Stuart, Mary

views updated Jun 08 2018

Mary Stuart

BORN: December 7, 1542 • Scotland

DIED: February 8, 1587 • Northamptonshire, England

Scottish queen

The most famous queen in Scottish history, Mary Stuart was also queen of France and tried to claim the throne of England. The cousin of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) and a Roman Catholic, Mary became Elizabeth's primary rival for power. Associated with several plots to remove Elizabeth from the throne and to make herself queen of England, Mary was found guilty of treason in 1587 and was beheaded.

"Tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman."

Early life

Mary Stuart was the only surviving child of King James V (1512–1542) of Scotland and his wife, Mary of Guise (1515–1560). Her two older brothers died before she was born, placing her in line to inherit James's throne. The king, bitterly disappointed at the birth of a daughter, died before the baby was a week old. Mary became queen of Scotland at the age of six days.

Mary also had a claim by birth to the throne of England. James's mother, Margaret Tudor (1489–1541), was the sister of King Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry), making Mary a great-granddaughter of King Henry VII (1457–1509). From her Roman Catholic mother, daughter of one of the most powerful noble families in France, Mary also inherited strong ties to the French royal court.

Mary became queen at a troubled time for Scotland. In order to protect itself from a political takeover by England, Scotland had established an alliance with France, a Catholic country and one of Protestant England's most powerful rivals. James V's marriage to Mary of Guise had strengthened this bond. In 1548, after an English invasion of Scotland, the Scottish government decided that Mary should marry the heir to the French throne, the future Francis II (1544–1560). This marriage would make France an even stronger ally of Scotland.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Many children know something of Mary, Queen of Scots without even realizing it. A well-known nursery rhyme is about her:

    Mary, Mary, quite contrary
    How does your garden grow?
    With silver bells and cockleshells
    And pretty maids all in a row

As John Guy explains in The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, the garden refers to the one at Holyroodhouse, the most magnificent of the Scottish royal estates. Mary lived there when she first returned to Scotland. The silver bells were used in Mary's private chamber when Mass was said. Cockleshells were symbols that Catholic pilgrims wore on badges when they visited major shrines. The pretty maids refer to Mary's childhood playmates, four girls all named Mary.

Education in France

When Mary was only five-and-a-half years old, she was sent to France. Her mother remained in Scotland to rule the country until Mary was old enough to assume power. Mary grew up at the French court and was educated with the king's children, who became her playmates. She learned Latin, French, and the art of persuasive writing and speaking, as well as history. Though she was a good student, Mary preferred outdoor activities. She rode her ponies every day, and loved pets, especially dogs. She also loved to dance.

The members of the French court were thrilled by Mary's beauty, charm, and grace. They welcomed her as a future queen and rejoiced when she married Francis in 1558. Mary was fifteen at the time of this marriage; Francis was only fourteen. The ceremony, held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 24, was a spectacle of luxury and happiness. Mary wore her favorite rich fabrics and jewels and danced for hours. She wrote to her mother that she was one of the happiest women in the world.

But this happiness was soon complicated by political change. In November the English queen, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry), died and her sister, Elizabeth, took the throne. But Catholic rulers in Europe, especially in Spain and France, considered Elizabeth's claim to power illegitimate. Her father, Henry VIII, had dissolved his marriage to Mary I's mother, Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), without permission from the pope. Henry then married his mistress, Anne Boleyn (1507–1536), who gave birth to Elizabeth. Since the Catholic Church did not consider this second marriage legal, Catholic rulers and nobles said that Elizabeth should not be able to inherit the English throne. They felt that Mary Stuart was the rightful heir to the English crown.

In July 1559 the French king died and Francis II took the throne, making Mary Stuart queen of France. She was also proclaimed queen of England and Ireland—much to the displeasure of Queen Elizabeth. Less than six months later Mary of Guise died. Then, after only a year as king, Francis II died on December 5, 1560. Mary Stuart was now both an orphan and a widow.

Return to Scotland

Mary decided to return to Scotland. She had been away from the country for thirteen years, and the political situation had changed significantly. Catholics had been in power when Mary was a young child; now, however, with help from Queen Elizabeth, Scottish Protestants had gained control. Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, French troops were forced to leave Scotland. The alliance between the Scots and the French ended, and the Scottish government declared Scotland a Protestant country.

When Mary arrived at Leith, Scotland, on April 19, 1561, Queen Elizabeth regarded this as a threat to her own power. She feared that Mary would try to reestablish ties with Catholic countries. If this happened Mary might receive enough support to try to overthrow Elizabeth and make herself queen of England.

