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Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots is probably the best-known figure in Scottish royal history as her life was marked by tragedy. She was Scotland's queen from 1542 until 1567 and was executed in England in 1586. What did she do as queen, what tragedy did she face, and what led to her execution? Let's find out!

Mary, Queen of Scots' Early History

Mary Stewart was born on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, which is about 15 miles (24km) west of Edinburgh, Scotland. She was born to James V, King of Scotland, and his French (second) wife Mary of Guise. She was the only legitimate child of James V that survived him.

Mary was connected to the Tudor family as her paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, the older sister of King Henry VIII. This made Mary the great-niece of Henry VIII and meant that she had a claim to the English throne as well.

Mary Queen of Scots Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots StudySmarterPortrait of Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet, around 1558, Wikimedia Commons.

When Mary was just six days old, her father, James V, died making her Queen of Scotland. Due to her age, Scotland would be ruled by regents until she would become an adult. In 1543, with help from his supporters, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, became regent but in 1554, Mary's mother had him removed from the role which she then claimed herself.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Mother

Mary's mother was Mary of Guise (in French: Marie de Guise) and she ruled Scotland as a regent from 1554 until her death on 11 June 1560. Mary of Guise first married French aristocrat Louis II d'Orleans, Duke of Longueville, but he died shortly after their marriage, leaving Mary of Guise a widow at 21. Soon after, two kings sought her hand in marriage:

  1. James V, King of Scotland.
  2. Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland (who had just lost his third wife, Jane Seymour to childbed fever).

Mary of Guise was not eager to be married to Henry VIII because of how Henry had treated both his first wife Catherine of Aragon and his second wife Anne Boleyn, having annulled his marriage with the first and having the second beheaded. She, therefore, chose to marry James V.

Mary Queen of Scots Portrait Mary of Guise StudySmarterPortrait of Mary of Guise by Corneille de Lyon, around 1537, Wikimedia Commons. Mary Queen of Scots Portrait of James V StudySmarterPortrait of James V by Corneille de Lyon, around 1536, Wikimedia Commons.

When Mary of Guise, a Catholic, became regent of Scotland, she was efficient in dealing with Scottish affairs. However, her regency was threatened by the growing Protestant influence, something which would be a continuous problem, even throughout Mary, Queen of Scots' rule.

Throughout her reign as regent, she made every effort to keep her daughter safe as there were many people who wanted the Scottish throne.

Mary of Guise died in 1560. After her death, Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland after living in France for many years. From then on she ruled in her own right.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Early Reign

Mary's first years were marked by conflict and political turmoil in England and Scotland. Even though she was too young to do anything, a lot of the decisions being made would have an impact on her life eventually.

The Treaty of Greenwich

The Treaty of Greenwich consisted of two agreements, or sub-treaties, which were both signed on 1 July 1543 in Greenwich. Their purpose was:

  1. To establish peace between England and Scotland.
  2. The marriage proposal between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry VIII's son Edward, the future Edward VI, King of England and Ireland.

This treaty was devised by Henry VIII to unite both kingdoms, also known as the Union of the Crowns. Even though the treaties were signed by both England and Scotland, the Treaty of Greenwich was ultimately rejected by the Scottish parliament on 11 December 1543. This resulted in the eight-year conflict known today as the Rough Wooing.

The Rough Wooing

Henry VIII wanted Mary, Queen of Scots, now seven months old, to (eventually) marry his son Edward, who was six years old at the time. Things did not go as planned and when the Scottish parliament rejected the Treaty of Greenwich, Henry VIII was enraged. He ordered Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, to invade Scotland and burn down Edinburgh. The Scots took Mary further North to the town of Dunkeld for safety.

On 10 September 1547, nine months after Henry VIII died, the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh saw the English defeat the Scots. Mary was moved several times in Scotland while the Scots were waiting for French aid. In June 1548, French aid arrived and Mary was sent off to France when she was five.

On 7 July 1548, the Treaty of Haddington was signed, which promised the marriage between Mary and Dauphin Francis, the later Francis II, King of France. Francis was the eldest son of Henry II, King of France, and Catherine de Medici.

Mary Queen of Scots Portrait of Dauphin Francis StudySmarterPortrait of Dauphin Francis by François Clouet, 1560, Wikimedia Commons.

Mary, Queen of Scots in France

Mary spent the next 13 years at the French court, accompanied by her two illegitimate half-brothers. It was here that her surname was changed from Stewart to Stuart, to suit the French conventional spelling.

