Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary Stuart
Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots after François Clouet
Queen of Scots
Reign 14 December 1542 – 24 July 1567
Coronation 9 September 1543
Predecessor James V
Successor James VI
Regent James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran (1542–1554)
Mary of Guise (1554–1560)
Queen consort of France
Tenure 10 July 1559 – 5 December 1560
Spouse Francis II of France
m. 1558; dec. 1560
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
m. 1565; dec. 1567
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell
m. 1567; dec. 1578
James VI of Scotland and I of England
House House of Stuart
Father James V of Scotland
Mother Mary of Guise
Born 8 December 1542
Linlithgow Palace, Linlithgow
Died 8 February 1587(1587-02-08) (aged 44)
Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire
Burial Peterborough Cathedral; Westminster Abbey
Religion Roman Catholic

Mary, Queen of Scots (8 December 1542 – 8 February 1587), also known as Mary Stuart[1] or Mary I of Scotland, was queen regnant of Scotland from 14 December 1542 to 24 July 1567 and queen consort of France from 10 July 1559 to 5 December 1560.

Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scots. She was 6 days old when her father died and she was crowned nine months later. In 1558, she married Francis, Dauphin of France. He ascended the French throne as King Francis II in 1559, and Mary became queen consort of France until she was widowed on 5 December 1560. Mary then returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561. Four years later, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Their union was unhappy and in February 1567, there was a huge explosion at their house, and Darnley was found dead, apparently strangled, in the garden.

She soon married the 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was generally believed to be Darnley's murderer. Following an uprising against the couple, Queen Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle on 15 June and forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son, King James VI. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, Mary fled to England seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth's throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics, including participants in the Rising of the North. Perceiving her as a threat, Queen Elizabeth had her arrested. After 19 years in custody in a number of castles and manor houses in England, she was tried and executed for treason for her alleged involvement in three plots to assassinate Elizabeth.



During the 15th-century reign of King Robert III of Scots, it had been determined that the Scottish Crown was to be inherited only by males in the line of succession of Robert's children—all sons—who were listed in a parliamentary Act. Females and female lines could inherit only after extinction of male lines. Mary ascended to the throne because, with the demise of her father, King James V, Robert III had no remaining male-line male descendants of unquestionably legitimate origins. The Duke of Albany, grandson of King James II of Scots and at one time regent for the young James V, was the last patrilineal male heir of Robert III (other than the King himself) when he died in 1536.

Mary was the first member of the royal House of Stuart to use the Gallicised spelling Stuart, rather than the earlier Stewart. Mary had adopted the French spelling Stuart during her time in France. Her descendants also used the spelling "Stuart", deriving it from the name of her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Childhood and early reign

Mary at the age of thirteen

Mary was born on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, Linlithgow, Scotland, to King James V of Scots and his French second wife, Mary of Guise. She was said to have been born prematurely and was the only legitimate child of James to survive him.[2] A popular legend, written by John Knox, states that James, hearing on his deathbed that his wife had given birth to a daughter, ruefully exclaimed, "It came with a lass, it will pass with a lass!"[3]

The House of Stewart, which originated in Brittany, had gained the throne of Scotland by the marriage of Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce, to Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland. James V thus felt that since the Crown came with a woman, a woman would be responsible for the loss of the Crown from their family. This legendary statement came true much later, but not through Mary, whose son in fact became King of England. Eventually Sophia of Hanover, daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, became the heir to Anne, Queen of Great Britain. Sophia's son, the Elector Georg Ludwig of Hanover, in time succeded as King of Great Britain, replacing the House of Stuart in Britain.

Mary was baptised at the Church of St. Michael, situated close to the palace, shortly after she was born. Rumours were spread suggesting Mary was weak and frail; on 14 December, six days after her birth, her father died following what may have been a nervous collapse following the Battle of Solway Moss, making her now the queen.[2] An English diplomat, Ralph Sadler, saw the infant at Linlithgow Palace in March 1543, unwrapped by her nurse, and wrote, "it is as goodly child as I have ever seen of her age, and as like to live."[4]

As Mary was still an infant when she inherited the throne, Scotland was ruled by regents until she became an adult. From the outset, there were two different claims to the Regency: the next heir, the Earl of Arran, whose claim was based on his hereditary right, and the other from Cardinal Beaton. Beaton's claim was based on an allegedly forged version of the late king's will,[5] so Arran became the regent[6] until 1554 when Mary's mother succeeded him.[7] The young queen was crowned at Stirling in September 1543, with 'such solemnity as they do use in this country, which is not very costly' according to the report of Ralph Sadler and Henry Ray[8]

The Treaty of Greenwich

Coin of 1553: obverse, coat of arms of Scotland; reverse, royal monogram

King Henry VIII of England took the opportunity of this regency to propose England and Scotland be united through the marriage of Queen Mary and his own son, Prince Edward. On 1 July 1543, when Mary was six months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which among other points, promised Mary would be married to Edward. It was Henry's wish that Mary should also move to England where he could oversee her upbringing.[9] However, feelings among the Scottish people towards the English changed when Cardinal Beaton rose to power again and began to push a pro-Catholic and French agenda, which angered Henry who wanted to break the alliance with France and the Papacy. Queen Mary of Guise, with the support of Cardinal Beaton, wanted to move Mary away from the coast to the safety of Stirling Castle. Regent Arran resisted the move, but backed down when Beaton's armed supporters gathered at Linlithgow. The Earl of Lennox escorted Mary to Stirling on 27 July 1543 with 3,500 armed men.[10] On 9 September 1543 Mary was crowned Queen of Scots in the chapel at this castle.[11]

