Mary, Queen of Scots: History, Facts & Execution

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Taught by

Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Scottish monarch who became queen only six days into her life, Mary Queen of Scots. Mary led a tumultuous life and was eventually executed in England in 1587.

We also recommend watching Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth: Catholic vs. Anglican and The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Facts and History

Bad Luck

For some people, if they did not have bad luck they would have no luck at all. Mary, Queen of Scots, was certainly one of these people. Regardless of the seemingly good decisions Mary made in her life - from marrying for love to abdicating her throne in the face of insurrection - the results were always negative.

Childhood

Born at Linlithgow, Scotland, on December 8th, 1642, Mary became the Queen of Scotland only six days after her birth when her father, James V of Scotland, died. Mary soon became the focal point of feuding factions within the Scottish government between those who wished to use Mary to achieve closer relations with England and others who wanted to use Mary to strengthen the 'Auld Alliance' with France, in opposition to English interests.

Though Mary was originally betrothed to Henry VIII of England's son, Edward, those with French interests eventually removed Mary to France in 1548, where she was placed under the care of Henry II of France, with promises to marry Henry's son, the Dauphin Francis. Under French care, Mary grew from a child to a cultured woman, knowing several languages as well as becoming an accomplished musician and poet. In April 1558, Mary married Francis II, becoming Queen consort of France as well as the Queen of Scots.

Scotland

Mary's French world was destroyed over the next two years: King Henry II died in a jousting accident in 1559, and her young husband died the following year in 1560. In addition, Mary's mother who had remained in Scotland as part of the ruling council, died suddenly of dropsy in June 1560. With little left for Mary on the continent, she returned to Scotland in July 1560.

Having spent her entire childhood in France, Mary was ill-equipped to adequately deal with Scottish politics. The friction created by Mary's devout Catholicism and the increasing power of Protestants at the Scottish court only made matters more difficult.

In 1565, Mary married a Scottish noble and her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Though they married out of love, their marriage quickly soured after Darnley became jealous of Mary's Catholic secretary, David Rizzio, and Darnley murdered the secretary. Despite this, they had a child, the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England in 1566.

Darnley's volatility became a major issue at the Scottish court, and Darnley was murdered in an explosion at Kirk O'Field, a residence Mary had fortuitously left several hours prior to the explosion. It was later discovered that Darnley had not died in the explosion, but had been strangled beforehand. Many Scottish Protestants believed Mary was complicit in the murder, though it was the Earl of Bothwell who was eventually tried and acquitted for the murder of Darnley.

Imprisonment

In May 1567, after Bothwell's acquittal, Mary and Bothwell married. The marriage raised the ire of Bothwell's rival Scottish noblemen, and many Scottish peers rose in open rebellion. After a failed round of negotiations in June, Bothwell was exiled while Mary was imprisoned. A month later she was forced to abdicate the throne.

After escaping from imprisonment and leading a failed uprising against her former captors, Mary fled south to England and the supposed safety of her cousin, Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Mary's appearance in England presented problems for Elizabeth. According to many English Catholics, Elizabeth was an illegitimate usurper of the throne since she was Protestant, and as the closest Catholic relative of Henry VIII Mary was the rightful queen of England, a right she refused to renounce. As a result, Elizabeth kept Mary in various stages of imprisonment and captivity in castles and the estates of northern English nobles for the next twenty years.

Trial and Execution

In 1586 the Babington Plot, initiated by the Catholic Englishman Sir Anthony Babington, planned to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Confiscated letters from Mary proved her complicity in the plot, and she was placed on trial. She was found guilty of treason in September 1586, and sentenced to death. Elizabeth hesitated to lawfully execute her cousin and a rightful monarch of Scotland, but she eventually signed the death warrant. Mary was executed on February 8th, 1587.

Summary

  • Born on December 8th 1642, Mary became Queen of Scotland after her father's death six days later.
  • In 1548, Mary moved to France and was betrothed to the Dauphin Francis.
  • Mary and Francis were married in 1558, though her husband, father-in-law, and mother all died within two years the marriage.
  • Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, and married Lord Darnley, her cousin, in 1565.
  • After Darnley's murder in 1566, Mary was forced to abdicate by a rebellion of Scottish peers in 1567.
  • Mary was held captive in England for twenty years before being executed for treason in 1587.

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