Key things that happened during this time include:

  • Mary learned to play musical instruments and was taught French, Latin, Spanish, and Greek. She became competent in prose, poetry, horsemanship, falconry, and needlework.
  • On 4 April 1558, Mary signed a secret document that said that Scotland would become a part of France if she should die childless.
  • Mary and Francis married on 24 April 1558. On 10 July 1559, Francis became Francis II, King of France after his father, King Henry II, was killed in a jousting accident.
  • In November 1560, King Francis II became ill and he died on 5 December 1560 from an ear condition, which led to an infection. This made Mary a widow at 18.
  • As Francis died without having any children, the French throne went to his ten-year-old brother Charles IX and Mary returned to Scotland nine months later, landing in Leith on 19 August 1561.

Did you know? Mary, Queen of Scots was 5'11" (1.80m), which is very tall by sixteenth-century standards.

Mary, Queen of Scots' return to Scotland

Since Mary grew up in France, she was not aware of the dangers of returning to Scotland. The country was divided into Catholic and Protestant factions and she returned as a Catholic to a predominantly Protestant country.

Protestantism was influenced by theologian John Knox and the faction was led by Mary's half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray.

Mary tolerated Protestantism; in fact, her privy council consisted of 16 men, 12 of which were Protestant and had led the 1559–60 reformation crisis. This did not sit at all well with the Catholic party.

In the meantime, Mary was looking out for a new husband. She felt that a Protestant husband would be the best option to create stability but her choices of lovers contributed to her downfall.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Spouses

After Mary's marriage to Francis II, King of France ended with his premature death at the age of 16, Mary married two more times.

Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley

Henry Stewart was a grandson of Margaret Tudor, making him a cousin to Mary. Mary uniting with a Tudor angered Queen Elizabeth I and also turned Mary's half-brother against her.

Mary was close with her Italian secretary David Rizzo, who was nicknamed 'Mary's favourite'. There is no evidence that their relationship went any further than friendship but Darnley, who was discontent with being just a King consort, did not like the relationship. On 9 March 1566, Darnley and a group of Protestant nobles murdered Rizzo in front of Mary, who was pregnant at the time.

On 19 June 1566, Mary and Darnley's son, James, was born. The following year, however, in February 1567, Darnley was killed in an explosion. Even though there were some signs of foul play, it was never proven that Mary had any involvement in or knowledge of his death.

Mary Queen of Scots Portrait Henry Stewart StudySmarterPortrait of Henry Stewart, around 1564, Wikimedia Commons.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

Mary's third marriage was a controversial one. She was abducted and imprisoned by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, but it is unknown if Mary was a willing participant or not. Nevertheless, they married on 15 May 1567, just three months after the death of Mary's second husband, the Earl of Darnley.

This decision was not taken well as Hepburn was the prime suspect of Darnley's murder, even though he had been found not guilty due to lack of evidence shortly before his marriage to Mary.

Mary Queen of Scots Portrait of James Hepburn StudySmarterPortrait of James Hepburn, 1566, Wikimedia Commons.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Abdication

In 1567, the Scottish nobility rose up against Mary and Bothwell. 26 peers raised an army against the Queen and there was a confrontation on Carberry Hill on 15 June 1567. Many royal soldiers deserted the Queen and she was captured and taken to Lochleven Castle. Lord Bothwell was allowed to escape.

Whilst imprisoned, Mary had a miscarriage and was forced to abdicate the throne. On 24 July 1567, she abdicated in favour of her one-year-old son James who became James VI, King of Scotland. Mary's half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray, was made regent.

The nobility was outraged at her marriage to Lord Bothwell and Protestant radicals seized the opportunity to rebel against her. This was just the beginning of the tragedy Mary would face.

Lord Bothwell was eventually imprisoned in Denmark where he went insane and died in 1578.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Escape and Imprisonment in England

On 2 May 1568, Mary managed to escape Loch Leven Castle and raise an army of 6000 men. She fought against Moray's much smaller army at the Battle of Langside on 13 May but was defeated. She fled to England, hoping that Queen Elizabeth I would help her reclaim the Scottish throne. Elizabeth, however, was not eager to help Mary because she also had a claim on the English throne. Additionally, she was still a murder suspect regarding her second husband.

The Casket letters

The Casket Letters were eight letters and a few sonnets that were supposedly written by Mary between January and April 1567. They were called the Casket Letters because they were said to be found in a silver-gilt casket.