Though Protestant nobles in Scotland did not approve of a Catholic monarch, Mary ruled for seven years without an outright opposition to her authority. Realizing that any actions to challenge Protestant authority might jeopardize her rule, she declared that she would not demand any changes to the new Protestant religion, but she insisted on having Catholic Mass said in her own private chapel. To further satisfy the Protestant lords, she approved of an arrangement in 1562 to divide the property of the Catholic Church among those in the new government. On her government's advice she also led a military action against George Gordon (Earl of Huntly; 1514–1562), the most prominent Catholic rebel in Scotland. According to many historians, her warm and lively personality played a large role in her ability to maintain power.

Marriages and murders

In 1565 Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley; 1545–1567), also a grandson of Margaret Tudor. Since Henry was next in line after Mary to the English throne, this marriage increased fears that Elizabeth's rule was in danger. It also caused concern among Scottish Protestants, who worried that it would inspire a revival of Catholic sympathy since the marriage made Mary's claim to the English throne even stronger. Led by James Stewart (Earl of Moray; 1531–1570), the Protestant lords in Scotland rebelled. Mary was able to defeat them with military force, but it was clear that her rule was growing increasingly unpopular.

Mary quickly grew unhappy with her husband, who was immature and stubborn. She refused to grant him the crown matrimonial, which would have allowed him to rule Scotland. It was also said that she was having a romantic affair with her secretary, David Rizzio (1533–1566). On March 19, 1566, Henry Stewart and a group of others dragged Rizzio from Mary's room and murdered him. Some historians believe that Mary herself may also have been a target.

Mary gave birth to a son, the future James I (1566–1625; see entry), on June 19, 1566. But this event did not improve relations with her husband. Soon the queen had befriended James Hepburn (Earl of Bothwell; 1535–1578), whose powerful family was extremely loyal to the crown. Mary wanted to end her marriage to Henry Stewart but she feared that her son's right to inherit the throne would be jeopardized if she obtained an annulment.

When Stewart was killed after an explosion at his lodging on February 10, 1567, suspicions were immediately aroused. His body, which was found in an adjoining building, revealed that he had been strangled or smothered. Most people suspected Hepburn of the murder. They also assumed that Mary had been part of the conspiracy. Hepburn was arrested and tried for murder, but he was acquitted. He immediately divorced his wife and married Mary. This action so infuriated the Scottish nobles that even the queen's previous supporters now turned against her.

Civil war broke out, and the Scottish lords captured Mary at Carberry Hill on June 15, 1567. They brought her back to Edinburgh, where crowds, insulting her as a whore, called for her death. On July 24 the lords forced Mary to give up her throne in favor of her infant son.

Exile in England

After six months in captivity Mary managed to escape to England in 1568. There she begged her cousin, Elizabeth, to allow her to live in safety. Elizabeth's advisors, particularly William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry) warned against this, arguing that Mary could not be trusted. They worried that she would seek support from Catholics to remove Elizabeth from the English throne and make herself queen. But after an investigation into her husband's death showed no actual proof of Mary's involvement, Elizabeth permitted Mary to remain in England.

For the next eighteen years Mary lived almost as a prisoner. She was given comfortable rooms at various estates, but she was always kept under close guard. For much of this period she lived with George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick (1527–1608; see entry). Mary was rarely allowed to go outside for fresh air and exercise. When she was permitted to ride her horse in the nearby park, she was accompanied by several armed guards. Guards also kept watch over her indoor activities. Fearing that her food might be poisoned, she insisted on hiring her own kitchen staff. Her health began to suffer. She gained weight and developed various ailments, including gout, a painful inflammation of the joints. She felt she was growing old before her time.

During her exile in England Mary was not allowed to contact her son, a condition that caused her great sorrow and bitterness. She spent much of her time doing fine embroidery with Bess of Hardwick. In fact needlework allowed Mary to express her political frustrations. She embroidered one piece that showed a grapevine with one fruitful branch and one barren one. A large hand with a pruning hook threatened the barren half. The piece also featured a motto, "Virescit Vulnere Virtus" (Virtue flourishes by wounding), that was thought to be an encouragement to a nobleman who was plotting against the queen of England.

The Ridolfi plot

Elizabeth's advisors had been right to worry about the threat posed by Mary. In 1571 Cecil found out about a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary queen. It was led by an Italian merchant, Roberto Ridolfi (1531–1612). Ridolfi conspired with rebels in northern England, who launched an unsuccessful rebellion in 1569 and 1570 that became known as the Northern Rising. These rebels were also allied with Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk; 1536–1572), who had proposed marriage to Mary. When the uprising failed, Ridolfi went to Europe to seek support from Catholic leaders there.

