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Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots: The legitimate heir to the English throne?

Image: Public Domain

Born: 8th December 1542. Linlithgow Palace, Linlithgow, Scotland

Died: 8th February 1587 (aged 44) Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, England

Reigned: 14th December 1542 – 24 July 1567

Raised as a French queen

Although romanticised as a Scottish heroine, Mary was brought up in the French court since she was five years old. The unexpected death of Mary’s husband, Francis II of France, left her with no role in the French court, particularly as her mother-in-law despised her.

Arriving in Leith, near Edinburgh on 19th August 1561 the 18-year-old Mary looked south to England, claiming legitimacy to the crown as the great-granddaughter of Henry VII. She believed she was the legitimate heir as opposed to her elder cousin, Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn whose marriage, some believed was illegitimate.

Mary’s claim to the English throne

Mary and Elizabeth never actually met, but they experienced close personal correspondence of an intimate nature through letters for decades. At the heart of their personal conflicts was the fact the women were contrary creatures in manner and behaviour. Mary had dangerous qualities; she was not just ambitious but also reckless and impatient. Elizabeth, already fearful of enemies, regarded Mary’s claim as a legitimate heir to the throne as a potential threat.

Charm offensive

Jealousy and suspicion between the two rival queens were hidden under a playful veneer of verbal tennis in letters that masked an undercurrent of frustration on Mary’s behalf. Mary’s obsession with the English throne allowed Queen Elizabeth to manipulate her. Believing that marriage would be one way to distract Mary from her ambition to rule England, Elizabeth cannily served up her own romantic cast-off in the shape of roguish Robert Dudley as a prospective ‘English’ suitor for her cousin.

Elizabeth may have been playing a game of poker, knowing that Mary understood her best chance of becoming queen of England would be with an English husband, but also aware that her headstrong and proud cousin would reject the arranged marriage.

Queen Mary marries an Englishman

True to form and probably as Queen Elizabeth expected, the combative Mary Stuart refused to have anything to do with Robert Dudley, a man Elizabeth once had great affection for. Mary replied with a tone of angry reproachment, telling Elizabeth she would choose her own husband. The handsome English nobleman Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was Mary’s choice, unaware of his bad reputation. The Scottish Lords were horrified by Mary’s decision to marry Darnley and elevate him to King Consort, a man who they perceived as an effete, bisexual drunkard.

The murder of David Rizzio

Despite Darnley’s philandering ways, the erratic consort became increasingly jealous of the Queen’s friendship with her Italian musician David Rizzio. The egotistical Darnley listened to rumours around the court and suspected Rizzio to be the father of Mary’s child.

On the evening of 9th March 1566, an enraged and drunk Darnley took part in a brutal attack on Rizzio as his henchmen burst into Mary’s private quarters in the Palace of Holyrood House and mercilessly stabbed the petrified musician 56 times. The murderous attack was the last straw for Mary who fled Darnley while seizing the initiative for revenge.

Death of Lord Darnley

After giving birth to a boy, James, on 19th June 1566, Mary turned her attention to the Earl of Bothwell, a brusque, coarse, and violent man, as her saviour. Mary once again alienated herself from both the Scottish Lords and also Queen Elizabeth through her choice of suitor. It was with Bothwell that Mary may have plotted the death of her husband Lord Darnley, when he mysteriously died in an explosion under his bedroom quarters in October 1566.

The fact that Darnley’s body was found some distance away with his throat cut suggested premeditated murder. Despite claiming her innocence, Mary became the prime suspect along with Bothwell who abducted her and forced her into marriage at Dunbar Castle.

Paraded as a trophy

Mary surrendered herself to the Lords in June 1567 to save Bothwell from an army gathered by 26 Scottish peers. She proposed her husband be allowed to leave Scotland and never return. Mary herself was paraded through Edinburgh while Bothwell fled to Norway.

Queen Elizabeth demonstrated a rare moment of sympathy, believing Mary undeserving of the harsh treatment meted out by the Scottish Lords. Elizabeth declared in forthright letters her support for her royal blood sister. Instead of fighting the English, the Lords imprisoned Mary on the desolate Loch Leven Island and forced her to abdicate on 24th July 1567 in favour of her one-year-old son.

Absconding to England

Mary proved to be a determined escapee on at least three occasions, as she outwitted her jailers and finally managed to flee by horse into England in May 1568. She hoped Queen Elizabeth would offer an army to regain Mary’s Scottish crown. Elizabeth, by now fearful of Mary as a Catholic Queen with supporters in Europe eager to see her on the English throne, had her cousin arrested. Mary was held captive in various stately homes of declining quality for 17 years.

The Babington Plot

Forever hoping to entrap Mary in conspiracies, Queen Elizabeth’s master spy, William Cecil, finally uncovered a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth which was sanctioned by Mary who, by now arthritic and impatient, sought any means to be free.

The chief conspirator, Lord Babington, a young gentleman and Catholic, was recruited by a Jesuit priest to put into action a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. Double agents working for Lord Burley discovered secret encrypted letters hidden in caskets sent to Mary who replied and gave her permission for the plot to go ahead. Babington and all conspirators were arrested, tried and mercilessly executed by being hung-drawn and quartered in public while Mary herself was condemned to death.

Queen Mary’s execution

Impulsive, reactionary, vivacious and lacking sound judgement, Mary entered the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire on 8th February 1587, for a spectacular stage-managed end to her life.

Revealing under her outer garments a striking red petticoat, the colour of martyrdom, Queen Mary uttered her last words in Latin as she knelt before the axeman. It took three clumsy blows to sever her head from her neck. Perhaps in a fitting display of macabre theatre, the executioner, when lifting the regal head of the once enigmatic queen, saw it drop from his grasp as he was left holding a wig.