The Doomed Destiny of Mary, Queen of Scots - Part 2

Blog 12 Sep 2013

Mary Queen of Scots (8 December 1542 – 8 February 1587)

This week we will touch upon what happened to Mary after her husband’s death. Was she the one who orchestrated the murder, as revenge for Rizzio’s death? Or was it orchestrated by rebels? If you missed last week’s blog, catch up here!


We left off last week’s blog where Mary’s debaucherous husband, Lord Darnley, was brutally murdered and his home destroyed by gunpowder.

Rumours spread around the country like wildfire: Was Mary to blame? Did her new advisor, the ambitious Lord Bothwell, orchestrate the murder?

While there is no definite answer to the question of who murdered Lord Darnley, most historians agree that Bothwell, Mary’s new trusted advisor and close friend, had concocted the plot.  Bothwell was ruthless and opportunistic, aiming at nothing less than the kingship of Scotland. But was Mary involved?

Though she protested her innocence, her actions after her husband’s death did not strengthen her case. In the 16th Century, it was necessary for the queen to show the correct amount of grief; to wear mourning clothes and confine herself to her rooms in Holyrood for 40 days. Mary did not heed this advice. Instead, she buried her husband in secret and broke out of her royal mourning with a round of golf at Seaton. Not only did she not show the correct amount of grief, but within one month of her husband’s death, Mary married Bothwell, the man who was rumoured to be responsible for his murder.

Lord Bothwell

The marriage was controversial, with many questioning why Mary would marry her husband’s suspected murderer.  Lots of rumours circulated, with some saying it was true love, and others saying she was coerced into marrying Bothwell.  The real truth remains a mystery today.

Given the chance, Mary could have been able to recover her reputation after the murder of her husband, who had undoubtedly become a liability, however remarrying in such a short period of time and to the man who was suspected of your husbands’ murder was extremely foolish in diplomatic terms.  Due to this, she lost a lot of support across the country.  Furthermore, as the marriage was conducted according to Protestant rite, Mary almost immediately lost all support she had from Catholic powers on the continent too.

Within six years from her arrival in Scotland to her marriage to Bothwell, Mary had alienated almost everyone around her, both Catholic and Protestant.  Firstly, she had lost most of her followers after being implicated in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley, and secondly she had upset her Catholic followers by marrying the Protestant Lord Bothwell.

The Scottish nobility raised an army and confronted the newlyweds at Carberry Hill in the Summer of 1567. Bothwell was allowed to flee into exile, but Mary was made to surrender under charges of “moral turpitude” and is said to have returned to Edinburgh ‘covered in dust and tears’.

Only six years earlier Mary had arrived in Edinburgh celebrated as the new queen, but she was now jeered and insulted as she returned a prisoner. Banished to a small island on Loch Leven, Mary was forced to abdicate the throne to her 1 year old son, James.  Her son was then put under the watchful eye of John Knox, a Scottish clergyman and leader of the Protestant Reformation, and the very man who preached against Mary’s Catholic beliefs.

In 1568, after 10 months of imprisonment at Loch Leven, Mary escaped with the aid of George Douglas, brother of the castle’s owner, only to be defeated in the Battle of Langside, near Glasgow. Defeated, Mary headed South, fleeing the Scottish nobility, where she sought protection from her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, naively believing she would support her cause and help her regain the Scottish throne. Instead, she was held in captivity for 19 years.

Elizabeth had come to learn of rumoured written correspondence between Lord Bothwell and Mary, Queen of Scots, detailing in Mary’s handwriting her hatred of her late husband, Darnley, and encouraging Bothwell to murder him. These letters were nicknamed ‘the casket letters’ and supposedly found in a box of Bothwell’s personal documents in Edinburgh.

After learning of the casket letters, Elizabeth regarded Mary as ruthless and a potential threat to the English throne, she was very cautious over what to do. The Queen of England called upon the advice of her peers, who believed the letters were hard evidence of Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s murder, but Mary’s supporters dismissed them as forgeries.

Even though the originals no longer exist, the authenticity of the letters continues to be debated to this day

For political reasons, Elizabeth neither wanted to convict nor acquit Mary of her husband’s murder. She did not want to alienate the Scottish nation and execute a Scottish Queen, though she could not trust Mary enough to acquit her and let her go, in case she came after the English throne as well. The outcome was declared that the Casket Letters were thought to be genuine, but nothing could be proven. Elizabeth used this outcome to imprison Mary in a number of country houses and castles, ensuring she was far enough from London to have no influence over England, and far enough from the coast and Scotland to prevent an easy escape.

Mary was imprisoned for 19 years, but her time in captivity was far from unpleasant; her chambers were decorated in fine tapestries, she was occasionally allowed outside under strict supervision and spent several summers at spas. However, even though she was imprisoned, Elizabeth still made sure she was watched carefully by placing spies amongst her household servants. Soon, several plots to assassinate Elizabeth emerged, implicating Mary as the orchestrator. Elizabeth was reluctant to act against Mary, however her advisors feared Mary’s status as a figurehead for English Roman Catholics. Elizabeth famously said:

 “So long as there is life in her, there is hope; so as they live in hope, we live in fear.”

Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I of England and sentenced to death.

Mary spent the last hours of her life in prayer, distributing all of her possessions between her household and writing her will and a letter to the King of France. On the day of her death, the executioners knelt before her and asked forgiveness. She replied, “I will forgive you with all of my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.” Her servants and the executioners helped Mary to remove her outer garments, and as she disrobed, she smiled and joked. She was blindfolded with a white veil embroidered in gold, and beheaded with two swift blows of the executioners axe. A small Skye terrier dog, owned by the queen, was said to have been hiding underneath her skirts, unseen by the spectators. Following its master’s death, the dog refused to be parted with her body, and had to be forcibly taken away and washed of blood.

Mary was executed on 8th February 1587 at the age of 44 (having spent 19 years in captivity). Mary is certainly one of the most mysterious, interesting and fascinating monarchs Scotland has ever seen.