Mary Stuart (1542–1587)

views updated

Mary Stuart (1542–1587)

Queen of Scots, from six days after her birth until forced to flee the country in 1567, who lived in the turbulent period of the Counter-reformation and became caught up in scandals which ended her reign and resulted in her execution by Elizabeth I . Name variations: Mary, Queen of Scots; Mary Stewart; dauphine of France. Born on December 8, 1542, at Linlithgow, Lothian, Scotland; beheaded by order of Elizabeth I for treason at Fotheringhay Castle,Northamptonshire, England, on February 8, 1587; daughter of James V, king of Scotland (r. 1513–1542), and Mary of Guise (1515–1560); married Francis, dauphin of France, later Francis II, king of France (r. 1559–1560), on April 24, 1558; married Henry Stuart, duke of Albany, Lord Darnley, on July 29, 1565; married James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, on May 15, 1567; children: (second marriage) James (1566–1625), king of Scotland as James VI (r. 1567–1625) and king of England as James I (r. 1603–1625).

Proclaimed queen of Scotland six days after her birth, with the death of her father James V; at age five, was betrothed to the dauphin of France, Francis, and sent to France to be brought up in the French court; was queen of France during the brief reign of her husband as Francis II (1559–60); following death of Francis, went back to Scotland to claim birthright; married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1565); son James born (1566); under bizarre circumstances, husband Darnley strangled (February 1567); within months of murder, married the earl of Bothwell, who was widely believed to have been the perpetrator; these actions provoked a widespread rebellion, which led to her abdication from the Scottish throne (1567) in favor of her son and her flight to England; remained in England for almost 20 years, becoming the focus of many Catholic plots against the life of Queen Elizabeth I; though her degree of participation in plots is still debated by historians, Elizabeth eventually became convinced of Mary's duplicity and ordered her trial and execution for treason (1587).

Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, was born on December 8, 1542, under conditions that were less than auspicious and into circumstances which seemed hopeless. Scotland had been under constant pressure for centuries from its more wealthy and powerful neighbor to the south, England. The challenge from England had increased dramatically with the accession of the powerful Tudor dynasty in the 16th century. In addition, the era of the Protestant Reformation was spreading unrest throughout Europe, and although Scotland was still Catholic at the time of Mary's birth, rumblings of the approaching Protestant storm could already be heard.

Six days after her birth, Mary's father James V, who had sunk into illness and depression following the humiliating defeat of Scottish troops at the hands of the English at Solway Moss, "yielded the spirit" at Falkland. To compound all of the other threats to the stability of Scotland, now the crown passed to a six-day-old infant. The succession of a child heir was considered calamitous in the 16th century; the succession of a female infant threatened imminent disaster. John Knox, who would later lead the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, noted that "all men lamented that the realm was left without a male to succeed."

No sooner had James V been laid to rest than a hotly contested struggle emerged over control of the regency for the young princess. Mary's mother Mary of Guise was quickly pushed aside because of suspicion about her powerful French relatives. David Beaton, cardinal-archbishop of St. Andrews, vied unsuccessfully for control of the regency, which was eventually won by James Hamilton, second earl of Arran, who had the advantage of being the new queen's closest adult male relative, since he was the grandson of James III's sister Mary Stewart (c. 1451–c. 1488). Arran, a lukewarm Protestant, was appointed Governor of the Realm and "tutor" of the young queen. He arranged a temporary halt in hostilities between Scotland and England by negotiating the Treaty of Greenwich with King Henry VIII of England. The treaty sealed the peace between the two countries by betrothing the infant Mary to Henry's son Prince Edward (future Edward VI). Henry hoped that the political union of the two kingdoms could be accomplished naturally through the children of Mary and Edward. In preparation for the eventual inclusion of the Scottish Catholic Church under the Anglican cloak, Henry VIII suggested that Arran authorize the importation of English versions of the Bible, which he hoped would kindle the Protestant flame in Scotland. The influence of Protestantism would continue to grow and reach a fever pitch by the time Mary Stuart grew to adulthood.

