Mary Queen of Scots must rival Robert the Bruce as the most famous Scottish monarch, and the period in which she lived was one of the most exciting and turbulent in Scotland’s history. And since much of Scotland’s history is turbulent, that is quite an accolade.
This weekend sees the release of a major film on Mary in the USA. When writing this I don’t know how historically accurate the film will be – often films diverge from the historical facts. I have been fascinated by Mary and her time since I was a teenager, and have just published a book about her. I haven’t seen the film yet, as it will not be released in the U.K. until 18 January, but based on the trailer there are some inaccuracies in the film. I have just published a book which is the true story of here Scottish years – details at the end of this post.
Linlithgow Palace, where Mary was born.
Mary was Scotland’s queen from a few days after her birth at Linlithgow Palace, as her father James V died before she was a week old. When she was an infant England’s King Henry VIII wanted her to be contracted to marry his son Edward. This in practice would have given Henry control of Scotland. Initially the Protestant faction in the Scottish court agreed to this, but this arrangement was rejected when the Catholic faction in Scotland regained ascendancy. Henry’s response was to send armies to devastate much of the Scottish borders and lowlands, in an attempt to terrorise Scotland into agreeing to the marriage. These terror tactics were to become known as the “rough wooing”.
The English raids and military incursions continued for several years. So at five years seven months Mary was sent to the sophisticated court of France for her safety, and in preparation for her marriage to the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. At fifteen she married the fourteen year old Dauphin, who when his father died in a jousting accident shortly afterwards, became King of France. Mary was for a short time the Queen of France, but had to return to Scotland at eighteen following the death of her young husband from an infection.
Mary attempted to rule Scotland at one of the most tempestuous times in its history, only one year after the country had officially become Protestant, and when a very substantial minority of the population were still Catholic. Mary was a Catholic when many, although not all, of the Scottish nobles were Protestant, a recipe for conflict at a time of religious strife.
Scotland had adopted an austere version of the Protestant religion. Although the Scottish church eventually matured into the tolerant and compassionate church it is today, the 16thcentury was a time of religious extremism. Catholics and Protestants struggled for supremacy, and many people in both churches were bigoted and intolerant, seeing adherents of the other religion as heretics rather than fellow Christians.
In some ways Scotland then was like Afghanistan is today, a country with a weak central government, where much of the real power lay with warlords. Again like Afghanistan the county had been racked by war and the intervention of foreign powers for decades. In Scotland’s case England and France, in Afghanistan’s first Russia and then the West. Mary’s task of ruling the country was almost impossible.
Mary’s rule when she returned to Scotland started well. She was an attractive and charming young queen, and initially her subjects took to her. Her policy was one of religious tolerance. She insisted on practicing her Catholic faith, but did nothing to threaten the official Protestant faith of her country, although the Protestant church undoubtedly felt threatened.
But she made several significant errors of judgement. She married Lord Darnley, a superficially attractive young aristocrat, but as mentioned earlier in reality egotistical, stupid, sexually promiscuous and possibly bisexual, and a drunkard. She also had too many close French and continental Catholics in her entourage, including her personal secretary David Rizzio. Rizzio infuriated Mary’s nobles by his haughty attitude and tendency to require a bribe before allowing any favours or access to Mary.
To cut a long story short, a group of nobles, including Mary’s husband Darnley murdered Rizzio when he was dining with Mary. This shows how weak her position really was.
Three months later Mary gave birth to the future James VI of Scotland in the security of Edinburgh castle. Thirty-seven years later, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James was to become James I of England as well.
Mary’s marriage to Darnley had irrevocably broken down. However obtaining a divorce would have been difficult, and would have resulted in her son being considered illegitimate, and therefore under the legal code that existed at that time, unable to inherit the throne. Divorce therefore wasn’t an option.
Rather conveniently Mary’s husband Lord Darnley was murdered a year after Rizzio. The person responsible was almost certainly Lord Bothwell, one of Mary’s key supporters and possibly by then lover. Historians argue to this day whether Mary was involved. But Bothwell was too powerful to be convicted.
Bothwell pressured Mary to marry him, and possibly raped her. Mary then made a disastrous mistake. Three months after the murder of her husband she married Bothwell. Because she had married the man who was generally accepted to be her husband’s murderer, many people thought Mary little better than a prostitute, and said so. Scotland was seething with insurrection. Also many nobles detested Bothwell, and were frightened that he would use his position as the Queen’s husband to threaten their positions. They therefore rose in revolt.
This resulted in a standoff rather than a battle between Mary’s forces and her enemies – no one really wanted a civil war. Mary surrendered to the nobles seeing that her position was weak, and believing she would be treated with honour. However they had different ideas. They imprisoned Mary in Loch Leven Castle on an island in the middle of the loch. She was threatened with death and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son.
Loch Leven Castle, a castle on an island. Mary was forced to abdicate as Queen of Scots here.
But Mary wasn’t finished yet. After almost a year in captivity she managed to charm George Douglas, the young brother of the castle’s owner, and he helped her make a daring escape. Her supporters rallied behind her, and she soon had an army of 6,000. But at the battle of Langside Mary’s forces were beaten by the nobles. Mary decided to escape from Scotland and seek support from her cousin Elizabeth I of England, a disastrous mistake.
Elizabeth, a Protestant queen, saw Mary as a threat, a possible rallying point for the large Catholic minority in England. Therefore rather than support Mary, Elizabeth kept her under house arrest. After 19 years Mary became desperate, and became involved in a plot to depose Elizabeth. As a result, Mary was tried and executed.
Mary only spent just over twelve years of her life in Scotland, five years and seven months before being sent to France, and six year nine months when she returned, speaking with a French accent and strongly influenced by her French education. But Mary is the most famous Scotswoman ever. Many books have been written and films made about her life, including the new “Mary Queen of Scots”, released this month.
The book is available as a printed book on Amazon now. There are three ways to get to the book. Please click on the link, or paste it into your browser, or search on Amazon for “Exploring Mary’s Scotland – Mary Queen of Scots’ Life in Scotland”