Shortly before Mary's coronation, the occupants of some Scottish ships headed for France were arrested by Henry, who claimed they were not allowed to trade with France even though that was never part of the agreement. These arrests caused anger among people in Scotland. Following this, Arran decided to join Beaton and became a Catholic.[12] The Treaty was eventually rejected by Parliament in December.[11]

This new alliance and the rejection of the treaty caused Henry to begin his rough wooing, designed to impose the marriage to his son on Mary. This consisted of a series of raids on Scottish and French territory and other military actions. It lasted until June 1551, costing over half a million pounds and many lives. In May 1544, the English Earl of Hertford (later created Duke of Somerset by Edward VI) arrived in the Firth of Forth hoping to capture the city of Edinburgh and kidnap Mary, but Mary of Guise hid her in the secret chambers of Stirling Castle.

On 10 September 1547, known as "Black Saturday", the Scots suffered a bitter defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Mary of Guise, fearful for her daughter, sent her temporarily to Inchmahome Priory for a period of three weeks, and turned to the French ambassador Monsieur D'Oysel for help.

The French, remaining true to the Auld Alliance, came to the aid of the Scots. The new French king, Henry II, was now proposing to unite France and Scotland by marrying the little queen to his three-year old son, the Dauphin François. This seemed to Mary of Guise to be the only sensible solution to her troubles. In February 1548, hearing that the English were on their way back, Mary of Guise moved Mary to Dumbarton Castle. The English left a trail of devastation behind once more and seized the strategically located town of Haddington. By June, the much awaited French help had arrived. On 7 July 1548 a Scottish Parliament held at a nunnery near Haddington agreed to a French Marriage Treaty.

Life in France

With her marriage agreement in place, five-year-old Mary was sent to France to spend the next thirteen years at the French court, mainly at Amboise, near Tours. Henry II had offered to guard and raise her. The French fleet sent by Henry II, commanded by Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, sailed with Mary from Dumbarton to Roscoff (or nearby Saint-Pol-de-Léon)[13] in Brittany and arrived on 18 August 1548.[14] She was accompanied by her own little court consisting of two lords, two half-brothers, and the "four Marys", four girls her own age, all named Mary, and the daughters of some of the noblest families in Scotland: Beaton, Seton, Fleming, and Livingston.

Vivacious, beautiful, and clever (according to contemporaneous accounts), Mary had a promising childhood. While in the French court, she was a favourite. She received the best available education, and at the end of her studies, she had mastered French, Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Italian in addition to her native Scots. She also learned to play two instruments and was competent in prose, poetry, horsemanship, falconry, and needlework. She formed a close friendship with her future sister-in-law, Elisabeth of Valois, of whom Mary retained nostalgic memories in later life.[15] Her grandmother Antoinette de Bourbon exerted one of the strongest influences on her childhood,[16] and acted as a principal advisor.

Portraits of Mary show that she had a small, well-shaped head, a long, graceful neck, bright auburn hair, hazel-brown eyes, under heavy lowered eyelids and finely arched brows, smooth lustrous skin, a high forehead, and regular, firm features. While not a beauty in the classical sense, she was an extremely pretty child who would become a strikingly attractive woman. Her effect on the men with whom she later came into contact was that of a beautiful woman.[17]

Although Mary was tall for her age (she attained an adult height of 5 feet 11 inches [1.80 m], especially tall by sixteenth century standards)[18] and fluent in speech, while in contrast Francis, Henry II's son and heir, was abnormally short and stuttered, Henry commented that "from the very first day they met, my son and she got on as well together as if they had known each other for a long time".[19] On 24 April 1558 Mary married the Dauphin Francis at Notre Dame de Paris, Francis assuming the title King consort of Scots.[20] When Henry II died on 10 July 1559, Mary, Queen of Scots, became Queen consort of France; her husband becoming Francis II of France.

Claim to the English throne

Royal arms of Mary, Queen of Scots, France & England; used prior to the Treaty of Edinburgh, (1560).

After the death of Queen Mary I of England, Henry II of France proclaimed his eldest son and his daughter-in-law to be king and queen of England.[21] From this time on, Mary always insisted on bearing the royal arms of England, and her claim to the English throne was a perennial sticking point between Elizabeth I and her, as would become obvious in Mary's continuous refusal to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh. Under the ordinary laws of succession, Mary was next in line to the English throne after her father's cousin, Elizabeth I, who was childless. Yet, in the eyes of many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate, thus making Mary the rightful queen of England. The Third Succession Act, passed in 1543 by Parliament, provided that Elizabeth would succeed Mary I of England on the throne.

The anti-Catholic Act of Settlement was not passed in England until 1701, but the last will and testament of Henry VIII (given legal force by the Third Succession Act) had excluded the Stuarts from succeeding to the English throne. Mary's troubles were still further increased by the Huguenot rising in France, called le tumulte d'Amboise (6–17 March 1560), making it impossible for the French to help Mary's supporters in Scotland. The question of the succession was therefore a pressing one, and under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed by Mary's representatives on 6 July 1560 following the death of her mother, France undertook to withdraw troops from Scotland and recognise Elizabeth's right to rule England. However, the 17-year-old Mary, still in France, refused to ratify the treaty.