The appearance in Scotland of a rival claimant to the throne put a swift end to Arran's pro-English policy. Matthew Stuart, 4th earl of Lennox, was also descended from the Scottish royal house, but through the female line. Lennox arrived in Scotland in 1543 and immediately offered himself as a suitor to Mary of Guise. Arran, whose tie to the Scottish throne was through the male line but was besmirched by illegitimacy, found it convenient to ally with Cardinal Beaton and apply for restoration into the Catholic Church in an attempt to strengthen his claim. Arran repudiated the Treaty of Greenwich (which had not been ratified by Henry VIII either) in 1543, and in response Henry ordered two invasions of Scotland, in 1544 and 1545, which did massive destruction to buildings, farms, livestock, and population in southern Scotland. Blame for this "Rough Wooing" at the hands of Henry fell squarely on the shoulders of Arran, whose authority gradually began to trickle into the hands of Cardinal Beaton and Mary of Guise.

The assassination of Cardinal Beaton in May 1546 and the subsequent occupation of St. Andrews Castle by the murderers exacerbated the tension with England. Although Arran conducted a half-hearted siege of the castle, it was a French expeditionary force called in by Mary of Guise that freed the castle. After the death of Henry VIII in January 1547, retaliation by the English for the French intervention fell to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, who was head of the regency for the new king Edward VI. Somerset ordered an invasion of Scotland in September 1547, where the English troops routed the Scots at Pinkie. The English army then built several garrisons in Scotland, which Somerset intended to use to assist in the spread of Protestantism.

Mary of Guise took advantage of Arran's misfortune to engineer an alliance with France which she hoped would preserve her daughter's inheritance. She pressured Arran to approve a treaty offering Mary Stuart as a bride for the dauphin Francis (later Francis II), eldest son of Henry II and Catherine de Medici . In July 1548, the five-year-old queen was spirited off to France, where she was brought up in the French court. Mary of Guise's influence in Scotland grew steadily, and in 1554 she was appointed regent of Scotland. The regency of Mary of Guise allowed for the reestablishment of Scotland's ties with France, but undermined her position in the eyes of the Scottish nobility. The potential of domination by France was no more popular with the Scottish peers than the prospect of domination by England had been ten years earlier. Many of Scotland's leading aristocratic families regarded Mary's pro-French policies as prejudicial to their own interests.

On April 24, 1558, Mary Stuart was married to the dauphin Francis. From this point in her life, her circumstances began to change with alarming speed. The Scots nobles, angry that Francis had been granted the "Crown Matrimonial," which would make him king of Scotland if Mary should predecease him, began to throw their support to the "Lords of the Congregation." These Protestant nobles and clerics, directed by the Calvinist minister John Knox, began the process of transforming Scotland from a Catholic country into a Protestant, Calvinist one. Calvinism spread rapidly through the Scottish nobility in the 1550s, who saw the new doctrine as both a lever to use against Mary of Guise's government and a means for purging the Catholic Church hierarchy in Scotland of some of its most obnoxious abuses, including the collecting of multiple appointments and high fees by the upper clergy as well as ignorance and illiteracy among the lower. Despite Mary of Guise's repeated attempts to put it down, a Reformation rebellion effectively transformed Scotland into a Protestant country by 1559.

On July 6, 1559, the king of France, Henry II, was accidentally killed during a tournament when a sliver from an opponent's lance pierced his eye. The dauphin immediately succeeded his father, and Mary Stuart found herself queen of France at the tender age of 16. Meanwhile, Scottish rebels appealed for help to the new Protestant monarch of England, Elizabeth I , who sent troops to assist in the removal of Mary of Guise from the regency. The Treaty of Berwick was signed between the Scottish rebels and Elizabeth in February 1560, promising mutual aid in the case of an invasion by France. Mary of Guise, forced out of the capital, fled to Leith and sent to France for assistance, but before it arrived she died on June 11, 1560. In July, Elizabeth I and Francis II signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, which stipulated the removal of both English and French troops from Scotland, recognized Elizabeth I as the legal ruler of England, and forbade Francis and Mary from displaying the English arms. Following this settlement, the Scottish "Reformation Parliament" formally adopted the Calvinist Confession of Faith as the new state religion and prohibited celebration of the Catholic mass in Scotland.

By the end of 1560, yet another change in Mary Stuart's circumstances took place, when Francis II died on December 5. Mary's status in France plummeted—a future as queen dowager of France offered little chance for grandeur or political power. The only useful position she still held in life was that of queen of Scotland. She decided to return to her native land, which she had not seen since she was five years old.

