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Mary Stuart 1542–1587 Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart
Queen of Scots

The turbulent life and tragic death of Mary, queen of Scots, remains one of the most colorful tales in the history of Britain's royal families. The daughter and heir of James V, king of Scotland, Mary also had a strong claim to the English throne. Her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was the elder sister of Henry VIII of England.

James V died soon after Mary's birth, and she became queen of Scotland in 1543. Mary spent her childhood in France, where she was educated with the French royal children. In 1558 she married Francis of Valois, the heir to the French throne. That same year Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, became queen of England. Some disputed her claim to the throne, including the French king Henry II, who declared his daughter-in-law Mary the rightful ruler of England.

When Francis died prematurely in 1560, Mary returned to Scotland. There she established a brilliant court that encouraged literary efforts in numerous languages. An important patron* and book collector, Mary had a special fondness for poetry. However, trouble, arose on several fronts. The Protestantism of John Knox dominated religious life in Scotland, but Mary was a Catholic and tried to convert the nobility to her faith. She also had ambitions for the English crown and refused to sign a treaty with Elizabeth or to stop using the English royal coat of arms*. In 1565 Mary married Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who also had a claim to the throne of England.

Mary and Darnley disagreed about his power as king of Scotland. With the support of some lords, Darnley led an attack on David Riccio, Mary's secretary and rumored lover. Riccio was stabbed to death. In the midst of a deteriorating political situation, Mary gave birth to a son, James, and some months later Darnley was murdered. One of the men accused of conspiring to kill Darnley was James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell. Mary not only protected Bothwell but married him after he divorced his wife. Widespread outrage led to a Scottish revolt against Mary and her new husband. Bothwell fled, but Mary was captured and imprisoned for a year before escaping to England. She left the Scottish crown to her young son.

Arriving in England in 1568, Mary became the prisoner of her cousin, Elizabeth I, whom she never met. English Catholics rallied to Mary's cause, and Elizabeth's supporters produced letters, apparently written by Mary, that encouraged plots against the crown. In 1587 Elizabeth's royal secretary came into possession of a letter in which Mary approved of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary stood trial for treason. The court convicted her, and the following year she was beheaded. Mary's lifelong ambition for the English throne was realized by her son. In 1603 he succeeded Elizabeth to become King James I of England.

(See alsoEngland; Scotland. )

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* coat of arms

set of symbols used to represent a noble family

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