Religious divide

Return to Scotland

Mary in mourning for Francis

King Francis II died on 5 December 1560, of an ear infection which led to an abscess in his brain. Mary's mother-in-law, Catherine de' Medici, became regent for the late King's brother Charles IX, who inherited the French throne.

Mary returned to Scotland soon after her husband's death, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561. Despite her talents, Mary's upbringing had not given her the judgment to cope with the dangerous and complex political situation in Scotland at the time.[citation needed] As a devout Catholic, she was regarded with suspicion by many of her subjects, as well as by Elizabeth, her father's cousin. Scotland was torn between Catholic and Protestant factions, and Mary's illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray, was a leader of the Protestant faction.[22] The Protestant reformer John Knox also preached against Mary, condemning her for hearing Mass, dancing, dressing too elaborately, and many other real and imagined offences.[23]

To the disappointment of the Catholic party, however, Mary tolerated the newly established Protestant ascendancy, and kept her half-brother Lord Moray as her chief advisor. Her Privy Council, listed below, was mainly composed of Protestants. In this, she was acknowledging her lack of effective military power in the face of the Protestant lords, while also following a policy which strengthened her alliance with England. She joined with Lord Moray in the destruction of Scotland's leading Catholic magnate, Lord Huntly, in 1562 after he led a rebellion in the Highlands against her.[24]

Mary's Royal arms c.1565, from the Tollbooth in Leith; now in South Leith Parish Kirk.

Mary was also having second thoughts about the wisdom of having crossed Elizabeth, and attempted to make up the breach by inviting Elizabeth to visit Scotland—however, she still would not ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh. Elizabeth refused to visit, and the bad blood remained between them. Mary sent William Maitland of Lethington as an ambassador to the English court to put the case for Mary as a potential heir to the throne. Elizabeth's response is said to have included the words: "As for the title of my crown, for my time I think she will not attain it."[cite this quote] However, Mary, in her own letter to her maternal uncle Francis, Duke of Guise, reports other things that Maitland told her, including Elizabeth's supposed statement: "I for my part know none better, nor that my self would prefer to her."[cite this quote] Elizabeth was mindful of the role parliament would have to play in the matter.

In December 1561, arrangements were made for the two queens to meet, this time in England. The meeting had been fixed for York "or another town" in August or September 1562, but Elizabeth sent Sir Henry Sidney to cancel in July because of the civil war in France. In 1563, Elizabeth made another attempt to neutralize Mary by suggesting that she marry Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (Sidney's brother-in-law and the English queen's own favorite), whom Elizabeth trusted and thought she could control. Lord Leicester was an Englishman as well as a Protestant, so this would have solved a double problem for Elizabeth. She sent an ambassador to tell Mary that if she would marry "some person–yea perchance such as she would hardly think we could agree unto"[25] of Elizabeth's choosing, Elizabeth would "proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir". This proposal came to nothing, not least because the intended bridegroom was unwilling.[26]

Marriage to Lord Darnley

Mary with her second husband, Lord Darnley

At Holyrood Palace on 29 July 1565, Mary married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her first cousin. Both were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England. Darnley was also a member of the House of Stuart/Stewart, as Mary was, but he was not an agnatic descendant of Stewart Kings, but rather of their immediate ancestors, the High Stewarts of Scotland. Darnley shared a more recent Stewart lineage with the Hamilton family as a descendent of Mary of Scotland, a daughter of James II of Scotland. Although both were Catholic, no papal dispensation for the marriage of first cousins was obtained.[27]

Mary had fallen in love with the "long lad" (Queen Elizabeth's words) after he had come to Scotland from England earlier in the year. They first met on Saturday 17 February 1565 at Wemyss Castle.[28] Cecil and Leicester had worked to obtain Darnley's licence to travel to Scotland.[29] Although her advisors had thus brought the couple together, Elizabeth felt threatened by the prospect of such a marriage, because both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne, being direct descendants of Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of Henry VIII.[30] Their children would inherit both parents' claims, and thus have a strong claim to the succession to the English throne. However, Mary's insistence on the marriage seems to have stemmed from passion rather than calculation. The English ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton stated "the saying is that surely she [Queen Mary] is bewitched",[31] adding that the marriage could only be averted "by violence".[32] The union infuriated Elizabeth, who felt she should have been asked permission, as Darnley was an English subject.

This marriage, to a leading Catholic, precipitated Mary's half-brother, the Earl of Moray, to join with other Protestant Lords in open rebellion. Mary set out for Stirling on 26 August 1565 to confront them, and returned to Edinburgh the following month to raise more troops. Lord Moray and the rebellious lords were routed and fled into exile, the decisive military action becoming known as the Chaseabout Raid.

Before long, Lord Darnley became arrogant and demanded power commensurate with his title of "King of Scots".[33] Darnley was jealous of Mary's friendship with her private secretary, David Rizzio, and, in March 1566 Darnley entered into a secret conspiracy with the nobles who had rebelled against Mary in the Chaseabout Raid. On 9 March a group of the lords, accompanied by Darnley, murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Mary while the two were in conference at Holyrood Palace. Darnley changed sides again and betrayed the lords, but the murder had made the breakdown of their marriage inevitable.

