Marie Stuart was born in Linlithgow Palace near Edinburgh on 8 December 1542, the daughter of James V of Scotland and his Queen, Mary of Guise. Less than a week after her birth her father died and she became Queen Regnant of Scotland.
Her mother ruled as Regent during her minority and at age 5 she was sent to be raised in the French Court.
Mary was a vivacious, clever, and very pretty young girl who soon became a favourite of the Court circle with even the French King Henry II remarking to a courtier:
“The little Queen of the Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen.”
She was popular, she was feted, and she was spoiled rotten but she also worked hard and received an outstanding education becoming fluent in French, Spanish, Greek, Latin, and could even converse in the Scots dialect. She also wrote poetry and did fine needlework but she was never happier than when pursuing her sporting interests which included horse riding, golf, and falconry.
Standing at 5’11” she was taller than most men and with her bright auburn hair, hazel brown eyes, smooth pale skin, and finely chiseled cheek bones the pretty young girl had matured into a very beautiful woman.
When still a child she had been promised in marriage to Francis, the French Dauphin. Politically it would be a good marriage but in many other respects it seemed a mismatch with the shy Francis being short, not obviously attractive and afflicted with a nervous stammer.
Despite their obvious differences they appeared to like one another and in April 1558, when Mary was aged just sixteen they married. In July the following year her husband was crowned King Francis II. Not long after, in December 1560, he died of a brain disorder.
The marriage had lasted barely 17 months and at a time when ill-fortune was seen as a bad omen it was not an auspicious start.
Earlier that same year in what would be a double tragedy for Mary her mother who was still ruling as Regent in Scotland had also died. Mary now had a difficult decision to make – should she remain in France where she was both feted and adored or take up her option of being Queen of Scotland?
Not everything about her life in France was a bed of roses for Mary had a fractious relationship with her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici who ruled both France and her children with a rod of iron. It may well have been her deteriorating relationship with Catherine that decided the issue for her – she would after all leave the comfort of the French Court to become a working Queen.
Prior to her arrival in Scotland the representatives of her late mother had signed the Treaty of Edinburgh recognising Elizabeth I’s right to reign in England. One of Mary’s first decisions was to refuse to ratify it, for as far as the Catholic powers of Europe were concerned Elizabeth was the illegitimate daughter of the infamous courtesan, Anne Boleyn.
Mary was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’S sister Margaret Tudor so she and Elizabeth were cousins but this did not make them sympathetic to each other’s cause. Indeed, Mary believed that it was she not Elizabeth who was the rightful heir to the English throne and this she would never disavow.
Elizabeth, who was ten years Mary’s senior had been crowned Queen of England on 15 January 1559, and like her cousin she was highly educated but there the similarities ceased. She was neither beautiful nor had she been pampered. Her life had been one fraught with danger and often one of hardship. It was not Court etiquette that she’d had to learn but the cunning and guile needed merely to survive. She had charisma certainly but it was tinged with a ruthless streak. She engendered both devotion and hatred, and no one knew this better than Elizabeth herself.
Elizabeth behaved irrationally towards her cousin from the outset. She refused her permission to land in England forcing her instead to make the long and dangerous sea voyage to Scotland. She also turned down Mary’s many written requests for a face-to-face meeting. Mary wanted to discuss details of the Succession and to iron out any differences between them. But as long as Elizabeth remained childless this was impossible for to meet Mary would legitimise her claim to the throne in the eyes of the English people and thereby any children she may have.
As Elizabeth remarked to one of her advisors meeting Mary would be to:
“Spread a winding-sheet before my eyes. Think I could love my own winding-sheet.”
Elizabeth was obsessed with Mary and was to remain so for the rest of her life. She would often accost Ambassadors and foreign emissaries who had access to the Scottish Court demanding to know how Mary dressed, how many jewels she wore, how tall she was, which one of them was the more beautiful, and who was the better dancer?
Mary landed at Leith on 19 August 1561, to a less than overwhelming reception. She was after all a devout Catholic set to rule, with the exception of parts of the Scottish Highlands, a deeply Protestant country with a vibrant and fundamentalist Presbyterian reform movement. Also, despite being born in the country the 18 year old Mary had little knowledge or understanding of Scottish society and culture. Even so, she did little to rock the boat. She accepted the Protestant Ascendancy and retained the Council of Advisers headed by her half-brother, the Protestant Earl of Moray. She refused, however, to make the Reformed Church the established Church of Scotland. It was a controversial decision and set her against many people of influence, but then no amount of concessions would have made any difference to the antagonism of people such as the charismatic preacher John Knox who railed against her taking of Mass and preached that she was the new anti-Christ set upon making Scotland the new Sodom.