At 18 years of age, Mary Stuart was considered by her contemporaries to be an extraordinarily beautiful and well-educated Renaissance woman. Her face was oval and her features finely drawn. Her smooth skin was fair, her eyes hazel, and her hair was dark auburn brown. She was described as tall and graceful, and was noted for her accomplishments in dancing and riding. She spoke Latin, French, and Italian, in addition to her native Scots. In religion, she was a Catholic, but not a fanatical one.

When Mary Stuart announced her intentions to return to her native land, conservative Catholic nobles urged her to enter the country with a

Catholic army and overturn the Protestant revolution. Mary refused, in hopes that she could adopt a politique position between the two religions and thus conciliate both factions. Furthermore, she hoped that religious moderation would prompt Elizabeth I of England to recognize her as her heir. Elizabeth had no husband or children, so Mary was Elizabeth's closest kin and, in the eyes of many Catholics throughout Europe, Mary was the legitimate heir to the English throne. The pressures of their political and religious differences created a chilly diplomatic climate between the two cousins. Mary Stuart had never ratified the Treaty of Edinburgh, hoping to preserve her interest in the English throne. When Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, Elizabeth retaliated by refusing to grant Mary safe conduct through England. Elizabeth even sent a convoy of ships to intercept Mary's entourage, but a persistent sea mist allowed Mary to evade capture.

When Mary Stuart landed safely at Leith on August 19, 1561, John Knox commented upon the gloom that enveloped her arrival: "The very face of heaven, the time of her arrival, did manifestly speak what comfort was brought into this country with her, to wit, sorrow, dolour, darkness, and all impiety." Despite the strong opposition among Protestant lords to the homecoming of their Catholic monarch, Mary's arrival provoked surprisingly little resistance. With the exception of a violent outburst occasioned by the celebration of Mary's private mass in the Chapel Royal of Holyrood House and a minor outbreak led by the earl of Huntly which ended with his defeat in October 1762, Mary's subjects seemed largely tractable to her assumption of personal rule. Mary Stuart helped to ease tensions by firmly maintaining a neutral stance on religion. Although she insisted upon the right to continue her own Catholic mass in her household, she repeatedly issued proclamations which upheld the prosecution of Catholic priests for saying mass anywhere outside the confines of her court. She even attempted to smooth out her relations with Elizabeth I, by offering to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh in return for formal recognition as Elizabeth's heir. Elizabeth refused to commit to the succession, but still insisted upon ratification of the Treaty of Edinburgh. Mary proposed a personal meeting between the two monarchs in September 1562 to hammer out a compromise. Although Elizabeth agreed, she later changed her mind, and the two cousins never met face to face.

Mary's next course of action was to search for a husband, in the hopes that producing an heir would make her a more attractive candidate for the English throne. Serious negotiations with several foreign suitors, including the kings of Sweden and Denmark, the sons of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, and the son of the Spanish king Philip II, provoked fear among the Scottish nobles that a foreign match would necessarily lead to foreign domination. Mary toyed with the idea of marrying a suitor of Elizabeth's choosing, but when Elizabeth suggested that Mary wed her own long-standing favorite, Lord Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, then made it clear that she would not make any declarations about the succession until her own marriage or public announcement of her intention not to marry, Mary decided to give up the possibility of working out an official agreement with Elizabeth. Instead, Mary hastily concluded negotiations to marry her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. As a grandson of Margaret Tudor (1489–1541), Darnley's greatest recommendation was his own strong claim to the English succession. Mary seemed charmed by her cousin at their first meeting, and she described him as "the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen." Tall and thin, with blond hair and a boyish face, Darnley was well versed in the important courtly accomplishments of singing, dancing, and playing the lute.

Mary and Darnley were married on July 29, 1565, and Darnley was granted the titles king of Scots and duke of Albany, although Mary wisely chose not to vest her new husband with the Crown Matrimonial. The marriage was not universally popular, and provoked a rebellion led by Mary's own half-brother (the illegitimate son of James V and Margaret Erskine ), the earl of Moray. The queen of Scots put down the rebellion easily, riding at the head of her own army which drove the rebels across the border into England.

Erskine, Margaret (fl. 1530s)

Mistress of James V . Flourished in the 1530s; daughter of John, 4th or 12th lord Erskine; mistress of James V (1512–1542), king of Scotland (r. 1513–1542); children: (with James V) James Stuart also seen as James Stewart, earl of Moray (1531–1570, legitimated in 1551); Robert Stuart also seen as Robert Stewart, earl of Orkney (c. 1533–1591, became the abbott of Holyrood House).

