Mary Queen of Scots

A Detailed Life History



Mary was born on the 8th Dec 1542 to James V, King of Scotland and Mary of Guise, who was French by birth. She was the only child of the marriage.

Unfortunately her father died only six days after her birth and Mary became Queen of Scotland. There was consequently much intrigue and manipulation over who should be in control and, although Henry VIII of England tried very hard, her mother, Mary of Guise, became regent.

Life in France

Her mother obviously felt that she would be safer in France where she could be influenced by the French court of Henry II, Catherine de Medicis and the Guise family who were very influential in France. At the age of five she was sent to France for her education.

This was very comprehensive and very enjoyable and she was taught Latin, Spanish and Greek, as well as French which became her first language. She was also taught dancing, music and poetry, and took part in hunting. By all accounts she was very beautiful with red-gold hair and amber eyes and was 5 feet 11 inches in height.

In April 1558 she was married to Francis and although it was a political alliance she seemed to be genuinely in love with her husband.

The scene was rapidly changing in England as Elizabeth Tudor became Queen in November 1558 and this meant that Mary was second in line to the throne as she was also of Tudor blood.

Many Catholics regarded Mary as the rightful heir to the English throne because they did not accept the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon and therefore regarded his marriage to Anne Boleyn as invalid. Thus Elizabeth, in their eyes, was illegitimate.

For this reason Henry II of France claimed the English throne for Mary. However he died in 1559 and Francis succeeded him. Mary was now Queen of France. Sadly the marriage did not last long as Francis died in December 1560 when Mary was 18.

Return to Scotland.

Mary returned to Scotland in August 1561 but had not been trained in the French court to cope with life in Scotland. Whilst Mary had been absent in France, Scotland had officially become a Protestant country, and as a Roman Catholic, Mary was resented by many Scots. John Knox was the leading religious figure but many Scottish nobles followed their own agendas and so Mary had to deal with a complex situation full of political intrigues. In the early years she dealt very successfully with the situation and operated a policy of religious tolerance helped by her half brother James, the Earl of Moray. Elizabeth, who had been enraged by Mary's claims to the English throne, watched the situation in Scotland.

Marriage to Darnley

From her second marriage to Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley, in July 1565 Mary's rule began to deteriorate. She married for love instead of political reasons and in doing so offended nearly all the power factions in both Scotland and England. She lost the support of her half brother James as he had become jealous of the Lennox family's rise to power.

Elizabeth saw it as another Tudor marriage and it increased her mistrust of Mary.

Darnley's character did not match up to his appearance. He became very jealous of Riccio and his relationship with Mary. Aided by a group of nobles he murdered him in front of Mary in March 1566 and this convinced Mary that Darnley was plotting to harm her. The birth of their son James in June did not reconcile them. Now that Mary had a son and heir to the throne she began to look for a way out of the situation.

Murder of Darnley

Over the next eight months it is rumoured that Mary had an affair with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and conspired with him to kill her husband. The only contemporary evidence for this is the collection of letters and poems supposedly written to him which were called the Casket Letters. It has since been assumed that these were forgeries. However Mary certainly considered the possibility of a divorce from Darnley after a serious illness in October 1566. It is not known for certain exactly who killed Darnley on the night of February 9th 1567. It is, however, most likely that the nobles who hated him attempted to kill him by blowing up the house at Kirk o' Fields and when this failed, strangled him in the garden. However there were many theories for the occurrence including one that suggested that Darnley blew himself up by accident while plotting to kill Mary.

Marriage to Bothwell

In whatever way Mary was involved, she continued to show lack of political sensitivity, for within three months she had married Bothwell after he had abducted her and ravished her. She seemed to be a woman very much driven by love and passion but unfortunately Bothwell was no more acceptable to the jealous Scottish nobles than Darnley had been. Bothwell was a rough and ruthless man, amusing and charming too, but he had made many enemies. Powerful men such as Maitland, Morton, Balfour, and Murray of Tullibardine formed themselves into a confederation to oppose Bothwell.

Things came to a head at the battle of Carberry Hill on June 15th 1567 . The rebels proposed that Mary should abandon Bothwell and they would then submit to her but she refused. After various personal challenges were made and refused no combat took place and Mary's support began to drift away. She realised that all was lost and submitted her self to the rebels on condition that Bothwell would be allowed to leave freely.

Mary and Bothwell were parted for ever.

Mary was imprisoned on an island in Loch Leven where she was forced to give up the throne in favour of her son James I who was still only one year old. Bothwell was allowed to escape to Denmark where he died insane in 1578.

She escaped the following year and raised support for herself against the Scottish nobles but in the Battle of Langside she was defeated and had to flee to England. Again she showed a lack of political cunning, for she asked Elizabeth for help and received in return imprisonment in a series of castles for the next 18 years. Elizabeth's excuse was that there was still a lot of doubt about the murder of Darnley.

Meanwhile back in Scotland her brother, the Earl of Moray, had regained power as the Regent.

Mary's Captivity in England

While Mary was in prison she tried to get released by writing many pleas to Elizabeth but these fell on deaf ears. She tried to keep active by embroidery and she had pets such as a singing bird and lap dogs but her health deteriorated due to lack of exercise and she put on weight. Her looks began to fade as can be seen in portraits painted at the time. Unfortunately as the Catholic heir to the throne she became the focus of attention of the dissident Catholics in England who were planning to remove Elizabeth from the throne. When a plot to assassinate Elizabeth was discovered in 1586 the Queen finally decided that as long as Mary was alive such plots would continue and she would never be safe. Thus in spite of the fact that Mary was Queen of Scotland she was tried by an English court and found guilty. Her son James I, who was now looking to his future as a king of England and who had not seen his mother since he was an infant raised no objection. On February 8th 1587 when she was only 44 years old Mary, was executed in Fotheringhay Castle. She met her end with great dignity. Her body was finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in a tomb created by her son James I after he had ascended to the English throne.


Mary Queen of Scots, Antonia Fraser (1969 George Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, paperback version Arrow Books 1998), is a very readable comprehensive biography taking into account modern research.


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