Late in his life, Henry VIII had tried to marry his son Edward to the infant Mary but despite his attempts at “rough wooing” with threats of war, piracy, and a trade embargo, Mary of Guise had refused, insisting instead that her daughter would marry a good Catholic Valois. Now Elizabeth in her turn offered up the hand of her former favourite Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. This time it was Mary herself who refused.
At a time when royal marriages were expected to be political, she would marry for love.
She had fallen head-over-heels for her first cousin the handsome and athletic Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. On paper at least he seemed a reasonable choice, he was a Protestant, and he was of Royal blood, but his reputation also went before him. He was a drunken libertine, bad-tempered, surly in manner, and prone to bouts of violence. Mary, however, was hopelessly smitten and could be not be made to reconsider.
They married on 29 July, 1565 – It wasn’t long before she regretted her decision.
Darnley had no intention of becoming a working King of Scotland. He did not wish to share the responsibility of ruling a country or to relieve his new wife of any of her burdens. Indeed, he was not willing to change his lifestyle at all. He never turned up for meetings of her Council, and rarely for dinner, and even when he did he would often be drunk and abusive.
Darnley only visited Mary when it suited him and it did not seem to suit him very often.
The marriage very quickly turned sour.
Mary, constantly vilified for her religion and heavily criticised for her decision to marry Darnley now no longer trusted her Protestant Advisers, the so-called Lords of the Congregation. Abandoned by her husband she now turned to her private secretary the Italian David Rizzio for political advice and emotional support. Rizzio was a pompous and ingratiating man who had wormed his way to a position at Mary’s side. He jealously guarded access to the Queen and with his gaudy clothes, love of fancy jewellery, and overbearing manner he was the cause of a great deal of hatred and resentment.
Darnley, meanwhile, had convinced himself that Mary was having an affair with Rizzio. As he himself was away whoring and did not see his wife for weeks on end it is difficult to know how he knew the nature of their relationship but the Lords of the Congregation were more than happy to fuel his paranoia. They were determined to rid themselves of Rizzio and having the King at their side would provide legitimacy to any action they may take.
On 9 March 1566, Darnley burst in on the Queen as she was having dinner. He rarely, if ever, attended dinner and his presence did not augur well. Not long after sitting down he began to drunkenly berate Mary about her relationship with Rizzio. He then stormed out and moments later a number of Nobles entered with their swords drawn. They demanded that David be brought forward. The Queen protested their presence as Rizzio hid behind her. It did no good, and a pistol was pressed into Mary’s heavily pregnant belly as Rizzio was dragged out grabbing desperately at Mary’s skirts and screaming at the top of his voice. The Nobles then proceeded to stab him 56 times before throwing him down the privy stairwell.
If the Lords of the Congregation thought that the murder of Rizzio would intimidate Mary and bend her to their will they were to be quickly disabused. She had remained calm throughout and afterwards did not seek any justice or revenge but instead admitted to having made mistakes and expressed her regret that it had come to this.
Over the next few months the situation seemed to stabilise and Mary began to express concern for her husband’s welfare. He was after all the father of her child. But she had also let it be known that she wanted rid of Darnley. One man in particular took heed of this, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, ambitious and keen to replace Rizzio in Mary’s affections. Mary soon found in him a man she could turn to in times of stress.
In early 1567, Darnley fell ill, probably as a result of his raging syphilis. Mary thought it wise that he should remove himself from the Court for the sake of their child and suggested that he retire to the comfortable residence of Kirk O’Fields just outside Edinburgh. In the early hours of 10 February a massive explosion rocked the city. The house at Kirk O’Fields had been blown up. Lord Darnley however had escaped the explosion uninjured, for fearing that something was afoot he had himself lowered from a window by a servant just minutes before. It did not save him and his half-naked body was later found in the woods nearby. He had been strangled.
