The ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots has long been viewed as a kind of romantic hero – a beautiful woman who was a helpless pawn of the men who surrounded her. But Mary had more agency than history gives her credit for: beneath the soft exterior lay a steely determination to rule, as was her God-given right. Here are 10 facts about Mary Queen of Scots.
1. She became queen at 6 days old
Mary’s father, James V, King of Scotland died on 14 December 1542 following the Battle of Solway Moss. Just 6 days before, his wife Mary of Guise had given birth to a baby girl, named Mary, at Linlithgow Palace. On his death, the baby Mary became Queen of Scotland.
2. She was a political pawn from a young age
At five, Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII’s only son, Edward. Henry wanted to secure an alliance with Scotland to distance it from France. But the Scots refused the match.
Instead, at six years old, Mary was betrothed to Francis, heir to the French crown. She married him in 1558 at Notre Dame Cathedral. Mary wore a white gown, an unusual choice given that white was traditionally a colour of mourning in France.
The choice proved fateful. Francis became king a year later but died in 1560, leaving Mary a widow at eighteen. Francis’s mother Catherine de Medici, who had always viewed Mary as a threat, ensured she returned to Scotland.
3. Mary was a staunch Catholic
Scotland was a Catholic country – Henry VIII’s religious reforms never crossed the border, and her time at the French court had further cemented her Catholic faith. On her return to Scotland, Mary briefly aligned herself with the Protestant cause. But in July 1565 she married a Catholic, Henry, Lord Darnley.
4. She was unlucky in love
Mary’s first husband died young. Her second looked more promising: on her first meeting with Darnley, one courtier described the following: “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned lang [tall] man she had seen.”
Mary’s son, James, was born on 10 June 1566. But Mary’s marriage to Darnley was in turmoil. During her pregnancy, Mary witnessed the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio, at the hands of Darnley and other nobles, who suspected him of seducing the queen.
In February 1567, Darnley fell foul of a plot himself. An explosion occurred in the building where he was staying in Edinburgh. His body was found outside, as though he had been murdered whilst escaping the blast.
The prime suspect for the murder was a man Mary had grown close to, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Just three months later, Mary and Bothwell were married (although some have argued this was a forced marriage rather than a happy one).
5. She abdicated her throne
Mary’s marriage to the Catholic Darnley had been unpopular, but she hoped Bothwell would prove a more popular choice. However, the nobles quickly took against the newly elevated Bothwell. Catholics refused to recognise the validity of the marriage at all. Both sides were horrified Mary would marry the man accused of murdering her last husband, no matter their thoughts on Darnley.
The confederate lords (26 leading nobles) turned against Mary, and she was captured and imprisoned, denounced as a murderer. Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James. Shortly after, she fled Scotland to seek sanctuary in England with her cousin Elizabeth.
6. She was held prisoner by her cousin for nearly 20 years
Elizabeth did not welcome her cousin Mary with open arms. Mary had a strong claim to the English throne as the great-niece of Henry VIII, and had previously declared her intent to become Queen of England too. She was detained on her arrival in England, and kept under house arrest at a variety of properties in the north and midlands.
7. Elizabeth was reportedly jealous of Mary
Mary was, by many accounts, charming. She spoke multiple languages, was highly educated, enjoyed sports like riding and hunting, and was an accomplished embroiderer and musician. Men were said to fall at her feet: Elizabeth, who was 9 years older than her glamorous cousin, was said to have been unhappy at such positive reports being sent back to her.
8. She became the focus for numerous conspiracies
Whilst Mary was in captivity, she attracted a good deal of attention as a figurehead for the Catholic cause in England. Numerous plotters and conspiracies centred around making crowning Mary as Queen following a foreign-backed invasion and rising in the north.
Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, kept a close eye on her. Mary did little to dispel plotters, often writing lengthy letters to those involved. In 1586 Walsingham revealed that he had intercepted letters between Mary and Anthony Babington, a plotter seeking to unseat Elizabeth: Mary clearly agreed, in writing, to the plot going ahead. Walsingham persuaded Elizabeth to put Mary on trial for treason. She was found guilty in October 1586 and sentenced to death.
9. Elizabeth didn’t want to sign the death warrant
Elizabeth had held Mary in captivity for 19 years, never deigning to meet her cousin. The implications of agreeing to the execution of a fellow anointed queen were profound, and it is clear she felt extremely uncomfortable about doing so.
Finally, Elizabeth signed the warrant. Mary was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and executed on 8 February 1587.
10. Even her death was dramatic
Mary’s life was far from ordinary, and her execution marked the first execution of a royally anointed European monarch. As death, as in life, she retained some of her customary glamour. Underneath her black dress, Mary was said to be wearing crimson petticoats underneath: red being the colour of martyrs.
The executioner took several swings of the axe to complete the execution, and when, as customary, he lifted the severed head to proclaim ‘God Save Queen Elizabeth’, he instead found himself grasping a red wig. Mary’s head – with the lips still moving – fell to the floor.
Her dress was then said to twitch, and her pet dog emerged trembling from underneath her skirts. Keen not to allow Mary to become a martyr, the block and all Mary’s possessions were burned so onlookers could not claim trinkets as souvenirs.