These letters were used as evidence against Mary by the Scottish lords who opposed her rule, and they were said to be proof of Mary's involvement in Darnley's murder. Mary proclaimed that the letters were a forgery.

Unfortunately, the original letters have been lost, so there is no possibility of handwriting analysis. Fake or real, Elizabeth did not want to find Mary guilty nor acquit her of the murder. Instead, Mary remained in custody.

Even though she was technically imprisoned, Mary still had luxuries. She had her own domestic staff, she got to keep many of her belongings, and she even had her own chefs.

Plots against Elizabeth

Over the next 19 years, Mary remained in custody in England and was kept in different castles. On 23 January 1570, Moray was assassinated in Scotland by Catholic supporters of Mary, which made Elizabeth consider Mary as a threat. In response, Elizabeth placed spies in Mary's household.

Over the years, Mary was implicated in several plots against Elizabeth, although it is unknown if she knew about them or was involved. The plots were:

  • The Ridolfi plot of 1571: this plot was hatched and planned by Roberto Ridolfi, an international banker. It was designed to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary and have her marry Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. When the scheme was discovered, Ridolfi was already out of the country so he could not be arrested. Norfolk, however, was not so lucky. He was arrested, found guilty, and on 2 June 1572, he was executed.
  • Throckmorton plot of 1583: this plot was named after its key conspirator, Sir Francis Throckmorton. Similar to the Ridolfi plot, he wanted to free Mary and put her on the English throne. When this plot was discovered, Throckmorton was arrested in November 1583 and executed in July 1584.After this, Mary was placed under stricter rules. In 1584, Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's 'spymaster', and William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief adviser, created the Bond of Association. This bond meant that whenever a plot was carried out in someone's name, this person would be responsible, whether they knew about the plot or not.
  • The Babington plot of 1586: the chief conspirators in this plot were Anthony Babington and John Ballard. Again, it was a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and put Mary on the throne. Babington mentioned the plan to Mary and during their written communication Mary mentioned that she wanted France and Spain to help her become Queen by invading England. These letters were, however, intercepted by Walsingham. On 20 and 21 September 1586, Babington, Ballard, and 12 other co-conspirators were convicted of high treason and executed.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Trial, Death, and Burial

The discovery of the letters from Mary to Babington was her undoing.

Trial

Mary was arrested on 11 August 1586. In October 1586 she was tried by 46 English lords, bishops, and earls. She was not permitted any legal council to review the evidence against her, nor call on any witnesses. The letters between Mary and Babington proved that she was aware of the plot and because of the Bond of Association, she was therefore responsible. She was found guilty.

Death

Elizabeth I was reluctant to sign the death warrant as she did not want to execute another queen, especially one that was related to her. However, Mary's involvement in the Babington plot showed Elizabeth that she would always be a threat while she lived. Mary was imprisoned at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, where, on 8 February 1587, she was executed by beheading.

Burial

Elizabeth I had Mary buried in Peterborough Cathedral. However, in 1612, her son James had her body reburied in a place of honour at Westminster Abbey, opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I, who had died a few years earlier.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Baby and Descendants

As we know, Mary gave birth to a son, James - he was her only child. At the age of one, James became James VI, King of Scotland after his mother abdicated in his favour. When it became clear that Elizabeth I was going to die without any children or without naming a successor, the English parliament made secret arrangements to have James named as Elizabeth's successor. When Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603, he became James VI, King of Scotland, and James I, King of England and Ireland, uniting all three kingdoms. He ruled for 22 years, a period known as the Jacobean era, until his death on 27 March 1625.

James had eight children but only three survived infancy: Elizabeth, Henry and Charles, the latter being Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland after his father's death.

The current Queen, Elizabeth II, is actually a direct descendant of Mary Queen of Scots!

  • James's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, married Frederick V of the Palatinate.
  • Their daughter Sophia married Ernest August of Hanover.
  • Sophia gave birth to George I who became King of Great Britain in 1714 as he had the strongest Protestant claim to the throne.
  • The monarchy continued down this line, eventually to Queen Elizabeth II.

The Tudors Portrait of James VI of King of Scotland and James I King of England and Ireland StudySmarterPortrait of James VI King of Scotland and James I King of England and Ireland by John de Critz, around 1605, Wikimedia Commons.

