Mary, Last and Loveliest Queen of the Scots
Mary Stuart, the last Queen of Scotland and the Isles, was reputedly the sort of woman who could put on armour or pull off a stocking in such a way as to make men mad with desire for her.
She was born in 1542 at Linlithgow, near Edinburgh, just before the death of her father, James V of Scotland. Mary knew of her royal birth by the time she was a little girl romping through the brief sunlight and the long shadows of one Scottish castle keep after another. For the fear that she would be kidnapped, as a dangerous pawn and queen-to-be in the religious and political game of seek-the-throne, was always around her.
The paunchy and bejewelled Henry VIII was now England's ruler, and wanted her as a little ward-prisoner to marry to his weakly son, Edward. The powerful Protestant lords of Scotland wanted to shut her up in virtual captivity, since she was of a Catholic line and not acceptable to them. So, from infancy, the young Mary was constantly being carried to some greater safety, by stealth and by night. Out of this fear and flight was born in Mary the daring which shaped her later life.
With her big dark eyes, delicate white skin, and ruddy-gold hair that turned darker with time, Mary was, even then, a figure of romance. When she was six, her mother, Mary of Guise, astutely sent her away from gloomy, murderous Scotland to live in her own country, France. Here, amid the elegance and amusements of the rich, sunny French court, the young girl grew in grace and beauty. Among her playmates was Francis, the Dauphin (heir apparent) of France, and when Mary was fifteen and the dauphin a year younger, the children were married. Not long after, the King of France was killed in a tournament, and Francis II and Mary Stuart reigned as King and Queen.
Less than three years after their marriage, the boy was dead, probably of a mastoid infection, leaving Mary a widow at eighteen. Her mother-in-law, the mighty Catherine de Medici, wanted to be rid of her, and there was nowhere now for Mary to go but home. So in 1561, the young widow set sail for Scotland, where an empty throne and an army of enemies awaited her. With her she took furniture such as Scotland had never seen, wondrous tapestries and Turkish carpets, a treasury of gold coins and coffers of exquisite jewels. Her bodyguard was composed of soldiers and knights, in too small a force to protect her against her foes, yet too numerous not to arouse the jealous enmity of the Protestant Scots on their own soil.
Return to Scotland
As great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England, Mary also had a claim to the throne of England. But on that throne now sat her cousin, the shrewd and glittering Elizabeth I. At the very name of the lovely Mary Stuart, Elizabeth would fly into an ill-concealed rage of jealousy. Between these two Queens there simmered a lifelong rivalry. Forever, each would enquire of any who had lately seen the other, which was the more beautiful? Which was loved for herself alone by the most men? And on these points, Mary would have won, if it were in a diplomat's best interests to speak the truth to a Queen.
When Mary arrived in Edinburgh on that foggy morning in 1561, she received a hastily written, not very sincere welcome from some of the Scottish lords. At her first meeting with the grim, long-bearded John Knox who was head of the Kirk of Scotland, he told her bluntly, even rudely, that she was abhorrent to the Protestant part of the population because of her religion. It was a truth that brought Mary to bitter tears, and made her realize that she was an outsider in her native land. She was to stand opposed by the powerful and implacable Knox to the very end.
Mary's second marriage
From the first, Mary attracted many an admirer with her beauty--a charm perilous to her and to the men around her. High time, friend and foe agreed, that this dangerously attractive Queen should be married. For the sake of the royal Stuart line, Mary would willingly have married the heir to the throne of Spain, since this would double her sovereignty. However her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, feared nothing more than the possibility of having the Spanish monarch on her northern border.
Craftily, Elizabeth sent a young man named Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, to Scotland. Darnley claimed Scottish birth, had blood that was royal enough for the purpose, and was handsome in height and bearing, though his face was rather girlish. Just as Elizabeth hoped, the lonely young Queen Mary was enchanted with him, and so the two were married in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Any child of theirs would be heir, without question, to the throne of England as well as that of Scotland, but Elizabeth knew how weak in character the young Lord Darnley was.
When rebellion against the Catholic Queen first broke out among the Protestant lords, Mary donned cold steel mail, wearing velvet and fur outside. With a pistol at her side and a steel casque on her auburn locks, she rode out at the head of her troops onto the rainy moor. The rebellious lords decamped in haste, or surrendered, and John Knox fled to Ayrshire. But Darnley, not satisfied with the gifts and titles Mary lavished upon him, allowed himself to be drawn into a conspiracy which promised him superiority to the Queen. The romantic spell that he held over his wife was broken when he held her hands while the lords, whom she had trusted, dragged her private secretary and adviser, David Rizzio, from her dinner table and stabbed him 56 times. Seeing Rizzio's blood on the floors of Holyrood Palace, Mary's eyes were opened at last to the truth about Darnley's character.
Mary was held prisoner in the palace by the conspirators, consumed by revenge and resolved to have the life of every one of Rizzio's murderers. Using her feminine wiles, she wooed Darnley softly until he revealed all of the conspiracy to her. Then, one night, she and Darnley escaped through a subterranean passage. Once in the open, Darnley was all for speed in flight but Mary, with his child within her, wanted to go slowly and cautiously on their chafing mounts. "We can make another child!" cried Darnley in the heartlessness of his cowardice. Between clenched teeth, Mary told him to ride ahead and save himself. And so he did, leaving his pregnant wife and future heir to the mercy of her enemies.
One man had recklessly defended her cause, the Earl of Bothwell. Known to be an abductor of women and young girls, as well as a thief, he was a big man, bold and hard to the point of brutality, but loyal to the House of Stuart. He raised a force to regain control of the palace for her.
