Mary Queen of Scots: unfortunate victim of male politics and Elizabethan intrigue or incorrigible murderess and plotter?
Mary Stuart is a figure who has divided opinion from the very moment of her birth to the present day. Born in 1542, she became Queen of Scotland at the age of just six days. Mary spent much of her adolescence in France, culminating in a brief reign as Queen Consort to Francis II, ending with the latter’s death in 1560. Thus, Mary was a widow at the age of eighteen.
Her mother had died just months before her husband, and with her passing the regency of Scotland had transferred to Protestant reformer John Knox and Mary’s half-brother James Stewart. In 1561, Mary departed for Scotland, where her reign began well enough, but soon become embroiled in political wrangling and religious disagreements, the Queen’s Catholic faith being at odds with the newly-established Protestant religion, although Mary sought to achieve religious tolerance.
The question of suitable suitors for her second marriage soon arose; Mary used her royal prerogative to make her own – most unsuitable – choice in Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her cousin and a fellow-claimant to the English throne; their child would inherit the thrones of England and Scotland in the event of Queen Elizabeth I dying childless. Mary and Darnley were wed in 1565. The marriage proved disastrous – Darnley was vain and self-obsessed, and Mary’s infatuation with him soon waned – and sparked a chain of events that would lead to Mary’s downfall. In 1566, her secretary and favourite, the Italian David Riccio, was dragged from her supper table and stabbed to death by Darnley and a group of nobles. Mary was around six months pregnant at the time, her son, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England, being born in June.
Within a year Darnley had been murdered, strangled to death after escaping an explosion of gunpowder at his dwelling in Kirk o’Field, Edinburgh. Mary and the Earl of Bothwell were both implicated as the perpetrators, their reputations damaged further by the abduction of the former by the latter, and their subsequent marriage in 1567. The two were forced to take up arms against a contingent of rebel nobles, and were defeated at Carberry Hill. Bothwell fled and Mary was little more than a prisoner, conveyed from Edinburgh to the remote castle of Lochleven. Whilst interned there, her infant son was crowned King of Scotland, with her half-brother Moray resuming his role as regent. Mary escaped in 1568, crossing the border and appealing to her cousin Queen Elizabeth for sanctuary in England. In reality, Mary had exchanged one prison for another; she would be incarcerated for the following nineteen years, until her execution in 1587. But that is another story …
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For portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, visit the National Portrait Gallery in London, either in person or on their website
For more information on Mary Queen of Scots, I would recommend Antonia Fraser’s biography, Mary Queen of Scots (1969), available from bookshops or online (such as from Amazon)