Reassessing the complicated legacy of the much-maligned Mary Queen of Scots

I have often read and heard critics blaming Queen Mary Stuart (1542-1587, r de facto 1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587) for her perceived lack of ruthlessness and fatal inaction in not moving harshly or swiftly enough against her Protestant enemies in Scotland. While I agree that it would have been ideal had she been able to do these things, practically she never could have realistically hoped to have done so without bathing her kingdom in bloody religious wars. While I naturally would have liked to have seen Knox arrested and either executed or at least permanently exiled as a heretic and traitor, and her brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray tried, attainted, and beheaded as such after the Chaseabout Raid, the reality is that Mary had no large enough power base of her own in Scotland to carry out such justice. She simply had no political support system loyal to her and powerful enough to help her carry out such objectives to solidify her control and weaken or eliminate her enemies.

Had her mother the dowager Queen and Regent Marie de Guise (1515-60) lived just a year longer, to 1561, long enough for Mary to return home and receive command of her mother’s army of French troops, Mary could have had this powerful army at her back and either subdued the Calvinist Lairds of the Congregation, or at least forced them to tolerate Catholicism. Had Marie de Guise died at age 65 (1580) and not 45 (1560), and Mary been able to benefit from her brilliant political insight as a veteran political actor, Queen Mary almost certainly could have kept her throne, in part because Marie de Guise would have strongly pushed for a second French marriage for her widowed daughter and thus the disastrous Darnley marriage and all its problems could have been avoided.

Had Marie de Guise lived longer, and the majority of the Lowland Scots gentry and burghs thus not gone over so strongly to the Calvinist Reformation attempt of 1560, the Reformation could either have been avoided outright, defeated in the early 1560s with Catholic Highlanders’ and French armed support, or partly undone early on in Mary’s personal reign in Scotland. Even if Marie de Guise had died in 1561, with French troop support the young Queen Mary could conceivably have raised the Catholic Highland clans in a bloody religious war to massacre or drive out Lowland Protestant Scots — just as her hated mother-in-law Catherine de Medicis, widow of Henri II and mother of three French kings, did intermittently in France against the Huguenots.

Had Mary done this successfully, she might have kept her throne and even ultimately restored Catholicism in Scotland (allowing, in her characteristic leniency, for some religious toleration for Protestants like the future French king Henri IV de Bourbon) but it bears examining: at what cost could Mary have prevailed? Protestant critics damn her either way — her weakness and lack of ruthlessness enabled Moray and Knox to ultimately triumph and defeat and depose her. Yet what would they say and write had Mary openly defied them, worked to isolate them politically, and ultimately confronted them with arms?

The reality is that this aggressive course of action was never an option for Mary. In 1561, with no French troops to support her and no veteran, experienced politician mother to guide her in governing and establishing effective control over Scotland, the politically weak and isolated Mary, with few trustworthy allies and even less military strength at her disposal, diplomatically and sensibly chose to work toward maintaining an uneasy, fragile peace with Moray and Knox — in other words, with the new pro-English Reformation establishment– instead of risking civil war.

The extreme weakness of Mary’s political position from 1561 can be illustrated by the fact that, in the opening months of her personal reign in Scotland, the Queen’s Catholic chaplains were set upon by a violent Calvinist Edinburgh mob inflamed by Knox’s preaching, and the priests were nearly torn to pieces for the “capital offense” of offering Mass for their Sovereign Queen’s worship. What had been the State religion of Scotland in 1559 was, two years later, banned and outlawed. Thus, only a year after the tenuous, English (and thus, Elizabeth)-backed establishment of the Calvinist Kirk, the young Catholic Queen Mary could barely worship freely in her own country! In this same time period, Mary felt obliged to permit the heretic Knox to lecture her about her “Romish superstitions and idolatry”, and effectively allowed the Calvinist Kirk, her ideological enemy, to shore up its power in the Lowlands. Mary thus, essentially, tragically recognized the brutal Scottish Reformation that had occurred only a year earlier as a fait accompli.

Why did she do this? The Queen clearly felt she had no better or realistic alternatives besides accepting the status quo as she found it. Arriving in Edinburgh after over a decade of exile in France, where she had been queen consort to François II, Mary had no real political power base loyal to her in Scotland in 1561. She was, culturally, a Frenchwoman, and many of her subjects, especially Protestants, regarded her with suspicion as a foreigner. Abroad, Catholic Valois France was now ruled de jure by her young brother-in-law Charles IX, but governed de facto by her hateful mother-in-law the regent Catherine de Medicis, under whom the Guise Catholic League and Huguenots would soon become embroiled in bloody religious wars. To the south, newly-Protestant England under her cousin Elizabeth (previously Catholic under Mary I Tudor, but now once again Anglican since November 1558) had actually worked before Mary’s 1561 return to Scotland to actively undermine the regent Marie de Guise and the Catholic Scottish-French “Auld Alliance”. Elizabeth herself had politically, financially, and intellectually supported the Scottish Reformation and invaded Scotland to weaken Mary’s mother and her French alliance, and thus the English Queen was hardly going to support any attempt by Mary to reimpose Catholicism, restore the Auld Alliance, or weaken the new Protestant Kirk in any way.

Perhaps, by affecting a politique conciliatory approach toward the Lairds and the Kirk til she managed to build up her own political support base to oppose them, Mary hoped to bide her time and ultimately isolate and outmaneuver Moray and outlive Knox and then begin, having raised Prince James as a Catholic, to gradually undo the Reformation. Alas, she never could, and thus it is hardly surprising that the baby James VI’s first regents were his mother’s enemies: his paternal grandfather Lennox, Darnley’s father, and his half-uncle, Mary’s great enemy and half-brother the cunning bastard Moray. The vile Knox preached the main sermon at the baby king’s spurious coronation, which, despite his mother baptizing him a Catholic, was done according to Kirk rites.

Remember, a forced abdication as Queen Mary’s was — signed at knifepoint at Loch Leven castle immediately after she miscarried twins by Bothwell — is completely legally invalid. Thus, from a monarchist perspective, Mary remained the sole and rightful Scottish Sovereign and queen regnant until her equally unlawful execution, a regicide, at Elizabeth’s orders on 8 February 1587.

Protestant critics of Mary from 1567 through to today blame her, also, for not doing enough to punish Rizzio and Darnley’s killers. Again, practically, what could she have done? Her own horrid, feckless husband Darnley actively supported and colluded in the first murder, a murder which seriously endangered Mary’s life as well as her pregnancy with the future James VI. As for the second murder, which Queen Mary was slanderously accused of having either participated in or directed via the forged Casket Letters, the act itself, and her subsequent defense of, likely rape by, and politically disastrous marriage to Bothwell all served the ends of those who wished to overthrow her. Effectively, the Darnley murder enabled her Protestant enemies — chiefly Moray, Knox, and Buchanan — to produce the effective political propaganda — Mary as Jezebel, siren, as adulterer and murderess — needed to further isolate, delegitimize, and ultimately (illegally) depose her by July 1567.

The reality is that sadly, in 1561, Queen Mary, unlike Elizabeth in 1558, had terribly disobedient subjects among the effective leaders of Scotland; their goals and interests were diametrically opposed to her political and literal survival. She returned to her kingdom only a year after the violent Calvinist Reformation, in which many centuries of Roman Catholic religious art, architecture, liturgical and musical patrimony, and local traditions were abruptly destroyed and iconoclastically overturned in the wake of Mary’s mother Marie de Guise’s untimely death.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the new Calvinist de facto rulers of Scotland in power at the time Mary returned to her kingdom in 1561 as the young, widowed queen dowager of France — the Lairds of the Congregation led by Moray and the vile Knox — all had strong and obvious political, ideological, and material interests in toppling her from the throne as soon as possible. Removing Mary would enable the Lairds and their allies in the new Kirk to preserve and strengthen their extremely new, vulnerable Protestant establishment by ensuring that the young Catholic Queen was deposed before she could become powerful enough to undermine or oppose them. This would in turn ensure that her baby son and heir would be raised a Protestant and taught to hate her. James’ long minority would free them to continue to appropriate large sums from the national treasury, especially the vast, illegally and violently acquired, looted wealth of confiscated monasteries, abbeys, stripped cathedrals, shrines, and church benefices.

In hindsight, it certainly seems a shame that Queen Mary did not act swiftly to arrest Rizzio’s murderers and execute them to reestablish a degree of political authority, but one must seriously ask: Who would have obeyed her order to arrest them, and how could she have ensured their conviction? Most of the leading Scots nobles at her court either wanted Rizzio dead, lost nothing by his death, or had actively conspired toward his murder. Probably only Bothwell was personally loyal enough to the Queen to have dared to arrest these murderous lairds, but he, one man without a great clan army at his back, would hardly have been able to deal with all her enemies.

In all seriousness, one must remember that the idea of any armed Englishmen bursting in on Queen Mary Tudor or Queen Elizabeth I dining at supper and holding a gun to her stomach, and proceeding to stab to death one of her closest male friends and advisors was *unthinkable*. The Scottish crown in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply didn’t possess the same level of enforceable political authority as did the English crown, nor did the Scots monarchs enjoy the same kind of personal security, inviolability, or prestige as did the English monarchs after 1485 when Richard III of York fell in battle to Henry VII Tudor at Bosworth Field. From Henry VII’s accession-by-conquest in 1485 to Henry VIII’s death in 1547, England enjoyed over half a century of rule by adult kings who were usually powerful enough to keep their leading nobles under control either through careful patronage and politicking or overt force.

Scotland’s vying noble houses and factions, on the other hand, consistently maneuvered politically to their own ends at the Crown’s expense. While England had its own share of murdered monarchs and forced abdications (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and the princes in the tower including Edward V), in Scotland literally *all* of Mary’s recent predecessors as kings from James I onward had either died in battle (or shortly thereafter) or been murdered. This meant that for most of the fifteenth century and all of the sixteenth, Scotland’s monarchs ascended the throne as infants, with the effective rule of the country in the hands of successive partisan, factional and self-interested regents. After 1485, no English King died in battle or by murder; in contrast, James III was murdered in 1488, leaving his minor son as heir, while James IV himself died in battle at Flodden in 1513. James V thus became King as a babe and himself died of psychological collapse in 1542 following a devastating loss to the English at Solway Moss and the depressing news that his queen had given birth to a daughter.

Mary’s paternal forebears James I and James III had both been murdered, while both her father James V and grandfather James IV came to actually rule only after long, highly factional, divisive, and partisan minorities. Thus, compared to her English paternal great-uncle Henry VIII and her cousins Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, as Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart simply didn’t have a comparable level of actual, real command over Scots nobles, nor of practical political power and enforceable royal authority, as did these English sovereigns over their nobles.

