Mary Queen of Scots spent her early years in Scotland, having succeeded to the throne as an infant after the death of her father, James V. In 1547, the Scottish government concluded that the only means of resisting English belligerence was for the 5-year-old Mary to be sent to France for her education and to marry the Dauphin Francis, thus cementing their alliance with the French. Although Francis succeeded the French throne in 1559, he was stunted and sickly, and died within a year. The question was, what should happen to his widowed Queen Consort, who was not only the Scottish Queen Regnant but was the dynastic heir to the English throne?
With Scotland having espoused Calvinism, it did not relish the return of its adamantly Catholic Queen, who might gain Continental Catholic support to launch a counter-reformation throughout both Scotland and England. So long as she remained in France, there is no doubt that Lord James Stewart, her illegitimate half-brother, aspired to replace her as a Scotland’s Protestant King. As the eldest son of James V, he went to great lengths to try to establish his legitimacy. Yet his mother, Margaret Erskine, was already married to Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven at the time of her misalliance with the Scottish King. Lord James had all the necessary gravidas. He was the leader of the Lords of the Congregation (a group of Protestant Lords seeking to establish Protestantism throughout Scotland). He had led their forces to defeat Marie of Guise, the Queen Regent and Mary’s mother, driving her French garrisons out of Scotland. This had made way, in 1560, for a Scottish Protestant Government with a Presbyterian established church to the exclusion of all other forms of religious dogma. The Presbyterian hierarchy in Government flirted with deposing Mary, so that Lord James could be offered the crown, or alternatively with establishing a Scottish republic with Lord James as head of state.
Nevertheless, Lord James lacked universal support. It was the Earl of Arran, the lineal heir to the throne, who had been appointed Regent during Mary’s absence in France, with Lord James as his deputy. Although Lord James had had almost universal backing to bring down the Queen Regent, this did not extend to him becoming Head of State. At least half of the Scottish population remained Catholic and the northern Scottish Earls, led by the Earl of Huntly, supported the retention of Mary as their Catholic monarch. The Earls of Argyll and Bothwell, militarily the two most powerful of the Scottish Earls, also supported Mary as their anointed Queen, despite being Protestant. Furthermore, the Hamiltons and Lennox Stewarts, who, after Mary, were next in line dynastically, were certainly not going to encourage Lord James to jump ahead of them. At this time, he was not an earl and lacked military clout.
There is no doubt that William Cecil, the English Secretary of State, would have preferred Lord James, as a Protestant head of state, rather than the Catholic Mary, across his northern border. Yet Mary was also the dynastic heir to the English throne. He was only too well aware that seven years earlier the English Protestant hierarchy had failed to prevent the Catholic Mary Tudor from succeeding to the English throne. Its attempt to supplant her with the Protestant Lady Jane Grey had ended in disaster. Cecil knew that the people would want a proper dynastic succession, regardless of religious consideration. Furthermore, both Cecil and Lord James had to deal with Elizabeth, who did not want the ugly precedent of a Tudor anointed queen being deposed, even a Catholic one, particularly as Elizabeth’s own legitimacy was in doubt. She certainly did not want to be seen by European heads of state to be meddling in Scottish politics, when she was trying to prevent them from meddling with her own position. With Mary Queen of Scots as Queen Consort of France, any attempt to depose her from the Scottish throne, would have resulted in a French invasion to restore her. Even when widowed, there were still likely to be French or Guise backed efforts to maintain her Crown.
The death of Francis brought matters to a head, particularly when it became clear that the widowed Mary would seek to return from France to live in Scotland. Lord James was sent to France by the Scottish Government to negotiate with her, but travelled to London to see Cecil en route. They agreed that it was important for the security of both Scotland and England that Mary should be persuaded to return, to keep her away from her ambitious and ultra-Catholic Guise uncles, but they had to prevent her from upsetting the religious status quo. On arrival in France, Lord James confirmed to her that she could attend Catholic services in private, so long as she made no attempt to launch a Scottish counter-reformation. She agreed to this, and appointed Lord James as her head of state. It was hoped by both the Scottish and English governments that she might become more conformable in religious matters once she was away from her Guise relations, particularly as she was ambitious to gain acceptance as Elizabeth’s heir on the English throne. Yet Cecil would only support this, if she became Protestant. It soon became clear that this was not something she was prepared to do.
So long as Lord James (soon to become Earl of Moray) remained in power in Scottish government all went well, but as soon as Mary married Darnley, they surrounded themselves with Catholic advisers. Moray returned to his ambition to gain the throne (or after Prince James was born, to gain the Regency). He made several obvious attempts. The ‘Chaseabout’ Raid after her marriage to Darnley was funded by the English, but received very little Scottish support. The plot for Riccio’s murder was designed to bring down Darnley, and by association Mary, allowing Moray to become King. The plot to murder Darnley and to persuade Mary to marry Bothwell, the murderer, was organised to implicate Mary in Darnley’s murder. When this succeeded, Moray at last became Regent for Prince James. It was the Hamiltons, who, in 1570, arranged Moray’s assassination.
A fuller account can be found in Robert Stedall’s new book, Mary Queen of Scots’ Downfall – The Life and Murder of Henry Lord Darnley, published by Pen and Sword in November 2017.