Mary, Queen of Scots - Key Takeaways

  • Mary Stewart was born on 8 December 1542 to James V, King of Scotland, and his French wife Mary of Guise.
  • Mary was connected to the Tudor line through her paternal grandmother, who was Margaret Tudor. This made Mary Henry VIII's great-niece.
  • The Treaty of Greenwich was established by Henry VIII to ensure peace between England and Scotland, and to arrange the marriage between Mary and Henry VIII's son Edward but was rejected on 11 December 1543, which resulted in the Rough Wooing.
  • The Treaty of Haddington was signed on 7 July 1548, which promised the marriage between Mary and Dauphin Francis, the later Francis II, King of France.
  • Mary was married three times: 1. Francis II, King of France 2. Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley 3. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell
  • Mary had one child, James, born to the Earl of Darnley, to whom she was forced to abdicate the throne.
  • Mary fled to England where she was imprisoned for 19 years by Queen Elizabeth I.
  • The following three plots led to Mary's downfall: 1. Ridolfi plot 1571 2. Throckmorton plot 1583 3. Babington plot 1586
  • Mary was executed by Elizabeth I on 8 February 1587.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots married three times:

  1. Francis II, King of France
  2. Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley
  3. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

She was beheaded.

She was born to James V, King of Scotland, and his second wife Mary of Guise. She was a cousin of Henry VIII. She became queen of Scotland when she was six days old.

She had one son who made it into adulthood, James, the later James VI of Scotland and I of England and Ireland. 


Mary of Guise (in French Marie de Guise).

Final Mary, Queen of Scots Quiz

Question

When was Mary Stewart born?

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Answer

On 8 December 1542

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Question

Who were Mary, Queen of Scots' parents?

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Answer

James V, King of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise (in French: Marie de Guise).

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Question

How was Mary, Queen of Scots related to the Tudors?


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Answer

Her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, the older sister of Henry VIII. This made Mary the great-niece of Henry VIII.

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Question

How old was Mary when she became queen?


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Answer

She was six days old.

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Question

The Treaty of Greenwich consisted of two sub-treaties. What were they?

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Answer

  1. To establish peace between England and Scotland.

  2. The marriage proposal between Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry VIII's son Edward, the future Edward VI, King of England and Ireland.

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Question

What led to the Rough Wooing?


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Answer

In the Treaty of Greenwich it was stated that Mary, Queen of Scots would marry Henry VIII's son, Edward. The Scots ultimately rejected the treaty. Henry VIII was enraged and the eight-year conflict that followed was called the Rough Wooing.

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Question

When did the English defeat the Scots, and what was the name of the battle?

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Answer

On 10 September 1547 at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.

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Question

Which treaty was signed on 7 July 1548, and what did the treaty entail?


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Answer

The Treaty of Haddington. It entailed that Mary, Queen of Scots would marry Dauphin Francis, who would later become Francis II, King of France.

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Who were Francis II's parents?


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Answer

Henry II, King of France and Catherine de' Medici.

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What name change happened when Mary went to live in France?


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Her surname of Stewart was changed to Stuart, to suit the French conventional spelling.

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When were Mary, Queen of Scots, and Francis II married?


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On 24 April 1558

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When did Francis II die and what happened to Mary, Queen of Scots afterward?


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Francis II died on 5 December 1560. Since he died childless, the French throne went to Francis' younger brother Charles IX. Mary returned to Scotland nine months later.

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Why was it dangerous for Mary, Queen of Scots to return to Scotland?


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Answer

Mary was a Catholic and Scotland was becoming more and more Protestant.

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After Francis II, Mary, Queen of Scots married two more times. To whom?


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  1. Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley
  2. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

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When was Mary, Queen of Scots forced to abdicate and in favour of whom?


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On 24 July 1567 she was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son, James.

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Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned after her abdication. When did she escape and where did she go?


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Answer

She escaped on 2 May 1568, and after she was defeated at the Battle of Langside, she fled to England.

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Question

what did Queen Elizabeth I do when Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in England?


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Answer

Queen Elizabeth I imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots for 19 years.

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Question

Mary, Queen of Scots was implicated in three plots against Queen Elizabeth I. Which ones?

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Answer

  1. Ridolfi plot of 1571
  2. Throckmorton plot of 1583
  3. Babington plot of 1586

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Question

Which plot led to Mary, Queen of Scots' execution and why?


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Answer

The Babington plot. Letters between her and Babington proved she had knowledge of the plot.

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When was Mary, Queen of Scots executed and where was she buried?


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Answer

She was executed on 8 February 1587. She was initially buried in Peterborough Cathedral by Queen Elizabeth I. After Elizabeth's death, Mary's son James had her exhumed and reburied in a place of honour at Westminster Abbey in 1612.

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