The character Lady Sensuality in David Lyndsay's Satire of the Three Estates was based on Margaret Erskine.

As attractive as Darnley had appeared on paper, unfortunately he failed to live up to Mary's expectations. Hopelessly spoiled and self-absorbed, Darnley quickly exhibited the darker side of his character by indulging himself in sexual escapades and alcoholic binges. By the end of 1565, Mary's relationship with Darnley grew distant, and she began to spend an increasing amount of time with other favorites and advisors, most notably an Italian musician named David Riccio. Mary appointed Riccio as her secretary for French correspondence, and Riccio began to exert an increasingly potent, though unofficial, influence on the queen's political policies.

Riccio's appearance provided a perfect opportunity for a group of disaffected Scottish nobles to gain the ear of the new king. Playing on Darnley's natural jealousy and suspicion, the conspirators intimated that Riccio was the queen's lover and a secret agent of the pope. Mary had become pregnant within a few months of her marriage to Darnley, and the conspirators succeeded in convincing Darnley that the child could be Riccio's. They were so successful in enraging the young king that they convinced him to take part in a plot to do away with his rival. On March 9, 1566, the conspirators surprised Mary, Riccio, and the Countess of Argyll at supper: Darnley threw his arms around Mary to prevent her intervention while the conspirators dragged Riccio out of the room as he piteously clung to the queen's skirts screaming, "Justizia! Justizia, Madame! Save ma vie! Save ma vie!" Riccio was stabbed to death outside in the hall.

Although Darnley later repented of his role in the incident, Mary Stuart never forgave him. Even the birth of their son James, on June 19, 1566, did not prevent Mary from referring to Darnley in contemptuous terms. When Mary displayed the baby publicly to her husband, she was said to have announced: "My Lord, God has given you and me a son, begotten by none but you. Here I protest to God as I shall answer to him at the great day of Judgment, that this is your son and no other man's son. I am desirous that all here, with ladies and others bear witness. For he is so much your own son, that I fear it will be the worse for him hereafter." With the birth of an heir, the queen no longer saw much reason to uphold a sham marriage, and she began to hint to her closest advisors that Darnley's presence was no longer required, looking for an "outgait" from her unsatisfactory marriage. Darnley's response was to stay away from court as much as possible.

Burn the whore! Burn the murderess of her husband!

—Citizenry of Edinburgh, June 1567

By the fall of 1566, Mary had adopted another favorite as her primary councillor, James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell. Bothwell's contemporaries described him as conceited, ambitious, and ruthless, but Mary undoubtedly found him to be a perfect antidote to her weak and flaccid husband. It was later alleged that, early in 1567, Bothwell approached the conspirators who had murdered Riccio, whom Mary had conveniently pardoned a few days earlier, and asked for their assistance in getting rid of Darnley. Although the murderers refused to stain their hands with another murder, by the following month, on the night of February 9, Darnley, who had been suffering with syphilis and recuperating at the royal residence at Kirk o' Field, was murdered. The house at Kirk o' Field was blown up, but curiously, Darnley and his manservant were found outside the house in the garden, strangled to death but unhurt by the explosion.

Although the crime was never solved, public opinion in Edinburgh pinned the blame solidly on Bothwell. To this day, historians are divided in their judgments about what Mary Stuart's role in the murders was. It is evident, however, that Mary did not intend to allow Bothwell to be tried for the crime. As she refused to prosecute, Bothwell was eventually brought to trial by Darnley's father the earl of Lennox, but on April 12 Bothwell was acquitted for lack of evidence. Mary blatantly refused to heed advice from Elizabeth I and her former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici of France, who both urged her to move swiftly to exact justice for the crime. As a result, rumors of Mary's complicity in the plot spread through Europe like wildfire.

Then Mary committed what many Scots considered to be the final outrage—three months after the murder of Darnley, Mary married Bothwell on May 15, according to the rites of the Protestant Church. Before the marriage, Bothwell had staged an abduction scene, and had spirited the queen off to Dunbar Castle. Mary later claimed to have been abducted, raped, and forced into the marriage with Bothwell. Her new husband certainly brought her little happiness. Within days of the wedding, Mary began to express regrets at her hasty actions. In the weeks that followed, she seemed listless and depressed, and often threatened suicide.