Birth of James and Kirk o'Field

Their son James was born on 19 June 1566. It became increasingly clear, that some solution had to be found to "the problem of Darnley".[34] At Craigmillar, there was held a meeting (November 1566) among leading Scottish nobles and Queen Mary. Divorce was discussed, but then a bond was sworn to get rid of Darnley by other means:[35] "It was thought expedient and most profitable for the common wealth,... that such a young fool and proud tyrant should not reign or bear rule over them;... that he should be put off by one way or another; and whosoever should take the deed in hand or do it, they should defend." (Book of Articles)[36] Darnley feared for his safety and went to Glasgow to see his father. There he became ill (possibly of smallpox or syphilis).[37]

In the new year, Mary prompted her husband to come back to Edinburgh. He was recuperating in a house at the former abbey of Kirk o' Field within the city wall of Edinburgh, where Mary visited him frequently, so that it appeared a reconciliation was in prospect. One night in February 1567, after Mary had left for the wedding of one of her maids of honour, Margaret Carwood, to the Avernois, Bastien Pagez,[38] an explosion occurred in the house, and Darnley was found dead in the garden, apparently of strangulation; historian Alison Weir, however, concludes he died of post-explosion suffocation. It turned out that the Earl of Bothwell had supplied the gunpowder for the explosion, and he was generally believed to be guilty of Darnley's assassination. Mary arranged for a mock trial before the Estates of Parliament, and Lord Bothwell was duly acquitted on 12 April.[39] Furthermore, some land titles were restored officially to Bothwell as a result of Darnley's death.[40] He also managed to get some of the Lords to sign the Ainslie Tavern Bond, in which they agreed to support his claims to marry the queen. All these proceedings did little to dissipate suspicions against Mary among the populace.

Abdication and imprisonment in Scotland

Mary depicted with her son, James VI; the two had in fact not seen each other for years.

On 24 April 1567, Mary visited her son at Stirling for the last time. On her way back to Edinburgh, Mary was abducted, willingly or not, by Lord Bothwell and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle, where she was allegedly raped by Bothwell. However, already in October 1566, she had been very interested in Bothwell when she made a four-hour journey on horseback to visit him at Hermitage Castle where he lay ill.[41] On 6 May Mary and Bothwell returned to Edinburgh and on 15 May, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, they were married according to Protestant rites. Bothwell had divorced his first wife, Jean Gordon, twelve days previously.[42]

Originally Mary believed she had the consent of much of her nobles regarding her marriage. However, things soon turned sour between the newly elevated Bothwell (who had been created Duke of Orkney shortly before the marriage and was now the official Consort of the Queen) and his old peers. Thus, the Scottish nobility turned against Mary and the Duke of Orkney (as Lord Bothwell had now become), and raised an army against them. Mary and Orkney confronted the Lords at Carberry Hill on 15 June, but there was no real battle (only a few duels) as Mary agreed to follow the lords, on condition that they let Orkney go.[43] However, the Lords broke their promise, took Mary to Edinburgh and imprisoned her in Loch Leven Castle, situated on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Between 18 July and 24 July 1567, Mary miscarried twins. On 24 July 1567, she was also forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year-old son James.

On 2 May 1568, Mary escaped from Loch Leven and once again managed to raise a small army. After her army's defeat at the Battle of Langside on 13 May, she first fled south into the Dumfries area then by boat across the Solway Firth into England.

Escape and imprisonment in England

Mary landed at Workington in Cumberland in the north of England on 19 May and stayed at Workington Hall. She then went into protective custody, guarded by Elizabeth's officers at Carlisle Castle. During this time, she famously had the French phrase En ma Fin gît mon Commencement ("In my end lies my beginning") embroidered on her cloth of estate.

Mary was moved to Bolton Castle on 16 July 1568, and remained there under the care of Lord Scrope until 26 January 1569, when she was moved to Tutbury Castle.

After her long journey into England, Mary expected Elizabeth I to help her regain her throne. Elizabeth was cautious, and ordered an enquiry into the question of whether Mary should be tried for the murder of Darnley first. A conference was held in York and later Westminster between October 1568 and January 1569. The accusers were the Scottish lords who had deposed Mary, leading them was the regent Moray (her half brother). For overriding political reasons, Elizabeth neither wished to convict Mary of murder nor acquit her of the same; the conference was intended as a political exercise. In the end Moray was allowed to return home to Scotland as its regent and Mary was not.

Mary refused to acknowledge the power of any court to try her since she was an anointed queen, and the man ultimately in charge of the prosecution, the Earl of Moray, was ruling Scotland as regent for Mary's son King James. His chief motive was to prevent a restoration of Mary to the Scottish throne. Mary refused to offer a written defence unless Elizabeth would guarantee a verdict of not guilty, which Elizabeth would not do.

Mary in captivity, c. 1580

As evidence, Mary's Scottish accusers presented the "Casket letters" — eight letters purportedly from Mary to Bothwell, reported by the Earl of Morton to have been found in Edinburgh in a silver box engraved with an F (supposedly for Francis II), along with a number of other documents, including the Mary/Bothwell marriage certificate. The outcome of the conference was that the Casket Letters were accepted by the conference as genuine after a study of the handwriting, and of the information contained therein. Yet, as Elizabeth had wished, the inquiry reached the conclusion that nothing was proven. In hindsight it seems that none of the major parties involved considered the truth to be a priority. James MacKay comments that one of the strangest "trials" in legal history ended with no finding of guilt with the result that the accusers went home to Scotland and the accused remained detained in "protective custody." Other documents scrutinised at this time included the Earl of Bothwell's divorce from Jean Gordon. Moray had sent a messenger in September to Dunbar to get a copy of the proceedings from the town's registers.[44]

In 1570, Elizabeth was persuaded by representatives of Charles IX of France to promise to help Mary regain her throne. As a condition, she demanded the ratification of the Treaty of Edinburgh, something Mary would even now not agree to. Nevertheless, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, continued negotiations with Mary on Elizabeth's behalf.

