Mary Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), was queen of France and Scotland and claimant to the throne of England. As the rival of Elizabeth I, she was perhaps the last real hope of a restored Catholicism in England.

The relations of England, Scotland, and France in the mid-16th century were dictated more by considerations of religion than they were by any emergent nationalism. Both France and Scotland were rocked by internal struggles over religion, but in international relations France emerged as the champion of the Scottish Catholics. King James V of Scotland had cemented this relationship by marrying Mary of Guise, the daughter of one of the most powerful Catholics in France. The Scottish-French alliance posed a considerable threat to England in its own struggles with France, but the English were able to silence the threat momentarily by defeating the Scots at Solway Moss (November 1542).

Mary Stuart was the third child and only daughter of James V and Mary of Guise. Both of her brothers had died before she was born at Linlithgow Palace on Dec. 7/8, 1542. Her father, already dejected by the disgrace of Solway Moss, thought the birth of a female heir a portent of disaster. A week after her birth he died, and the infant princess became queen of Scots. The period following the death of James V was an unhappy one for Scotland. In 1547 an English invasion led to the military occupation of the country. One of the chief results of this action was to drive Scotland more firmly than ever into alliance with France. On July 7, 1548, the Estates of Scotland ratified an agreement for the marriage of Queen Mary to the Dauphin of France, the future Francis II, and ordered that she go to France immediately.

For the following decade Scotland was under heavy French influence; the queen mother, Mary of Guise, was appointed regent, and many high offices went to Frenchmen. As a result, a feeling of reaction against the French began to be noticeable in Scotland, and it was fanned for religious purposes by the Protestant party in the country.

Queen of France

Mary meanwhile was educated with the French royal children. She appears to have been a quick and able student whose charming personality had a great impact on all around her. In April 1558 her marriage to the Dauphin was celebrated. In November of the same year, Mary Tudor, Queen of England, died. Mary Stuart laid a claim to the English throne as great-granddaughter of Henry VII on the grounds that Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate. Elizabeth I ascended the throne without opposition in England, but Mary and the Dauphin assumed the royal titles of England and Ireland. They continued to use them when they ascended to the French throne in July 1559, and though the Treaty of Edinburgh of July 1560 required them to abandon their claims to the English throne, they refused to ratify it.

Mary's husband, Francis II, ruled in France only a little more than a year, dying on Dec. 5, 1560. His death meant an end to Guise dominance in France, and as Catherine de Médicis asserted power there, the cause of Mary Stuart ceased to be a major concern of French politics. After a year of semiretirement in France, Mary resolved, on the advice of her friends, to return to Scotland to see whether she could reassert her power there. On April 19, 1561, the young queen landed at Leith, arriving in a dense fog which John Knox, the Protestant leader, saw as an omen of the "sorrow, dolour, darkness, and all impiety" which her coming was to bring. Her arrival was conceived of as a threat by Queen Elizabeth. In Mary's absence the Protestant party had gained power in Scotland, and this was to England's advantage; her return raised the possibility of a reassertion of Catholic influence, since few doubted that Mary, a devout Catholic herself, meant to reestablish the old religion and realign Scotland with the Continental Catholic powers.

Rule in Scotland

Elizabeth's policy toward Mary was confusing. She recognized the threat, but she was emotionally and perhaps politically unwilling to question the authority of another legitimate sovereign. Her policy thus vacillated between attacking Mary when she was strong and aiding her when she was weak. For some 7 years Mary precariously held her position as sovereign of Scotland. There was little likelihood of permanent success, for Mary was clearly out of sympathy with important elements in Scotland.

Various negotiations for Mary's marriage took place; it appears that Mary herself had the highest hopes of an alliance with Spain through marriage to Don Carlos, the son of Philip II. In July 1565, she married Henry, Lord Darnley. It was a political, not a love, match, for through this marriage Mary strengthened her claims to be heir presumptive to the throne of England, Darnley being the next lineal heir after herself to the English throne. The marriage had somewhat different political results from those Mary hoped for; the Protestant lords, led by the Earl of Moray with support from Queen Elizabeth, rebelled. Mary was able to counter this threat by military force, but she could not compensate for the arrogance and stupidity of Darnley himself. She refused the grant to him of the crown matrimonial and increasingly turned for comfort to her Italian secretary, David Riccio. Darnley in turn, wounded by the widespread rumors that Riccio was her lover, closed with the Protestant lords, who promised to make him king consort if he would destroy Riccio and restore them to power. On March 9, 1566, Darnley and the nobles dragged Riccio from Mary's room and murdered him. Within a short period, Moray and the other exiled rebel leaders had returned.