It was only a matter of a few weeks before the nobles of Scotland moved to put an end to what they considered an intolerable arrangement. Bothwell had many enemies, and he had never cultivated a network of alliances which could be relied upon to come to his aid. Noble families with close ties to the throne were infuriated that Bothwell would seize the power behind the throne in such a brutal and illegal manner. By the middle of June, the earl of Morton had collected an army to fight the queen and Bothwell, under the banner of the murdered Darnley and his infant son James. The two armies met at Carberry Hill, where ambassadors approached the queen offering to restore her to her throne if she would abandon Bothwell. When the queen steadfastly refused, her own troops began deserting her. Bothwell was allowed to escape, and Mary never saw him again. Eventually, he was imprisoned in Denmark and died in captivity in 1578.

Mary was left alone, with no choice but to surrender to Morton's troops and be led as a prisoner into Edinburgh. Her arrival was met by an angry mob, who shouted cries of "Burn the whore! Burn the murderess of her husband!" Partly in an effort to protect her from the mob, her captors imprisoned her in an island fortress on Lochleven. Soon after, during the latter part of July, Mary miscarried twins, and it became apparent to contemporary observers that her pregnancy was so advanced that it must have dated from before her marriage to Bothwell in May; this fact may provide a more believable explanation for the bizarre circumstances of her recent marriage than the one she had offered. On July 24, Mary was compelled to sign a document of abdication, turning over the crown to her 13-month-old son James. Control of James' regency was given to Mary's half-brother, the earl of Moray.

On May 2, 1568, Mary escaped from Lochleven Castle, convinced that the sympathy of her people would allow her to repudiate her abdication. Although she succeeded in raising a force of some 5,000 men, her army was defeated by Moray on May 13. Mary fled after the defeat, determined to avoid imprisonment. She asked her cousin Elizabeth for sanctuary in England, having been encouraged by Elizabeth's sympathetic letters to her during her imprisonment. Elizabeth granted permission, but once Mary arrived in England she found herself a virtual hostage, confined to house arrest. To Elizabeth, Mary was still dangerous, still an obvious magnet for the ambitious Catholics who viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate and hoped to use Mary to reunite England with the Catholic Church.

Upon Mary's arrival in England, Elizabeth sent a trusted advisor to meet with Mary to discuss the circumstances of Mary's sanctuary in England. Elizabeth insisted that Mary make no effort to solicit French aid while in England, and that Mary wait in northern England until she could be thoroughly acquitted of the charges of her complicity in Darnley's murder. Disappointed that she was not allowed to approach Elizabeth immediately, Mary agreed to stay confined to Carlisle Castle for the duration of the investigation.

The earl of Moray traveled to the hearing, intent upon protecting his position as head of the regency and preventing Mary from returning to Scotland. He brought with him a small, gilded casket which contained a collection of letters which Moray claimed would decisively incriminate Mary in Darnley's death. The letters, none of which were complete and many of which were translations from French into Scots, were purported to be love letters between Mary and Bothwell written before the murder of Darnley. Since the copies which were retained in England were translations and not in Mary's handwriting, it is difficult for modern scholars to determine whether they were genuine or forged. Although the contents of the letters include several protestations of love for Bothwell, none of them prove that Mary was involved in a plot to murder Darnley. Queen Elizabeth was given copies of the letters, and claimed to see nothing in them which could prove that her cousin was guilty of murder.

Although the Casket Letters undoubtedly had an impact upon the English nobles whom Elizabeth had chosen to conduct the investigation into Darnley's murder, the investigators were not convinced of Mary Stuart's guilt. Unable to prove guilt or innocence, they took the highly irregular step of ruling that both sides of the case were "not proven." As a result, Mary was neither convicted nor completely cleared. Moray returned to Scotland (and the originals of the Casket Letters soon disappeared), and Mary returned to captivity, this time in a more secure house at Tutbury in Staffordshire. Tutbury was a medieval castle surrounded by damp marshes, and it had a noticeable effect on Mary's declining health and spirits. Her strident objections and the intervention of her "jailers," George and Elizabeth Talbot , count and countess of Shrewsbury, led to her removal to Sheffield Castle later in 1569.