At Greenwich, in England, Elizabeth was dancing after supper when a messenger, dispatched triumphantly by Mary, threaded his way through the dancers and whispered to the Queen of England that the Queen of the Scots had given birth to a future king. Stricken, Elizabeth ordered the musicians to cease, and fled to her chambers in a fit of fury and frustration--for she could never have a child.
On a December day in 1566, at Stirling Castle in Scotland, the princeling who would one day become James VI of Scotland and James I of England was baptized amid much pomp and splendour. His godmother, Queen Elizabeth, did not see fit to attend. The child's father, too, though in the castle, remained sulking in his chambers. For Bothwell had so clearly become the Queens' favorite that it was he who received the guests at the ceremony. Brilliant as the hundreds of candles that lit the scene, Mary moved laughing and serene through the difficult occasion, the triumphant mother of the heir to two thrones.
But inwardly Mary was desperately unhappy; there were those who heard her crying, "Oh, that I could die!' as she wept upon her bed. Delirious with love for Bothwell, she longed now to be rid of Darnley.
When Darnley was stricken with smallpox and went to the house of his father, Mary followed, like any dutiful wife. And when he was better she bore him back to a quiet little house on the outskirts of Edinburgh called Kirk o' Field--a house of Bothwell's choosing--and continued to nurse him.
One night when Mary was back at Holyrood Palace, the sleeping city was rocked by a thunderous explosion. The little house of Kirk o' Field was demolished. In the garden, the bodies of Darnley and his page were found, strangely, not blown to pieces but strangled. At once, fingers were pointed at Bothwell. Even Elizabeth urged Mary to find Darnley's murderers and punish them to the last man. But no serious attemp was ever made to find them, and three months after Darnley's death, Mary and Bothwell were married.
This time every court in Europe was outraged--The Protestants because Bothwell had not one drop of royal blood, the Catholics because Bothwell was a Protestant, and an alleged murderer to boot. Matters came to a climax at Carberry Hill, near Edinburgh, when the treacherous foes of Mary joined forces with Darnley's avengers to oppose her retainers. The numbers were at first roughly equal, but all through the afternoon Mary's supporters kept melting away.
Under a flag of truce an agreement was reached. The fair Queen was to ride over to her foes and become their prisoner. Bothwell, who had listened in silence to the bargaining, took one kiss from his wife and was allowed to gallop off, free of pursuers. Taking a small boat from Orkney, he fled to Norway. He was finally captured and imprisoned in Denmark, where he died after seven years, raving, in chains.
As in her childhood, Mary was moved from prison to prison. At Lochleven Castle, one of her jailers fell deeply in love with her and, with his help, she was able to escape. Friends enrolled under her banner, but they were not enough. Driven by her enemies, on 16 May 1568, she finally crossed over the border into England.
Trials and execution
Mary was tried once on suspicion of her part in the murder of Darnley. The main grounds for indictment were the famous Casket Letters. A silver casket, supposedly left behind by Bothwell when he fled, was found to contain letters, alleged to be in Mary's handwriting, which showed a foreknowledge of the murder plans. Equally, the whole affair may have been a mishmash of falsities invented to entrap the Queen. Mary was not allowed to formally reply to the charges against her; had no counsel to advise her, and no time in which to prepare a defence. If she had been allowed any witnesses, she said, there were many who could prove the letters a forgery.
Elizabeth had promised her safe asylum, but the minute Mary crossed the border Elizabeth's trap sprang shut. Mary was to be a prisoner for her remaining nineteen years--sometimes handled with kid gloves, and sometimes with vile persecution.
Mary was declared not guilty for lack of reliable evidence but she was not set free. Elizabeth gave her many years still in which to make some fatal blunder.
In desperation at her long imprisonment, Mary conspired with many people to free herself. All this correspondence was read by Elizabeth's spies, and plots were often known to Elizabeth before they were to Mary. Finally, in 1586 at Fotheringhay, Mary Queen of Scots was tried again, this time for conspiracy against the Queen of England and the State. She was condemned to die.
On the day of her execution the following year, Mary dressed with her accustomed care and stateliness in a fur-trimmed gown of black satin, with flowing sleeves and train, over a crimson petticoat. Her head-dress was of snowy-white lawn, with a long veil, and round her neck was a chain with an Agnus Dei. Mary was escorted to the block chanting loudly in Latin against the Protestant prayers of the Dean of Peterborough. Nervous, the executioner had to strike three times to completely sever the once-fair head. And so, at the age of forty-four, the last and the loveliest Queen of Scotland died.
Elizabeth had won--but had she? It was Mary's son, James I, who was to become ruler of both England and Scotland, making the United Kingdom of today. And this Queen of the Scots, about whom legend clustered in her days on earth, is now more legendary than ever.
The men in Mary's life
- John Knox
Read the fascinating story of John Knox, the great Reformer of Scotland, who at the age of 50 married a lady of only 17!
- Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Henry Stuart, 1st Duke of Albany (7 December 1545 10 February 1567), styled Lord Darnley before 1565, was a King Consort of Scotland.
- Luminarium Encyclopedia: David Rizzio, or David Riccio (c.1533-1566)
Biography of David Rizzio, secretary and lover of Mary Queen of Scots, murdered by her husband and other earls.
- Famous Scots - James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (1536-78)
Biographies of Famous Scots - James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (1536-78)
- A Brief Critique of the Casket Letters
The infamous Casket Letters have been a subject of passionate debate for the last four centuries. However, there is little evidence that the populace at the ...