Say the name Mary, Queen of Scots and it conjures up an image of a tragic heroine: a woman of courage who battled against adversity throughout her life, only to have it savagely cut short by her cold-hearted cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England.
This image has been perpetuated by a string of films, plays and novels, swelling the ranks of Mary’s ardent fans worldwide. The latest Hollywood production, released in the UK in January with Saoirse Ronan as the charismatic lead, took Marymania to new heights.
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But the truth is far removed from this beguiling image. Yes, Mary was dogged by tragedy in her life, but much of this could have been avoided if she had shown greater wisdom and restraint. In contrast to Elizabeth I, the Queen of Scots ruled with her heart, not her head. This led her to make a series of catastrophic decisions that would lose her the crown — and her life.
The seeds of Mary’s disastrous reign were sown in early childhood. While her cousin Elizabeth learned the hard way — neglected by her father, declared a bastard, and often in danger of her life — Mary was the pampered princess, surrounded by flatterers and attendants who met her every need and taught her to accept queenship as a matter of right. This may have brought Mary short-term happiness and security, but it did little to equip her for the monumental task that lay ahead.
Whereas Elizabeth had had a tortuous path to the throne of England, Mary had inherited the crown of Scotland at just six days old upon the death of her father, James V. At the age of five, Mary was betrothed to François, Dauphin of France and son of King Henri II, and spent the rest of her childhood at the French court, where she became the focus of adoring attention.
All of this meant that Mary grew up to be rather arrogant, and that she was likely to one day add France to her crowns gave her an even greater sense of invincibility. Moreover, she had long been taught to believe in her right to the English throne. She was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, and even though Henry VIII had excluded his elder sister’s descendants from the succession, Mary paid little heed to this. It was this fact, more than any other, that would set her on a collision course with Elizabeth — with calamitous results.
In April 1558, Mary and the Dauphin were married; in November, they received the news that Elizabeth was now Queen of England, and Mary wasted no time in asserting her claim to the English throne. The very day after Elizabeth’s accession, she and her new husband began to style themselves King and Queen of England and included the English royal arms in Mary’s shield.
This dealt her relationship with Elizabeth a fatal blow. As the 17th century historian William Camden observed: “Hereupon Queen Elizabeth bore secret grudge against her, which… could not be extinguished but by death.”
The following year, Mary and François became rulers of France upon the death of his father King Henri II. But Mary’s triumph was shortlived: her sixteen year-old husband François died suddenly the following year, and any hopes that Mary might have cherished of holding onto power were soon dashed when her formidable mother-in-law Catherine de’ Medici was declared Regent of France. Mary’s return to Scotland in August 1561 signalled the end of her life as a pampered princess. But, fatally, she failed to appreciate that fact.
Scotland was a less hospitable climate in every respect, dominated by rapacious and ruthless nobles who viewed their queen with barely concealed disdain. In stark contrast to her English cousin, Mary felt completely unable to assert her authority without a husband to guide her. She therefore soon began casting about for a suitable candidate.
Her choice could not have been worse. Henry, Lord Darnley, was the son of the Earl and Countess of Lennox and, like Mary, a grandchild of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. Tall, good looking and charismatic, Darnley’s royal blood was not the only thing that appealed to Mary. She seems to have fallen head over heels in love and soon took this “long lad” as her husband. As well as defying the expressed wishes of her cousin Elizabeth and thus destroying the fragile alliance between their two countries, Mary’s rash decision also proved her to be an appalling judge of character.
Arrogant, feckless and vain, Darnley was a singularly unsuitable choice as consort. Even Mary’s ambassador Sir James Melville, who was usually effusive in his praise of her, lamented: “No woman of spirit would make choice of such a man.” Elizabeth’s ambassador in Scotland, Thomas Randolph, concurred: “This Queen in her love is so transported, and he grown so proud that to all honest men he is intolerable.” But Mary was blinded by sexual attraction and declared her new husband “the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had ever seen”.
It was not long before Darnley made enemies of the powerful Scottish lords who dominated Mary’s government. Even his wife soon came to realise her mistake in marrying him. Within months of the wedding, Randolph reported: “I know now for certain that this Queen repenteth her marriage, that she hateth Darnley and all his kin.” But there was no going back now, particularly as Mary was pregnant with Darnley’s child.