It is true that Moray and Elizabeth’s chief Privy Councilor Cecil were essentially working in tandem to orchestrate every aspect of Mary’s eventual downfall, and profiting from and exploiting her political missteps (chiefly marrying Darnley, not executing Moray, and sparing and then marrying Bothwell). Had Mary done the sensible thing and left Scotland for France in 1568, she likely would have lived in comfortable retirement on her dower estates into old age, perhaps remarried to a rich, powerful French prince or become an abbess like her aunt Renee. Had she done the latter, she would have certainly died in her bed. Had she done the former, she perhaps might have launched an armed attempt to retake her throne with eventual French or Spanish military and financial support. She may well have been successful at retaking Scotland and reclaiming her throne, especially in the 1570s when James was still young and his regents divided among themselves. Yet by 1568, when confronted with the life-altering decision of where to flee, Mary had few allies still in power in France: the hostile Catherine de Medicis remained in effective control and offered her no real support, and the Queen Regent viewed Mary’s powerful Guise family as just as dangerous to her sons’ crown as the Huguenots. Thus, a French welcome for the exiled Mary was hardly guaranteed in 1568, and, had Mary sailed for France, she could potentially have faced house arrest or internal exile on Catherine’s orders. The other alternative was of course the one Mary ultimately chose to take: England, and Elizabeth. Why did she make this decision which, in hindsight, seems so fatal?

Perceptions of a man or woman’s honor meant a great deal in early modern Europe, and a person’s honor was held to reflect on their family’s status, dignity, and prestige (hence why Scots law and custom at the time obliged a rape victim — such as Mary probably was — to marry her attacker). This prioritization of honor was especially the case among kings and queens and great nobles; note that this valuing of honor does not mean that all rulers and nobles actually *were* truly virtuous and honorable, but that they all felt they had to be *seen* as such in order to maintain their prestige and dignity. Hence why at the height of the Darnley murder scandal, Elizabeth repeatedly wrote to Mary expressing her grave concern for Mary’s life, but especially for her honor — -her reputation which had been so sullied by the rumors of her alleged complicity in her husband’s murder. Thus, in 1568, Mary could not possibly have conceived that her own flesh and blood, her friendly sister monarch Queen Elizabeth, was capable of being so deceitful as to first detain and then ultimately imprison her once she arrived in England seeking assistance to regain her lost throne. Elizabeth’s audacious actions toward Mary– refusing to see her in person, keeping her detained in northern castles, staging a stacked hearing to purportedly determine the authenticity of the Casket Letters, and ultimately holding her sister queen prisoner — not just Elizabeth’s ultimate decision to bring Mary to trial and execute her — outraged Catholic Europe at the time precisely because they were seen as being so dishonorable.

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The Evolving Power of Tudor and Stuart Royal Women, 1485-1603

Here is a paper idea which I will develop and expand upon once I graduate at the end of this semester and have more time (I am currently in the midst of final papers and exams):

The Evolving Power of Tudor and Stuart Royal Women, 1485-1603: A three-generational development from securing dynastic alliances through marriage, to ruling as regents, to reigning as Queens Regnant.

When Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir, took the English throne from Richard III by right of conquest at Bosworth Field in 1485, it was unthinkable to anyone in England or Continental Europe that less than 70 years later his granddaughter Mary would be ruling as England’s first crowned Queen regnant. Henry VII soon realised that a dynastic marriage with Princess Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV’s daughter by Queen Elizabeth Woodville, was essential to legitimising his tenuous grasp on the throne. Insisting on his right to the throne by blood and conquest, Henry deliberately had himself crowned and anointed as monarch *before* marrying Elizabeth, who received her own coronation and anointing as consort after their wedding.

That Elizabeth of York was crowned in a ceremony separate from and *after* her husband, in the French manner, signified that she was no monarch in her own right, despite being the Yorkist heir to the throne. In having himself crowned as King without a queen consort beside him — a queen who was the sole-surviving daughter and therefore the heir of a King — Henry VII sought to emphasise that his claim on the throne did not depend on his marriage to the Yorkist heiress, but instead that his marriage to Elizabeth served only to bolster his right to rule as King over a reunified England.

While some Yorkists continued to view Elizabeth as England’s rightful monarch, none of the many rebellions against Henry VII were done in her name or with the aim of deposing him to install her as monarch in his place. Instead Yorkist pretenders were invariably male, often claiming to be one of the Yorkist “princes in the Tower” — Elizabeth’s brothers — allegedly murdered by their uncle Richard III after Edward IV’s death. Elizabeth never pressed the matter or seems to have regarded herself as rightful queen regnant. Instead, she became a popular, model queen consort, renowned for her piety, courtly demeanor, and quickly producing a succession of heirs. She died on her thirty-seventh birthday, like so many queens consort before and after her, of childbed fever, devastating Henry and their young children.

While Elizabeth seems to have meekly accepted her status as consort, her formidable mother-in-law, Henry’s mother the widowed countess Margaret Beaufort, insisted on walking only a half-pace behind her daughter-in-law. Since Margaret had never been married to a king, she was not actually a dowager queen, so to solve the issue of how to treat her and what her status was, she received the unprecedented title of “My Lady the King’s Mother” and was treated in all respects as if she was a dowager queen, second in rank only to her son’s wife. Despite that her only son was King, Margaret viewed herself as the Lancastrian heiress. Seeing herself as somehow sharing in her son’s authority, she signed her letters during his reign as “Margaret R”, for Regina. Outliving Henry, Margaret insisted on planning much of her grandson Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s wedding and coronation, dying shortly thereafter.

While Elizabeth and Margaret were both married for primarily dynastic reasons and valued above all for their giving birth to sons and heirs, only a generation after their deaths two of their (respectively) son and grandson Henry VIII’s queens — both Catherines — would govern England as regents during his absences while at war with France.

Catherine of Aragon, the pious Catholic, highly intelligent, and capable daughter of King Fernando of Aragon and Queen Isabel I of Castile, “los reyes catolicos”, served as Regent during her husband Henry VIII’s absence in 1513 as he led an invasion of France to press his claim to the French throne. James IV, King of Scots and Henry’s brother-in-law, invaded England with an army in Henry’s absence. Despite being pregnant, Catherine, following in her parents’ footsteps, quickly raised an army to confront the Scots at Flodden. She addressed the English troops herself, who then proceeded to annihilate the Scottish army, killing King James and the flower of the Scots nobility in battle. Far from downplaying her role in the conflict, Catherine sent her husband James’ bloodstained cloak as a macabre sign of her victory, a victory achieved for Henry and in Henry’s name, but in Henry’s absence. Thirty years and five wives later, in 1545, Henry appointed his intelligent, pious Protestant and twice-widowed sixth queen, Catherine Parr, as regent in his absence as he sought to relive the glory days of his youth with another invasion of France. While Henry’s forces managed to capture the strategic fortified city of Boulogne, Catherine calmly and diligently administered the kingdom’s affairs. She constantly wrote Henry for his advice, but this did not mean that she only followed his instructions during her regency.

The powerful example of early and mid-sixteenth century female regencies under Henry’s two queens undoubtedly paved the way for the acceptance, in 1553 and 1558, of England’s first two queens regnant, Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Catherine of Aragon certainly would have told her daughter, the future Mary I, about her regency, while Catherine Parr’s regency influenced the young future Elizabeth I as an example of women ruling effectively in a king’s absence. Likewise, while 1513 and 1545 saw English queens consort govern as regents, the Continent already had a long history of women regents and several notable precedents for queens regnant in Spain, Hungary, Sicily, Navarre, and Poland.

Tying in Mary Queen of Scots, I would posit that Mary could have, had she stayed in Scotland — instead of being sent to France as a child where she was trained to be the future French queen consort rather than rule as the Scottish Queen in her own right — received a thorough training in rulership from two sources, her paternal grandmother and her mother. James V’s mother, Mary’s grandmother, Queen Margaret Tudor, Henry VII’s daughter and Henry VIII’s older sister, married James IV in a grand alliance between “the thistle and the rose” in 1503. She ruled as regent in several tumultuous tenures following James IV’s death at Flodden in 1513. Mary’s own mother Marie de Guise, James V’s widow, ruled Scotland effectively as regent while Mary grew up at the French court. Mary’s rather weak, disastrous approach to ruling Scotland shows the clear impact of her political and educational formation as a future French queen consort, not a queen regnant, as well as her lack of benefitting from her mother and grandmother’s examples as regents. In contrast, both Mary I and Elizabeth I of England received thoroughly more “masculine” educations in politics and statecraft typical of Renaissance princes trained to rule.

Reflections on a superb article on the differing childhoods of rival queens Mary and Elizabeth

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn, a fascinating website maintained by controversial feminist author Susan Bordo and her former research assistant Natalie Sweet, republished this incisive short article by Conor Byrne, a graduate of the British University of Exeter, who maintains a superb blog here.

I would urge you to read Mr Byrne’ essay in its entirety. It is very well done. I offer but one small correction to this otherwise excellent article:

Byrne writes that
John Knox, the vehement Scottish Protestant preacher, opined in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, attacking the rule of female monarchs such as Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise and published in 1558, that female rule was contrary to Biblical law.
Knox did indeed write this 1558 polemical treatise, which he published in exile at Geneva, arguing that, as Byrne notes, “female rule was contrary to Biblical law”. The treatise was all well and good for him when Scotland and England were both ruled by Catholic queens he despised, but in November 1558 his enemy Mary Tudor, first queen regnant of England, died, leaving her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as monarch. While Elizabeth should have been a natural political ally to Knox, she took tremendous umbrage at his scathing treatise, which has the worst possible timing of release, and refused to treat with him. Mr Byrne’s one error here is his description of Mary of Guise as a “monarch” alongside England’s first queen regnant, Mary I Tudor.
While it is common enough to refer to both a king and his queen consort as “monarchs”, this is factually incorrect. In a royal marriage, the monarch is the sovereign, he or she to whom the throne has passed and in whom sovereignty resides. His or her consort is the royal spouse, the husband or wife of the monarch. The indomitable Queen Marie de Guise (1515-1560), a widow before her second marriage to the also widowed King James V of Scots (1512-1542) and mother to Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), was not a monarch, a queen regnant in her own right. She was a queen consort as the wife of her sovereign husband and then, after his December 1542 death when their only surviving daughter Mary as only six days old, Marie de Guise remained a dowager queen of Scotland and Queen Mother (the mother of the reigning monarch) until her own death in 1560.
Born to Claude de Guise (1496-1550), duc de Lorraine, and his intelligent wife Antoinette de Bourbon (1493-1583), in 1534, at 18, Marie married Louis II d’Orléans (1510-37), duc de Longueville and comte de Dunois (1). Theirs was a happy marriage, but short-lived; the Duke did in 1537, leaving Marie a young, pregnant widow (she had given birth to a son, Francois, in October 1535, and after Louis’ death gave birth to a son, Louis, who lived for only four months). (2)
Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots, and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise.

Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots, and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise.