In 1569, Cecil had unofficially appointed Sir Francis Walsingham to organize a secret service for the protection of the realm, particularly the queen's person. Henceforth, Cecil as well as Walsingham would have many opportunities (and reasons) to watch Mary carefully.

The Ridolfi Plot, which was a plan to depose Elizabeth with the help of Spanish troops and to place Mary on the English throne, caused Elizabeth to reconsider. With the queen's encouragement, parliament introduced a bill in 1571 barring Mary from the throne. Elizabeth unexpectedly refused to give it the royal assent. The furthest she ever went was in 1584, when she introduced a document (the Bond of Association) aimed at preventing a putative successor from profiting from her murder. It was not legally binding but was signed by thousands, including Mary.

Elizabeth considered Mary's designs on the English throne to be a serious threat and so kept Mary in confinement, much of it in Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor, in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his redoubtable wife Bess of Hardwick. Bothwell was imprisoned in Denmark, became insane and died in 1578, in prison, stripped of all his titles.



Mary was put on trial for treason by a court of about 40 noblemen[45] including Catholics, after being implicated in the Babington Plot by her own letters, which Sir Francis Walsingham had arranged to come straight to his hands. From these letters it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. Mary denied this and was spirited in her defence.[46] One of her more memorable comments from her trial was: "Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England".[47] She drew attention to the fact that she was denied the opportunity to review the evidence or her papers that had been removed from her,[48] that she had been denied access to legal counsel[49] and that she had never been an English subject and thus could not be convicted of treason. The extent to which the plot was fabricated by Sir Francis Walsingham and the English Secret Services remains open to conjecture.

In a trial presided over by Sir Thomas Bromley, the Lord Chancellor,[50] and Attorney General Sir John Popham (later Lord Chief Justice), Mary was convicted of treason and was sentenced to beheading.

Although Mary had been found guilty and sentenced to death,[51] Elizabeth hesitated to order her execution. She was fearful of the consequences, especially if, in revenge, Mary's son James of Scotland formed an alliance with the Catholic powers, France and Spain and invaded England. She was also concerned about how this would affect the Divine Right of Kings. Elizabeth did ask Mary's final custodian, Amias Paulet, if he would contrive some accident to remove Mary.[52] He refused[53] on the grounds that he would not allow such "a stain on his posterity."

She did eventually sign the death warrant and entrusted it to William Davison, a privy councillor. Later the Privy Council, having been summoned by Lord Burghley without Elizabeth's knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence at once before she could change her mind.[54]


The scene of the execution, created by an unknown Dutch artist in 1613

At Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, on 7 February 1587, Queen Mary was told that she was to be executed the next day. She spent the last hours of her life in prayer and also writing letters and her will. She asked that her servants be released and that she be buried in France. The scaffold that was erected in the Great Hall was three feet tall and draped in black. It was reached by five steps and the only things on it were a disrobing stool, the block, a cushion for her to kneel on, and a bloody butcher's axe that had been previously used on animals. At her execution, on 8 February 1587, the executioners (one of whom was named Bull) knelt before her and asked forgiveness. According to a contemporaneous account by Robert Wingfield, she replied, "I forgive you with all my heart".[55][56] Her servants, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, and the executioners helped to strip Mary to her red petticoat with red satin bodice trimmed with lace and a pair of red sleeves. Red is the colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, the profession of which constantly endangered her life in the face of the rise of Protestantism. As she disrobed she smiled faintly to the executioner and said, "Never have I had such assistants to disrobe me, and never have I put off my clothes before such a company."[55] She was then blindfolded and knelt down on the cushion in front of the block. She positioned her head on the block and stretched her arms out behind her. Before she died, Fr. John Laux relates in his Church History that her last words were, "My faith is the ancient Catholic faith. It is for this faith that I give up my life. In Thee I trust, O Lord; into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

In Lady Antonia Fraser's biography, Mary Queen of Scots, the author writes that it took two strikes to decapitate Mary: The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head, at which point the Queen's lips moved (her servants reported they thought she had whispered the words "Sweet Jesus."). The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew that the executioner severed by using the axe as a saw. Robert Wingfield recorded a detailed account of the moments leading up to Mary's execution, also describing that it took two strikes to behead the queen. Afterward, the executioner held her head aloft and declared, "God save the Queen." At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand came apart and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had had very short, grey hair.[55] The white chemise that Mary supposedly wore at her execution is displayed at Coughton Court near Alcester in Warwickshire, which was a Catholic household at that time. However, the provenance is doubtful as the design of the chemise is closer to examples worn in the 17th century and contemporary accounts of the execution state that all her clothing was burned to obstruct relic-hunters.