Mary Stuart's position in England remained vague. She was not a convicted criminal, and, as the crowned head of another sovereign state, she could not be considered a subject of the queen of England. Elizabeth was able to secure Mary's tacit consent to this continued imprisonment by dangling before her the carrot of possible aid in the future. Mary had good reason to hope that her cause could best be served by biding her time. Even during the course of the "trial," the possibility of an English marriage for Mary was in the air—and Mary nurtured that possibility by agreeing to divorce Bothwell and by participating in Anglican Church services. Mary's forces were still fighting Moray's adherents in Scotland, and for the next three years Moray's position as regent remained in question. Mary's imprisonment in England was not terribly restrictive: at English expense, Mary Stuart's household of 30 to 40 persons was provided for; Mary was given all the respect of a sovereign queen, including the right to use her royal cloth of state; and she secretly maintained correspondence with Catholic friends and supporters in England and on the Continent, using the income she still received as queen dowager of France.

Limitations on outdoor exercise and her declining health led Mary to take up new hobbies during her imprisonment. She became an expert embroiderer, and sent samples of her needlework to friends throughout England, and even to Elizabeth, whom Mary was convinced could be won over if only she were allowed but two hours alone with the English queen. The other hobby in which Mary increasingly indulged was the more dangerous one of plotting and intrigue. Since Mary was not a citizen of England, and therefore Elizabeth had no legal basis for imprisoning her, Mary considered it within the bounds of accepted diplomacy to do all in her power to regain her birthright in Scotland. Her somewhat amateurish attempts at escape gave the Shrewsburys no end of grief, but all were inevitably foiled by Elizabeth's agents before they could be carried out. Although Mary considered herself perfectly within her sovereign rights, her brother-in-law, King Charles IX of France, noted with disturbing prescience: "Ah, the poor fool will never cease until she lose her head. In faith, they will put her to death. I see it is her own fault and folly, I see no remedy for it."

The first conspiracy which was linked to Mary was a plot by a group of northern English earls who wanted to do away with Elizabeth and bring back the Roman Catholic Church to England. Their plan was to convince Mary to marry Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, the highest peer in the realm and a Catholic, after which they would launch a rebellion to put Mary and Norfolk on the English throne. When Elizabeth caught wind of the plot, she called Norfolk to court and threw him into the Tower. The conspirators were also called to Westminster but chose to rebel instead. Before they could rescue Mary, Elizabeth ordered her removal to Coventry. When English troops arrived in Yorkshire, the rebels surrendered without a fight. Many of the leaders escaped into Scotland, and 500 of their humbler followers were executed for treason.

Elizabeth still continued to negotiate for a compromise settlement in Scotland that would rid her of responsibility for Mary and neutralize French influence in Scotland. When the earl of Moray was assassinated in January 1570, Elizabeth tried to convince the Scottish earls to accept a limited restoration of Mary coupled with a regency for young King James VI led by Darnley's father, the earl of Lennox. While these negotiations were underway, however, Elizabeth's feelings toward her cousin were hardened by two new developments: the publication of a papal bull excommunicating Elizabeth, and Mary's involvement in a more serious international plot led by a Florentine banker named Ridolfi. The Ridolfi plot centered around an uprising of English Catholics, which was intended to coincide with an invasion by the Spanish army. Norfolk, recently released from the Tower, played a role in the plot although he had been made to swear to have nothing further to do with the queen of Scots as a condition of his release. The Spanish government refused to act until the uprising of English Catholics had begun, and before an uprising could be coordinated, correspondence was seized and the plot discovered.

Norfolk was tried for treason and executed in June 1572. Elizabeth broke off negotiations for Mary Stuart's restoration in Scotland and published the incriminating evidence from Mary's trial, which she had been withholding from public scrutiny on condition of Mary's good behavior. The public reaction to the release of the documents, which included three of the infamous Casket Letters, was immediate. In May 1572, the English Parliament passed a bill excluding Mary and her heirs from the English succession and calling for Mary's execution, as one who had "heaped up together all the sins of the licentious sons of David, adulteries, murders, conspiracies, treasons and blasphemies against God." Elizabeth refused to give her assent to these bills and to others passed by Parliament declaring it treason to support Mary's claim to the English crown and providing for Mary's trial and execution if she were involved in any new insurrections. Elizabeth toyed with the idea of sending Mary back to Scotland to face justice by the Scottish earls after 1573, when the last Marian stronghold, Edinburgh Castle, was conquered by English artillery, ending the civil war in Scotland, but in the end Elizabeth's safest course seemed to be one that would keep Mary firmly under English surveillance.

