Mary Queen of Scots, was born in 1542 and was executed on 1587. It is generally believed that Mary’s execution – ordered by Elizabeth I – was the final reason Philip II needed to launch the Spanish Armada. There are few other figures in Tudor England who had such an eventful life, though for Mary, Queen of Scots, it was to end in tragedy.

drawing portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, age 17
Mary, Queen of Scots, aged 17

Mary’s early life

Mary was Elizabeth I’s cousin. Mary had been brought up as a strict Catholic which put her at odds with the Protestant Elizabeth. Mary’s father, James V of Scotland, died when she was one. At such a young age, the Scottish lords found it difficult to respect her and by 1548, Mary was sent to France for her own safety.

As a young girl, Mary lived in France where she had married the king of France – Francis II. She was fifteen and he was fourteen. Her father-in-law, Henry II, king of France, said of her

“the little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen.”

While in France, Mary lived in luxury travelling from one palace to another. She developed a love of animals – especially dogs – and spent a lot of time learning. She could speak French, Latin, Spanish and some Ancient Greek. Mary could also play the lute with some skill. Her religious teacher was a monk from the priory at Inchmahome in Scotland and she developed very strong views on religion.

Her doting father-in-law, Henry II, had been killed in a jousting accident in 1559. Her mother had died in Scotland in 1560. Her husband, Francis had always been a sickly youth and his death aged sixteen in 1560 surprised no-one but it left Mary a widow at the age of seventeen.  Within just six months she had lost three close members of her family. many say that she never really recovered from this sad period in her life.

After the death of Francis, she wrote a poem about him. One verse is as follows:

“By day, by night, I think of him
In wood or mead, or where I be
My heart keeps watch for one who’s gone
And yet I feel he’s aye to me”

She returned to Scotland as Queen of the Scots aged eighteen in 1561.

Mary’s marriage to Lord Darnley

In 1565, she married her cousin, Lord Darnley, when she was 22. He was very unpopular with the people of Scotland as he was a violent, bad-tempered drunkard. During their marriage, Mary’s secretary was an Italian called David Rizzio. Darnley got it into his head that they were spending too much time together and in 1566, while Mary was entertaining some of her friends in her private rooms, Rizzio, who was a guest at Mary’s supper party, was attacked by a gang including Darnley and stabbed over 50 times. Mary was horrified.

However, in June 1566, Mary gave birth to a baby boy called James. He was to become the king of England when Elizabeth died in 1603. Mary’s marriage with Darnley remained full of stress and she became more and more attracted to the Earl of Bothwell.

On February 9th 1567, Mary and Darnley was at a house called Kirk O’Field. Late in the evening she remembered that she had to see some friends and rode off. Scotland was a very dangerous country in the Sixteenth Century and it would have needed a very brave person to venture out at night without being fully guarded. That night, Kirk O’Field was blown up. Darnley’s body was found in the garden of the house. The explosion had not killed him – he had been strangled.

Mary’s arrest

Just three months later, Mary married Bothwell. He was as disliked as Darnley by the Scots lords and they rose up against Mary. Bothwell escaped to Europe where he died an alcoholic and all but insane. Mary was arrested and held prisoner at Lochleven Castle.

She was made to give up the throne for James, her son. Mary later escaped from her prison and she fled to England where she hoped her cousin, Elizabeth, would look after her. Mary’s logic was twofold. First, Mary was a queen and so was Elizabeth. Mary expected a queen to help a queen. Secondly, Mary assumed that their family ties would prove strong. She could not have been more wrong. At the age of 25, the former queen of Scotland started a lengthy spell in a number of manor houses or castles that were her prison.

Mary pleads with Elizabeth I

Simply by being in England, Mary represented a threat to Elizabeth. Elizabeth had brought what might have passed as religious stability to England. Certainly the religious discord under her half-sister Mary I, had greatly weakened. Elizabeth had a belief that if someone was a Catholic and practiced their beliefs privately and represented no threat to the queen, then she was willing to tolerate their religion. If the Catholics were respectful to the queen and obedient, then Elizabeth could see no reason why they should not be tolerated. The nation greatly benefited from religious stability. Mary, Queen of Scots, threatened this stability. As a Catholic, she might become a focus for all the Catholics who existed in England and a leader for them. In this sense, Mary was a very real threat to Elizabeth.