It has been suggested that it took three strikes to decapitate Mary instead of two. If so, then Mary would have been executed with the same number of axe strikes as Essex. It has been postulated that the number was part of a ritual devised to protract the suffering of the victim.[57]

There are several (possibly apocryphal) stories told about the execution. One already mentioned and thought to be true is that, when the executioner picked up the severed head to show it to those present, it was discovered that Mary was wearing a wig. The headsman was left holding the wig, while the late queen's head rolled on the floor.[55] It was thought that she had tried to disguise the greying of her hair by wearing an auburn wig, the natural colour of her hair before her years of imprisonment began. She was 24 when first imprisoned by Protestants in Scotland, and she was 44 years of age at the time of her execution. Another well-known execution story related in Robert Wingfield's first-hand account concerns a small dog owned by the queen, which is said to have been hiding among her skirts, unseen by the spectators. As her dress and layers of clothing were so immensely regal, it would have been easy for the tiny pet to have hidden there as she slowly made her way to the scaffold. Following the beheading, the dog refused to be parted from its owner and was covered in blood. It was finally taken away by her ladies-in-waiting and washed.[55]


When the news of the execution reached Elizabeth she was extremely indignant, and her wrath was chiefly directed against Davison, who, she asserted, had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant. The secretary was arrested and thrown into the Tower. He was later released, after paying a heavy fine, but his career was ruined.[58]

The Casket Letters

James Stewart, Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth, 1561. Mary's half brother and regent after her abdication in 1567, he presented the Casket Letters at the York Conference in 1568.

The so-called Casket Letters are widely believed to be crucial to the issue of whether Mary, Queen of Scots, shares the guilt for her husband Lord Darnley's murder. The letters were said to have been found in a little coffer of silver and gilt said to have been Bothwell's gift to Mary. George Buchanan described the casket as 'a small gilt coffer not fully one foot long, garnished with a Roman letter 'F' under a king's crown.'[59] The original letters were presented at York, by Moray's colleagues George Buchanan, Maitland and James MacGill of Nether Rankeillour. The 4th Duke of Norfolk described them as horrible letters and diverse fond ballads, and sent copies to Elizabeth, saying that if they really were hers they might prove her guilt in the murder of Darnley.[60]

The authenticity of the Casket Letters has been the source of much controversy among historians. It is impossible now to prove the case of the letters' authenticity either way. The originals of the Casket Letters were probably destroyed in 1584 by King James.[61] The copies available in various collections do not form a complete set. The originals were in French; only one French copy exists, the others are contemporaneous translations into Scots and English. The letters are, however, only one detail of the whole problem, and even if they are accepted as fake, this fact in itself does not constitute an "acquittal" of Mary, as long as other aspects of the case are not taken into account.[citation needed]

Mary argued that her handwriting was not difficult to imitate, and it has frequently been suggested either that the letters are complete forgeries, that incriminating passages were inserted before the inquiry of York in 1568, or that the letters were written to Bothwell by some other person. Well-respected biographers of Mary, such as Lady Antonia Fraser, James MacKay and John Guy, have all come to the conclusion that they were forged. Guy has actually examined the Elizabethan transcripts of the letters rather than relying upon later printed copies.[47] He points out that the letters are disjointed. He also draws attention to the fact that the French version of one of the letters is bad in its use of language and grammar. Guy implies that a woman with Mary's education would not write in this way. However, it has also been maintained, that certain phrases of the letters (including verses in the style of Ronsard) and certain stylistical characteristics would be compatible with known writings of Mary.[62]

Another point made by commentators is that the Casket Letters did not appear until the Conference of York in 1568. Mary had been forced to abdicate in 1567 and held captive for the best part of a year in Scotland. There was every reason for these letters to be made public to support her imprisonment and forced abdication. The historian Jenny Wormald believes this reluctance on the part of the Scots to produce the letters, and their destruction in 1584, whatever their content, is a proof that they contained real evidence against Mary.[63]

At least some of the contemporaries who saw the letters at the York Conference had no doubt that the letters were genuine. Among them was the Duke of Norfolk,[64] a later suitor and co-conspirator of Mary. When Queen Elizabeth alluded to his marriage plans with Mary, Norfolk remarked that "he meant never to marry with a person, where he could not be sure of his pillow".[65]


Tomb of Mary at Westminster Abbey
Copy of the Westminster effigy in the National Museum of Scotland

Though Mary has not been canonised by the Catholic Church, many consider her a martyr, and there are relics of her. Her prayer book was long shown in France. Her apologist published, in an English journal, a sonnet which Mary was said to have composed, written with her own hand in this book. A celebrated German actress, Frau Hendel-Schutz, who excited admiration by her attitudes, and performed Friedrich Schiller's "Maria Stuart" with great applause in several German cities, affirmed that a cross which she wore on her neck was the very same that once belonged to the unfortunate Queen.

Relics of this description have never yet been subjected to the proof of their authenticity. If there is anything which may be reasonably believed to have once been the property of the queen, it is the veil with which she covered her head on the scaffold, after the executioner had wounded the unfortunate victim in the shoulder by a false blow (whether from awkwardness or confusion is uncertain). This veil came into the possession of Sir John Coxe Hippisley, who claimed to be descended from the House of Stuart on his mother's side. In 1818, he had an engraving made from it by Matteo Diottavi in Rome and gave copies to his friends. However, the eagerness with which the executioners burned her clothing and the executioners' block may mean that it will never be possible to be certain.