There was little doubt that Bothwell was responsible for Darnley’s murder, his name was even found on the receipt for the gunpowder. Yet at a sham trial on 7 April held before the Scottish Parliament during which he surrounded the Court with his armed supporters he was acquitted of all charges.
The verdict did not however acquit the Queen as far as the Scottish people were concerned she was guilty of either condoning the murder or ordering that it be done on her behalf.
Mary’s reputation had been damaged beyond repair for not only was she a Catholic who could not be trusted she was now also now an accomplice to murder. Following the killing of Rizzio she had acted with vigour and some political nous but now she did not know what to do. Indeed, people remarked upon her trance like state. She was suddenly friendless, lonely, and vulnerable.
On 24 April 1567, she travelled to Stirling to visit her baby son. It would be the last time she would ever see him. On her return journey to Edinburgh she was abducted by Bothwell and taken to his Castle at Dunbar. There he raped her.
Bothwell now divorced his inconvenient wife and a few weeks later he and Mary were married. Few people thought the marriage to be genuine believing that Mary had been forced to agree to it. Even so, the Protestant Lords now raised an army to depose their unwanted Catholic Queen and rid themselves of her upstart new husband once and for all.
On 15 June 1567, the two armies met at Carberry Hill. Seeing the forces arrayed against them Bothwell’s men began to slip away. Witnessing this, Bothwell informed Mary that he was going to fetch reinforcements. She never saw him again.
Following the farce at Carberry Hill, Mary was returned to Edinburgh where the people had turned violently against her. As she rode through the city the crowd threw objects at her and shouted Whore! Whore! And burn the Witch! She later appeared at the Castles window with her clothes torn, her breasts exposed, and with tears running down her cheeks. She pleaded with the crowd gathered below but to no avail. Soon after, she was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and forced to abdicate in favour of her two year old son James.
Bothwell in the meantime had escaped to Scandinavia. He was apprehended in Norway and unable to produce the proper papers he was arrested and taken to the town of Bergen. This just happened to be the home town of his first wife Anna Rustung, whom he had treated so abominably. She now demanded that he return her dowry and brought charges against him. Even though he fully compensated her he was not released. Instead he was transferred to the notorious Dragsholm Prison in Denmark where he was to remain for ten years chained to the walls of his cell before dying on 15 April, 1578.
Mary, who for so long had seemed resigned to her fate began to regain her senses. Playing the part of the wronged woman to perfection, and using a combination of damaged beauty and Royal legitimacy she seduced her gaoler into releasing her. Having gained her freedom Mary now managed to raise a small army. This would have been a surprise had it not been for the unpopularity of her half-brother the Earl of Moray and the Lords of the Congregation. Even so, Mary’s forces were easily defeated at the Battle of Langside on 13 May, 1568. Unwilling to fall once again in the hands of the Protestant Lords, Mary took a boat across the Solway Firth into England. It must have been a decision that filled her with trepidation for she would now be under the control of her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary arrived in Workington, England, on 19 May and was promptly arrested. If she had hoped that Elizabeth as her cousin would help her regain her throne then she could not have been more wrong. Instead, Elizabeth and her Council were thrown into something close to panic. Mary’s arrival in the country confronted the childless Elizabeth with the question – was Mary her legitimate heir or not? And if not then whom? Elizabeth when confronted with a problem would often just ignore it and hope it went away, but Mary would not go away.
Elizabeth’s Council were insistent that the Queen of Scots posed a threat to her throne and demanded that she be put on trial for the murder of Darnley. Elizabeth, however, was reluctant to publicly accuse a relative and feared setting a precedent for the deposition of Princes. So she instead ordered an Inquiry.
That Mary Stuart was complicit in the murder of her husband was never in doubt and the Earl of Moray produced the evidence to prove it. He provided the Inquiry with what became known as the “Casket Letters” a series of documents that appeared to show beyond any reasonable doubt Mary’s collusion with Bothwell, though whether or not these letters were genuine or mere forgeries remains a topic of debate to this day.
Regardless of their authenticity they ensured that Mary would not be released from her incarceration.
In 1569, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister appointed Sir Francis Walsingham to head the recently formed Intelligence Service.
Threats had been made against Elizabeth’s life and the danger of rebellion remained a clear and present one.