Beautiful stone engraving showing Marie de Guise's coat of arms as Queen (consort and then regent) of Scotland. She is referred to as Maria of Lorraine because she was born in Lorraine, where her father Claude was Duke and Head of the House of Guise. Her arms and those of Lorraine are quartered with the Scottish royal lion, her husband and daughter's royal standard.

Beautiful stone engraving showing Marie de Guise’s coat of arms as Queen (consort and then regent) of Scotland. She is referred to as Maria of Lorraine because she was born in Lorraine, where her father Claude was Duke and Head of the House of Guise. Her arms and those of Lorraine are quartered with the Scottish royal lion, her husband and daughter’s royal standard.

Marie married James V of Scots, Henry VIII’s nephew, in May 1538. Prior to this triumph, when the widowed Henry was looking for a new queen after Jane Seymour’s death, he sent representatives to propose marriage to the widowed Marie, then the dowager duchess of Longueville. Marie was all too aware of the fate that had befallen Anne Boleyn less than two years earlier. Anne had quipped before her May 1536 execution that the Calais swordsman should find beheading her easy because “I have a little neck”. Keeping this in mind, Marie responded to the King’s envoys with words that must have mortified them: “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck”. (3)
After her husband’s premature death following his nervous collapse in the wake of the decisive English defeat of the Scots at Solway Moss, Marie struggled to keep her infant daughter safe from various conspiracies that sought to control the baby queen regnant and, thus, to control Scotland through her. (4) After initially being excluded from power, Marie de Guise governed in her daughter’s stead as the official Regent of Scotland from 1554-60 with strong French support against the English who had been attacking Scotland since late 1543. (5) Marie insisted on being personally present to watch the siege at Haddington, and was nearly killed when English cannons fired upon the Scottish position, killing many in her entourage. (6). Under Henry VIII’s ‘Rough Wooing’, the English devastated Scotland, seeking to force the young Queen Mary to be sent to England and marry Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, uniting Scotland and England with Edward as king of both kingdoms (the opposite of what ended up happening in 1603 when Marie de Guise’s grandson James VI inherited the English throne as James I). Scotland’s reigning Queen regnant was just a child at the time, and Marie strategically sent her daughter to France in August 1548 to marry into and secure an alliance with the royal Valois House of France to strengthen then-Catholic Scotland’s position with the French against the English. (7). Henry VIII, who had twice sought Marie’s hand in marriage, was furious: he had earned the hatred of the Scots and his sought-after prize, his great-niece the child Queen Mary, had eluded him and gone to ally with France, his main rival.
In 1558-59 — right when Marie’s daughter Queen Mary married the Dauphin Francois of France and became, in 1559, queen consort of France — violent Calvinist-inspired iconoclastic mobs began destroying and ransacking Catholic shrines and churches across Scotland. (8) Popular anger linked the Queen Regent’s French political and military support — including the presence of French troops in key bastions — with anti-Catholic sentiment, and the ‘Lairds of the Congregation’, a group of leading Protestant lords, sought English support from Elizabeth I to remove Marie de Guise from power. Elizabeth’s natural religious sympathies and political desire to see a Protestant Scotland free of French Catholic soldiers were buttressed by her her offence at Mary, Queen of Scots’ naive provocation of quartering her and her husband Francois’ royal arms with those of England after Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558. Henri II of France, Mary’s father-in-law, had publicly proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law King and Queen of England, since most Catholics regarded the Scottish queen regnant as the rightful heir to the English throne after Mary Tudor, seeing Elizabeth as unacceptable due to her bastard status and her religion.
Portrait of James Stewart (Stuart), Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots' son, from her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Portrait of James Stewart (Stuart), Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots’ son, from her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Despite the Queen Regent’s best attempts to suppress it, the Calvinist-inspired Scottish Reformation was underway with strong English support; Marie de Guise combated it diligently, even offering a degree of religious toleration in the Articles of Leith as a means to avoid further bloodshed. (9). Bolstered by French arms, the Queen Regent maintained control of most of the key Scottish fortresses, and by late 1559 the Protestants were dreading their imminent defeat. Despite Elizabeth sending an English fleet to the Firth of Forth in January 1560, temporarily forcing the French to withdraw to Leith, Marie retained control of Edinburgh Castle and, with it, the Scottish capital. (10).
By early spring, however, Marie’s health began to fail: she succumbed to dropsy (edema), with which she diagnosed herself, in June 1560, devastating her daughter in France, whose husband, the frail King Francois, would die in December, leaving Mary a bereft widow just before her eighteenth birthday. Some of Marie’s French and Scottish Catholic supporters believed she had been poisoned on either Queen Elizabeth’s orders or by her late husband’s Protestant illegitimate son James Stuart, the Earl of Moray (who ultimately cooperated and helped organise her daughter Mary, his half-sister’s, forced abdication in 1567, ruling Scotland as regent afterward ). Most modern historians believe Queen Marie died of natural causes (dropsy/edema). As per her wishes, after the situation began to stabilise in Scotland, Marie’s remains were removed from Edinburgh Castle and transported to France, where in March 1561 the Scottish Queen, by then already widowed and thus a dowager queen of France, attended her mother’s June funeral along with a host of Guise relatives and French royalty. Marie de Guise was buried at the Convent of Saint Pierre in Reims, where her sister Renée was abbess.
Compared to her own politically ineffective daughter, Marie is generally regarded as a much more effective and capable ruler in Scotland. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots’ immensely tragic life was that her mother sent her to France for her own safety from the English, and thus Mary did not have the enormous political education of growing up close to her politically capable mother and seeing her govern Scotland with wisdom, fortitude, and, when needed, the ruthlessness which Mary herself never proved able to use in wielding power. Whereas her cousin and rival Queen Elizabeth grew up witnessing the example of her father’s sixth queen Catherine Parr serving as regent in England during Henry’s last French campaign (and thus Elizabeth developed a powerful personal and psychological impression of women’s capabilities at ruling in their husbands’ absence), Mary instead grew up at the Valois French court where all political power derived either from a very much male king (the womanising Henri II) or from women’s ability to clandestinely influence their husbands or lovers (especially the strong influence exerted over Henri’s long-term official mistress, Diane de Poitiers). Thus, while Mary showed a willingness to refer in her numerous letters to her “absolute” status as a queen regnant, she never seems to have learned how to effectively wield power and establish herself as supreme or even predominant over Scotland’s factious noble clans who were even more riven by the Catholic-Protestant religious divide. As I expand upon in my essay here, Mary was never able to conceptualize her own power apart from that which a husband could give her; in contrast, Mary’s own mother, like Elizabeth, learned firsthand the reality of what it meant to exercise power in the absence of a husband.

Apart from her bitter enemy Knox, the preeminent leader of the Scottish Reformation, historians have generally regarded Marie de Guise favourably. Historian Rosalind K. Marshall says that “her biographers, Strickland in the nineteenth century, McKerlie and Marshall in the twentieth, [have] been unanimous in praising her intelligence and fortitude”. In evaluating her life, Marshall observes that:

Sacrificing her own comfort, interests, and ultimately her life, Mary of Guise had fought a long, desperate, and, in the end, hopeless struggle to preserve Scotland as a pro-French, Roman Catholic nation for her daughter….Charming, highly intelligent, and hard-working, with a diplomatic manner and an ability to fight on regardless of hostility, disappointment, and ill health, Mary was never merely a pawn of the French king.

End Notes:

  1. Wood, Marguerite, ed., Balcarres Papers: The French Correspondence of Marie de Lorraine, vol. 1, Scottish History Society (1923), p. 228, c. 1542.
  2. Marshall, Rosalind K, Mary of Guise, Collins, (1977), 36–39: Wood, Marguerite, ed., Balcarres Papers, vol. 1, SHS (1923), 1.
  3. Fraser, Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots, Weidenfield & Nicholson, (1969), 7.
  4. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 9 (1911), 195.
  5. Ritchie, Pamela, Mary of Guise, Tuckwell Press, Ltd. (2002), 94
  6. Calendar of State Papers Spain, vol. 9 (1912), 569: Teulet, A., ed., Relations politiques de la France et de l’Espagne avec l’Écosse au XVIe siècle, vol. 1 (1862), 220-221
  7. Marshall, Mary of Guise, 175.
  8. Ritchie, Pamela, Mary of Guise, 205–207.
  9. Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: the Story of a Nation (New York: Grove Press, 2000) p. 337.
  10. Ibid.

Further Reading (besides the sources above):

  • Lee, Patricia-Ann (1990). “A Bodye Politique to Governe: Aylnter, Knox and the Debate on Queenship”. The Historian 52 (2): 242. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1990.tb00780.x.
  • Healey, Robert M.; et al. (1994). “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (2): 371–386.doi:10.2307/2542887. JSTOR 2542887.
  • Fitzsimmons, Tracy (2000). “A Monstrous Regiment of Women? State, Regime, and Women’s Political Organizing in Latin America”. Latin American Research Review 35 (2): 216–229. JSTOR 2692141.
  • Brammall, Kathryn M. (1996). “Monstrous Metamorphosis: Nature, Morality, and the Rhetoric of Monstrosity in Tudor England”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1): 3–21. doi:10.2307/2544266. JSTOR 2544266.
  • Richards, Judith M. (1997). “‘To Promote a Woman to Beare Rule’: Talking of Queens in Mid-Tudor England”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1): 101–121. doi:10.2307/2543225. JSTOR 2543225.
  • Felch, Susan M. (1995). “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 26 (4): 805–822.doi:10.2307/2543787. JSTOR 2543787.
  • Kyle, Richard G. (1988). “The Church-State Patterns in the Thought of John Knox”. Journal of Church and State 30 (1): 71–87. doi:10.1093/jcs/30.1.71.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Marie of Guise, Queen of Scotland”. The Freelance History Writer. 1 October 2012. Accessed 11 November 2015.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Antoinette of Bourbon, Duchess of Guise”. The Freelance History Writer. 17 May 2013. Accessed 11 November 2015.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Claude, Duke of Guise”. The Freelance History Writer. 24 August 2012. Accessed 11 November 2015.

A Rivalry in Letters: Mary and Elizabeth

Video et taceo.

-Elizabeth I’s motto (“I see and keep silent”).

Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end.

-Mary Queen of Scots’ last words to her servants, 8 February 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I’s letters to each other were their only sources of communication. They remain to this day historians’ most insightful and formative sources on the quarter century-long rivalry between the two queens, as they show how Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship changed and their enmity developed over time. They reveal fascinating insights into the two cousins and rivals’ personalities, and above all else, their fundamentally different approaches to their respective positions as two queens regnant living on the same isle with a claim to the same throne. The manner in which they wrote to each other, especially their choice of words and language, reflects the profoundly different and evolving approaches these two women employed in communicating to each other over time and, more broadly, in seeking to control the circumstances in which they found themselves. Above all, their letters serve as invaluable evidence of the shift in the queens’ attitudes to each other from youthful rivalry, to a brief period of sisterly solidarity, to profoundly hostile confrontation toward the end of their quarter century-long correspondence. Without the evidence these letters provide, historians would have only the testimony of those who knew the queens, and not the crucial words of the queens themselves, to piece together a contextual framework for Mary and Elizabeth’s evolving rivalry.