The veil is embroidered with gold spangles by (as is said) the queen's own hand, in regular rows crossing each other, so as to form small squares, and edged with a gold border, to which another border has been subsequently joined, in which the following words are embroidered in letters of gold:

"Velum Serenissimæ Mariæ, Scotiæ et Galliæ Reginæ Martyris, quo induebatur dum ab Heretica ad mortem iniustissimam condemnata fuit. Anno Sal. MDLXXXVI. a nobilissima matrona Anglicana diu conservatum et tandem, donationis ergo Deo et Societati Jesu consecratum."[66]
Mary's personal breviary, which she took with her to the scaffold, is preserved in the National Library of Russia of St. Petersburg.

On the plate there is an inscription, with a double certificate of its authenticity, which states, that this veil, a family treasure of the expelled house of Stuart, was finally in the possession of the last branch of that family, The Cardinal Duke of York, who preserved it for many years in his private chapel, among the most precious relics, and at his death bequeathed it to Sir John Coxe Hippisley, together with a valuable Plutarch, a Codex with painted (illuminated) letters, and a gold coin struck in Scotland during Mary's reign.

The plate was specially consecrated by Pope Pius VII in his palace on the Quirinal Hill on 29 April 1818. Hippisley, during a former residence at Rome, had been very intimate with the Cardinal Duke of York, and was instrumental in obtaining for him, when he with the other cardinals emigrated to Venice in 1798, a pension of £4,000 a year from King George IV of Great Britain, then Prince of Wales. But for the pension, the fugitive cardinal, whose revenues were all seized by the forces of the French Revolution, would have been exposed to the greatest distress.

The cardinal desired to requite this service by the bequest of what he considered so valuable. According to a note on the plate, the veil is eighty-nine English inches long and forty-three broad, so that it seems to have been rather a kind of shawl or scarf than a veil. Melville in his memoirs, which Schiller had read, speaks of a handkerchief belonging to the Queen, which she gave away before her death, and Schiller founds upon this anecdote the well-known words of the farewell scene, addressed to Hannah Kennedy.

"Accept this handkerchief! with my own hand
For thee I've work'd it in my hours of sadness
And interwoven with my scalding tears:
With this thou'lt bind my eyes."[cite this quote]

Privy Council of Mary, 1561

The Privy Council of Scotland retained wide judicial, legislative and administrative powers. Appointed 6 September 1561, following Mary's return to Scotland from France, the council was dominated by the Protestant leaders from the reformation crisis of 1559–1560 and retained those who already held the offices of state. The modern historian, Jenny Wormald, found this remarkable, suggesting that Mary's inaction, rather than appointing a council sympathetic to Catholic and French interest, is an indication of the Scottish queen's focus on the goal of the English throne over the internal problems of Scotland. Even the one significant later addition to the council, in December 1563, Lord Ruthven, was another Protestant whom Mary personally disliked.[67]

The councillors were:



By Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

By James Hepburn

  • Twins which were miscarried.

