Mary Queen of Scots

Published: 21st February 2019, last updated: 14th September 2023
Engraved by W.T.Fry and published in Lodge’s British Portraits encyclopedia, United Kingdom, 1823

If you visit Stirling Castle, and search a section of the battlements which overlooks Douglas garden, you will find a little spyhole 6 inches in diameter, at about knee height. It was carved out for the toddler Queen, Mary Stewart, known as Mary Queen of Scots, so she could look out over her realm.  

Mary left Scotland when she was 5 years old. She returned at 18 as a foreigner. After enjoying a luxurious renaissance childhood in France, she had to realign herself with an austere Protestant revolution in Scotland, and may well have felt much private resistance to it.

All the while Mary searched in vain for the right husband to help her. Some of her choices were foolish, even desperate, and hastened her downfall.

Historians compare her to Elizabeth I, the virgin queen, whose uncompromising reign stands in stark contrast to the life of Mary Queen of Scots.

Family Tree

Linlithgow Palace: The birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots was born on 8th December 1542, and inherited her throne at the tender age of 6 days old with the blood of both Scottish and English kings running in her veins.

Not only a Stewart, but she was also a Tudor. Her grandfather, James IV, had married Margaret Tudor, sister to the present English king, Henry VIII.  That made Henry VIII Mary’s great uncle, and Henry VII her great grandfather.

Her father, James V, came from a long line of Stewart kings all the way back to Robert the Bruce.

James V died at 29 in Falkland Palace. On his death bed he heard of the birth of his third child, a daughter, at Linlithgow Palace 35 miles away. His two male heirs had both died in infancy the year before.

On hearing the news James V made a dreary prediction. ‘It came wi’ a lass’ (meaning the rise of the House of Stewart began with Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce, who married into the Stewart line) ‘and it’ll gang wi’ a lass’, meaning, the throne will pass from the Stewart line through Mary who will no doubt marry into another line.

But whatever befell his daughter’s life, his prediction was wrong. Mary married her first cousin, also a Stewart, and bore him a son, the future James VI. The House of Stewart was to rise even higher after Mary Queen of Scots.


Mary, Queen of Scots had 3 spouses. She was first married to Francis, king of France (1558–60), then Lord Darnley became her husband (1565–67) with whom she had her only child, and the las was Earl of Bothwell (1567–78).


Mary Queen of Scots was crowned at Stirling Castle on September 9th 1543, the 30th anniversary of the battle of Flodden, where James IV had been slain. Not the most auspicious date, you might say, but the ceremony was laced with great significance for the Scottish people.

Sitting on her mother’s knee, it is said, she thrust out her tiny 9-month old hand to grip the sceptre eagerly, delighting the nobles, who saw this as divinely inspired enthusiasm.

The man who carried her crown at the coronation was the ‘second person of the realm’ James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, heir presumptive and great grandson of James II. Should Mary have died or failed to produce an heir, Arran would inherit the crown.  

In January 1543 he had been appointed regent for Mary, and was making a mess of it. Arran was backed by Henry VIII, and had signed the Treaty of Greenwich, which promised Mary Queen of Scots in marriage to Henry’s son, the future Edward VI.

The Scottish were perturbed by this suspicious treaty. Inappropriate demands were being made, for example that the Scottish sever the Auld Alliance with France (a mutual commitment of military aid). The dark days of Edward I still burned in Scottish memory.

Vacillating between the Scottish nobles and Henry VIII’s demands, Arran lost his position when the dowager Queen, Mary de Guise took back power, and Parliament tore up the treaty. It was while all this was going on that baby Mary was crowned.

Henry VIII raged in fury at this Scottish u-turn. In 1544 he waged a war that Sir Walter Scott coined ‘The Rough Wooing,’ a euphemism that saw the murder of thousands of Scots from Coldstream to Edinburgh, and the desecration and destruction of all the abbeys and castles in between.

This continued for 5 bloody years and achieved nothing but wanton destruction, piles of bodies, and a Scottish people righteously inured against the English.

Henry VIII died in January 1547, but the war continued under the Duke of Somerset, who was even more committed to securing Mary Queen of Scots for King Edward VI.

Mary, now 5 years old, was sent to France, where she would be safe in the court of King Henri II, and where Mary de Guise secured the betrothal of her daughter to his heir, the Dauphin, in return for military aid from France. The Auld Alliance was made stronger and the French saved the day.

But it was not love that launched the French king’s ships. Mary’s bloodline was as valuable to Henri as any other royal with an eye on the English throne. To the Europe Catholics Edward VI was illegitimate. Only Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife, was considered legitimate, and after her, little Mary Stewart was second in line.