Mary, Queen of Scots painted around the age of 18 or 19 during her first widowhood (after Francis II of France's 1560 death).

Mary, Queen of Scots painted around the age of 18 or 19 during her first widowhood (after Francis II of France’s 1560 death).

Elizabeth I, aged 26, in this 1560 portrait by Clopton. (C) British Museum, London.

Elizabeth I, aged 26, in this 1560 portrait by Clopton. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London.

Whereas Mary (1542-1587), the more passionate of the two women, is direct, emotional, and often uses either pleading or accusatory language depending on the situation, her cousin Elizabeth (1533-1603) is more circumspect, usually dispassionate in tone, and often gives admonishing words of caution or paternalistic, almost sisterly advice. The two queens’ rivalry emerges in four distinct stages. The first key turning point in their correspondence was 1567, when Mary’s second husband and cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was murdered and Mary soon after married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the man suspected of killing Darnley. Mary’s overthrow by the Scottish Protestant lords and her impetuous flight to England to seek Elizabeth’s assistance in 1568 marks the second turning point, and 1580—when Mary’s son James VI betrayed his mother and entered into an alliance with Elizabeth, her captor—the third. By the end of their quarter century-long correspondence in fall of 1586, with Mary informed that her cousin would soon likely sign her death warrant, the tone of their exchange takes on a remarkably hostile direction, which is the fourth turning point.

Astonishingly, by the end of their correspondence, Elizabeth would directly and explicitly accuse Mary of plotting against her life, while Mary would hauntingly remind Elizabeth that she would face a dreadful eternal reckoning should she choose, as Elizabeth ultimately did, to sign the death warrant and execute her cousin and fellow queen. Ultimately, as in their lifelong rivalry, the two queens’ letters to each other reveal no clear winner, but instead, through the medium of these letters, we are left to wonder at the complex personalities of these two rival monarchs. What is certain is that, without these letters, we would have only the conjecture and prejudiced opinions of the two queens’ senior advisors and ministers to attempt to piece together a fuller picture, a picture the letters are thus indispensable in constructing. The letters confirm and solidify the oft-repeated historical record that Mary was first and foremost a woman and only then a monarch, morphing during her English captivity from a desperate femme fatale into a would-be-martyr, while Elizabeth emerges as first and foremost a monarch who only then allowed herself to be a woman, always subordinating her personal wishes to her political instincts.

Elizabeth I painted in her coronation robes on 15 January 1559. She ascended to the throne on 17 November 1558 upon her half-sister Queen Mary I Tudor's death.

Elizabeth I painted in her coronation robes on 15 January 1559. She ascended to the throne on 17 November 1558 upon her half-sister Queen Mary I Tudor’s death.

Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry begins over a confrontation between the two queens in the year 1558, rooted in the two different destinies their lives took when Elizabeth became Queen and Mary married her first husband, Dauphin Francois of France. The conflict was one of status and title centering on Mary’s naïve acceptance of her father-in-law’s decision to claim the thrones of England and Ireland in her name, a decision that both outraged and disconcerted Elizabeth. Upon learning of Mary I of England’s death, Henri II of France immediately proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law King and Queen of England and Ireland, since, in the eyes of Catholic Europe, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn, was illegitimate, and Mary, Queen of Scots was now the rightful Queen of England.[1]

The young Mary, only 15 at her marriage, seems not to have understood how deeply she offended her older cousin Elizabeth by allowing her father-in-law Henri II and her Guise uncles “to claim the title Queen of England and Ireland for the house of Valois, and quarter Mary’s arms with those of France, Scotland and England.”[2] Although, Jane Dunn points out, “this act of acquisitiveness was not initiated by Mary, her acceptance and overriding pursuit of it altered her destiny forever”[3] and made Elizabeth view her from her accession as a serious rival for her throne. Dunn notes that Mary’s assumption of the royal arms of England in November 1558 “gave her a compelling idea of herself as rightful heir to the English throne, an aspiration she maintained throughout her life.”[4] From the moment Mary first imagined herself as Queen of England, the two cousins and sister queens were set upon an inevitable rivalry that ultimately would end only with Mary’s death.

Mary, Queen of Scots sketched by French royal portraitist Francois Clouet in 1558 shortly before her wedding to Francis, Dauphin (Crown Prince) of France, son of Henri II.

Mary, Queen of Scots sketched by French royal portraitist Francois Clouet in 1558 shortly before her wedding to Francis, Dauphin (Crown Prince) of France, son of Henri II.

Elizabeth first refers to Mary politely in the first peace treaty she signed during her reign, a treaty with France and Scotland (then governed by Mary’s formidable mother, the Scottish Queen Mother and Regent Marie de Guise, sister of France’s powerful Guise brothers).[5] In asserting that Mary was not Queen of England, Elizabeth deliberately chose diplomatic language in defending her own claim to be England’s rightful monarch. She tactfully accepted “that the title to this kingdom injuriously pretended in so many ways by the Queen of Scotland has not proceeded otherwise than from the ambitious desire of the principal members of the House of Guise”[6], Mary’s uncles. Elizabeth, in an almost chiding tone, went on to patronize the young Mary and her husband Francois for their youthful error in claiming what she asserted was her rightful title: “the King, who by reason of his youth…the Queen of Scots, who is likewise very young…have [not] of themselves imagined and deliberated an enterprise so unjust, unreasonable, and perilous”[7] as to brazenly quarter their arms with England’s.

Thus, as early as 1558, we have evidence that Mary claimed to be the rightful Queen of England. While her claims unnerved Elizabeth, at this stage the rivalry between the two queens seems more indicative of a youthful concern for status and image which, while not unserious, was a far cry from the verbal valedictory broadsides the queens would ultimately launch at each other before Mary’s execution.

When, in December 1560, aged only sixteen, Mary’s husband Francois died, leaving her a widow at 17, the stage was set for Mary and Elizabeth’s first serious confrontation.[8] Within several months, after experiencing what seems to have been a profound depression and nervous collapse[9], the widowed Mary made up her mind to return to her native Scotland. This prospect alarmed Elizabeth, who was horrified of the prospect of her Catholic cousin and rival suddenly arriving on her doorstep. Citing Mary’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh, in which Scotland’s Protestant leaders acknowledged Elizabeth as rightful Queen of England, Elizabeth refused her cousin a warrant of safe passage through English waters on her return from France to Scotland.[10]

Mary, Queen of Scots pictured in her first widowhood as the dowager Queen of France, 1560.

Mary, Queen of Scots pictured in her first widowhood as the dowager Queen of France, 1560.

Mary responded with her first known letter in reference to her English cousin. Exhibiting what was to become a lifelong flair for self-dramatization, the now dowager queen of France wrote to the English ambassador: “I am determined to adventure the matter, whatsoever come of it; I trust the wind will be so favourable that I shall not need to come on the coast of England; for if I do, then… the Queen your mistress shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure and make sacrifice of me.”[11]

By the early 1560s we see a more positive shift in the queens’ relations, with Mary ensconced in Scotland, having seemingly forgotten about Elizabeth’s refusal to grant her safe passage through England to Scotland. Both queens were now writing in “amenable, even affectionate” terms to each other.[12] Mary seems clearly to be the more emotional partner in their letters, once kissing a letter Elizabeth had written for her, saying to the English ambassador “I will kiss it also…for her sake it commeth from.”[13]

Mary, Queen of Scots painted as a young woman.

Mary, Queen of Scots painted as a young woman.

In summer 1565, Mary married her second husband, the nearest heir to both the Scottish and (after Mary) English thrones, her and Elizabeth’s mutual cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, whom Elizabeth had deliberately sent north in the hopes of seducing Mary. Within months, it became clear to all that Mary had rushed into a disastrous marriage; Darnley emerged as a drunk, a boor, and a womanizer.[14] While Mary achieved perhaps her most important life’s goal, giving birth to a son and heir James in June 1566[15], news which dismayed Elizabeth [16], her misery in her marriage led to a whirlwind of drama culminating in the February 1567 murder of her husband. Mary had not hid her misery in her marriage from Darnley’s enemies, even going so far as to say to some of her lords that “unless she were quit of [Darnley] by one means or another, she could never have a good day for the rest of her life”.[17]

1565 or 1566 painting of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, King consort of Scots.

1565 or 1566 painting of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, King consort of Scots.

Portrait of Darnley's murder on 10 February 1567. Mary's soon-to-be third husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was widely believed to be responsible for the murder. Many of Mary's supporters would ultimately blame Elizabeth I herself.

Portrait of Darnley’s murder on 10 February 1567. Mary’s soon-to-be third husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was widely believed to be responsible for the murder. Many of Mary’s supporters would ultimately blame Elizabeth I herself.

On February 24, 1567, Elizabeth wrote the following impassioned letter to Mary, using what G.B. Harrison describes as “great frankness without any of the usual circumlocutions common in her diplomatic correspondence”[18]. It marks the first major turning point in relations between the two queens. The letter is remarkable in that the usually prescribed Elizabeth pointedly eschews the usual formalities, urging Mary in extremely direct language to act immediately to preserve her reputation and distance herself from her husband’s alleged killer, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell:

Madame: My ears have been so deafened and my understanding so grieved and my heart so affrighted to hear the dreadful news of the abominable murder of your mad husband and my killed cousin that I scarcely have the wits to write about it… I cannot dissemble that I am more sorrowful for you than for him… I will not at all dissemble what most people are talking about: which is that you will look through your fingers at [ignore] the revenging of this deed… However I exhort you, I counsel you, and I beseech you to take this thing so much to heart that you will not fear to touch even him [Bothwell] whom you have nearest to you if the thing [the murder] touches him, and that no persuasion will prevent you from making an example [of justice] out of this to the world: that you are both a noble princess and a loyal wife.[19]

As Elizabeth’s words here illustrate—“you will look through your fingers at the revenging of this deed”—gossip was already rife that Mary would not punish her estranged husband’s murderer. This letter is remarkable in that Elizabeth speaks plainly to Mary as her equal, as a fellow queen, and also, on an emotional and direct level, as a fellow woman. Her unusually direct and emotional words, full of solidarity and sympathy for Mary, nevertheless contain heartfelt and practical advice to defend her honour and distance herself from Bothwell, the man at the centre of Darnley’s murder. It is in this letter that Elizabeth revealingly observes that “I am not ignorant that you have no wiser counselors than myself”[20], casting herself as Mary’s chief advisor and defender against her enemies’ machinations. Despite receiving Elizabeth’s letter, Mary, under Bothwell’s control, took the worst route possible, ensuring her own downfall and the premature end of her reign.