Murder of Darnley

Though Mary gave birth to a son (the later James VI of Scotland and James I of England) in June 1566, she was never reconciled to Darnley. Hiding her true feelings well, she made an outward show of reconciliation to Darnley while she actually drew close to one of the Protestant lords, the Earl of Bothwell. In February 1567 Darnley was murdered under curious circumstances; the house in which he was convalescing, Kirk o'Field, was destroyed by a violent explosion, and he was found dead in the grounds. Evidence, including the controversial Casket Letters, suggested that Mary had plotted with Bothwell the death of her second husband. The suspicions were strengthened when Mary did little to investigate the murder, allowed herself to be abducted by Bothwell, and in May 1567 she married him. The result was an almost total loss of public support for Mary. Civil war in Scotland ensued; Mary was captured and forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James (July 24, 1567). After somewhat less than a year of confinement, she escaped and once again raised a party on her behalf with the aid of the house of Hamilton. Her new-found supporters were routed at the battle of Langside (May 13, 1568), and after a futile effort to sail for France, Mary crossed the border into England on May 16, 1568, a refugee from the Scotland she had tried to rule.

Exile in England

It was a daring move and placed Elizabeth of England in an awkward position. Elizabeth was not in favor of having the Catholic claimant to the throne so close, where she could and did become the focus of Spanish intrigue. On the other hand, she did not want to use English force against the Scottish Protestants to restore Mary, nor did she wish Mary to take refuge in some Catholic court. Moreover, Elizabeth was troubled by her own conception of the divine nature of a monarch and upset by the implications of a forcible removal of a legitimate ruler. To resolve the dilemma, Elizabeth decided, in effect, to sit in judgment on the case. A commission met at York in the summer of 1568 and terminated its proceedings at Hampton Court early the following year. Elizabeth did not allow the commission to make a definite judgment on the issue of Mary's complicity in the murder of Darnley, but two results emerged from the hearing: the rebel government of Moray in Scotland was for the present to remain undisturbed, and Mary was to remain in England.

Catholic Plots

Mary had arrived in England as a refugee seeking aid; she was to remain there the rest of her life as a virtual prisoner. Early in 1569 she was moved to Tutbury in Staffordshire to begin her captivity. Quickly she became the center of Catholic plots. Complicated plotting involving the proposed marriage of Mary to the Duke of Norfolk established her connection with the discontented English Catholics. The northern earls rebelled in 1569 but were quickly put down, Mary being moved south out of harm's way. In March 1571 Mary was involved in the Ridolphi plot, by which the Catholics were to rise in revolt and place Mary on the throne at the same time as a Spanish expeditionary force landed. The details of the plot were discovered by the government; Norfolk was arrested, tried, and executed. The implication of Mary in the plot was undoubted; she and her agent, the bishop of Ross, had been at the center of it. There were petitions from both houses of Parliament that action be taken against her, but Elizabeth opposed such measures. Such was the pattern of the remaining 14 years of her life.

Mary was closely watched by the authorities, but she continued to conspire with her Catholic friends to escape and take the English throne. Plot after plot followed in the main the course of the Ridolphi scheme. In some Mary played a direct part; in others she was simply the cause for which the rebels gathered. In 1586 Secretary Walsingham uncovered the details of the Babington plot; in July he secured a letter from Mary, giving her assent to the assassination of Elizabeth. Elizabeth could not reject this evidence, and orders were given for Mary's trial. She was formally condemned on October 14-15.

Parliament petitioned for Mary's execution; after much delay and uncertainty, Elizabeth signed the death warrant. The Council, acting on its own initiative because the Queen still hesitated, sent the warrant to Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, where Mary was executed on Feb. 8, 1587. Elizabeth displayed great public displeasure at the action and even sent the bearer of the warrant, William Davison, to the Tower. But realistically she knew that the action was necessary; by the death of Mary, the center of dangerous Catholic plotting was removed, and since the new Catholic claimant was the Infanta of Spain, fears of a popular rising on behalf of the Catholic cause were sharply diminished.

Further Reading on Mary Queen of Scots

The bibliography on Mary, Queen of Scots, is vast. A recent major study is Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1969), which has an excellent bibliography. Other biographies are David Hay Fleming, Mary Queen of Scots (2d ed. 1898); Thomas F. Henderson, Mary Queen of Scots (2 vols., 1905; repr. 1969); Stefan Zweig, The Queen of Scots (trans. 1935), less scholarly but a good interpretive study; and Eric Linklater, Mary, Queen of Scots (1952).

Mortimer Levine, The Early Elizabethan Succession Question (1966), is a useful discussion of the claims to the English throne. Leo Hicks, An Elizabeth Problem (1964), sheds much light on Catholic plotting, as does Francis Edwards, The Dangerous Queen (1966). George M. Thomson, The Crime of Mary Stuart (1967), explores in detail the murder of Darnley; and Gordon Donaldson, The First Trial of Mary, Queen of Scots (1970), is a scholarly account of that trial.

Recommended for historical background are John Bennett Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603 (1936; 2d ed. 1959); Agnes Mure MacKenzie, The Scotland of Queen Mary (1936); Stanley Thomas Bindoff, Tudor England (1950); Geoffrey Rudolf Elton, England under the Tudors (1955); William Croft Dickinson and George S. Pryde, A New History of Scotland, vol. 1 (1961); and Gordon Donaldson, Scotland: James V-James VII (1965).