4th Block Green Day
Mary, Queen of Scots
In the history of monarchy in the British Isles, Mary Stuart may not have been the most well known of the monarchs. However, her story is just as compelling as that of Elizabeth I or Henry VIII. The events surrounding the Queen of Scotland attracted the attention across the world even during her lifetime. The life of Mary, Queen of Scots was defined by her tragic youth, scandalous reign, and her sisterly relationship and rivalry with Elizabeth I of England, which would ultimately lead to her abrupt demise.
Before she could even speak, Mary Stuart was obliged to the throne of Scotland by the death of her father King James V, whom she never knew. Her mother Marie de Guise was given no time to grieve, as she was foremost concerned with the health of her prematurely born daughter. Neither of Mary’s two older brothers had lived to see their first birthday. Fortunately, Mary would survive infancy, and in the summer of 1548, she left her mother to sail to France. The next ten years of her childhood would be anything but tragic. She was joined in France by her older half brother, four friends, also all named Mary, a governess, a nurse, and over a hundred nobles. King Henry II of France was especially fond of her; he paid for her education, jewelry, clothing, and servants. Of all the influential figures in the French court, the most significant to Mary was Francis, the oldest son of Henry II and Mary’s betrothed. “Francis was immediately drawn to Mary, and she seemed to realize he did not have her intelligence and personality and developed a protective affection for him, almost as though he were a younger brother” (Lotz 29). Mary and Francis were married on April 24, 1558 with an extravagant celebration, even though France was deep in debt. Little did they know, tragedy was just around the corner.
In celebration of his daughter Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip II of Spain, King Henry decided to host a jousting tournament. Despite Queen Catherine’s warnings, for she had dreamed that her husband would be fatally injured in a duel, the king insisted on one final joust. As Catherine predicted, he was wounded in both his right eye and throat after his opponent’s lance was severed. His death ten days later put Francis and Mary into a position for which they were ill prepared. Regardless of their lack of ruling experience, the new king and queen of France were compelled to persevere through their grief at the death of the king.
Not even a year had passed since this misfortune when Mary received word that her mother Marie de Guise had passed. Mary was totally grief-stricken, while her own people of Scotland were apathetic to the death of their regnant queen. This inclined her to begin concerning herself with the politics of Scotland. Later that same year, Mary’s husband, whom she had known since childhood, would come down with an earache that worsened rapidly. “After only seventeen months on the throne, Francis II of France died, and Mary donned a white robe and entered a darkened room for forty days of mourning” (Lotz 46). Mary was heartbroken to say the least. In the span of eighteen months, she had lost her father-in-law, her mother, and her husband. Alas, she overcame and fulfilled her duty as queen.
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, there was always tension about Mary’s Catholic queenship and her cousin Elizabeth I’s Protestant queenship. Though she had always been a devout Catholic, Mary tolerated the Protestants of her country, much to her Catholic subjects’ dismay. Mary’s claim to the English throne caused further hostility towards Elizabeth. “For many Catholics in England and abroad, Elizabeth was illegitimate. They saw Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and legitimate granddaughter of Henry’s sister Margaret Tudor, as the rightful queen of England” (Whitelock 22). However, when Mary returned to Scotland to rule as their queen after the death of her husband Francis, she also pursued her claim to the English throne through persistent gift-giving and letter-writing. She eventually managed to get Elizabeth to acknowledge Mary as her successor, however informally.
Suddenly, she was no longer concerned with Elizabeth’s approval or her advisors’ aid; she was infatuated with her cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. He also had a strong claim to the English throne, so it was decided that they would be married. “Their marriage left Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship in tatters: ‘All their sisterly familiarity was ceased, and instead thereof nothing but jealousies, suspicions, and hatred,’ wrote the Scottish diplomat Sir James Melville” (Whitelock 23). Relations between the sister nations were damaged by the marriage, which would soon begin to shatter. Mary quickly began to see faults within Darnley, causing her to seek solace in her secretary David Rizzio. After word of this got out, Rizzio was promptly stabbed to death in 1566, a crime in which Darnley was clearly involved. Early the next year Darnley was killed in an explosion at the house in which he was staying.