The remainder of the 1570s were a relatively quiet time for Mary Stuart. No real opportunities for intrigue presented themselves; Mary contented herself with working at her embroidery, and she was allowed to visit the baths at Buxton for the good of her health. But, by 1580, Mary was again chafing against the yoke of her confinement. She hoped to gain the influence of her son, who had reached his 12th birthday in 1578, at which time he was allowed to begin taking an active role in governance. Mary offered to help him throw off the influence of his regents, now led by the earl of Morton, by proposing an "Association" whereby she would be allowed to rule jointly with James. James wrote polite letters in answer to his mother's proposal without committing himself either for or against the scheme. Elizabeth even considered the option, but in the end James abandoned the idea of an Alliance when his growing autonomy made cooperation unnecessary. In May 1585, James negotiated a treaty with Elizabeth without referring to the claims of his mother. Mary, who had always hoped that James' "natural" filial affection would make him one of her staunch defenders, was devastated by her son's abandonment of her cause. Mary retaliated to this slight by changing her will to name Philip II of Spain as her heir. In the meantime, Mary kept alive her negotiations with Spain, even proposing that Philip send an invasion force through which he could conquer England and rule with the queen of Scots at his side.

Unfortunately, Mary Stuart had chosen an inopportune time to renew her intrigues. In 1580, a papal pronouncement against Elizabeth declared that anyone who encompassed her assassination "with the pious intention of doing God's service, not only does not sin but gains merit." Elizabeth took such a threat seriously, especially after William of Orange, the leader of the Protestant Netherlanders, was successfully assassinated in 1584, following a similar declaration. A steady stream of Jesuits from Spain were entering England during the 1580s, and some were plainly implicated in plots against Elizabeth. Through the underground circuit of English Roman Catholics, most of these had some connection to Mary. The growing Puritan presence in Parliament made that body increasingly determined to snuff out what they considered to be the focus of all Jesuit intrigues, the queen of Scots.

Elizabeth again had Mary moved back to Tutbury. The Shrewsburys were released from their duties, and Mary was eventually put into the hands of a new jailer, the staunchly Puritan Sir Amias Paulet. Paulet was completely immune to Mary's charms, and he succeeded in stopping her secret pipeline of correspondence, so that she was cut off from her allies for over a year. When a Roman Catholic agent, Gilbert Gifford, was sent to try to reopen communication with Mary, he was captured upon landing and persuaded to turn double agent. Mary was moved again, to Chartley, where Gifford assisted in the establishment of a pipeline of correspondence utilizing waterproof packets slipped into casks of beer for the household. Mary was completely unaware of the trap, and threw herself into a flurry of correspondence. All of her "secret" letters were intercepted, copied and forwarded by Elizabeth's agents.

Within months of baiting the trap, Elizabeth's agents caught Mary engaging in correspondence with a group of starry-eyed young conspirators, led by a 25-year-old English lord, Anthony Babington. The Babington plotters proposed to assassinate Elizabeth as a prelude for a foreign invasion. Babington wrote to Mary, sketching out the parameters of the plot, and Mary replied enthusiastically, concentrating on the means they proposed to effect her rescue and saying nothing about the proposed assassination of Elizabeth. When Mary sent this letter through the pipeline, Elizabeth's officials reacted by seizing Mary's papers and arresting the Babington conspirators, all of whom were convicted of treason. Babington and two other ringleaders were hung, drawn and quartered: "They were all cut down [from the gallows], their privities were cut off, bowelled alive and seeing, and quartered." Seven other Babington conspirators went to the scaffold on the following day, but at Elizabeth's order for mercy they were not cut down until they were dead.

At their trials, the Babington conspirators had all implicated Mary Stuart in their scheme, and although the original letter from Mary to Babington had been destroyed soon after its receipt, Babington had vouched for the authenticity of the copy held by Elizabeth's agents. Resolved to Parliament's demand that Mary Stuart be put on trial for her part in the conspiracy, Elizabeth had her cousin moved to the castle of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire. A group of dignitaries was dispatched from London to try Mary for treason. Convinced that she would not survive this second trial, Mary claimed, "as Queen and Sovereign, I am aware of no fault or offense for which I have to render account to anyone here below"; nevertheless, she believed that she was to die as a martyr for her Roman Catholic faith. Just prior to the opening of the trial, Mary Stuart received a letter from Elizabeth accusing, "You have planned in divers ways and manners to take my life and to ruin my kingdom by the shedding of blood. I never proceeded so harshly against you; on the contrary, I have maintained you and preserved your life with the same care which I use for myself." She commanded Mary to answer to the English peers for the charges, and ended the epistle with the coy assurance, "But answer fully, and you may receive greater favour from us."

