Royal Cousins, Rival Queens: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots | History Hit

Royal Cousins, Rival Queens: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

L: A coronation portrait of Elizabeth I. R: A portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots by Francois Clouet.
Image Credit: Public Domain

A story of queenship, power, intrigue and betrayal, the relationship between Elizabeth I, Queen of England, and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, has enthralled and fascinated for centuries. The two queens never met in person: their relationship was conducted entirely through letters and intermediaries, many of which have lasted to this day.

Here is the story of two of the greatest figures of the 16th century: rivals, cousins, women but most of all, queens.

The Tudor dynasty

Henry VII had 4 children: Arthur, Henry, Margaret and Mary. Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, whilst Mary was the granddaughter of Margaret and her husband, King James IV of Scotland.

Mary was born to rule: the only legitimate child of King James V, she inherited the crown at just 6 days old after her father died on the battlefield in 1542.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, had a much more convoluted path to queenship. She was struck from the line of succession in 1533 when her mother was executed, and only restored to it in 1543, behind both her half-siblings, the future Edward VI and Mary I.

After navigating years of political intrigue and religious division at court, narrowly escaping imprisonment several times, Elizabeth eventually became queen in 1558, aged 25.

Professor Suzannah Lipscomb goes to the British Library in London to meet curator Andrea Clarke and visit a stunning exhibition on the rival Queens, which uses original documents and extraordinary objects to show how paranoia turned sisterly affection to suspicion.
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Mary was the first queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth only the second queen of England. The notion of a queen regnant was still relatively new in 16th-century Europe, and both women had to adapt to the challenges faced by a male-dominated society.

Much of Mary’s early reign was a regency: powerful nobles, including her mother, Mary of Guise, ruling in her stead until she came of age. During this time, the teenage Mary was married to Francois, the dauphin of France. This political alliance aimed to unite the Catholic crowns of Scotland and France against their common enemy, England.

Francis died after a little over a year as king of France, and Mary returned to Scotland to take up the duty of ruling in earnest. She was ill-prepared, however, for the complex and often dangerous political situation in Scotland, which was a nation divided on religious terms.

Mary, Queen of Scots as a child in France. François Clouet, c.1549

Image Credit: Yale University Art Gallery, courtesy of the British Library.

In contrast, Elizabeth was used to warring factions and a court and country divided along religious lines. Having watched the country swing from Protestantism to Catholicism sharply, she played her hand carefully in order to not repeat the mistakes of her half-siblings, but reverted England to Protestantism.

Unlike Mary, Elizabeth refused to marry, instead courting assorted suitors from across Europe, stringing them along to keep them interested and act in her interests, but never committing or accepting a proposal. Her choice of husband, whether foreign or English, would have huge ramifications: after watching her father’s marriages and knowing that any husband would almost certainly try to wrestle power from her, she instead became the ‘Virgin Queen‘.

The two women conversed by letter for much of their lives, often with great affection, calling eachother ‘sister queen’: Elizabeth wrote to Mary of the rumours that swirled following the death of her second husband Henry, Lord Darnley, under suspicious circumstances, and Mary wrote to Elizabeth after Darnley burst into her chamber and murdered her courtier, David Rizzio, in front of her.

On 9 March 1566, David Rizzio - close friend and private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots - was stabbed around 80 times in front of the pregnant Queen at the instigation of her husband, Lord Darnley in an apparent bid to destroy both her and her unborn heir so that Darnley himself could rule Scotland. He had also made a bargain with his allies in return for restoring their lands and titles.
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As time went on, it became clear that Elizabeth would not marry or have children: Mary, on the other hand, married three times and produced a male heir, the future James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth’s closest blood relative, therefore, was Mary, which also made Mary Elizabeth’s heir. This irked Elizabeth: Mary was Catholic, not Protestant, which risked upsetting the delicate religious settlement in England.

In 1568, Mary fled to England, having been imprisoned and forced to abdicate after her nobles turned against her the previous year. It seems Mary thought Elizabeth would help her regain her throne in Scotland, expecting her sister queen to stand with her against rebellion and usurpation. Unfortunately for Mary, Elizabeth was more cautious. Anglo-Scottish diplomacy was a delicate matter, and Elizabeth was keen not to upset the Protestant lords of Scotland.

Mary was tried in England for Darnley’s murder using a set of documents called the ‘casket letters’, which historians now believe were largely fabricated. Mary was not found guilty, but nor was she acquitted. She remained in ‘custody’ (under house arrest) in England at Elizabeth’s pleasure: Elizabeth viewed Mary as something of a threat to her own throne, not least because she would be able to rally Catholic support, and she was known to be extremely charming.

Professor Kate Williams talks about Mary's tragic life and the plots that resulted in her execution.
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Mary was deeply unhappy at being kept in Elizabeth’s custody: she was confined to the properties of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the Midlands, far from the Catholic North and Scottish border, but also far from London.

Despite Elizabeth’s best attempts, Mary managed to correspond with leading Catholic nobles and give encouragement to conspirators: the Ridolfi and Throckmorton Plots both had Mary at the heart of them, aiming to put her on the throne of England and depose Elizabeth.

The Armada Portrait, painted to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Mary was kept under the watchful eye of Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who eventually gathered evidence of Mary being directly involved in the 1586 Babington Plot. Mary was put on trial for treason and found guilty.

After months of deliberation, Elizabeth eventually signed Mary’s death warrant on 1 February 1587. Despite Mary being a thorn in her side for much of her reign, Elizabeth was extremely hesitant to commit regicide. Mary was, after all, her cousin and a fellow queen.

Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, shortly afterwards the warrant was taken to be signed by 10 members of the Privy Council so that the execution could be carried out without delay. Mary was executed on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. She wore red, the liturgical colour of martyrdom.


News of Mary’s execution sent shockwaves across Europe. Elizabeth was said to have been furious when she heard what had happened. Those involved in the intrigue were imprisoned or banished for several months and felt the full force of Elizabeth’s displeasure.

With Mary dead, Elizabeth’s next of kin was Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland. The two wrote to each other frequently, with Elizabeth offering James both guidance and criticism. She never formally named him as her heir, seemingly unable to admit to her own mortality. Nevertheless, on her death in 1603, James became King James I of England too, ushering a new dawn of a united England and Scotland. This heralded the beginning of a new dynasty: the Stuarts.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is on at the British Library until February 2022. 

Tags: Elizabeth I Mary Queen of Scots

Sarah Roller