Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots Biography

(1542–1587)
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In 1542 the Scottish throne went to Mary, Queen of Scots, a controversial monarch who became France's queen consort and claimed the English crown. She was executed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587.

Who Was Mary, Queen of Scots?

Mary, Queen of Scots (December 8, 1542 to February 8, 1587), also known as Mary Stuart or Queen Mary I, was the queen of Scotland from December 1542 until July 1567. The death of Mary’s father, which occurred just days after her birth, put her on the throne as an infant. 

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.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Family Tree

Mary was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise. Mary’s great-grandfather was Henry VII, making Henry VIII her great uncle. Elizabeth I was Mary's cousin.

Queen Elizabeth & Mary Queen of Scots

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (left) with Mary, Queen of Scots.

Early Years

Mary Stuart was born on December 8, 1542, in Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian, Scotland. Mary’s father died when she was only six days old, making her queen of Scotland. 

Given that Mary was only an infant, her great-uncle Henry VIII made a bid for control. Her mother, however, ended up acting as regent on Mary's behalf.

Mary was initially betrothed to Henry VIII's son, Prince Edward of England, who eventually became King Edward VI. Scottish Catholics, however, objected to this plan, since England had separated from the Catholic Church. When the match was annulled, England attacked Scotland in raids that became known as "The Rough Wooing."

At the age of 5, Mary was sent to France, where she grew up in the luxurious French court. 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.

Mary, Queen of Scots' Spouses

Mary was married three times, with the last union eventually leading to her downfall.

Francis II, King of France

In 1558, Mary married Francis, the eldest son of French King Henry II and Catherine de Medicis. In 1559, Mary's husband was crowned Francis II, making Mary both the queen of Scotland and France's queen consort. Unfortunately, Francis died from an ear infection the year after he ascended to the throne, leaving Mary a widow at age 18.

Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley

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 Tudor. Her marriage to Darnley also turned Mary's half-brother against her.

Shortly after their marriage, Darnley’s ruthless ambition caused 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. Though she gave birth to their son a few months later, 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.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

In May 1567 Mary consented to marry James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell — the main suspect in her previous husband Darnley’s murder. Over the years, Bothwell had become a close confidant of Mary and was said to exert great influence over her. He also had his own ambitions to become king, and he had abducted Mary and held her captive in Dunbar Castle.

Mary’s scandalous marriage with Bothwell, just three months after Darnley’s murder, made the Scottish nobility rise against her. Bothwell went into exile, where he was ultimately arrested and held captive until his death. Meanwhile, in July 1567, Mary was compelled to abdicate the throne in Scotland in favor of her infant son. She was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle.

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Mary, Queen of Scots' Children

On June 19, 1566, Mary gave birth to the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England. James was Mary’s one and only child, conceived with her second husband, Henry Stewart.

Reign of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart was the Queen of Scotland from her father’s death in December 1542 until she was forced to abdicate the throne to her infant son James in July 1567.

Following her first husband Francis’s death, Mary returned to Scotland from France in 1561. By that time, 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.

Following the mysterious death of Mary's second husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, and her quick marriage to Bothwell, the Scottish nobility rose up against her and compelled her to hand over rule to her son and imprisoned her.

Claim to the English Throne & Imprisonment by Elizabeth I

As the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, Mary had a strong claim to the English throne. Her French father-in-law, Henry II, made this claim on her behalf. However Mary never became the queen of England. 

In November 1558, Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, became Queen Elizabeth I of England following the death of her sister, Mary Tudor. Many Roman Catholics did not recognize the validity of Henry VIII's marriage to Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, and they considered Elizabeth's rule to be illegitimate.

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

Meanwhile, English Catholics plotted to get Mary, a Catholic herself, onto the throne by assassinating Elizabeth. Mary corresponded with one such plotter, Anthony Babington. 

When Elizabeth's spymaster uncovered the letters in 1586, Mary was brought to trial. She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. 

Mary, Queen of Scots' Death

After Elizabeth signed her cousin's death warrant for treason, 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 James I of England, he moved his mother's body to Westminster Abbey in 1612.

Famous Movies About Mary, Queen of Scots

Centuries after her death, Mary continues to be an object of cultural fascination. The 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots starred Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, with Timothy Dalton as Darnley.

In 2013, a Swiss-French movie was made on Mary’s life. And the 2018 movie, Mary Queen of Scots, starred Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth. 

Mary’s life also inspired the 2013 to 2017 television show Reign on The CW.

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