If not love, then the French king soon fell in love. Mary charmed the French court so much he declared himself smitten. ‘She is the most perfect child I have ever seen’, he was heard to say.  Mary was tall and graceful for her age, with hazel eyes and alabaster skin.

Her betrothed, François, a year younger, was short and rather clumsy. But Mary Queen of Scots was very fond of him and showed him great affection.

Mary’s education was of the highest degree, she blossomed in the heartland of the renaissance, where great men like Leonardo da Vinci had operated.

In 1550 the English finally withdrew from Scotland in defeat and Henri II celebrated the event with a public declaration of Mary Stewart’s rightful claim to the English throne.

With Edward VI firmly in place this seemed a remote possibility, but then Edward died in 1553 and Mary Tudor, married to a Catholic Spanish prince, set about revoking Protestantism and burning heretics.

First Marriage

Scotland, under the protection of the French, accepted Mary de Guise as regent for her daughter and things seemed to be looking up for the Scottish when, in 1558 Mary and François, the childhood sweethearts, were married with great pomp and ceremony at the Louvre Palace in Paris.

But there was a sting in the tail: a secret pre-nuptial contract which stated that should Mary die without an heir, the crown of Scotland would pass to François, and therefore France. Mary had gambled with the Scottish crown.

By the end of 1558, the unthinkable happened, Mary Tudor was dead, and Elizabeth, the most illegitimate of all Henry VIII’s bastard children, was on the English throne.

This was an opportunity the French hadn’t dared hope for. If Mary Stuart (as the French spelt it), already Queen of Scotland, and future Queen of France, would claim her right to the English crown, it would herald a new Catholic world order. Power and right were on her side. Encouraged by Henri II, Mary and François added the royal arms of England into their own heraldic quarterings to assert Mary’s claim.  

Events, however, we’re moving fast. By the summer of the following year, Henri II was dead, and François and Mary were crowned King and Queen of France. It was not to last. François, a physically weak boy, contracted an ear-infection and died in 1560, less than two years into his reign.

Henri’s widow, Catherine De Medici hated the ambitious Guises who had surrounded Henri and expelled the heartbroken Mary and all her relatives from the French court.

Mary’s mother had died in the same year, so, with nowhere else to go, she returned home, widow and orphan, to take up her throne in Scotland.

Mary on the Throne of Scotland

There wasn’t much of a welcome in Scotland either for the young Queen with her renaissance Catholic ways. Scotland was caught up in the wave of Protestant reformation.

One of its principal proponents was John Knox, a hard-line preacher. Knox had persuaded many of the Scottish nobles to Protestantism, including Mary’s elder illegitimate half-brother, Lord James Stewart.

It didn’t help that John Knox hated women. About the time Mary was married in Paris he had written a treatise called The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. It was famous in its day, but not the sort of pamphlet to curry favour with any queen.

Mary’s hope for the English throne was also dashed by the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed in 1560 by Scotland, England and France, which accepted Elizabeth as rightful Queen of England. Mary and François, while he lived, had refused to ratify this treaty, but after his death, her position was less stable.

As Mary Queen of Scots sailed back to Scotland, John Knox was preaching death to all Catholics, and the overthrow of all Catholic monarchs.

Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart, a more moderate Protestant, proposed a compromise. Speaking on the behalf of the Protestant nobles, who called themselves the Lords of the Congregation, they would allow her to continue her private Catholic masses, but she must be Protestant in public, and she must accept the reality that Scotland was now a Protestant country. She entered the country of her birth on this understanding.

Second Marriage

Marrying Mary Queen of Scots was the goal of all eligible bachelors; she was the embodiment of a graceful and beautiful land, with the added allure of English royal blood.

Every European suitor came and went through a tirelessly revolving door. A prince of Spain slunk away rejected, followed by the new Earl of Arran (who made the mistake of asking Elizabeth of England first, and was bitterly flicked away by Mary). They were followed by a stampede of European princes from Bavaria to Denmark, not to mention several Scottish nobles. Even François’s brother, Charles IX was in the running, though Catherine De Medici’s unfrozen hostility was hardly an inducement.

Mary’s choice shocked everyone: Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, tall, handsome and 17. Another grandchild of old Mary Tudor (wife to Henry IV), Lord Darnley was, like Mary, a dynastic seedbed. Two cousins, both descended from Henry VII, what a crushing pressure on Elizabeth I that marriage must have seemed! Unless Elizabeth could produce heirs, her crown would eventually be heading north.

