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Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland: The Biography

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Sophie Hutton: Tour Research, Development and Admin Assistant

Mary Stuart was the only daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, born inside Linlithgow Palace (seventeen miles west of Edinburgh) on a snow blanketed Friday in December, 1542. Mary succeeded her father, who passed away six days following her birth (historians assert this was a consequence of emotional and physical stress following the Battle of Solway Moss) to become Queen of Scotland.

Mary Stuart dated plaque next to St Micheal's Church, Linlithgow. Source: Personal Image.

In 1543, the Treaty of Greenwich was established, initiating a union between Mary and Edward, Henry VIII’s son, when Mary turned ten years old. The treaty, designed to ensure Scotland and England remained legally separate, was rejected by the Parliament of Scotland and a renewed alliance between France and Scotland was established. Five year old Mary was destined to spend the following thirteen years in the French Court and at the request of King Henry II of France, married the Dauphin Francis at Notre Dame, Paris in 1558. In 1561, following the death of Francis II, Mary arrived in Leith with little knowledge regarding the complex and dangerous political climate in Scotland, which was divided into Catholic and Protestant factions. Scottish Catholics acknowledged Mary Stuart as the legitimate queen of England, in place of Elizabeth I, who succeeded Mary I (Henry VIII’s eldest daughter) under the Third Succession Act in 1558. As a devout Catholic, Mary Stuart faced scrutiny from Protestants including The Earl of Moray and Reformer John Knox, who condemned Mary for attending Mass.

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. Source: Wikimedia.

Mary Stuart was introduced to Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley) in 1561, when he arrived in France to extend the condolences of the Countess and Earl of Lennox (his mother and father), following the death of Francis II. Darnley and Mary were the grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. Whilst it is documented that Mary was in love with Darnley, historians acknowledge an element of calculation: the child of the duo would present a legitimate, combined succession to the English throne. In 1565, Darnley and Mary married at Holyrood Palace and consequently conceived a child. However, Darnley, not content with his position as King consort, demanded the crown matrimonial: a system which would establish Darnley as Mary Stuart's co-sovereign. She declined and their marriage became strained following the death of Mary's private secretary, David Rizzio (rumoured to be the father of Mary's unborn child), who was stabbed to death by Darnley and several conspirators.

Mary delivered Darnley's child, James, in Edinburgh Castle, in 1566. The following year, the bodies of Lord Darnley and his valet were located in the orchard at Kirk o' Field. Though an explosion had occurred, the duo had been smothered and left partially clothed. The Earl of Bothwell, James Hepburn, was levelled with conspiracy to assassinate Darnley, though he denied accountability and was acquitted.

Mary's escape from Loch Leven. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

In 1567, Mary Stuart was coerced by The Earl of Bothwell to seek refuge at his castle in Dunbar, where she was subsequently imprisoned and allegedly raped. Historians contest Mary's willingness to comply with James Hepburn as she consequently married him and named him 'Duke of Orkney' and 'Marquess of Fife'. Mary Stuart was labelled an 'adulteress', who had conspired to smother her husband and was required to abdicate. Bothwell was exiled, whilst Mary was isolated and incarcerated on an island in the centre of Loch Leven. With the aid of George Douglas, Mary fled south and crossed the Solway Firth, with the expectation that Elizabeth I would assist her efforts to regain control.

Elizabeth, however, remained cautious and ordered a commission of inquiry concerning Lord Darnley's death, in which The Earl of Moray dispensed the 'casket letters': eight unsigned letters from Mary Stuart to Lord Bothwell detailing marriage contracts and sonnets, including the alleged admission of conspiracy to smother Lord Darnley. Historians contest the authenticity of the 'casket letters' and Mary denied writing them, insisting that her writing was easy to duplicate. Mary was retained in custody for nineteen years, culminating in the Babington Plot: letter correspondence in which Mary consented to the assassination of Elizabeth I, which was intercepted and deciphered by Sir Francis Walsingham. Mary was relocated to Fotheringhay Castle and placed on trial under 'The Act for The Queen's Safety'. She was convicted and sentenced to death with only one commissioner, Lord Zouche, expressing any form of dissent.

Queen Elizabeth I. Source: Wikimedia.

Mary Stuart was executed on the 8th February, 1587. Prior to this, she pardoned her executioner, stating, 'I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles' and with the assistance of ladies in waiting, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, removed her outer garments to expose a velvet petticoat. Mary's uttered her last sentence, 'in manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum' translating to: 'into thy hands, o Lord, I commend my spirit'. In a botched first attempt, the executioner failed to severe her neck, instead grazing the back of her head. Following the second blow, her head was still connected to her body with gristle. On the final attempt, the executioner hacked the gristle, removed the head and solemnly stated, 'God Save the Queen'.

Engraving on Mary Stuart's Statue, Linlithgow. Source: Personal Image.

Mary Stuart was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. In 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I, Mary's son James became King James I of England (in addition to being King VI of Scotland), and established The Union of The Crowns. In 1612, James VI and I had her body exhumed and placed in the vault of King Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey. During her time in Elizabeth I's custody, Mary embroidered a phrase that historians now consider to be somewhat reflective of her life and memory: 'en ma fin est mon commencement', translating to: 'in the end is my beginning'.

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