Walsingham worked tirelessly on Elizabeth’s behalf and he soon had an extensive network of Intelligencers or spies both at home and abroad. Indeed over time he was to create what was in effect a police state. He also recognised Mary Stuart’s continuing presence in the country to be Elizabeth’s greatest security concern. As long as she remained in England she would serve as a magnet for conspiracy.
In October 1569, much of the North of England which was still predominantly Catholic, rose up in rebellion against Elizabeth. Lead by the Earl’s of Westmoreland and Northumberland they intended to free Mary, marry her to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, depose Elizabeth, and return England to the Catholic faith. Mary was quickly moved further south to prevent any rescue attempt and an army of 12,000 was raised to crush the rebellion. They succeeded but Walsingham warned Elizabeth that as long as Mary remained alive further such rebellions could be expected.
Elizabeth took heed of the warning and then did nothing. She could not bring herself to have her cousin Norfolk executed and after 9 months imprisonment in the Tower of London he was released without further punishment.
The following year the Ridolfi Plot was uncovered. It had been organised and financed by the Florentine Banker Roberto Ridolfi with the intention to again free Mary, raise rebellion in the North, and await invasion by Spanish troops stationed in the Netherlands.
Walsingham’s network of agents had done their work well and he was able to nip it in the bud with many of the plotters being rounded up and executed. But it served to add more grist to his argument that as long as Mary lived Elizabeth could never be secure on her throne.
One of those implicated in the Ridolfi Plot was again the Duke of Norfolk, did he never learn? He was once more arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. This time he would not be so lucky and reluctant though she remained to spill the blood of her own family Elizabeth this time signed the death warrant.
The Ridolfi Plot saw a crackdown on Catholics in England, Jesuit Priests were arrested or expelled from the country, fines were imposed on known Catholics, and the taking of Mass became a felony. In response to this crackdown the Pope excommunicated the Queen and declared her, an “incestuous bastard, begotten and born in sin of an infamous courtesan,” and ordered that all Catholics had a duty to rise up and kill the heretic Queen.
The Protestant England of Elizabeth I found itself in a proxy war with Catholic Europe and it was Mary Stuart who was to be its most prominent casualty.
For almost 20 years she was shunted from one place of confinement to another while her repeated pleas for a meeting with Elizabeth fell on deaf ears. When she requested some clothes befitting her status Elizabeth sent her some cloth of poor quality so she could make her own. Her gaolers were in the main puritanical and unsympathetic though she was able to win some over with her charm.
When she received the news that her own son James had made a treaty with England disavowing her she signed over her rights of succession to King Philip II of Spain.
Despite Mary having lost all freedom of action Sir Francis Walsingham was still not satisfied. He was determined to be rid of her but aware that Elizabeth would not act unless forced to do so he devised an elaborate plan with which to entrap her.
Mary’s latest suitor was the wealthy London merchant Sir Anthony Babington. a Catholic who had deluded himself into believing that if he freed Mary she would out of gratitude marry him and as a result not only would the rightful Queen be on the throne but England would again be Catholic and he be King.
Unknown to the naive and foolish Babington the plot had already been infiltrated by Walsingham’s agents. They suggested that he should reveal the plot to Mary in letters concealed in water-tight pouches hidden in beer casks to be delivered to her new place of confinement at Chartley House.
His letters were to prove effusive in their detail naming the six men who would murder Elizabeth and how this was to be done. Mary wrote back thanking him and promising her support. This letter was intercepted, and the plotters arrested. Babington later revealed all under torture.
On 11 August 1586, much to her surprise, Mary’s gaoler the usually grim and unsmiling puritan Sir Amias Paulet suggested she take in some fresh air and go riding. Mary, who had always enjoyed the outdoors, did not need asking twice. When she saw some horsemen approaching she thought it was Babington and that her moment of freedom had at last arrived. It was in fact the men carrying the warrant for her arrest.
Soon after her formal arrest Mary was taken to her final place of imprisonment at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and it was here within the grim confines of its main hall that on 15 October 1586 the formal trial of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, began.
Prior to the beginning of its proceedings she had received a letter from Elizabeth. In it she reproached Mary for her ingratitude and treasonable behaviour:
“You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my Kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harsh against you.”
Mary now knew that any further appeals to her cousin would be a waste of time.
Deprived of Defence Counsel and any access to the evidence against her Mary was brought before a Tribunal of English Nobles. She refused to enter a plea instead denying the right of any English Court to try a Queen of Scotland, moreover one anointed by God and God alone. She then warned her accusers to look to their consciences for:
“The Theatre of the World is wider than the Realm of England.”