Mary and Lord Darnley were married, by a private Catholic ceremony in July 1565 in the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Elizabeth voiced her objection, saying that Darnley, English born, should have sought her permission to marry the Queen of Scotland.

They had also overlooked the fact that, as first cousins, they could not marry without special dispensation from the Pope. But, it mattered not to Mary Queen of Scots. She lavished titles on Darnley and promised that he would become King of Scotland upon his marriage.

She never kept that promise. Darnley was furious not to be given the ‘Crown Matrimonial’. Mary quickly saw that Darnley was not kingly material. He was spoiled, weak of character and often drunk, in short, an embarrassment.

Darnley achieved one act of gravity, providing Mary with a male heir. However, he almost ruined that when he foolishly entered into a plot to murder her private secretary, David Rizzio.

David Rizzio

Rizzio, an Italian, had risen in a few years to high favour in Mary’s inner circle, attracting the suspicions of other nobles that he was, variously, her lover, an English spy or an agent of the Pope.

Her half-brother, Lord James Stewart, led the plot. They burst into the Queen’s private chamber one evening when she was heavily pregnant, dragged Rizzio out to an ante-chamber and viciously stabbed him to death.

The Queen, fearing her own life and that of her unborn child, fled the chamber in another direction, and rode on horseback to Dunbar castle.  She was joined by one of her bodyguards, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Bothwell was soon to play a larger part in Mary’s life.

Darnley was now firmly out of the Queen’s affections. She held him apart from her, and only ordered his attendance at the birth of her baby in June 1566. She then threw a huge 3-day party to celebrate the event, to which Darnley was not invited.

At this party Mary Queen of Scots had an imposing round table installed in the Great Hall at Stirling Castle, as a symbol of the new young ‘Arthur’, who would become king of a reunited Britain.

The English guests were heartily offended at this provocative display. Elizabeth, however, was getting older, already in her mid-thirties with no marriage on the horizon. Mary might not gain the crown of England, but she correctly deduced her son’s path to it was clear.

Lord Darnley fell ill the following winter, and Mary, despite her hostility, had him brought back to Edinburgh and put up at a house in Kirk O’Field, where she could oversee his recuperation. In February 1567 the building was blown apart by gunpowder packed in the basement by persons unknown.

Darnley escaped the blast, but was found in the grounds, having been strangled or suffocated by persons unknown.

No one ever got to the bottom of this conspiracy to murder Darnley, but nobles suspected Bothwell, the Queen’s new favourite.

Mary had spent the night as usual at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and mustered as much grief as she could at the news. No one was convinced.

The King of Scotland, in all but crowning, was given no state burial, and word had it his body was dumped somewhere in the grounds of Holyrood Abbey in an unmarked grave. No one knew where he was buried.

Queen Elizabeth announced that until Queen Mary was cleared of conspiracy to murder Prince James’s father, there could be no question of his succession to the English throne.

A farcical show trial ensued with Bothwell in the dock, but the court was filled with his supporters and he was naturally acquitted.

Third Marriage

Mary Queen of Scots was being closely watched for signs of guilt by her nobles and Elizabeth’s spies. Even if she was innocent, someone in her court was not; there was a murderer in their midst.

Her next act was probably the most foolish of her life: she married the man everyone still suspected, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. If she thought this would clear his name, it had the opposite effect.

Some say she was raped by Bothwell, and she married him to preserve her honour.  Whatever the truth, she married him in a Protestant ceremony in May 1567 at Holyroodhouse. Perhaps she had conspired in Darnley’s murder and marriage was Bothwell’s reward. It certainly looked that way to the Scottish people.  

What followed was civil war. Led by Lord James Stewart, a group of nobles decided to ‘free’ their queen from the hands of Bothwell. It was an excuse for a coup.

At Carberry Hill on 15 June, Mary and Bothwell led an army to oppose them, but battle did not commence that day. Mary changed her mind and sued for a peace, on the deal that Bothwell be allowed to leave the field.

The nobles granted him safe passage. He left for Dunbar, and never saw his wife again. After a dissolute existence, he died in a prison in Denmark in 1578.


Mary came back to an Edinburgh that had turned against her. As she processed through the town the townsfolk shouted at her, called her a whore and demanded her death.  The Protestant nobles bundled her out of the city and took her to Lochleven Castle where she was imprisoned.

Lochleven Castle

Mary Queen of Scots would never see her son again. The Protestant lords took upon themselves the task of educating him in the Protestant faith.