Matters came to a head when Darnley ordered Mary’s beloved secretary, David Rizzio, to be dragged from her presence and stabbed to death in an adjoining room. He then kept his heavily pregnant wife a virtual prisoner.
The birth of a son in June 1566 strengthened Mary’s resolved to be rid of her troublesome husband and she began openly conspiring with a group of Scottish Lords. They included the Lord High Admiral of Scotland, James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell. When Darnley was murdered in February 1567, Bothwell was the prime suspect.
Incredibly, three months later Mary scandalised the world by taking Bothwell as her new husband. Whether he had forced her into marriage or she had formed a passionate attachment to her second husband’s murderer will never be known for certain. Either way, the marriage was a telling indication of Mary’s deeply conventional views of queenship. She believed that the only way for a woman to rule effectively was by submitting to the direction of male advisers.
One of Elizabeth’s ambassadors to Scotland remarked that Mary had no confidence in her own intellectual ability, but was content “to be ruled by good counsel and wise men”. While Elizabeth was a shrewd political operator who dominated her government, Mary would sit in council meetings quietly sewing as her advisers debated the issues at hand. She justified her latest marriage on the basis that the unrest within her country “cannot be contained in order unless our authority be assisted and set forth by the fortification of a man”.
The man she had chosen was far from being an equal partner. Domineering, aggressive and deeply scornful of women, Bothwell forced Mary to submit meekly to his will. It was not long before he alienated the powerful lords of the political establishment, who staged a coup to oust both him and the queen.
Mary was taken captive in June 1567 and during her imprisonment at Lochleven Castle she miscarried Bothwell’s twins. On 24 July she was presented with the deeds of abdication and told she must sign or face death.
But if Mary lacked judgement, she did not lack courage, and in May the following year she staged a daring escape from Lochleven. Together with a small band of supporters, she fled south to Dumfries. Realising that to turn back would almost certainly mean death, the beleaguered Queen of Scots chose to throw herself upon the mercy of her cousin, Elizabeth.
It would prove another catastrophic decision. Mary could have returned to France, where she still had powerful allies. Instead, she revealed her political naivety by taking her English cousin’s assurances of affection and support at face value. When Elizabeth showed her true colours and made the fallen Queen of Scots her prisoner, Mary was both shocked and outraged. Over the next few weeks, she bombarded her cousin with long and impassioned letters, all pleading with her to honour her promise of support.
If she had been more politically savvy, Mary would have appreciated that it was too dangerous for Elizabeth to release the woman who had been her greatest threat since the beginning of her reign. But while she eventually resigned herself to the fact that the English Queen was going to keep her captive, Mary was far from content to accept it.
During the long years ahead, Mary would involve herself with numerous Catholic plots and rebellions aimed at murdering Elizabeth and putting her Scottish cousin on the throne. For the most part, Mary employed just enough discretion to avoid conviction, but by 1586 she had lost patience.
When a group of Catholic gentlemen led by Antony Babington established a channel of communication with Mary, she encouraged their plans to assassinate Elizabeth and make her Queen of England. Little did she know that all her messages were being intercepted by her cousin’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, who was patiently waiting until he had enough evidence to condemn her.
On 17 July, Mary wrote to Babington, endorsing his suggestion that the English Queen be “despatched” by a group of noblemen. “Set the six gentlemen to work”, she urged. She had as good as signed her own death warrant.
Mary was found guilty of high treason on 25 October 1586; there could only be one punishment, but Elizabeth found the idea of putting a fellow queen to death abhorrent. After weeks of delaying tactics, she reluctantly bowed to pressure from her council and ordered Mary’s execution.
The former Queen of Scots went to the block on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringay Castle. Determined to go down in history as a tragic heroine, she wore scarlet, the colour of martyrs, and made an impassioned speech from the scaffold. The cult of Mary was born.
The following year, Phillip II of Spain launched the Armada in Mary’s name. For centuries afterwards she enjoyed the reputation of a great Catholic martyr, blighted by ill fortune and deprived of her throne — and her life — by a staggering miscarriage of justice. While it is true that the Queen of Scots had suffered great misfortune during her life, the real tragedy was that most of it had been of her own making.
Tracy Borman is a best selling author, historian and broadcaster specialising in the Tudor period. Her books include Elizabeth’s Women: the hidden story of the Virgin Queen.