she slowly recovered. She now approached Maitland, who had been restored to favour despite his part in planning Riccio’s murder, to seek a divorce from Darnley. The nobles agreed to arrange this, if the exiled conspirators were permitted to return. It soon became clear that a Catholic annulment would make James illegitimate. Without telling Mary, the nobles signed a bond to arrange Darnley’s murder. Despite being out of favour with his peer group, Bothwell was put in charge of arrangements.
On her recovery, Mary arranged a sumptuous baptism for James at Stirling with many foreign dignitaries attending. Although Darnley was present he was shunned on all sides, and could not appear because he was suffering from syphilis, which caused pustules all over his face. With the celebrations over, he retired to join his father at Glasgow, while Mary spent Christmas with other members of the nobility. She could not risk leaving Darnley out of sight for long and, in January, visited him to persuade him to return with her to Edinburgh. She had concluded that she had to make the best of her marriage, which protected her claim to the English throne and might provide more children. Darnley agreed to finish his recuperation at lodgings at Kirk o’ Field in Edinburgh, where he would be out of sight of the court at Holyrood, and Mary visited him regularly as he recuperated.
Darnley’s arrival at Kirk o’ Field provided Bothwell with an opportunity to arrange his murder. He was not present himself, but left the deed to his henchmen and those of Morton and other returning exiles. On 10 February 1567, there was a violent explosion causing the lodging to be completely destroyed by gunpowder. Darnley must have heard a noise, as he escaped beforehand only to be caught and suffocated in a nearby garden. Although Mary was not involved, she must have gained some inkling of what had happened as she failed to order a proper investigation and was being discouraged on all sides from doing so. She may have believed that Bothwell was innocent, as he had been with her for the whole of the day beforehand and the returning exiles seemed more likely culprits. Although he was eventually brought to trial, in the absence of evidence, he was exonerated.
The nobility on all sides now persuaded Mary that she should remarry Bothwell to protect her throne. This made no sense as they mistrusted Bothwell, who, as her spouse, would now take charge of Government. Their plan was more devious. They put about rumours that Mary had been involved with him in a crime of passion. If Mary could be persuaded to marry him, they could make the story stick, enabling them to remove the couple to allow Moray, who had conveniently gone abroad to keep his hands clean, to take control as Regent for James. This plan had backing from William Cecil, the English Secretary of State.
Following Bothwell’s trial, he arranged a dinner for the nobles at Ainslie’s Tavern in Edinburgh, where they signed a bond to support his marriage to Mary. He immediately went to see her at Dunbar, but she turned him down. She then visited James in Stirling, but on her return journey, Bothwell kidnapped her and, after taking her back to Dunbar, pressurised her to marry him and they had sex to confirm their agreement. The nobles immediately turned against them, but the couple returned to Edinburgh, where they were married on 15 May 1566. By now the nobles led by Morton were mustering an army, which forced Mary and Bothwell to leave Edinburgh. Although he made efforts to gather support it was insufficient to take on Morton’s force, and, on 15 June, they were forced to surrender without a fight at Carberry Hill. Bothwell was permitted to leave, as the nobles did not want him providing evidence at a trial and he escaped to Denmark. Mary was taken to Edinburgh, from where she was moved for imprisonment at Lochleven.
While at Lochleven, Mary miscarried twins by Bothwell and was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, with Moray returning as Regent. Ten months later, she managed to escape and was joined by her mainly Catholic supporters seeking her restoration. Moray moved fast to stop her allies from joining up and, on 13 May 1568, his hastily gathered troops defeated her numerically superior force at Langside. With a small body of trusted allies, she fled south-west, crossing the Solway Firth by fishing boat to throw herself on Elizabeth’s mercy in England. While Elizabeth made some outward show of sympathy, Mary was held first at Carlisle Castle and then more remotely with Lord Scrope a Bolton in Yorkshire.
An investigation was needed, and the Scots were required to provide evidence of her part in the crime of passion to murder Darnley, when she had played no part in one. Maitland was detailed to provide evidence by manipulating her correspondence to create the ‘Casket Letters’, which were fraught with inconsistencies. With other Scottish Commissioners, Moray and Maitland attended the ‘Conferences’ at York and later in London to examine what had happened. They tried to prevent the evidence being examined, in a show of protecting Mary’s honour, and in the end a cosy arrangement was reached which found Mary innocent, but sufficiently tarnished to be held in captivity in England. Maitland was beginning to show sympathy for Mary, despite his part in bringing her down, and he persuaded the Duke of Norfolk, who had conducted the Conference at York, to consider marrying her, so that she could be returned to the Scottish throne. When Norfolk, who had strong Catholic sympathies, agreed, he was arrested and was eventually executed for treason.
Mary spent seventeen years of captivity in England, most of it under house arrest with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick, living with the trappings of royalty. There were numerous Catholic plots to place her on the English throne in place of Elizabeth, but she managed to avoid being implicated, until at last the English Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, planted a plan by Sir Anthony Babington, which Mary approved. She was at last found guilty of treason and was executed at Fotheringhay, playing out her role as a Catholic martyr to the last.