“Evidence pointed to James Hepburn (Earl of Bothwell; 1535-1578) as Stewart’s murderer, and many suspected that Mary was involved. The queen would not allow an extensive investigation into the murder, and Hepburn was released after a superficial inquiry. After the investigation he was granted a divorce from his wife, and he quickly married the queen of Scots. The Scottish lords thought Mary’s behavior proved her involvement in the murder” (Benson).
This marriage was understandably unpopular amongst the people and only reinforced the case against her. Even Elizabeth advised her to evade the scandal to save her reputation. She told Mary, “I treat you as my daughter, and I assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you” (Whitelock 23).
The scandal of the murder of Lord Darnley was exactly what the disgruntled Scottish nobles needed to finally overthrow Mary. They forced her to sign deeds of abdication that would make her son James, who was only a year old, king. Many of Mary’s supporters, including Elizabeth, considered this to be an act of treason and were outraged. Mary, having nowhere else to go, fled to England, where Elizabeth was faced with a difficult decision. She could not let her come to London, or really show any support for her, as plots to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary were still a constant issue. Her only choice was to imprison her cousin, although her imprisonment was anything but harsh. “Mary had, through her own incompetence as a ruler, lost her throne, and after a year in captivity she still expected that Elizabeth would risk all to restore her to rule” (Hunter). It is unclear whether Elizabeth truly would have restored her to the throne, had the plots to overthrow Elizabeth not inhibited her.
Then, eighteen years into her imprisonment, the plot that would be Mary’s end arose. The Babington Plot involved a series of letters among the Catholic conspirators, which were unknowingly being intercepted by the Queen’s spies.
“Regardless of the extent of Mary’s involvement, it became clear that conspiracies to dethrone Elizabeth would continue as long as Mary was alive… After the Babington Plot, however, Elizabeth was finally persuaded to act. Despite any specific evidence of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, Elizabeth acceded to her cousin’s execution after nearly nineteen years of imprisonment.” (Stock)
Elizabeth tried to avoid this outcome at all costs, mostly because Mary was still viewed by many as the rightful queen of Scotland, and her execution could set a dangerous precedent or even lead to war. Alas, she signed the death warrant. However, it was carried out without her orders, and Elizabeth was furious.
Mary Stuart’s life had both a tragic beginning and end, with both the death of her father and her own beheading. Her luxurious childhood in France was concluded with not only the premature death of her husband and childhood friend King Francis after only a year on the throne, but also the deaths of her father-in-law and her mother. This tragedy would not stop Mary in her pursuit for the English throne, however. After returning to her homeland, her Scottish queenship came to an end following a series of scandals within her marriages. These scandals forced her to flee to England and beg for aid from her cousin Elizabeth. She would spend her last nineteen years imprisoned in northern England before her execution. Leading up to her unfortunate beheading, the life of Mary, Queen of Scots was characterized by not only the tragedies and scandals in her early life, but also her unique relationship with Elizabeth as both friendly cousins and hostile rivals.
“Elizabeth I Executes Mary, Queen of Scots: February 8, 1587.” Global Events: Milestone
Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 4: Europe, Gale, 2014. World
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Hunter, Ryan. “The Relationship of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in Letters – Part One –
The Crown Chronicles.” The Crown Chronicles, 25 Nov. 2015.
Lotz, Nancy, and Carlene Philips. Mary, Queen of Scots. Morgan Reynolds Pub., 2007.
“The Catholic Reformation and Conspiracies Against Elizabeth, 1558-1580.” Elizabethan World
Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, vol. 1: Almanac,
UXL, 2007, pp. 67-83. World History in Context.
Whitelock, Anna. “Deadly Rivals.” BBC History, 25, Dec. 2015, pp. 20-25