Almost as soon as Darnley was dead, Bothwell began to establish a strong emotional and psychological hold over Mary, to the point that Mary arranged a show trial in April 1567 which acquitted Bothwell of all charges in Darnley’s murder[21]. Prior to hearing about the outcome of the show trial, Elizabeth wrote again to Mary, writing in uncharacteristically emotional, motherly terms: “Madam, I treat you as my daughter, and assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you… the one for whom one wishes the greatest good that may be possible in this world.”[22] There is no evidence that Mary, by then completely in thrall to Bothwell, responded to this warm letter of sympathy from Elizabeth.

Disturbed by Mary’s silence, soon after, Elizabeth wrote touchingly yet again to Mary in her own hand, in French, Mary’s mother tongue, in anticipation of the hearing against Bothwell: “For the love of God, Madame, use such sincerity and prudence in this matter [the hearing], which touches you so nearly, that all the world may feel justified in believing you innocent of so enormous a crime, which, if you were not, would be good cause for degrading you from the rank of princess, and bringing upon you the scorn of the vulgar.”[23] Once again, Elizabeth showed herself to be concerned above all else for Mary’s honour as her fellow queen and cousin; she knew that by associating publicly with the man all of Edinburgh blamed for Darnley’s murder, Mary delegitimized herself before her many enemies and only furthered the scandalous rumors that she had been involved in the murder. As a fellow queen regnant, Elizabeth was acutely aware that all of Europe was closely watching Mary’s actions, and she was concerned that Mary not act in any emotional or impulsive way that would denigrate female rulers’ perceived capabilities in the eyes of men.

When Elizabeth heard in May 1567 that Mary had, after being kidnapped and allegedly raped by Bothwell, married the man publicly held responsible for Darnley’s murder, she wrote yet another impassioned, incredibly direct letter to her cousin, warning her in no uncertain terms that Mary’s actions had scandalized Europe and threatened the future of her reign in Scotland:

How could a worse choice be made for your honour than in such haste to marry such a subject, who besides other and notorious lacks, public fame has charged with the murder of your late husband, besides the touching of yourself also in some part, though we trust in that behalf falsely…[24]

By marrying Bothwell, Mary, in Elizabeth’s view and all the world’s, showed herself incapable of ruling independently and asserting her own will. Worst of all, by marrying the man “public fame has charged with the murder of” Darnley, Mary showed a fatal, utter indifference to public opinion and a deafeningly reckless refusal to heed her cousin and fellow queen’s impassioned pleas for caution and deliberation. Elizabeth, used to speaking to Mary like an older to a younger sister, makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she thinks Mary’s decision was the worst possible choice.

Elizabeth was clearly horrified that, not only had Mary married the man publicly charged with murdering her late husband, but that Bothwell “hath another lawful wife alive, whereby neither by God’s law nor man’s yourself can be his leeful wife, nor any children betwixt you legitimate.”[25] Elizabeth wrote explicitly of the threat Mary’s new marriage posed to her continued rule in Scotland, urging Mary “to be careful how your son the prince may be preserved, for the comfort of yours and your realm, which two things we have from the beginning always taken to heart…”[26] Elizabeth signed herself, emphatically, “a good neighbour, a dear sister and a faithful friend”[27].

Mary’s response to Elizabeth marks an equally poignant turning point in the cousins’ relations. In the following letter, defending her marriage to Bothwell, Mary revealed her own belief that she could not rule Scotland alone as Elizabeth ruled in England. Unlike Elizabeth, Mary now had neither the authority nor the will to govern Scotland unaided:

Destitute of a husband, our realm not truly purged of the factions and conspiracies that for a long time has continued therein, which occurring so frequently, had already in a manner so wearied and broken us, that by our self we were not able for any long continuance to sustain the pains and travail in our own person… for their satisfaction, which could not suffer us long to continue in the state of widowhood, moved by their prayers and requests, it behooves us to yield unto one marriage or other.[28]

Mary fails to give a convincing defence of her marriage; all she can muster in response to Elizabeth’s horror and outrage is “it behooves us to yield unto one marriage or other”. These are hardly the words of a capable, confident queen.

The collapse of Mary’s reign came swiftly. Following the defeat of her forces at Carberry Hill by her Protestant half-brother the Earl of Moray, the captured, disheveled, heavily pregnant Mary was led through the streets of Edinburgh, all illusions of royal authority gone, her husband having fled the battlefield leaving her utterly without support or defence[29]. Crowds verbally assaulted her, shouting “Burn the whore!”[30] and holding up placards depicting their queen as a prostitute and adulterer. A prisoner of her Protestant enemies who now controlled her son the infant prince James, Mary’s reign was effectively over. Despite her horror at Mary’s reckless behavior, Elizabeth was first and foremost concerned with Mary’s security and status as a fellow monarch. Dedicated to the absolute majesty and divine right of kings, Elizabeth was outraged that Mary had been so outrageously treated by her own subjects. Elizabeth furiously argued that “it does not appertain to subjects so to reform their prince, but to deal by advice and counsel, and failing thereof, to recommend the rest to Almighty God”.[31] Incensed that the Scottish lords would dare assault their God-anointed Sovereign, Elizabeth “threatened war”[32] and talked of sending an armed force to relieve Mary. She talked, yet, in keeping with her motto, besides offering written encouragement to Mary, she did nothing.

Upon hearing of her cousin’s capture by the rebellious Protestant lords in June 1567, Elizabeth wrote to Mary “We assure you that whatsoever we can imagine meet for your honour and safety that shall lie in our power, we will perform the same…you [shall not] lack our friendship and power for the preservation of your honour in quietness.”[33] Elizabeth told her ambassador to Scotland that she “would not suffer her [Mary], being by God’s ordinance the prince and sovereign, to be in subjection to them that by nature and law are subjected to her.”[34] While Elizabeth continued to rail in support of her beleaguered cousin, she did not send troops to free Mary or restore her to her throne.

On 24th July 1567 Mary was forced to abdicate at Loch Leven castle immediately after miscarrying Bothwell’s twins[35], and the Protestant lords installed her infant son as James VI. A December 1567 Act of the Scottish Parliament, of dubious legality as it was held at the behest of her Protestant enemies, confirmed that Mary had freely abdicated of her own volition on behalf of her son. Despite managing to harness all her considerable charm, scheming abilities, and physical energy to eventually escape from her prison at Loch Leven and ultimately flee to England in 1568, where she sought Elizabeth’s direct material assistance to help her win back her throne, Mary never again ruled Scotland.[36] For the next nineteen years, despite Mary’s naïve expectation that Elizabeth would make good her promises of loyalty and support and restore her to the Scottish throne, Mary was imprisoned on Elizabeth’s orders.

The young James VI of Scots (de facto King of Scots from July 1567, de jure from February 8, 1587 with his mother's death). James was raised by strict Presbyterian Calvinists who encouraged him to hate his mother, whom he had no memory of since he had been separated from her shortly before her forced abdication. The Dutch painter Arnold van Brounckhorst painted then 7-year old James in 1574.

The young James VI of Scots (de facto King of Scots from July 1567, de jure from February 8, 1587 with his mother’s death). James was raised by strict Presbyterian Calvinists who encouraged him to hate his mother, whom he had no memory of since he had been separated from her shortly before her forced abdication. The Dutch painter Arnold van Brounckhorst painted then 7-year old James in 1574.

Betraying her impulsive and emotional nature, Mary wrote to Elizabeth as soon as she had crossed into England, urging her to “fetch me as soon as you possibly can, for I am in a pitiable condition, not only for a Queen, but for a gentlewoman.”[37] Now that Mary was in England, an extremely unwelcome prospect for Elizabeth, the two cousins’ relationship had changed once again. Elizabeth responded coolly, leading Mary to write another impetuous letter to her in which she hinted that, should Elizabeth not help her regain her lost throne, she would look elsewhere for assistance: “If for any reason I cannot come to you, seeing I have freely come to throw myself in your arms, you will I am sure permit me to ask assistance of my other allies…”[38] Elizabeth knew that she could not safely return her to Scotland with Mary’s Protestant enemies in control of the country, but to let Mary pass to France risked possible French military involvement which would only further destabilize Scotland and possibly threaten England. As Elizabeth continued to prevaricate, Mary found her cousin’s behavior “maddening and her even-handedness galling in the extreme”.[39]

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587, r. de facto 1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587), Queen consort of France (1559-1560).

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587, r. de facto 1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587), Queen consort of France (1559-1560).

As Mary gradually came to realize that her cousin had no intention of seeing her restored to rule in Scotland, she wrote a flurry of letters to Elizabeth, begging for an audience with her. 1568 marks yet another major shift in writing style and tone. Denied access to Elizabeth’s presence, Mary’s agony over her “anguished impotence of her enforced isolation” from her cousin “had Mary resorting to the language of unrequited love.[40] If allowed to see Elizabeth, Mary wrote, she would “discover to you the secrets of my heart…I shall devote myself more and more to love, honour, and obey you…”[41] These letters, extremely unconventional in their phrasing, betrayed how out of touch Mary was with the political reality of her situation. 

The Queen of Scots became increasingly frustrated with Elizabeth, who, to her outrage, sanctioned a 1568 hearing at York to determine the authenticity of the so-called “Casket Letters”, which Mary’s Protestant half-brother and enemy the Regent Earl of Moray alleged Mary had written to Bothwell urging him to kill Darnley. Mary furiously decried the letters as forgeries, but neither she nor her supporters were permitted to look at the copies. As Elizabeth had desired, the inquest found Mary neither guilty nor innocent of adultery and murderous conspiracy against Darnley, giving the English Queen the excuse to continue keeping her Catholic cousin a prisoner.

Mary had, through her own incompetence as a ruler, lost her throne, and after a year in captivity she still naively expected that Elizabeth would risk all to restore her to rule. Any willingness Elizabeth might have initially had to restore her cousin to her throne in Scotland soon dissipated when leading Catholic earls in northern England rebelled against the Protestant queen in autumn 1569, insisting on freedom of worship for Catholics and hoping to remove Elizabeth and put Mary on the English throne. The rebellion had wide support among northern Englishmen, most of whom were Catholic, and Elizabeth suppressed it with considerable difficulty. Mary almost certainly knew of the risings in her favour, but said almost nothing on the subject to Elizabeth. She continued to petition her English cousin to allow her greater freedom of movement. Elizabeth demurred, and Mary continued to write her.

Exasperated with Mary’s numerous plaintive letters to her, in a letter dated February 20, 1570 Elizabeth railed against her cousin: “Good madame, what wrong did I ever s[eek] to you or yours in the former part of my reign, when y[ou] know what was sought against me, even to the sp[oil] of my crown from me?” [42] The two queens’ relationship only continued to deteriorate after this letter was written, especially given that Pope Pius V issued his papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in April of 1570 formally excommunicating Elizabeth, whom he derided as “the pretended queen of England and servant of wickedness”, urging English Catholics to do all they could to depose her [43].