King Philip II (1527–1598; see entry) of Spain and the Duke of Alva, the Spanish governor-general of the Netherlands, gave their support to Ridolfi and planned to send Spanish troops to help overthrow Elizabeth. But Cecil's agents discovered the plot when they intercepted letters that identified Howard as the leader and incriminated Spain.

Parliament, England's legislative body, denounced Mary and urged the queen to punish her. Her embroidery of the grapevine, which she had sent to Howard, was seen as Mary's approval of the plot. But Elizabeth was reluctant to take any action against Mary. Proof against her was not absolute, and Elizabeth had no wish to stir up more anger among Mary's supporters by executing her. Howard was executed in 1572 as a traitor, but Mary remained a prisoner.

The Throckmorton plot

Another conspiracy was uncovered in 1583 by agents working for Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham (1532–1590; see entry). Francis Throckmorton (1554–1584), an English Catholic, had conspired with Catholics in France in a plan that called for French troops to invade England and assassinate the queen. They would then free Mary, place her on the throne, and restore the Catholic religion in England.

There was good reason to believe that Mary supported this plot. When Walsingham had Throckmorton arrested, he was using a secret code to write a letter to Mary. To obtain even stronger evidence against her, Walsingham placed a spy in Mary's household. The spy read Mary's letters, which showed that she had indeed encouraged the conspirators. This information so infuriated the queen that she refused to consider any reconciliation with Mary. Throckmorton was executed for treason in July 1584.

In 1585 Parliament passed the Act for the Queen's Safety. This law stated that any claimant to the throne found guilty of involvement in an invasion, rebellion, or plot, would be permanently barred from inheriting the throne. If Elizabeth were assassinated, the guilty parties would be caught and put to death. This, in effect, established the legal basis to execute Mary if she were found guilty of plotting Elizabeth's death.

The Babington plot

In 1586 Walsingham discovered a conspiracy led by Anthony Babington (1561–1586). Again, Walsingham suspected Mary of involvement. To obtain proof, he used an undercover agent, Gilbert Gifford, who was able to intercept Mary's letters. Finally Gifford discovered a letter from Mary to Babington that confirmed her support for his plot to assassinate Elizabeth.

Babington and the other conspirators were executed for treason in September 1586, and Mary was taken to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. In October she was put on trial for treason. Though she presented a skillfully argued defense, she was found guilty and condemned to death.

Elizabeth's advisors urged her to sign Mary's execution warrant, but she hesitated for several months. The execution of a queen would cause intense political controversy, and Elizabeth wished to avoid such an extreme action. Finally, after demands from Parliament and persistent urgings from Cecil and Walsingham, Elizabeth reluctantly signed the warrant.


Cecil and Walsingham acted immediately and, without Elizabeth's knowledge, ordered the execution to take place. Mary was beheaded on February 8, 1587, at Fotheringhay Castle. Three hundred spectators, as well as her weeping attendants, witnessed the execution. Carefully dressed in a blood-red bodice with a crucifix around her neck, Mary knelt and prayed before the executioner struck. The first blow struck the back of her head where her blindfold was fastened. A second blow almost severed her neck, but a third blow of the axe was necessary to behead the queen of Scots.

After Mary was beheaded, the witnesses were horrified as her body appeared to move. But it was only her pet dog, which had been hidden in the folds of her dress during the entire proceedings. The animal reportedly refused to eat or rest after his mistress's execution and died soon afterward.

To eliminate the risk that her Catholic sympathizers might somehow get pieces of Mary's clothing or possessions and use them to create an image of her as a martyr (someone who dies for their faith), Walsingham ordered all of her possessions destroyed. The clothes from her dead body were removed and burned, as were her prayerbook and crucifix. Her body was sealed in a lead coffin and buried at Peterborough Cathedral. In 1612, however, her son, James I, ordered her body removed from its original tomb and placed in the vault of King Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, London.

A symbol of the Catholic cause during her own life, Mary has continued to inspire admiration for several centuries after her death. Her story has inspired numerous books, films, and even an opera by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). Many historians consider her a tragic figure who acted nobly, if sometimes unwisely.

For More Information


Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Guy, John. The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


Wilkinson, Alexander. "Mary Queen of Scots and the French Connection." History Today, July 1, 2004.


"Mary, Queen of Scots." English History Net. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Mary, Queen of Scots." Kings and Queens of Scotland. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Stuart, Mary

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