Was Mary Queen of Scots able to spend time with James before her imprisonment, and how was James supervised afterwards?


James VI of Scotland

James VI of Scotland, son Mary Queen of Scots, was born between 10 and 11 in the morning on 19 June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. He was handed over to his wet nurse Helen Little to be suckled, but he slept in a crib beside his mother’s bed, as she was in fear of an attempt to kidnap him. Although Mary spent a few days in late July recuperating at Alloa without James, she was soon back with her son in Edinburgh and was there on 13 August. She went stag-hunting at Meggatland south of Peebles in mid-August and was joined by Darnley. They seem to have effected some sort of reconciliation by then as she granted him furnishings for his horse and provided an upholstered bed. It would also seem that they had restored sexual relations, probably in an attempt by her to keep tabs on his plotting. During this time James was in the care of the Earl and Countess of Mar at Edinburgh Castle.

On 22 August, Mary returned to Edinburgh, where she saw James, after hearing rumours that Darnley was hoping to kidnap him and to claim the Crown Matrimonial, which would have made him the heir to the throne after his infant son. Mary decided to move James to Stirling under the Mar’s care, and on 31 August Lady Forbes of Reres, who was in charge of the nursery arrangements escorted James to Stirling accompanied by 400–500 hackbutters under the command of the Earl of Bothwell. Having organised the security arrangements for James at Stirling, Mary rejoined the King at Peebles. On 6 September, she returned to Edinburgh to plan James’s baptism at Stirling. Although Darnley went to Stirling, he was apparently in a foul temper at Maitland’s reappointment as Secretary of State (given that Maitland could confirm his key part in Riccio’s murder). Mary joined Darnley in Stirling to talk through his concerns, as it was rumoured that he was threatening to leave Scotland. This worried her as the implication was that he was concerned about James’s paternity (although there is little doubt that he was the father and he never denied it). Mary will have seen James on this visit to Stirling. She and Darnley then returned to Edinburgh, where she attempted to reconcile him with her advisers, but to little effect.

On 1 October Mary set out for Melrose with most of her court officials on her way to an Assize at Jedburgh. Darnley did not go with her, but joined his father for hunting in Ayrshire. As is well known, Mary became dangerously ill on this trip, probably suffering a perforated ulcer. She only returned to Edinburgh, via Craigmillar on 7 December. She immediately finalised the arrangements for James’s baptism at Stirling to take place on 17 December. She left Edinburgh on 10 December and arrive at Stirling two days later to be reunited with James. She remained at Stirling for the baptism celebrations until 23 December, when she left without James to spend Christmas with Lord Drummond at Crieff. Darnley, who was suffering from an eruption of his syphilis, retired to his father’s care at Glasgow.

On 6 January 1567, Mary attended the marriage of Maitland to Mary Fleming at Edinburgh, but on 10 January, the couple accompanied Mary to Stirling to visit James. On 12 January, Mary came back to Holyrood with James, accompanied by the Maitlands. On 20 January, she set out for Glasgow on her own initiative to persuade Darnley, who continued to plot against her, to return with her to Edinburgh, where he could recuperate and she could keep an eye on his plotting. James remained in Edinburgh, where he was under the care of the Mars at Edinburgh Castle, and remained there over the period of Darnley’s murder. On 11 February, the Council advised Mary to join Prince James in Edinburgh Castle for their security. On 16 February, Mary visited Seton, but Bothwell and Huntly returned to Holyrood to act as James’s official guardians.

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle

With Bothwell gaining in authority, he gave Cockburn of Skirling the Governorship of Edinburgh Castle. This alienated Mar, with his vital supervision of the Prince, so that with Mary’s blessing Mar moved him back to Stirling. On 21 April, Mary set out to Stirling to visit James, now aged 10 months. She was accompanied by Maitland, Huntly and Sir James Melville. Bothwell did not go with her but remained in Edinburgh, where he planned to abduct Mary to Dunbar on her return. Mary left Stirling on 23 April, leaving James in Mar’s care, telling him ‘to be vigilant and wary that he was not robbed of her son’. Mary returned towards Edinburgh, only to be abducted by Bothwell to Dunbar, where he persuaded her to marry him.

Mary never saw James again. Once she was imprisoned, she was never permitted to communicate with him. Her letters were returned unopened, and any small gifts she sent were returned undelivered.  Elizabeth very sensibly decided that James should remain in Scotland where he was. She was his godmother, and took a caring interest in him, writing to him regularly with advice. Her only concern was to ensure that he remained a Protestant and was not sent to France for his upbringing. There were proposals for him to be brought to England under the care of his grandmother, Lady Margaret Countess of Lennox, but when the Earl of Lennox was sent to Scotland as Regent, he strongly approved of the way James was being brought up by the Earl and Countess of Mar and left him where he was. If he had been brought to England, Elizabeth might have felt obliged to nominate him as her heir, and she wanted to avoid having to do for fear that it would turn him into a catalyst for any rebellion to usurp her rule. Her failure to nominate him worried James, but he was the only realistic choice on Elizabeth’s death, and in 1603 was welcomed by the English with open arms.

Robert Stedall has written several histories of the period of Mary Queen of Scots. His most recent book is Mary Queen of Scots’ Downfall -The Life and Murder of Henry Lord Darnley published by Pen and Sword in November 2017.