Elizabeth from then on began to view Mary as a nuisance and the source for Catholic opposition to her reign. Her Privy Councilors increasingly pressured her to put her imprisoned cousin on trial and execute her for her suspected role in encouraging the failed 1571 Ridolfi Plot. This plot, orchestrated by Florentine nobleman and banker Roberto di Ridolfi with Spanish King Philip II’s active support, sought to again raise the Catholic North against Elizabeth, assassinate her, restore Catholicism, and put Mary on the throne. Elizabeth’s cousin, England’s most powerful landowner Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, plotted to marry Mary and rule England alongside her, despite that her husband Bothwell was still alive, imprisoned in a Danish prison, and despite that Norfolk had led Queen Elizabeth’s forces into Scotland in 1560 supporting the Protestant Lairds of the Congregation in in ousting Mary’s mother the Queen Regent Marie de Guise. As senior MPs and her councilors continued to push for Mary’s preemptive execution, Elizabeth prevaricated in her usual manner, increasingly referring to her Scottish cousin as “the Daughter of Debate” [44].

A supporter of Mary's cause painted this portrait of the Queen and her teenage son, James VI of Scots. In reality, Mary never again saw her son after he was taken from her in 1567 shortly before her forced abdication.

A supporter of Mary’s cause painted this portrait of the Queen and her teenage son, James VI of Scots. In reality, Mary never again saw her son after he was taken from her in 1567 shortly before her forced abdication.

By 1580, Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship deteriorated further. As the years went on, and Elizabeth took steps to ensure that Mary’s son James VI was raised as a Protestant by the regents governing Scotland during his minority, Mary bemoaned her lack of control over her own son and heir. When James wrote to Mary “declining to associate her with himself in the sovereignty of Scotland”, offering to treat her merely as a “Queen-Mother”[45], the devastated Mary wrote a nearly hysterical letter to Elizabeth in which she fumed that “Without him I am, and shall be of right, as long as I live, his Queen and Sovereign…but without me, he is too insignificant to think of soaring.”[46] Refusing James’ offer for her to return to Scotland as a retired dowager queen, Mary wrote frenziedly to her cousin that “I do not acknowledge one [queen mother]; failing our association, there is no King of Scotland, nor any Queen but me.”[47] Again, Mary was utterly out of touch with political reality; while it is true that she had been forced to abdicate against her will, by now her son was taking part in the ruling of Scotland, and the rest of Europe acknowledged him as a legitimate monarch.

Writing in early May 1580 to Elizabeth, whom she still addressed courteously as “Madam, my good sister”, Mary bemoaned that while she had “written to you several times during the last year; to lay before your consideration the unworthy and rigorous treatment which I have received in this captivity…”[48], Elizabeth had not responded to her. Terrified that Elizabeth was growing distant from her, Mary felt obliged to point out to Elizabeth how her enemies were constantly conspiring to blacken her reputation and name: “I am constrained to beg and entreat you, as I humbly do, by my liberation out of this prison, to relieve yourself from…the continual suspicions, mistrusts, and prejudices with which [my enemies surrounding you] daily trouble you against me…”[49] Mary at this point was once again employing conventional speech toward Elizabeth, though it was, typical of her, wrought with emotion. By July 1585, Elizabeth’s hold over James VI was so strong that he was addressing her in his letters as “madame and mother”[50]; fortunately for Mary’s sake, she seems never to have known that he addressed Elizabeth as if she were his own mother. However, James’ continued close association with Elizabeth seems to have pushed Mary over the edge; word reached Mary of her son’s defensive treaty with Elizabeth in July 1586, right when Babington asked her blessing for his plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put her on the English throne.[51]

James VI of Scotland in 1586, aged 20. This was the year he betrayed his mother by agreeing to a defensive treaty with Elizabeth I, Mary's jailor.

James VI of Scotland in 1586, aged 20. This was the year he betrayed his mother by agreeing to a defensive treaty with Elizabeth I, Mary’s jailor.

Fall of 1586 marks the fourth and final stage of the two queens’ relationship. Elizabeth’s agents’ discovered Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Elizabeth ordered Mary transferred to Fotheringhay Castle, where she would ultimately stand trial for treason against her cousin and be executed[51]. It is around this time that Elizabeth seems to have finally determined, after months of delay, that Mary was guilty of conspiring against her. During this time she revealingly refers to Mary in a letter to her jailor as a “wicked murderess”[52], the only evidence that Elizabeth believed Mary to be guilty of Darnley’s 1567 murder—an allegation against Mary which, at the time of the murder, Elizabeth had vehemently denied. Thus, Elizabeth’s reference to Mary as a “wicked murderess” shows just how much their relationship had changed by fall of 1586, to the point that Elizabeth now viewed Mary as her guilty and implacable enemy.

The cousins’ final letters to each other are stark proof of how their relationship had deteriorated over time from a youthful rivalry, to sisterly solidarity immediately following Darnley’s murder, to, ultimately, deadly confrontation in 1586. Convinced of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, Elizabeth’s last letter to Mary was “an imperious broadside”[53]. Furious at Mary’s continued dissimulations, and particularly her refusal to acknowledge the right of English noblemen to try her, since she was an anointed queen, Elizabeth’s letter carried no formal titles or polite address, “just a peremptory statement of fact and intent”[54] and a command that Mary duly answer Elizabeth’s judges, who represented the full authority of the English Queen:

You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you. . . It is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I myself were present. I therefore require, charge, and command you make answer for all I have been well informed of your arrogance.[55]

Even now, convinced of Mary’s guilt in the Babington Plot to assassinate her, Elizabeth still offered Mary a way out of certain death. She closed her above letter with this admonition, exhorting her sister queen to admit her guilt in playing a role in the plot, and throw herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy: “Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.” Mary never responded. Some time before her trial, Mary embroidered her royal cloth of estate with the French motto “En ma fin git mon commencement” (“In my end is my beginning”). By all accounts, she had begun to think seriously of her impending martyrdom. 

At her trial in mid-October, during which Mary at last had the opportunity to put her great charm to use, she sought to remind Elizabeth, through her commissioners, to remember “that the Theatre of the whole World is much wider than the Kingdom of England”[56], reminding Elizabeth that Mary was above all “a European prince and a Catholic queen”[57] who “could look to her fellow Catholic princes to avenge her and to future generations to absolve her”[57] of her earlier misdeeds in ruling Scotland. Mary heatedly denied that the trial had any legitimacy, flaring “I am no subject, and would rather die a thousand deaths than acknowledge myself to be one!”[58]. When told that she must answer the charges against her, Mary insisted on her innocence, declaring that “I would never make shipwreck of my soul by conspiring the destruction of my dearest sister.”[59].

When several of her servants and secretaries’ confessions to her alleged plotting were read aloud before the court, Mary argued that her letters must have been tampered with after she had first dictated them. She forcefully argued that the confessions were false, and that no monarch or ruler could be found guilty of a crime based off the altered, tampered-with writings or false testimony of their own servants:

The majesty and safety of all princes falleth to the ground if they depend upon the writings and testimony of their secretaries… I am not to be convicted except by mine own word or writing. [60]

trial-of-mary-queen-of-scots-in-fotheringay-castle

Mary pointed out in vain that “My Papers and Notes are taken from me, and no man dareth step forth to be my advocate …”. [61]. She was permitted no attorney to speak in her defence. Citing that the English noblemen present all had a vested interest in seeing her convicted of treason and put to death, the Scottish Queen flatly refused to acknowledge their pretensions of legitimacy to try her, insisting that as a sovereign “queen by right of birth” they had no authority to judge her in any capacity:

I am an absolute queen, and will do nothing which may prejudice either mine own royal majesty, or other princes of my place and rank, or my son … I am a queen by right of birth and have been consort of a king of France; my place should be there, under the dais … I am the daughter of James V, King of Scotland, and grand-daughter of Henry VII …To the judgment of mine adversaries, amongst whom I know all defense of mine innocence will be barred flatly, I will not submit myself. [62]

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. The empty dais in the top center signified the royal authority of Queen Elizabeth as the English Sovereign in whose name the trial was conducted; Mary, seated in a lower chair to the right, argued in vain that she, as a queen in her own right, should also have a throne.

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. The empty dais in the top centre signified the royal authority of Queen Elizabeth as the English Sovereign in whose name the trial was conducted; Mary, seated in a lower chair to the right, argued in vain that she, as a queen in her own right, should also have a throne.

By this time, Mary had become convinced that she would die a martyr’s death at Elizabeth’s hands. As with all treason trials in Tudor England, Mary’s was a foregone conclusion; while she protested her innocence to the last, on October 25, 1586 she was pronounced guilty of high treason for conspiring to assassinate Elizabeth and sentenced to death. Almost immediately, Parliament pressured Elizabeth to sign Mary’s execution warrant. Elizabeth, in characteristic fashion, demurred and stalled, hoping to find a way to spare herself the horror of signing her sister queen and cousin’s death warrant. While her English cousin remained tormented over whether or not to order her execution, Mary seems to have received the trial verdict with serene equanimity. Sometime following the verdict, she composed (in Latin) her last known poem praying for the Lord to release her from her earthly prison and “liberate” her to the heavenly realm:

O Domine Deus!
Speravi in te;
O care mi Iesu!
Nunc libera me:
In dura catena
In misera poena
Desidero te;
Languendo, gemendo,
Et genuflectendo
Adoro, imploro,
Ut liberes me!

I have translated the prayer as follows, opting for a more literal Latin to English transition:

O Lord God! I have hoped in Thee;
O Jesus my Beloved, set me free:
In rigorous chains, in piteous pains,
I am longing for Thee!
In weakness appealing, in agony kneeling,
I pray, I beseech Thee to liberate me!

Mary’s last letter to Elizabeth, written on December 19, 1586, less than two months before her execution on February 8, 1587, puts the final touch on the complete reversal of their relationship in the past nineteen years. Convicted of conspiring to assassinate her fellow queen — a charge Mary vehemently denied to her death — she knew that Elizabeth would likely be forced to have her beheaded. Describing her nineteen year imprisonment in religious terms as a “long and weary pilgrimage”, Mary’s last letter to her cousin contains a plea for her remains to be conveyed to France after her death, as well as a curious plea that Elizabeth not send an assassin to deny Mary the martyr’s death she longed for:

Now having been informed, on your part, of the sentence passed in the last session of your Parliament, and admonished… to prepare myself for the end of my long and weary pilgrimage, I prayed them to return my thanks to you for such agreeable intelligence, and to ask you to grant some things for the relief of my conscience. . . I require you, Madam, for the sake of Jesus, that after my enemies have satisfied their black thirst for my innocent blood, you will permit my poor disconsolate servants to remove my corpse, that it may be buried in holy ground, with my ancestors in France, especially the late Queen my mother, since in Scotland the remains of the Kings my predecessors have been outraged, and the churches torn down and profaned…

…Dreading the secret tyranny of some of those to whom you have abandoned me, I entreat you to prevent me from being dispatched secretly, without your knowledge, not from fear of the pain, which I am ready to suffer, but on account of the reports they would circulate after my death… I beseech the God of mercy and justice to enlighten you with His holy Spirit, and to give me the grace to die in perfect charity, as I endeavour to do, pardoning my death to all those who have either caused or cooperated in it [a veiled reference to Elizabeth herself]; and this will be my prayer to the end.[63]

Most disturbingly for Elizabeth, Mary’s final letter to her contained an explicit threat that her judicial murder at Elizabeth’s hands would outrage all of Catholic Europe and likely provoke retaliation by the Catholic powers against England:

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you that you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered…Your sister and cousin, wrongfully a prisoner, Marie Royne [64]

Mary’s valedictory words—“my blood will be remembered”— must have seared themselves into Elizabeth’s soul.

