Mary Queen of Scots
"In my end is my beginning."
In life, this was Mary Stuart’s motto and it could hardly have been more prophetic. When she was eventually executed, Mary I Queen of the Scots became a martyr across the whole of Catholic Europe. Loyal Catholics scrambled for memorabilia of her; Henry III of France organised a huge funeral mass for her at Notre Dame in Paris while Catholic Spain used her execution as further evidence for their need to invade England in their Armada of 1558. Her son would go onto to become James I of a united England and Scotland 16 years after her death and the religious tolerance she strived for in her lifetime would in time, become the norm across Europe. In Mary’s end was indeed her beginning but what is it about her legend that continues to captivate?
Life in France, 1547-61: Mary became Queen at only a week old after the death of her father James V of Scotland. Her French mother ruled in as regent until she came of age while Mary was sent away at age five to be raised at court in France. She enjoyed a privileged upbringing in France where she was widely adored by the people and the nobility, recognised everywhere she went by her long red hair. It was arranged that Mary would marry Francis, the eldest son of French King Henry II. The young couple were very much in love and wed in 1588 uniting the French and Scottish thrones. Later that year, Mary Tudor the English Queen died briefly leaving Mary Stuart as the heir to the English and Irish thrones as well as Queen of both Scotland and France but that was as good as it got for Mary. Soon after, her world crashed around her. Her mother died, quickly followed by her young husband Francis II of France. A grief stricken Mary headed for Scotland, landing at Leith in 1561.
Rule in Scotland: Compared to her life in the French court, Scotland was a rude lesson in mediaeval politics. Her early rule coincided with a policy of religious tolerance while simultaneously attempting to curb the power of the unruly Scottish nobles. Both policies made her popular with the people but unpopular with those who wielded power and influence at court. Aware that her role as queen meant that she needed to provide a male heir, Mary married her cousin Lord Darnley. Darnley was an arrogant and conceited man who sought to achieve greater power than his abilities warranted but he did provide Mary with the male heir she needed; the future King was named James. During Mary’s pregnancy, Darnley and other nobles conspired to murder Mary’s close advisor David Riccio, whom they believed had too much influence over her. In 1566 He was dragged off and murdered in her presence while Mary herself was threatened at gunpoint. She was then unceremoniously thrown into prison at Holyrood castle. The rebels took over affairs at court. While imprisoned Mary convinced Darnley to help her escape. The rebels felt betrayed by Darnley’s actions and whatever Mary had promised him he would never claim. He was murdered and the rebel nobles blew up his house. Mary quickly had an opportunity to return to Scottish politics when a meeting was arranged between her and one of the rebel noblemen, the Earl of Bothwell. Terrified, she was coerced into marrying Bothwell under the pretence of securing peace in Scotland. Despite an agreement stating that they were prepared to allow Bothwell to represent their interests, the Scottish nobles quickly became dissatisfied with Bothwell’s new influence and again rebelled. After two defeats in quick succession to the rebel armies, Mary was again imprisoned and her young son was taken by her half-brother, the Earl of Moray to be raised Protestant. Mary agreed to abdicate, leaving ten month old James as the new king of Scotland with the Earl of Moray as the regent. Mary was not without her sympathisers though and with a little help she escaped once again. Certain that her cousin Elizabeth I would help her, she fled south into exile in England.
Exile and Imprisonment: Elizabeth had ordered Mary to be held upon hearing news of her attempts to reach her. There were good reasons for this as not only did Mary have a strong claim to the English throne but Elizabeth herself had connived with Mary’s enemies in order to keep her distracted in Scotland. Mary would remain in captivity for the rest of her life and would never meet Elizabeth. The English Queen used the murder of Darnley as her pretext, saying that she could not be seen to meet with Mary until she had cleared herself of any involvement.
Execution, 1587: Despite 19 years in captivity, Mary was tried and executed in just two days. From day one of her detainment, Mary had always planned to escape but the attempts became increasingly desperate with more and more at stake. In 1586, letters were intercepted that showed Mary’s willingness to play the figurehead in a Catholic invasion of England. Mary would take the throne and Elizabeth would be executed in an all or nothing religious war. Mary’s execution proved a macabre affair, with her beheading requiring more than one stroke. When the executioner lifted her head and shouted “God save the Queen” Mary’s head dropped away revealing a long red wig. The years of captivity had seen most of her hair fall out and what remained had long since turned grey. In the end this is how Mary is remembered; as the heroine who always put on her best performance despite the misfortunes, adversities and humiliations that compounded her life.