Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

In 1542, the Scottish throne went to Mary, Queen of Scots, a controversial monarch who would also become France's queen consort and claim the English crown.


The death of her father, which occurred just days after her birth, put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne in 1542. She briefly became queen consort in France before returning to Scotland. Forced to abdicate by Scottish nobles in 1567, Mary sought the protection of England's Queen Elizabeth I, who instead had her arrested. Mary spent the remainder of her life in captivity until her 1587 execution.

The Queen's Youth

Mary Stuart was born on December 8, 1542, in Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian, Scotland. She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise. Her father died when Mary was only 6 days old, making her Mary, Queen of Scots.

Given Mary's age, her great uncle, Henry VIII, made a bid for control, but her mother ended up acting as regent on Mary's behalf. Mary was initially betrothed to Henry VIII's son, Prince Edward of England, but Scottish Catholics objected to this plan, as England had separated from the Catholic Church. When the match was annulled, England attacked Scotland in raids that became known as "The Rough Wooing."

Mary's mother was French, and the Scots had a longstanding alliance with France, so Mary was betrothed to the 4-year-old French heir. At the age of 5, Mary was sent to France, where she grew up in the luxurious French court. In 1558, she married Francis, the eldest son of French King Henry II and Catherine de Medicis.

Claim to the English Throne

In November 1558, Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, became Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, many Roman Catholics considered Elizabeth's rule to be illegitimate, as they did not recognize the validity of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother.

Mary's great-grandfather had been Henry VII (the father of Henry VIII); as a legitimate descendant of the Tudor line, she had a strong claim to the English throne. Mary's French father-in-law, Henry II, made this claim on her behalf.

Queen of France and Return to Scotland

In 1559, Mary's husband was crowned Francis II, making Mary his queen consort. Unfortunately, Francis died from an ear infection the year after he ascended to the throne, leaving Mary a widow at 18.

Following her husband's death, Mary returned to Scotland. By the time of her return, in 1561, John Knox's influence had changed Scotland's official religion from Catholicism to Protestantism. As a Roman Catholic raised in France, Mary found herself an outsider. However—with help from her illegitimate half-brother, James, earl of Moray—Mary managed to rule while creating an atmosphere of religious tolerance.

Scandal and Abdication

In 1565, Mary gave into infatuation and married her cousin, Henry Stewart, earl of Darnley. Mary's new husband was a grandson of Margaret Tudor; Mary uniting with a Tudor infuriated Elizabeth. Her marriage to Darnley also turned Mary's half-brother against her.

Darnley's own ruthless ambition caused other problems. In 1566, Darnley and a group of Protestant nobles viciously murdered David Rizzio, Mary's Italian secretary, stabbing him 56 times as a pregnant Mary looked on. Mary gave birth to Darnley's son—the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England—a few months after the murder, but she no longer wished to be married to Darnley.

When Darnley was mysteriously killed following an explosion at Kirk o' Field, outside Edinburgh, in February 1567, foul play was suspected. Mary's involvement is unclear, but she consented to marry the main suspect in her husband's murder—James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, who had abducted her and held her captive in Dunbar Castle. Over the years, Bothwell had become close confidant of Mary and was said to exert great influence over her. He also had his own ambitions to become king. 

Their scandalous union only three months after the murder in May 1567 made the Scottish nobility rise against Mary. Bothwell was sent into exile where he was ultimately arrested and held captive until his death, while Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. In July 1567, Mary was compelled to abdicate the throne in favor of her infant son.

Prisoner, Conviction and Death

In 1568, Mary escaped from Lochleven. She raised an army, but was soon defeated. Mary then fled to England, where she sought Elizabeth's protection. Instead of helping her cousin, Elizabeth imprisoned Mary. Mary's captivity would last for the next 18 years.

Given Mary's lineage and religion, she became the focus of Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth so that Mary could take the throne. Mary corresponded with Anthony Babington, one such plotter. When Elizabeth's spymaster uncovered the letters in 1586, Mary was brought to trial and found guilty of treason.

After Elizabeth signed her cousin's death warrant, Mary was executed in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, on February 8, 1587. She was 44 years old. Elizabeth had Mary buried in Peterborough Cathedral. After Mary's son became king of England, he moved his mother's body to Westminster Abbey in 1612.

Centuries after her death, Mary continues to be an object of cultural fascination. Her life inspired the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots, the television show Reign and a popular 2013 exhibition at National Museums Scotland.

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