Queen Elizabeth I's famous signature at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

When word reached Mary that Elizabeth had at last signed her death warrant, the Queen of Scots responded calmly, thanking God and saying to the English messengers present that

In the name of God, these tidings are welcome, and I bless and praise Him that the end of all my bitter sufferings is at hand.  I did not think that the Queen, my sister, would ever have consented to my death; but, God’s will be done.  He is my principal witness, that I shall render up my spirit into His hands innocent of any offence against her, and with a pure heart and conscience clear before His divine majesty of the crimes whereof I am accused.  That soul is fair unworthy of the joys of heaven, whose body cannot endure for a moment the stroke of the executioner. [65] [66]

Even after bringing herself to sign her cousin’s death warrant authorising the execution, Elizabeth still searched desperately for a way to rid herself of having to take upon the heinous crime of murdering her own kinswoman and fellow queen. The Queen suggested that Mary could be quietly murdered by her jailors. Her request that Mary’s life should be ‘shortened’ was taken to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary’s strict Puritan jailor. Paulet replied to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s chief spymaster and one of the chief witnesses against Mary at her trial, only six days before Mary’s execution:

I am so unhappy to have lived to see this unhappy day, in the which I am required, by direction from my most gracious Sovereign, to do an act which God and the law forbiddeth… God forbid that I should make so fowle a shipwracke of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my posteritie, or shed blood without law and warrant…  thus I commit you to the mercy of the Almightie.

From Fotheringhay, the 2nd of February, 1587

Paulet informed Mary the night before her death of her impending execution; the Queen received the news calmly, while her servants, devoted to her, collapsed in tears. She spent the last hours of her earthly life in prayer and writing to her allies, especially her former brother-in-law, King Henri III of France (1551-89, r. 1574-1589). In her final earthly letter, written at 2:00 in the morning with a steady, calm hand in her pristine French, Mary once again declared herself innocent of the charge of conspiring against Elizabeth, claiming to her fellow king that she was about to die as a martyr for their shared Catholic faith. She also reiterated to Henri that she desired to be buried next to her mother in France on consecrated ground, a request neither Elizabeth nor her own son James would ever fulfill:

Royal brother, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates…

… I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning… I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime…

At eight o’clock on the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots walked to the scaffold in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle accompanied by her priest, her devoted ladies-in-waiting, and several male assistants. One eyewitness described how the Queen was beautifully and deliberately attired in splendid dress, evoking the image of a Catholic martyr. To her very end, she would play the part of a martyr for her Roman Catholic faith:

On her head a dressing of lawn edged with bone lace; a pomander chain and an Agnus Dei; about her neck a crucifix of gold; and in her hand a crucifix of bone with a wooden cross, and a pair of beads at her girdle, with a medal in the end of them; a veil of lawn fastened to her caul, bowed out with wire, and edged round about with bone lace. A gown of black satin, printed, with long sleeves to the ground, set with buttons of jet and trimmed with pearl, and short sleeves of satin, cut with a pair of sleeves of purple velvet. [67]

On approaching the scaffold, Mary turned to her weeping ladies and manservants and said: “Thou hast cause rather to joy than to mourn, for now shalt thou see Mary Stuart’s troubles receive their long-expected end.” [68] She continued, exhorting them to remember that “all this world is but vanity and full of troubles and sorrows. Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end and thirsted for my blood.” [68]

Refusing the offer of the Protestant Dean of Peterborough’s services to pray with her, Mary then had her rosary taken from her, in direct defiance of Elizabeth’s orders that she be allowed all her Catholic devotional items in her last earthly moments. The Queen addressed the Dean, saying “Trouble not yourself nor me, for know that I am settled in the ancient Catholic religion, and in defence thereof, by God’s grace, I mind to spend my blood.” [69]

The Dean then began praying aloud according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, attempting to drown out the Queen, who insisted on praying in Latin; Mary uttered her Catholic prayers in a louder voice, weeping as she did so. Then, she refused the help of the executioner and his assistant to undress her, saying “I was not wont to have my clothes plucked off by such grooms, nor did I ever put off my clothes before such a company” [69]. Mary took off her black gown to reveal a bodice and petticoat of scarlet, the traditional colour of Catholic martyrs.

The executioner then knelt, as was custom, and begged her forgiveness for what he had to do. Queen Mary replied softly, “I hope you shall make an end of all my troubles.” She then knelt, laid her head on the block before her and repeated “In manuas tuas, Domine, confide spiritum meum” (Latin: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”; Jesus’ last words when dying on the cross) [70]. It took three blows of the axe to sever Mary’s head, and it was reported that her lips carried on moving for 15 minutes afterwards. Alison Weir describes how the executioner then picked up Mary’s head by the hair, as was custom, but that her cap fell off along with a red wig, revealing that Mary’s real hair was grey and “polled very short”. Immediately after Mary’s decapitation, the executioners began collecting her belongings and burning them, so as to leave no relics for Catholics who might venerate the Queen as a martyr. Even her blood was wiped up with rags and the rags burned. Weir also retells the story of Mary’s loyal dog, who had secretly accompanied his mistress to her death, saying that when the executioner went to remove Mary’s clothes, as had been ordered:

he found her little dog under her coat, which, being put from thence, went and laid himself down betwixt her head and body, and being besmeared with her blood, was caused to be washed… [71]

By all accounts, the dog, depressed at being parted from his unfortunate mistress, refused to eat, grew weak, and died.

Robert Inerarity Herdman, 1867. (C) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Robert Inerarity Herdman, 1867. (C) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8:00am February 8, 1587.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8:00am February 8, 1587.

The famous Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I showing the destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English Royal Navy assisted by the

The famous Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I showing the destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English Royal Navy assisted by the “Protestant wind” which whipped up the English Channel, scattering the Spanish ships out of their formation. Attributed to George Gower, 1588.

It is impossible to deduce from their war of letters which of the two queens “won” in their lifelong rivalry with each other. If we are to go by the letters alone, by the end of the correspondence Mary clearly has eked out the moral high ground, seeing herself as unjustly condemned by her heretical cousin to die what she chooses to view as a martyr’s death for the Catholic faith. After ordering her troublesome cousin to accept the legitimacy of her judges—which Mary never does—Elizabeth is silent. In terms of their final communications, Elizabeth’s last message to Mary was, ultimately, the death warrant dispatched to Fotheringhay Castle on February 1, 1587. Yet even there, Mary appears triumphant, for by her dignity at her execution and her deliberate casting of herself as a martyr, she managed to redeem herself in the eyes of much of history for her earlier marital problems and worse failure as a ruler. In the realm of political posturing, Mary’s death at last allowed Elizabeth to live without the fear of constant plots for her assassination, but in executing her cousin and rival queen, Elizabeth opened the way for the Spanish Armada, which, had it succeeded, would have not only deposed and likely killed Elizabeth but forcibly re-imposed Catholicism on still newly-Protestant England. Ultimately, their letters reveal Mary to be a hopelessly incompetent ruler but the braver, if not more intelligent of the two women, while Elizabeth emerges as a solitary, lonely figure, yet a masterful politician who is ultimately forced to murder her own cousin in order to guarantee her own security and satisfy her people’s demands for Mary’s head. While Elizabeth triumphed as England’s Gloriana, perhaps its most beloved monarch, it is Mary who ultimately has a kind of final revenge, as her ungrateful son James and his posterity succeeded the Virgin Queen in 1603.

James VI of Scots became King of Scots when he was only thirteen months old following his mother Mary's forced abdication on 24 July 1567. He became King of England on 24 March 1603 following Elizabeth I's death. He reigned until his own death at the age of 58 in March 1625.

James VI of Scots became King of Scots when he was only thirteen months old following his mother Mary’s forced abdication on 24 July 1567. He became King of England on 24 March 1603 following Elizabeth I’s death. He reigned until his own death at the age of 58 in March 1625. Daniel Mytens, 1621.

James VI and I, successor to both Mary, his mother, and Elizabeth, his mother's killer, had his English predecessor buried below this magnificent marble tomb in Westminster Abbey in 1603.

James VI and I, successor to both Mary, his mother, and Elizabeth, his mother’s killer, had his English predecessor buried below this magnificent marble tomb in Westminster Abbey in 1603.

After her execution in 1587, Mary was initially buried -- against her wishes -- in the Protestant Cathedral of Peterborough, the cathedral of the same Dean who had so annoyed her in her last moments on the scaffold. In 1612 her son and heir James VI and I ordered his mother's remains unearthed and transferred to Westminster Abbey, where he paid for this magnificent marble tomb for her to be erected only yards from her hated cousin and murderer, Elizabeth I.

After her execution in 1587, Mary was initially buried — against her wishes — in the Protestant Cathedral of Peterborough, the cathedral of the same Dean who had so annoyed her in her last moments on the scaffold. In 1612 her son and heir James VI and I ordered his mother’s remains unearthed and transferred to Westminster Abbey, where he paid for this magnificent marble tomb for her to be erected only yards from her hated cousin and murderer, Elizabeth I.

Bibliography

Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1886.

Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844.

Cheetham, J. Keith. On the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited, 2000.

Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

McGrath, Patrick. Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1967.

McMillin, Andrea. “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” Academia.edu. 2015. Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://www.academia.edu/6108459/Mary_Queen_of_Scots

Strickland, Agnes. Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888.

Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York, NY:

Ballantine Books, 2003.

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998.

Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Power, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. London, England: Tauris Parke, 2001.

Endnotes

[1] Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 2004, 22.

[2] Ibid, 22-23

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Ibid, 92

[6]Ibid, 23

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 169

[9] Ibid, 171

[10] Ibid, 180

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 206

[13] Ibid, 215

[14] Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 27.

[15] Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 274.

[16] Upon hearing the news that her rival and cousin had fulfilled her dynastic duty in providing for the Scottish succession, giving birth to a boy who would one day, Elizabeth knew, succeed her as King of England, Elizabeth cried “the Queen of Scots is lighter of a fair son, and I am but barren stock!” (Ibid).

