Mary, Queen of Scots: An Unfortunate Tragedy

Mary Memorial

In a windswept field, by a quiet canal, in rural Northamptonshire lies a chunk of ancient stone.  Surrounded by an iron railing, this is all that remains of Fotheringhay Castle (shown above).  Nearby is a mound where the castle once stood.  The mound is covered in bracken, heather and grass and, in the adjacent field, is a caravan park.  There is little left to remind the visitor of the violent and tragic events that unfolded here 424 years ago.  A small plaque, attached to the railing around the stone, tells us this is the birthplace of Richard III, and the scene of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin to the Queen of England and once crown head of France and Scotland.  Beheaded for the threat she posed to Queen Elizabeth I, and her throne, Mary was used and intimidated by those around her.  Was she an unwitting pawn in the schemes of others?  Or was she culpable in the plots that inevitably led to her own demise?

Mary was born in 1542 and became Queen of Scotland six days later, after the death of her father.  Due to Mary’s young age, her French mother, Catherine of Guise, was made regent until Mary came into her majority.  At five years old Mary was sent to France to become consort to the four-year old Francis, Dauphin of France.  Mary lived the life of a royal princess at the French court and married Francis when she was fifteen.  When Francis’ father died in 1559 the Dauphin became King Francis II.  Mary was now Queen of France as well as Scotland.  Unfortunately, Francis, who had always suffered ill-health, died after seventeen months on the throne.  Mary, just short of her eighteenth birthday, now found herself at the center of a power struggle and decided to return home to rule her native Scotland.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Throughout her youth Mary was used as a commodity in royal politics.  Mary was seen as a means to unify the Catholic countries of Scotland and France, and was never considered as being a ruler in her own right.  She was raised with courtly etiquette and behaved as a young princess was expected to do at the time, completely subservient to the King and his son.  She had no experience in ruling a people and her personality inclined towards romance and frivolity, rather than the strength and political guile that marked the powerful women of that period.  By the time she returned to Scotland Mary had little hope of becoming an astute and strong Queen.

Mary started her reign well.  Although she was a Catholic Queen she was lenient towards the Protestant Lords, unlike other Catholic rulers of the time.  However, she still practiced Catholicism in her own private chapel, which upset the Protestant faction. Then, in 1565, Mary married her second husband, Lord Darnley.  Mary, true to her nature, married Darnley for love rather than political expediency.  Lord Darnley, however, merely desired the crown of Scotland.  Lord Darnley was a drunkard, preferring to spend his time in alehouses and brothels rather than with Mary, but he did manage to get his wife pregnant.  He then realized the crown would never be his.  As Darnley was often drunk and absent, Mary became close to her Italian secretary, David Rizzio.  One night, in a drunken rage, Darnley burst into the Queen’s chambers, with some Lords he had recruited to his cause, and murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Queen.  Now aware of Darnley’s vicious character, Mary tolerated her husband until the birth of her son, James, and then shut him out of her life as much as possible.  Because of Mary’s Catholicism divorce was out of the question, although she was severely unhappy with her marriage.  After Darnley had been caught out trying to gain the throne by deception, several Lords, aware of Mary’s feelings, plotted his death.  Even though Mary was aware of these plots, indications are that she didn’t wish to participate in any actions that would dishonor her name.

On the night of 9th February 1567, while Mary was attending a wedding at Holyrood House, Darnley and his manservant attempted to escape their lodgings after they discovered the building was about to be blown up.  They were caught in the grounds and strangled.  Mary was quite shocked by the assassination, although her subjects later accused her of being involved.  At the time, Mary was becoming close to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was implicated in the murder of Darnley.  After Darnley’s death, Bothwell kidnapped the Queen and they started a more intimate relationship.  Despite the fact the Scottish populace were now turning against their Queen, for consorting with her dead husband’s suspected murderer, Mary was so besotted with her new lover she married him on 15th May 1567.

Mary, however, soon lost her delusions as Bothwell began to treat her like a whore, seducing other women in the royal household and even having sexual relations with his ex-wife whom he had divorced to marry Mary.  In the meantime, Mary’s marriage to Bothwell was becoming more and more detestable to the Scottish Lords, and they declared war on the royal couple.  On 15th June 1567 both armies met at Carberry Hill.  Although the battle was a farce, Bothwell fled and ended up a captive in a Danish fortress.  Mary, now expecting her Lords to be repentant, was surprised when she was taken prisoner by them.

Mary, while aware of the plots and intrigues going on around her, did not seem to be fully conscious of the consequences.  She lost her crown, and everything she held dear, through her inability to rise above such deceits.  She was now held captive by her former subjects and must have wondered about the decisions she had made in her life.

Barely a month after being imprisoned, Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her son James.  In May 1568, with the help of some friends, Mary managed to escape from Lochleven Castle where she was being held captive.  She then gathered her loyal subjects to mount a last attack on the Scottish Lords who were against her.  The two sides met at the village of Langside where Mary’s army were soon routed, and Mary had no choice but to flee for her life.

Mary had nowhere in Scotland to run to, and she made a decision to travel to England and appeal to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.  Although the two queens had traded correspondence over the years, they had never met.  Now Elizabeth was being asked to harbor her cousin.  Elizabeth was a strong personality, but was extremely indecisive and relied on her closest advisors to guide her.  When Mary wrote to the queen Elizabeth couldn’t decide on a response.  On one hand, Mary was her cousin and a legal queen in her own right.  On the other, she was a Catholic monarch and presented a tangible threat to the throne as a plausible excuse for the Catholic heads of France and Spain to invade England.  Elizabeth’s answer, therefore, was to placate Mary while keeping her under house arrest.  For the next nineteen years Mary was held captive in various houses in England while Elizabeth worried over  a course of action.

Then, in 1586, a young man named Anthony Babington, who had formed romantic notions about Mary, instigated a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne of England.  Again Mary’s penchant for intrigue implicated her as she knew of the plot and saw it as a means to escape from her confinement, even if she did not fully condone the whole venture.  The plot came to nothing, but Mary’s fate was sealed.  At the urging of her advisors, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant.

On 8th February 1587, Mary was led to the Great Hall at Fotheringhay Castle, accompanied by five of her servants.  Here she was escorted to the block and, after three axe blows, her head was severed from her neck.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was ill-equipped to govern a country.  Leadership was thrust upon her at a young age when all she knew was the courtly life of a royal princess. Her naivety and innocence led her to be swept up in various romantic notions and she never considered the consequences.  Neither did Mary have the diplomatic ability to sacrifice her needs for her subjects, which marked out other female queens of the period.  She let intrigue and manipulation become a replacement for politics and never realized the danger they represented.  Mary is often portrayed as a dangerous temptress – a ruthless harlot who would stop at nothing to secure the throne of England.  This may be true in some respects but the purpose of today’s post is to give a different perspective – that perhaps she was actually betrayed by her own inadequacy, and mislead by the powerful, avaricious, men who surrounded her.  What do you think? Was Mary, Queen of Scots, a victim who paid the price for her gullibility?


Graham, R (2009). An Accidental Tragedy. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd.

WebRing Inc.. (2007). Mary Queen of Scots. Available: Last accessed 16th Oct 2013.

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