Another major reason was that there were some who believed that the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had been illegal. Catholics certainly did not recognise Henry’s divorce from the Catholic Catherine of Aragon and there were rumours that Henry had married Anne before his divorce had actually come through. Therefore, if the marriage was illegal, Elizabeth was illegitimate and had no right to the throne. If Elizabeth had no right to the throne, the nearest legal heir to the English throne was Mary, Queen of Scots. Though most people would have found this an absurd idea, it could have acted as an incentive for the Catholics in England to rebel against Elizabeth and put Mary onto the throne. It may also have been a reason for Elizabeth’s advisors to decide that England was better off with Mary dead – though they would need proof to convince a court of law about her guilt.

Elizabeth now hit a problem. Her cousin quite clearly posed problems for her. If Mary was sent back to Scotland, from where she had escaped, she may well have been killed and Elizabeth would not accept that a queen (and family) should be treated in such a way. But by being in England, Mary might act as a spur for Catholics to rebel.

Elizabeth imprisons Mary

Elizabeth’s solution was to keep Mary, Queen of Scots, in prison. For the next 19 years, Mary was kept in safe custody in various castles and manor houses. In all this time, Mary never met Elizabeth.

Mary, Queen of Scots, did not help herself. She made it clear to anybody who would listen, that she felt that she should be the queen of England. In 1570, she received the backing of the pope. This meant that there was no reason why a Catholic should not assassinate Elizabeth because it would not be a sin as the pope had said that Mary should be queen of England. Mary was clearly becoming a major problem for Elizabeth and her advisors.

It took many years for the government to build up a case against Mary – even if such a case actually existed! This work was carried out by Sir Francis Walsingham. His spy network kept a close eye on Mary.

In 1586, a man called Anthony Babington devised a plot to kill Elizabeth, rescue Mary and then see her as the next queen of England. Babington wrote in code to Mary to explain what he was doing. Mary wrote back, stating that she agreed with what he was doing.  Walsingham’s spies intercepted both letters. Babington was arrested and charged with treason. In September 1586, Babington was executed. Now the government had a case against Mary. She was put on trial in October 1586.

Mary’s trial

Mary defended herself well but the judges found her guilty of treason. To the judges, who would not listen to her arguments, she said “You are indeed my enemies”. The reply was “We are the enemy of the enemies of our queen.” The trial lasted just 2 days.

Mary was found guilty of plotting to kill Elizabeth. She was sentenced to death. In February 1587, Mary was given just 24 hours notice that she would be executed the next day.

How strong was the evidence against Mary?

By 1587, she was in poor health and was frail so perhaps she was unlikely to be in any fit state to become involved in a plot against her cousin. Moreover, how did Walsingham’s men manage to find the letter by Mary that was hidden in a beer barrel? Did they know where to look? Did they write it?

Regardless of this, Babington admitted his part in the plot and he admitted that Mary knew about the plot against Elizabeth all along. However, it is almost certain that his confession was as a result of torture.

Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant

Elizabeth hesitated about signing Mary’s death warrant. Eventually she did and Mary was executed at Fortheringhay Castle, 70 miles north of London, on February 8th, 1587. Mary was not allowed to have her chaplain present at her execution.


artist depiction of Mary Queen of Scots' execution
Mary’s execution


Mary’s execution

Mary’s execution was a curious affair. She dressed in scarlet, the colour of martyrdom. She had to be helped onto the scaffold as she was so frail. She spoke her last words in Latin and then putting her head onto the block said “Into your hands, O Lord” three times, again in Latin. It took two goes with the axe to remove her head. When the executioner lifted up her head, he found that he had a wig in his hand and the actual head was still on the scaffold. No-one had known that she had lost her hair. Then her body moved. Underneath her skirt, a small dog, a Skye terrier, was seen. Mary had brought her dog to her own execution…

In 1612, her son and the now king of England, James, brought his mother’s body to Westminster Abbey where she was buried in a magnificent tomb.

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