[17] Ibid, 283

[18] Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 49.

[19] Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 116.

[20] Ibid, 117.

[21] Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 296.

[22] Ibid, 294, 297.

[23] Ibid, 296-297.

[24] McMillin, Andrea. “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” Academia.edu. 2015. Accessed May 5, 2015.

http://www.academia.edu/6108459/Mary_Queen_of_Scots .

[25] Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 118.

[26] Ibid, 118-119.

[27] Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 51.

[28] Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 301.

[29] Ibid, 307.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, 308.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid, 311.

[36] Ibid, 313.

[37] Ibid, 320.

[38] Ibid, 321.

[39] Ibid, 323.

[40] Ibid, 332.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 122.

[43] McGrath, Patrick. Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1967. 69.

[44] Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Power, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. London, England: Tauris Parke, 2001. 12.

[45] Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 369.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid, 370.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid, 263.

[51] Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 365.

[52] Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 179.

[53] Ibid, 180.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid, 181.

[57] Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 392

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid, 369.

[61] Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003. 574.

[62] Ibid, 575.

[63] Strickland, Agnes. Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888. 436-437.

[64] Ibid, 437.

[65] Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1886. 111-112.

[66] Strickland, Agnes. Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888. 441-442.

[67] Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 378-79.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844. 237-238.

[70] Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 379.

[71] Ibid, 379.

Remembering the death of a Queen

Queen Elizabeth I's famous signature at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

428 years ago yesterday, an anointed queen was put to death by the order of her cousin and fellow queen. One of the most tragic and controversial figures in English Tudor and Scottish Stuart history, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) died on the scaffold at eight o’clock on the morning of February 8, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. After months of anxious delay and tortured soul-searching, Mary’s nearest kinswoman and first cousin once removed, England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), had reluctantly signed her death warrant on February 1. Mary had been tried for treason—a charge of dubious legality since Mary was not an English subject, but Queen of Scotland by birth—and convicted by a court of English noblemen in October 1586.

When Queen Mary learned that Elizabeth had at last signed her death warrant, her response was composed and brief:

I did not think that the Queen, my sister, would ever have consented to my death; but, God’s will be done.  He is my principal witness, that I shall render up my spirit into His hands innocent of any offence against her, and with a pure heart and conscience clear before His divine majesty of the crimes whereof I am accused.  That soul is fair unworthy of the joys of heaven, whose body cannot endure for a moment the stroke of the executioner.

Here is Queen Mary’s last letter to her English cousin. She wrote this letter to Elizabeth after having been informed of her trial’s foregone conclusion: convicted of conspiring to assassinate her cousin and fellow Queen — a charge Mary vehemently denied to her death — Mary knew her cousin would be pressured to have her executed. Mary’s last letter to her rival and cousin contains a plea for her remains to be conveyed to France after her death, as well as a warning which would haunt Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

Now having been informed… of the sentence passed in the last session of your Parliament, and admonished… to prepare myself for the end of my long and weary pilgrimage, I prayed them to return my thanks to you for such agreeable intelligence, and to ask you to grant some things for the relief of my conscience.

I will not accuse any person, but sincerely pardon every one, as I desire others, and, above all, God, to pardon me. And since I know that your heart, more than that of any other, ought to be touched by the honour or dishonour of your own blood, and of a Queen, the daughter of a king, I require you, Madam, for the sake of Jesus, that after my enemies have satisfied their black thirst for my innocent blood, you will permit my poor disconsolate servants to remove my corpse, that it may be buried in holy ground, with my ancestors in France, especially the late Queen my mother, since in Scotland the remains of the Kings my predecessors have been outraged, and the churches torn down and profaned. . .

… I beseech the God of mercy and justice to enlighten you with His holy Spirit, and to give me the grace to die in perfect charity, as I endeavour to do, pardoning my death to all those who have either caused or cooperated in it; and this will be my prayer to the end.

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered, wherefor from the earliest dawn of your comprehension we ought to dispose our minds to make things temporal yield to those of eternity.

Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner,

Marie R

Aside from the tragic drama of the story—England’s Protestant Queen executing her Catholic Scottish cousin and rival—and the resultant war Mary’s death inspired between England and Spain, the Queen of Scot’s unlawful 1587 execution marked something far more profound: the “beginning of the end” for monarchies as an effective, fully functional political system:

The 1215 Magna Carta marks the “beginning” of the devolution of monarchical authority, as it was the first time a king had had to recognize himself bound to an authority besides God Himself. The 1689 Glorious Revolution and its English Bill of Rights marked the “end”, the death throes of the British monarchy toward unlimited Parliamentarianism, but what marked “the beginning of the end”? What heralded in the bloodless revolution that transformed Britain from a partly-limited monarchy into a crowned republic where Parliament ruled and monarchs simply reigned?

1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution which saw Jacobin France guillotine its King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in the prelude to the infamous Reign of Terror) is too recent…

1689 (William III and Mary II’s granting of the Bill of Rights which recognized the political supremacy of Parliament and granted English Protestants—not Catholics—many basic protections from the Sovereign but not from Parliament) is too recent….

1649 (The English Parliament voting to convict King Charles I of being a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy” and subsequently beheading the King) is too recent…

Where may we look to see the origins of the British monarchy’s long descent from a de facto absolutist state under the Tudors to the largely ceremonial figurehead regime we see in place today? We must look, not to the tumultuous reign of the English Stuarts or the increasingly ceremonial reigns of the Hanoverians, but to the Tudors themselves, to a decision made by England’s most beloved Queen, the “Gloriana” of famous memory, Elizabeth I. We must look to two seminal years: 1586 and 1587.

In 1586, without any legal precedent, without any attorney to aid her or even the benefit of having her own papers and documents to consult, Mary—Queen of Scots from 1542-1567 and Queen of France from 1559-1560—was tried for treason at the behest of her reigning cousin, Elizabeth I of England. Mary had fled to England in 1568 following her deposition from the Scottish throne seeking Elizabeth’s help and protection, expecting that her cousin and fellow queen would commit money and troops to restore the Catholic Queen to the throne of her rebellious and (since 1560) newly Protestant kingdom. The heavily-pregnant Mary had been forced to sign her abdication in July 1567 while imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. Her rebellious Protestant lords forced Queen Mary to sign the papers immediately after she had miscarried twins. Following her escape from that castle, Mary’s armies had been twice defeated by Protestant forces under her treacherous half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray, who was in Queen Elizabeth’s pay.

Elizabeth, troubled by Mary’s lack of judgment and highly controversial marital history (in May 1567 Mary had married her third husband, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, who was publicly accused of having murdered her estranged second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in February 1567), refused to help her cousin. Instead, as she had done previously, Elizabeth secured a Protestant regency in Scotland, ensuring that Mary’s only son and heir, James VI, was raised a Protestant and taught to despise his mother. Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for the next 19 years, during which time Mary actively plotted to regain her lost freedom and, so she was accused at her trial, to overthrow her Protestant cousin. For in the eyes of Catholic Europe, it was Mary Stuart, not the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, who was the lawful Queen of England.

Mary’s plotting made her the enemy of all English Protestants, and by 1586 Elizabeth was essentially forced by her advisers to bring her Scottish cousin Mary to trial for treason. As with all Tudor treason trials, Mary’s trial verdict was a foregone conclusion, as the jurors were all English nobles subject to Queen Elizabeth. As a Queen in her own right, Mary vehemently denied that the English court had any authority to try her, and, she famously stated, she would “rather die a thousand deaths” than acknowledge herself to be subject to the laws of England.

So it came to pass that, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth I regretfully signed her own cousin and sister queen’s execution warrant. While two medieval English kings, Richard II (1367-1400, r. 1377-1399) and Edward II (1284-1327, r. 1307-1327), had been unlawfully murdered shortly after their illegal deposition from the throne, neither men were executed lawfully; an assassin in the night is entirely different from a public, state-sanctioned, royally-ordered execution. Mary’s state-sanctioned murder, for which all England bears responsibility before God, but especially Queen Elizabeth I who signed Mary’s death warrant, was different from Richard II or Edward II’s killings in that, from the English Protestant point of view, Mary’s execution represented, somehow, incredibly, an entirely legal act in conformity with the existing laws of Parliament. That is what makes it so horrendously appalling. Edward II and Richard Ii were murdered after being deposed — they never freely abdicated. Mary, too, was unlawfully forced to abdicate by her political enemies, but then she was put to death after a formal trial by the English lords acting at Queen Elizabeth’s behest.

Walking to her execution dressed as a Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded with three strokes of the axe at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8 at the age of 44.  The most heinous aspect of the entire spectacle was that Elizabeth, a God-anointed sovereign queen, signed the death warrant of her own cousin and kinswoman, a woman who was, by all right, still the lawful Queen of Scotland the morning she died in February 1587, a forced abdication being null and void under both English and Scottish law.

With this execution, a Sovereign Queen had ordered the judicial murder and execution of a fellow Sovereign Queen. A reigning monarch had put to death her own cousin, a former monarch and by birth a Queen regnant. This marked the inevitable beginning of the end. Since Elizabeth, the childless Protestant Virgin Queen, ordered her luckless Catholic cousin Mary’s execution, Mary’s grandson Charles I’s execution, and the execution of King Louis XVI of France and his Queen Marie Antoinette, were all but inevitable. From Mary’s execution on February 8, the world experienced as a horrid reality the notion that a God-anointed monarch could be lawfully and legitimately put to death. From that moment, farewell to true monarchical sovereignty.

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Bibliography:

  1. Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Amazon. 1886. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Fotheringhay-account-historical-descriptive-execution/dp/1236203968
  2. Cheetham, J. Keith. On the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited, 2000.
  3. Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. Amazon. Vintage Books: New York, NY, 2003. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Mary-Cousins-Rivals-Queens/dp/0375708200
  4. Fraser, Lady Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. Delta Book, Bantam Dell publishers: New York, NY, 1993. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Queen-Scots-Antonia-Fraser/dp/038531129X/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=16XZ1SM5PEJQJAX9N7ZB&dpID=51JO1bzHJrL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR104%2C160_
  5. Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Amazon. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY, 2004. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Scots-True-Life-Stuart/dp/0618619178
  6. Guy, John. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. Harper Perennial: London, UK, 2004. Accessed February 8, 2015. http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Heart-Own-Queen-Scots/dp/1841157538

Update on 28 September 2015: As of three days ago, according to this report by the Scottish Legal News website, and corroborated by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots has been cleared of the slanderous charge of murdering her second husband. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and King consort of Scots (tenure 1565-1567, 1545-1567) was found dead with his valet at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh in February 1567. The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s panel of expert historians, pathologists, explosive experts, and forensic scientists determined that Darnley was likely assassinated by angry relatives and political rivals furious with him for betraying them after David Rizzio’s March 1566 murder, which Darnley collaborated in and executed in the pregnant Queen’s presence.