Within a few weeks of Mary’s arrival she suffered a miscarriage. It was twins, possibly fathered by Bothwell. Their bodies were buried in the grounds of Lochleven Castle.

Having got her where they wanted her, the nobles now wanted nothing less than her abdication. Mary signed it all away in July 1567. Five days later her son was crowned James VI in the first Protestant coronation seen in Scotland.


Mary still had skills, not least her ability to charm her guards. In May 1568 she escaped from Lochleven Castle with the help of a besotted noble. In fact she escaped twice, but got further the second time.

She amassed an army – she still had some support – and prepared to meet the Protestant army led by Mary’s half-brother, now acting as regent for the young King James.

Lord James Stewart’s army was smaller than Mary’s, but his superior military knowledge won the day. Mary fled the field. She could have regrouped and consolidated her support, which was growing, but instead she made another fatal error: she crossed the border and threw herself on the mercy of England.


Warned by her advisors of the threat of Mary’s continued existence – while she lived a Catholic coup was always a possibility – Elizabeth incarcerated her for nineteen years but refused to sanction the killing of her cousin.

Elizabeth put her in a series of castles, moving her from damp cold castle to damper colder one, in the vain hope that a chill might see her off. She ended up at Fotheringhay Castle, standing on marshy land in cold damp Northamptonshire. Fotheringhay had seen off Catherine of Aragon, another undesirable extra queen.

In any case there was no irrefutable proof that Mary plotted against Elizabeth. That is, not until Sir Francis Walsingham engineered some in the form of the Babington Plot.

Lord Babington, a dissatisfied English noble, thought it a plausible idea to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and restore Catholic rule under Queen Mary.

Babington secretly wrote to Mary advising her of the plan. Unknown to him most of his allies in the plot were double-agents. She wrote back urging him of the necessity of seeking foreign aid, but left the matter of the Queen’s assassination to his own conscience.

When her reply was intercepted by Walsingham he had enough to convict her of treason. She was tried in October 1587, her guilt a foregone conclusion. It took Elizabeth another 3 months to sign the death warrant.

She was beheaded in February 1588.  Mary, capitalising on the occasion, dressed in a scarlet dress under a black clock to symbolise her martyrdom.

Reports say the executioner took several blows to remove her head. It is said she wore a wig, which detached dramatically from the head as the executioner held it up. The gathered witnesses gasped to see that the beautiful Queen of legend had aged so badly. Another story goes that Mary’s little dog hid in her skirts and wouldn’t leave the body.

It seemed Elizabeth still hesitated even after the execution. Mary’s body was left mouldering in the castle until July, while Elizabeth decided what to do with it. Eventually it was buried at Peterborough cathedral, in the middle of the night.

Catholic patience ran out with Mary’s execution, and the Spanish Armada was launched the same year. Queen Elizabeth beat them too.

Mary, however, had the final victory, when James VI was crowned James I of England and he united the two kingdoms, just as Mary had predicted.

Facts About Mary Queen of Scots

  • It’s a movie.  In the latest movie (released in the US on 7th December 2018), Mary Queen of Scots, Mary is played by Saoirse Ronan, as a steely determined young Queen with a Scottish accent. In reality she was more likely to have spoken with a French accent.
  • During their lives Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth never met, though they wrote long letters to each other.
  • Anagrams of Mary Queen of Scots include: ‘O! Fear my conquests’, and ‘Roast comfy queens!’
  • A spookier anagram can be made of her Latin name: Maria Steuarda Scotorum Regina: ‘Trusa vi regnis morte amara cado’ – which means, ‘Thrust by force from my reign I die a foul death.’
  • Mary loved to dance, and so did her second husband, Lord Darnley. It was the one thing they had in common.
  • Fotheringhay Castle was in such a bad state of repair that 50 years after Mary’s execution it was finally demolished. Nothing remains but an earthwork and a small section of wall sporting three plaques.
  • Of all Mary’s English prisons, Tutbury Castle was most hated by her. The formidable Bess of Hardwick was her gaoler.
  • Towards the end of her life Mary suffered from severe pains in her joints brought on by the cold homes she was forced to live in.
  • Mary was 44 when she was executed. She was 10 years younger than Elizabeth.
  • After Mary’s abdication, her half-brother, Lord James Stewart, became regent and fought the civil war in Scotland that began after Mary’s third marriage. He secured a truce and earned the nickname ‘the good regent.’ In 1570, while riding in a cavalcade, he was assassinated by one of Mary’s die-hard supporters. He was the first head of state to be assassinated by a firearm.