See also


  1. ^ Also spelled as Stewart
  2. ^ a b Fraser, p. 11.
  3. ^ Oram, Richard (2004), The Kings and Queens of Scotland, Stroud: Tempus, ISBN 075242971X 
  4. ^ Clifford, Arthur ed., Sadler State Papers, Edinburgh (1809), 88, Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543.
  5. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 12.
  6. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 14: Historical Manuscripts Commission, 11th report, part vi. Hamilton Manucripts, (1887), 205, 219–220, prints the disputed will.
  7. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 25.
  8. ^ Arthur, Clifford ed., Sadler State Papers, vol. 1, Edinburgh (1809), 289.
  9. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 15.
  10. ^ Marshall, R. K., Mary of Guise, Collins (1977), 126-130: Merriman, Marcus, The Rough Wooing, Tuckwell (2000), 124-126: Furgol, Edward M., The Scottish Itinerary of Mary Queen of Scots, Proceedings Society of Antiquaries Scotland, vol. 107, (1989), 119-231.
  11. ^ a b Fraser 1978, p. 17.
  12. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 16.
  13. ^ Calendar State Papers Spanish, vol. 9 (1912), 577.
  14. ^ Merriman, Marcus, The Rough Wooings, (2000), 309–10, citing Heulard, Villegagnon, Roi d'Amerique, 41-2.
  15. ^ Fraser 1978, pp. 49–50.
  16. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 42.
  17. ^ Fraser 1978, pp. 88–90.
  18. ^ Fraser 1978, ?
  19. ^ Guy, John (2004), My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, London: Fourth Estate, p. 47, ISBN 184115752X 
  20. ^ "Discours du Grand et Magnifique Triomphe faict du Mariage".  (1558), British Library web presentation: Teulet, A., ed., Relations politiques de la France et de l'Espagne avec l'Écosse au XVIe siècle, vol. 1 (1862, pp. 302-311.
  21. ^ Fraser 1978, pp. 113–115.
  22. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 1 (1898), 216, 18 June 1559 (at Perth iconoclasm).
  23. ^ Knox, John, History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, 4th Book, various editions, e.g., ed. Lennox, Cuthbert, London (1905), 225–337.
  24. ^ Fraser 1978, pp. 220–231.
  25. ^ Chamberlin, Frederick (1939), Elizabeth and Leycester, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., p. 137 
  26. ^ Chamberlin, Frederick (1939), Elizabeth and Leycester, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., pp. 136–164, 445–447 ; Plowden, Alison (1977), Marriage with my Kingdom: The Courtships of Queen Elizabeth I, London: Macmillan, p. 137, ISBN 0333157923 
  27. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, 1911, volume 24, page 446. 2005-10-21. Retrieved 2011-07-04. 
  28. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 2, HM General Register House(1900), no. 147, p. 125: Furgol, Edward, 'Itinerary', PSAS, (1987) C12, see external links.
  29. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 2, HM General Register House(1900), no. 146, p. 124.
  30. ^ G.E. Cokayne; with Vicary Gibbs, H.A. Doubleday, Geoffrey H. White, Duncan Warrand and Lord Howard de Walden, editors, The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant, new ed., 13 volumes in 14 (1910-1959; reprint in 6 volumes, Gloucester, U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 2000), volume I, page 82.
  31. ^ Bingham, Caroline (1995), Darnley: A Life of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots, London: Constable, p. 101, ISBN 0094725306 
  32. ^ Bingham 1995, p. 100.
  33. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), p. 184, Randolph to Bedford, 28 July 1565
  34. ^ Bingham 1995, p. 160.
  35. ^ Bingham 1995, pp. 160–3.
  36. ^ Fraser 1978, pp. 335–6
  37. ^ Syphilis, Medieval Society, 2008-02-22, 
  38. ^ Robertson, Joseph, Inventaires de la Royne de l'Ecosse, Bannatyne Club (1863), ci, note; lxxxvi, note citing Buchanan, George, Detectio Mariae, St Andrews (1572).
  39. ^ Fraser 1978, pp. 373–5.
  40. ^ Fraser 1978, p. 375.
  41. ^ Bingham 1995, pp. 158–9.
  42. ^ Fraser, p. 370.
  43. ^ "Carberry". About Scotland. Retrieved 2009-02-08. 
  44. ^ Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 12, HMSO (1970), 145.
  45. ^ Bede, Cuthbert (1886). Fotheringhay and Mary, Queen of Scots. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. p. 95. 
  46. ^ Bain, ed.,Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. ix, (1915),59–65, 143–145, 309–14.
  47. ^ a b Guy, p. 473
  48. ^ Bede, Cuthbert (1886). Fotheringhay and Mary, Queen of Scots. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. p. 104. 
  49. ^ Smith, Frederick Edwin, Earl of Birkenhead (1926). Famous Trials of History. George H. Doran Company. p. 25. 
  50. ^ "Thomas Bromley". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  51. ^ Bede, Cuthbert (1886). Fotheringhay and Mary, Queen of Scots. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. p. 107. 
  52. ^ Curtis, Thomas (1829). The London Encyclopaedia. XIX. p. 548. 
  53. ^ Smith, Frederick Edwin, Earl of Birkenhead (1926). Famous Trials of History. George H. Doran Company. p. 29. 
  54. ^ Elizabeth's Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the secret war that saved England by Robert Hutchinson
  55. ^ a b c d e "The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots". 
  56. ^ Lewis, Jane Elizabeth (1999) The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots: A Brief History with Documents, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 031221815X, p. 118
  57. ^ For a modern discussion of this see the essay in, "Death, the Scaffold and the Stage..." in "Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture", by Darryll Grantley, Ashgate Publishing ( 25 May 1999).
  58. ^ "ScotlandonTV News report, February 2008: Purchase of Mary Queen of Scots' Death Warrant". 2006-10-24. Retrieved 2009-02-08. 
  59. ^ Robertson, Joseph, Inventaires de la Royne d'Ecosse, Bannatyne Club (1863), lviii, note citing George Buchanan, Detectio, St Andrews (1572)
  60. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. ii (1900), 527, 11 October 1568, Norfolk, Sussex, Sadler to Elizabeth
  61. ^ Bingham 1995, p. 193.
  62. ^ George Malcolm Thomson: The Crime of Mary Stuart Hutchinson 1967 pp.148–153;159–165
  63. ^ Wormald, Jenny, Mary, Queen of Scots, Taurus Parke, (2002), 179-182.
  64. ^ Neville Williams: Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk Barrie & Rockliff 1964 pp.137–139
  65. ^ Neville Williams: Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk Barrie & Rockliff 1964 p.141
  66. ^ "The veil of the Most Serene Mary, Queen of Scotland and France, Martyr, with which she was clothed when she was condemned by the Heretic (sc. Elizabeth I) to a most unjust death, in the Year of Salvation 1586, long preserved by a most noble English lady, and eventually dedicated as a gift to God and the Society of Jesus."
  67. ^ Wormald, Jenny, Mary Queen of Scots, Taurus Parke (2001), 116–120.


  • ed. Dickson & Balfour Paul (1877), Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Edinburgh: HMSO 
  • Bain (1898), Calendar State Papers Scotland, i, ii, ix, Edinburgh: HMSO 
  • Fraser, Antonia (1978), Mary Queen of Scots, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, ISBN 0297775227 
  • Labanov, A. I. (1844), Lettres et Memoires de Marie, Reine d'Ecosse, London: Charles Dolman 
  • Wormald, Jenny (1988), Mary, Queen of Scots, London: George Philip, ISBN 1860645887 

External links

Mary, Queen of Scots
Born: 8 December 1542 Died: 8 February 1587
Regnal titles
Preceded by
James V
Queen of Scots
14 December 1542 – 24 July 1567
Succeeded by
James VI
French royalty
Preceded by
Catherine de' Medici
Queen consort of France
10 July 1559 – 5 December 1560
Title next held by
Elisabeth of Austria

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