It was a veiled threat and one she restated when she said that:
“We Princes are set on Stages in sight of the World.”
When she was asked by Lord Burghley why she had signed over her rights of succession to King Philip of Spain she replied:
“It is not for men such as you to question the affairs of Princes.”
To the accusation that she had conspired to depose Elizabeth she answered that she had only wanted release from unjust incarceration.
Mary’s suggestion that outside intervention would result if any harm should come to her caused a commotion and a sense of unease, and it particularly disturbed Elizabeth.
Mary had always openly declared that she was the rightful Queen of England and she had since signed over that right to the most powerful Monarch in Europe. The threat of war was a serious one and indeed the epic of the Spanish Armada would come less than two years later.
Mary, whose demeanour throughout the trial had been a mixture of self-assured majesty and that of the wronged woman, had put up such a stout defence that after just two days it was decided to dissolve the Court and reconvene it in London without her. Ten days later the verdict of guilty was announced to much public rejoicing.
Mary Stuart was to be beheaded for high treason.
It was a trumped up charge for Mary could not have committed treason against a Sovereign to whom she owed no allegiance and she had betrayed nothing except perhaps her own good reason and common sense.
The Council demanded a swift execution but Elizabeth could not bring herself to sign the death warrant. She had earlier suggested to Mary’s gaoler Sir Amias Paulet that he might surreptitiously have her killed either by poisoning or smothering her in her bed. He had refused declaring that he was no murderer. Now Elizabeth herself would have to make the decision and for three months she prevaricated. She did not want to set the dangerous precedent of executing a fellow Monarch, her own kith and kin, and the woman she knew but would never publicly admit was the mother of the next King of England.
Finally on 1 February 1587, after much wrestling with her conscious and her finely honed sense of political self-preservation she signed the death warrant. The execution she insisted must be carried out in private in the grounds of Fotheringay Castle. But also that it must not occur without her express permission.
Mary had long ago resigned herself to her fate and saw her end as a pre-ordained martyrdom. When she was told by a weeping servant that she was to be executed the following day Mary whispered to her:
“Then Mary Stuart’s troubles are over, tell them I died a true Scottish woman and a true French woman.”
The Council having received the death warrant were keen to proceed with the execution as quickly as possible before Elizabeth again changed her mind.
Early on 8 February 1587, a bitterly cold but clear morning, the 45 year old Mary Stuart was led into the courtyard of Fotheringay Castle.
The years had not been kind to her and she appeared both aged and fragile and was unable to ascend the scaffold unaided. At the Presiding Officers request she removed her cloak to reveal a heavy velvet dress of deepest scarlet, the colour of Catholic martyrdom. She then forgave her Executioner who was clearly distressed and in tears. She then knelt down, crossed herself three times, and spoke the words:
“Oh Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
She continued to repeat these words as she rested her head upon the block.
After a few moments quiet contemplation she held out her hands to indicate for the Executioner to strike. Utterly distraught and with tears still in his eyes he missed her neck and brought the axe down upon her shoulders, even at the second attempt he failed to remove her head and was forced to stoop and saw it off with the blade of a knife.
Some who witnessed the event later claimed that Mary’s lips continued to move throughout.
As he made to hold up Mary’s severed head it slipped from his grasp and he was left holding a bright auburn wig. Mary had had her thinning grey hair cropped short the day before. As her body lay upon the scaffold her lapdog emerged from beneath her dress and despite much coaxing refused to leave her side.
Upon receiving the news of Mary’s execution Elizabeth was visibly shaken. William Camden wrote that:
“her countenance changed, her words faltered, and she gave herself over to grief, and wept an abundance of tears.”
Elizabeth was furious with her Council for deceiving her and disobeying her express orders not to act without her say so. She banned Lord Burghley from her presence for an unprecedented six months. But how much of this was crocodile tears we can never know.
Despite being beautiful, charming, and sophisticated, Mary Stuart’s life had been a tragic one. Yet had she shared just some of her cousin, Elizabeth’s guile, cunning, and political nous she may well have saved her throne, but then as she had once said:
“Talk not to me of the wisdom of women – I know my sex, and the wisest of us are just a little less foolish than the rest.”