Mary Stuart's trial began on October 15, in the great hall of Fotheringhay. Entering the hall at nine o'clock, she was dismayed to see many of the lords dressed in riding clothes and boots—obviously they did not expect a lengthy hearing. As was the custom for all treason trials in the 16th century, Mary was given no counsel for her defense and had no access to her papers at the trial. She defended herself bravely before the 36 peers, privy counsellors, and judges, claiming her rights to be outside of English law as a sovereign queen. When those objections were laid aside, she pled her own illness and physical weakness, and while she admitted being privy to plots for her release, she claimed no knowledge of any plots against Elizabeth's life. After two days of testimony, the council prorogued and ten days later reconvened in Westminster and pronounced Mary guilty.

Within days of the verdict, Parliament passed a bill petitioning for Mary Stuart's execution, but Elizabeth hesitated. For the next three months, Elizabeth waited, perhaps fearful of the international repercussions of killing an anointed queen, and perhaps a little sympathetic to the cousin whom she had never met face to face. Finally, on February 1, 1587, the death warrant was signed—Elizabeth's secretary having conveniently placed it in a pile of other state papers requiring her signature. Even after the warrant was signed, Elizabeth hinted to Paulet that his assistance in Mary's "accidental" demise would be rewarded, but he refused. When Elizabeth continued to hesitate, her secretary, William Davison, took the signed warrant to the Privy Council, which sent it out on its own authority to be administered. On receiving word that the warrant had been sent, Elizabeth went on a rampage of tears and recriminations and ordered Davison to prison (temporarily), but her theatrics did not convince contemporaries that the warrant had been sent by mistake.

Mary Stuart was finally beheaded on February 8, 1587. A platform had been erected in the great hall of Fotheringhay. Mary was not informed of her impending execution until the evening of February 7. She spent the night calmly distributing gifts to her loyal servants and praying. On the morning of February 8, Mary walked to the scaffold calmly and serenely. Some 300 spectators filled the hall. Mary heard the commission for her execution read aloud without flinching, and when she was offered the services of the Protestant dean of Peterborough, she answered, "I am settled in the ancient Catholic Roman religion, and mind to spend my blood in defense of it." When the dean began to pray out loud anyway, Mary turned away from him and prayed in English for the preservation of the true Church, for her son James, and for Elizabeth, calling for God to spare England from his wrath. She ended by calling on Jesus to receive her and forgive her for her sins.

Mary Stuart was then stripped of her ornaments and outer garments, and a cloth was wrapped around her eyes. She knelt on the cushion in front of the block and carefully positioned her head. Stretching out her hands and legs, she cried out: "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," three or four times. The first blow of the executioner's axe missed her neck and lodged into the back of her head. At this, Mary reportedly whispered, "Sweet Jesus." The second blow severed the neck almost completely; the last sinew was then sawed apart. The executioner lifted the head for the crowd, crying "God Save the Queen!"—but before he had shown it around, the auburn wig parted from the skull and Mary's head dropped to the ground; to the surprise of the audience, Mary's own sparse hair was very short and completely gray. Another surprise was in store when Mary's little pet terrier crept out from under her skirts where he had been hidden and settled himself between the body and the severed head, refusing to be moved. He subsequently refused to eat and pined away after his mistress.

Mary's executioners were careful to burn or scour everything which was stained with her blood, fearful of creating future religious relics. Her remains were embalmed that afternoon and placed in a heavy lead coffin, but they were not buried until July, and then were moved in the middle of the night. James VI did not break off relations with Elizabeth after his mother's execution. He was ultimately rewarded by being made heir to the English throne when Elizabeth died in 1603.


Bingham, Caroline. The Stewart Kingdom of Scotland: 1371–1603. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1974.

Cowan, Ian B. The Enigma of Mary Stuart. Gollancz, 1971.

Donaldson, Gordon. Mary Queen of Scots. London: English Universities Press, 1974.

Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. NY: Dell, 1969.

Phillips, James. Images of a Queen. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964.

Zweig, Stefan. Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. NY: Viking Press, 1935.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Associate Professor of History and chair of the Division of Religion and Humanities, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas

About this article

Mary Stuart (1542–1587)

Updated About content Print Article