History Lesson: Mary, Queen of Scots

This article is an attempt at context. Often, in our popular culture, we are fed a view of history that is intended for one singular purpose. Money. The producers of the historical product are attempting to reap financial rewards for producing a work that is usually historical fiction. Therefore, as the film Mary, Queen of Scots is about to go into general release, we felt we would give some context to the known events of Mary Stuart’s life.

Mary was born on 8 December 1542. That was four hundred and seventy-six years ago for those without a calculator handy. This woman existed, and she lived to age of forty-four. Mary was the only child of King James V of Scotland and his wife Mary of Guise. She was also James’ only surviving legitimate heir. On 14 December that same year, at the age of 6 days old her father and king died, making her the Queen of the Scotland.

Mary’s Heritage and the Rough Wooing

It cam wi’ a lass and it will gang wi’ a lass!

James V of Scotland

In order to truly understand the complicated circumstances of Mary’s life, we need to know her heritage. Yes, she was the Queen of Scotland as an infant, but her familial lines are drenched in power. Mary’s paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, the older sister of Henry VIII of England. At the time of her birth, she became forth in line to the English throne behind her grand-uncle the King, his heir, and only legitimate son Edward, his oldest daughter Mary, and Elizabeth, who was born from Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Should all of those people die before having children, Mary would be Queen of England. This was a very powerful position for her to be in, and everyone at the time recognized it and did what they could to use it to their own advantage.

To reiterate, we are looking to give context here. When Mary was born, Henry VIII was fifty-one years old, Edward was 5 years old, Mary Tudor (AKA Mary I, AKA Bloody Mary) was twenty-six, and Elizabeth was 9. At this time, there were political tensions including battles between England and Scotland. There was a peace agreed to that was struck and sealed in the Treaty of Greenwich on 1 July 1543 which included a betrothal between the heir to England, Edward, and six-month old Mary, Queen of Scots.

Just a reminder here: Mary and Edward are second cousins, as in her grandmother is his aunt.

The Scottish people were not thrilled with this development as it represented essentially a capitulation of the Scottish throne and its predominantly Catholic religious beliefs to Protestant England. Ultimately the treaty was rejected by the Scots, and the Eight Years War began.

Mary’s physical control of her body was very much involved in a long war. With the roots of the war being very much about regal succession, later romantics and historians dubbed the conflict “The Rough Wooing”. Essentially from birth, her claim to two thrones became a defining force in her life and the lives of her citizens.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and Edward ascended to the throne of England at age 9. In early 1548, the French King Henry II agreed to support Scotland in defense against the English in exchange for the arrangement of marriage between Mary and the heir to France. At this time Mary was five years old and her betrothed, Francis, was four. A match made in the playpen to say the least.

La Vie Française

Mary Stuart by François Clouet

Mary travelled to live in the French court in August of 1548 and spent the next thirteen years there. Mary grew into what was widely regarded as a tall attractive woman with auburn hair and hazel eyes. In April of 1558, with Mary aged fifteen and Francis aged fourteen years, the royal couple married. A year later, Francis’s father, Henry II of France, died due to injuries resulting from a joust, and the young couple were then Kings and Queens of France and Scotland. At this point, a tumultuous early childhood had turned into a fortuitous position in Europe with a husband that from all accounts she cared for. Unfortunately, that did not last.

On December 5th 1560, three days before her eighteenth birthday, Mary became a widow for the first time as Francis II of France died from disease that began as an ear infection. With her younger brother-in-law succeeding her husband to throne of France, Mary left France and returned to her native Scotland in August of 1561.

Returning to some of the context we have been talking about here. By the time Mary returned to Scotland, both Edward VI and Mary I of England, Henry VIII’s first two heirs, had died and Elizabeth I had ascended to the title of Queen of England.

Love and Murder in Scotland

Mary’s first few years as an active residing Monarch in Scotland were relatively quiet. That is to say that there was some political maneuvering, but nothing that made a striking mark on the Queen’s life or legacy. In February 1565, Mary became reacquainted with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a Scottish noble and English landowner. They began a love affair that resulted in their marriage at Holyrood Palace on 29 July 1565. A whirlwind romance to say the least. The rather striking thing about this power couple is that they both had the same claim to the English throne because they shared the same grandmother, Margaret Tudor. Yep. Mary married her first cousin who was three years her junior. Thus, by age twenty-two she had now been married twice.

The next couple of years of Mary’s life are filled with consequential acts, rumor, innuendo and some uncertain historical accounts. Here are the facts. Mary became pregnant in October of 1565. David Rizzio, Mary’s private secretary, was murdered at Holyrood Palace on 9 March 1566. On 19 June 1566, Mary gave birth to her only son James who would go on to be King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England, more on that later. On 10 February 1567, an explosion in Edinburgh occurred and Lord Darnley was found dead in the garden of the building.

This is an interesting combination of events to put together, but the reasons that they belong together probably make up the most intriguing and salacious aspects of the Queen of Scots life. Shortly after marriage, the shine began to wear off of Darnley in the Queen’s eye. There are rumors of excessive drinking and carousing, but probably the most significant issue was his insistence that he be made King to rule alongside her and after her if he outlived his wife. She refused. As a mature young woman whose power has been coveted by others her entire life up to that point, it is understandable that this would put an ugly filter on her husband in her eyes.

