Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded on this date in 1587. This ended what had to be one of the most complex, tempestuous, controversial lives in history. After doing some brief research, I still can’t decide if she was a tragic pawn, incompetent, or a villain. Perhaps that is why she still intrigues so many people, more than 400 years after her death.
Mary was born in December 1542 to James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. She was his only living legitimate child and became queen when he died only six days after her birth. Thus started a life constantly beset with political machinations, war, and constant threats to her life as well as the lives of those around her.
The first of the many political skirmishes which were a constant in her life began with determining who would be Scotland’s regent until she was old enough to rule. One of the major claimants was a Protestant earl and the other was a Catholic cardinal. Thus, this first upheaval in her life was a harbinger of the many religious and political disputes she would experience.
She was only a few months old when Henry VIII of England proposed a marriage between Mary and his only son, Edward. However, when the Catholic (and pro-France) cardinal became her regent, this angered Henry VIII. He did not like the close connection between Scotland and France and sent troops to Scotland for years of war and “Rough Wooing” to try to force Mary to wed his son.
Mary’s supporters appealed to France for help, thereby setting up the next major phase of Mary’s life. She was sent to the French court in 1548 when she was five years old, with the agreement she would eventually marry the French king’s son and heir, Francis. They married when she was fifteen, and they became king and queen of France about one year later in 1559. Their reign was short-lived. Francis died about in December 1560 and Mary returned to Scotland. At this time, she was still only eighteen.
The next eight years of rule were a constant struggle. Mary’s hold on Scotland was tenuous. Her mother had struggled to maintain Scotland for Mary in her absence, but died a few months before Mary’s return. Now, the Protestant lords were rebelling against their Catholic queen, and France was no longer able to provide troops to help her. Plus, Elizabeth I had taken the throne in England and saw Mary as a real threat to her own power. Then the Catholic lords became upset by her attempts to appease the Protestants and Elizabeth.
Her personal life was also generally unhappy and stressful. She married Lord Darnley in 1565, but the marriage soon soured – especially after Darnley conspired with the Protestants against her. He was murdered in February 1567, and many speculated it was on Mary’s orders. Then, three months later, she married Lord Bothwell (though it’s possible she was forced into it.) This, her third marriage, put even more Scots against her. Bothwell (who was accused of murdering Darnley) was a Catholic and many did not recognize his divorce from his first wife. Plus, people were shocked she would marry the man thought to have murdered her husband. Things came to a head in Scotland and she was forced to abdicate in July of 1567.
For some inexplicable reason, when Mary escaped captivity in 1568, she went to England to ask Elizabeth I for help, even though Elizabeth viewed Mary as her biggest threat. Rather than helping, Elizabeth had Mary arrested. What followed was nearly nineteen years of house arrest in England for Mary, interspersed with an inquiry into her part in Darnley’s death and various plots which reinforced Elizabeth’s animosity.
Mary was executed, after one plot too many, in February 1587. Reportedly, she told the executioners “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end to all my troubles.” After forty-four years of constant battle and stress, perhaps she was ready for it all to be over when the executioner’s axe came down. (Ironically, even this did not go smoothly for her – it took three tries to behead her.)
Thus ended the life of one of the most intriguing people in history. There is so much more about Mary’s life I could have included in this blog, was I not already well over my normal word count. Yet, even after learning about her, I still don’t really know who she was. Was she an innocent pawn being shoved around by the many powerful people around her? Was she an evil person guilty of the many things for which she was accused? Was she simply unprepared and unable to comprehend the intricacies of Scottish politics after growing up in France? After more than 400 years of research into her life, historians still cannot determine the answers to these questions. Yet one thing is sure – Mary, Queen of Scots still fascinates many of us.
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