Mary Queen of Scots, portrait in white mourning, probably a 19th century replica after an image of 1561, oil on panel.

David Rizzio was an Italian Catholic, and by many accounts, he was a close advisor to Mary. By some accounts he was having an affair with the Queen, and was the father of her unborn child. Thus Darnley, feeling slighted in power and jealous of his wife’s attention, entered into an agreement with Protestant political adversaries of Mary. With Mary four months pregnant, Darnley and a group of men, attacked Rizzio at a dinner party at Holyrood Palace and stabbed him to death in front of Mary. What!?!?!? This murder is undisputed. Darnley apparently came to his senses and was granted acceptance by the Queen, but his fate was ultimately sealed with that betrayal.

The “Darnley Problem” was discussed amongst the nobles loyal to Mary and while divorce was discussed, it is generally assumed the lords of Scotland agreed upon a different solution to rid the Queen of an unfaithful and treacherous husband. On 10 February 1567, the house that Darnley was staying in exploded and Darnley was found dead in the garden of what was the building. There were theories that his body was placed and that he was actually strangled. The end result is that Mary, at age twenty-four, was twice widowed.

There was an investigation and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was a prime suspect in Darnley’s murder. An expeditious trial was held without time to gather evidence and Bothwell was acquitted of the murder. Then things get interesting and murky.
In April of 1567, remember we are two months from the murder of her husband, Mary was returning to Edinburgh after visiting with her infant son at Stirling Castle and she was taken by Bothwell and his men to Dunbar Castle. Two weeks later Bothwell and Mary returned to Edinburgh. There is a firsthand account that states that Bothwell raped her. There are other historical accounts that dispute this and suggest that the Queen’s abduction was voluntary. This is a debated fact in the Queen’s life and unfortunately we did not have email, cellphone cameras, or TMZ in the mid 1500’s.

On 15 May 1567, Mary and Bothwell married in a Protestant ceremony in Holyrood Palace. She married her rapist? Her new husband had been accused of killing her previous husband? Her new husband had divorced his previous wife twelve days earlier? What could go wrong in this scenario?

Mary seemed from multiple accounts to think that the nobles would support this marriage. She was sorely mistaken. There is correspondence between Mary and Elizabeth that shows the English Queen questioning the wisdom of her cousin’s marrying her dead husband’s accused murderer. By June, the nobles were in full out revolt and the couple was captured. Bothwell was given passage out of Scotland, and he lived in exile in Denmark until his death in 1578. Mary was taken into custody and imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. To make this story even worse, while in custody, Mary miscarried twins a month after her capture. The day after the miscarriage, she was forced to abdicate her throne in favor of her son James with her illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray as his regent. At age twenty-four, she relinquished the throne she had held since she was six days old.

In an English Prison

Mary in captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1578

On 2 May 1568, Mary escaped prison and attempted to fight Moray’s forces with a small army. When that did not work, she fled south to England in hopes that Elizabeth would help her cousin regain her throne. Again, Mary miscalculated. She was placed in custody upon her entry to England. It was a custody she would never leave. Elizabeth, always wary of Mary’s threat to her own throne, ordered an investigation into Darnley’s death and the allegations of Morey and the other Confederate Lords. Mary refused to acknowledge England’s sovereignty over her actions and refused to participate in the inquiry. Morey and the Scottish lords produced incriminating documents and love letters known as the “Casket Letters” that painted a very bad picture for Mary. Historians debate the authenticity of the “Letters” and they were destroyed in 1584, so we cannot validate them. The end result is that Mary was confined and in custody for the remainder of her life.

Mary’s captivity was not a supermax prison. She was restricted to grounds of the castle or house that she was residing in and had the ability to have guests and correspond. Throughout the ensuing nineteen years, there were several plots against Elizabeth and negotiations with which Mary may have been associated. Mary’s existence continued to be a thorn in the unmarried, childless English Queen’s side. Eventually, correspondence from Mary that showed her sanctioning an assassination attempt of Elizabeth was intercepted, and Mary was implicated and convicted of treason in the Babington Plot.

Long Live the Queen!

On 25 October 1586, Mary was sentenced to death. It took some time before Elizabeth would sign the death warrant as she did not wish to be the executioner of a former Queen. The warrant was finally signed on 1 February 1587.

After making the proper arrangements at Mary’s final place of captivity, Fotheringhay Castle, she was executed by beheading on 8 February 1587. It was not a clean death. It was not dignified. There is a retelling of a firsthand account of the execution that can be found here.

Thus, at age forty-four, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was dead. She spent almost half her life in captivity. She was thrice widowed and fathered the first King of both England and Scotland. Her story is sad and tragic. Her accident of birth led to wars, conspiracies, murders, abdication and heartbreak, while her cousin to the south enjoyed a long and prosperous reign.

The movie that opens this weekend will undoubtedly try to tell a version of this tragic tale. We here at PopCultureSquad.com hope it is a well-crafted movie. We do not expect it to be historically accurate, but we hope it is good.

If you want to know more about Mary Stuart, check out the links below: