Her general character
Mary Stuart (Mary I of Scotland, "Mary, Queen of Scots" as she is called to differentiate her from her second cousin once removed Mary I of England) was born of Mary of Guise and James V of Scotland at the end of December's first week in 1542 (exact date unclear). Her father died six days later and Mary of Guise became regent, although Mary (the daughter) was officially Queen. She was engaged to be married to the French dauphin in 1548. At the age of five she left Scotland to live in France, and she was officially married to the dauphin in 1558 shortly before he became Francis II of France in 1559. But Francis had always been a sickly child and within a year he would be dead.
Mary was, by contemporary reckonings, vivacious, pretty and quick of wit. Many noblemen certainly fell under her spell and there seems to have been a little jealousy of her passion by Elizabeth I, 'the Virgin Queen'. But Elizabeth also seems to have regarded her as something of a slut. When a Treaty was being made between Scotland and England and Mary insisted it refer to Elizabeth's "lawful issue" rather than just her "issue", Elizabeth retorted "She may, peradventure, measure other folk's dispositions by her own actions." Of course, by this time (1570), Mary had done much to vindicate such an accusation! Mary was a lady of passion, a lady of femininity, given to many of what men of the time (and some of our time) might call the vices of her gender. She was, it can be said, a woman in whom emotion and not intellect resembled the stronger force. She was greatly talented at dancing, music, horsemanship and other courtly pursuits (including skipping - "not very comely for an honest woman", remarked John Knox).
But prepared for ruling, she was perhaps not. Unlike Elizabeth she did not seem to be quite so adept in affairs of state and was liable to let her feelings get the better of herself.
The international situation
"When the Ethiopian is white, the French will love the English."
~ popular contemporary proverb.
"The French King [is] bestriding the realm, having one foot in Calais and the other in Scotland," complained one Englishman shortly after Elizabeth's accession to the throne of England. Indeed, French troops were in Scotland, and the 'Auld Alliance' seemed on the face of it strong as ever. Mary's pretentions to the throne of England were first mooted around 1559, when an English ambassador was invited to dine from a plate displaying the English arms. Indeed, were it not for the will of King Henry VIII, Mary would be next in line for the throne of England. When it became clear that Elizabeth would take England back into the Protestant fold, the thoughts of Catholic Europe turned to Mary's claim. Just as Elizabeth had once been the focus of hopes against her sister's Catholicism, Mary of Scotland could be Catholic Europe's hope against Elizabeth's Protestantism.
War was really inevitable for Elizabeth since she came to the throne, but through careful diplomacy she managed to avoid it until 1585. As the foremost Protestant monarch in Europe, the Papacy was bound to excommunicate her sooner or later, and it was only the pressure of King Philip II of Spain that prevented this eventuality until 1570: and after her excommunication it seemed likely the fury of Catholic Europe would come from without and growing dissent from within. Religion and politics were intertwined in a way we perhaps find difficult to imagine, and a Catholic Queen of Scotland was worrying indeed for Elizabeth. It is also true that for sixteenth century man religion was another name for nationalism, and it was nationalism in Scotland which Elizabeth could lay her hopes on: to be specific, a group of Protestant noblemen and preachers known as 'The Congregation'.
The Catholic, French ruling party in Scotland irked many Scotsmen (much like Philip II's party in Marian England). At grassroots level the country seemed ripe for rebellion, and the Congregation turned to Elizabeth for help. The cause to which they were dedicated - driving the French from Scotland - was one which clearly benefitted Elizabeth (what was to stop the army the French would send to put them down marching thereafter into England?). At length the French armies were defeated and the Treaty of Edinburgh agreed on between England and Scotland, under which all French troops were to be withdrawn from Scotland, Mary and Francis II were to stop bearing the English arms, and the government of Scotland was to pass to a group of Scottish nobles. It was in this situation that Francis II died, Catherine de Medici became dominant in Scotland, and Mary's family was forced into the shadows: and Mary herself to Scotland. And it is here our story finally begins.
Mary's coming to Scotland & the Darnley marriage
Relations between the two young Queens of the British Isles were now central to Elizabeth's thinking. As soon as Mary was established in Scotland the most eligible Catholic bachelors of Europe started wooing her - bachelors who previously had been desperate for Elizabeth's hand. Insofar as this irked Elizabeth's instinct we do not know, but as a matter of policy it seemed unwise to allow Catholic influence over Scotland to grow once more. Any one of the foreign princes might have sought the English throne after marrying Mary, and would have been able to use her claim to do so. Mary continually refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh and Elizabeth refused to offer her safe passage through England on her way to the new Kingdom. Things did not seem to have started too well. But Mary could not afford to strive forward with policy too opposed to that endorsed by the Anglophil 'Congregation' at first, allow slowly it seemed her beauty and wit turned their heads. At first when she heard Mass in her private chapel there was protest from the Protestant nobility, but slowly John Knox says this died down and people came to accept it. Elizabeth continued to demand the ratification of the Treaty of Edinburgh whilst Mary demanded to be recognised as heir presumptive to the English throne.
It seems Elizabeth was willing to offer Mary a sort of friendly neutrality: being only too aware of the temptations that men would plot around Mary if she endorsed her claim to the throne, but seeing no reason why it should not stand. Elizabeth was masterly in not encouraging scheming around Mary - it would also turn out that Mary herself could not resist a good plot. But in these early days with Mary unsure of herself in Scotland all seemed well, and a meeting between the two Queens was planned. Sadly the meeting had to be delayed for another year, and in the end it never happened: would that it had. The two Queens developed quite an understanding and affection in their letter writing, and maybe all could have gone well. But as Mary's self-assurance in Scotland grew so did her passion, and although she did not directly wish to pursue a Catholic policy her extreme Protestants were starting to irk her. Because the possibility of her marrying a foreign Catholic prince was so often mooted, John Knox had been preaching against her in his typical cutting style:
"I hear of the Queen's marriage: dukes, brethren to emperors, and kings strive all for the best gain. But this, my Lords, will I say: whensoever the nobility of Scotland, professing the Lord Jesus, consents that an infidel - and all Papists are infidels - shall be head to your sovereign, ye do far as in ye lieth to banish Christ Jesus from this realm."
This particular sermon reduced Mary to tears, and John Knox was summoned to court to be admonished. Like the dour Puritan he was, he waited for her to stop crying and remarked that when God delivered Mary from her "darkness and error" she would find "the liberty of my tongue nothing offensive". Mary sought a marriage, perhaps as an adventure to lessen the humdrum of her dour Kingdom, perhaps she wished again to be married to a King. Elizabeth wished her to marry Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (who appears to have been in love with Elizabeth and with whom he was at one point suspected of conducting a passionate affair) - this would be a double coup for Elizabeth, for Dudley was both Protestant and easy for her to control. Mary thought she could do much better, and looked to Don Carlos, son of Philip II. This alarmed Elizabeth, but thankfully Spanish enthusiasm for it was not to last.
Mary's alternative plan involved the Lord Darnley. He was of Royal blood (through Margaret Tudor's second husband) and his mother, the Countess of Lennox, had been angling for a marriage ever since Francis II's death. Although he was somewhat effeminate ("more like woman than man" once remarked a Scottish ambassador at Elizabeth's court) he was manly in a slender, boyish sort of way. Only time would reveal that his arrogance ran deeper than being mere "spirit" and that his character was as contemptible as his intelligence: at first, Mary's gaze saw no such defects. When Darnley arrivied in Scotland she fell into his arms and together with his best friend musician David Riccio (a well-trusted secretary of Mary's) Darnley encouraged her to marry him, regardless of opposition. On 29 July, 1565, they were wed. The 'Congregation' was furious and Murray, a pro-English Scottish noble, was set to lead rebellion against Mary. Mary's passion had created a situation in which rebellion could flourish, and the spark needed by the opposition started to burn.
The murders of Riccio and Darnley
Elizabeth's initial impulse to assist the rebellious Scotsman did not hold for fear of driving Mary into the arms of the French, and Murray was driven south to London in exile; never mind, his day would come. In a charade staged for the purpose of French ambassadors Elizabeth admonished him for his part in the dissent against Mary. Mary's fiery passion in the face of opposition touched many hearts, but she would prove not to have the political nounce to consolidate her position. David Riccio became her principal Secretary - an upstart Italian who had risen from the mere position of bass singer to French secretary and now General. He was much loathed (as foreign men in a country's government invariably were - history is littered with examples) and Mary's affection for him caused a great stir in noble circles. It's hard to overstate the shortsightedness of Mary's actions with regard to Riccio. He was Italian, base-born and had the ear of the Queen, seemingly above all others: outrage spread through the nobility and Darnley, once his best friend, came to loathe and envy the man with a passion.
When Mary became pregnant, rumour spread like wildfire that the child was Riccio's (there is no evidence of this). Henry IV of France would later quip that James I of England was the Modern Solomon, for he was the son of David, who played on the harp. Such rumours were no doubt of great offence to the petulant Darnley, who resolved with other nobles to slay Riccio. And so, on the 9th of March, 1566, as Riccio sat at supper with Mary, Darnley and Ruthven entered the chamber in full armour. Riccio was slayed with fifty-six wounds and Mary shocked and angry with her husband. But he was persuaded to betray his fellow conspirators (who had wanted an Anglophil policy - this does not follow in any logical way from opposition to Riccio, but such a man is dangerous because he becomes a magnet for disaffection). Murray, probably the most able of the conspirators, was brought to her side so he could do her no damage beyond the English border.
Although it is said Darnley once assaulted Mary in anger to make her have a miscarriage, he evidently failed for on July the 19th, 1566, Mary gave birth to James VI of Scotland, future King of England. Elizabeth is said by the Scottish ambassador to have grown sombre when informed and remarked "The Queen of Scotland is lighter of a fair son, and I am but a barren stock!" but this is probably untrue. A new era of moderation seemed to dawn in Scotland for a while and certainly in relations between Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a chain with a picture of Mary around her neck and they addressed each other as "dear sister". But trouble did not sleep long in Scotland, and it began again to grow around the still unreformed figure of Lord Darnley.
Darnley was unpopular for abandoning his fellows after the Riccio murder and seen as weak for cringing before his wife, who now renounced him herself. He had not the manly qualitites to win back the respect of his fellows and the Queen began to spend less time with him - neither eating nor sleeping with him. Disowned by all and hated by his wife, the pathetic youth began to think of leaving the country: such a scandal Mary could not bear, but she had to be rid of him some way. Any number of noblemen might have been willing to murder Darnley - it was suggested he be arrested for treason. Divorce was not an option because it would bastardize the child, and a male son was too precious a commodity to dispose of (especially if it would remove the infernal rule of women!) When Mary became entwined with the Earl of Bothwell, Darnley's fate was sealed. A rash and bold man, Mary fell for him instantly (it has been suggested that she was raped by him before falling in love): he was certainly an appealing manly alternative to Darnley, who combined in one body all the weaknesses of Stuart character. Bothwell was insatiate with women and once remarked that one honest woman would not result from the combination of Elizabeth and Mary's characters!
Darnley lay ill with the smallpox at Kirk O' Field when on the 9th of Febuary 1567 the house was blown up. Darnley was found strangled in the garden. All fingers immediately pointed to Bothwell (he was unpopular because he enjoyed the Queen's favour) and Mary was even implicated in knowing what was going to happen - although her complicity has never been proved nor disproved, it is safe to say she probably had a suspicion about what was going to happen. Rumour spread abroad that Mary had planned and executed the whole affair herself and the commons of Scotland was furious. But Mary took no steps against Bothwell, and in April he "abducted" her (with her consent?) and took her to Dunbar. They were married according to Protestant rites (the Pope of the time remarked that he knew not which of these devil women were worse, Mary or Elizabeth) after Bothwell's previous marriage was declared void due to his adultery. This was quite enough for the people of Scotland (who might have condoned Darnley's murder, but not Bothwell's impudence), and the couple were soon driven to become fugitives: a month after their marriage Mary was brought as a captive to Edinburgh.
"The women," it was said, "be must furious and impudent against the Queen, and yet the men be mad enough." Mary was told she must make Murray regent and the nobles threatened to try her for murder, using the infamous 'Casket Letters' as proof. Mary was held captive as the Scottish nobles tried to decide what to do with her (there was a strong case for killing her, she was only twenty five), and after ten and a half months she escaped. She was forced to England and passed into English custody under Francis Knolleys - he was a staunch Puritan and loyal to his Queen, but also seems to have fallen somewhat under the spell of Mary.
Mary's years of captivity & death
Elizabeth faced a difficult choice. It should first be noted that due to her reverent regard for royalty she could not hand Mary over to Murray and his gang, whom both Queens saw as rebels. But to restore Mary to the Scottish throne by force was after all a threat to the Anglophil party there and an enterprise fraught with danger: and to allow Mary to remain in England would have allowed her to become a centre for plotting (much as recognising her claim to the throne would have been). Elizabeth's compromise was to have a sort of trial at York and then Westminster, but it reached no firm conclusion: Mary's complicity in the murder could not be proved, Elizabeth said (the 'Casket Letters' are to this day not known to be forgeries or not) and she was obliged to keep her in captivity for nineteen long years. Mary was a lively threat to Catholic England whilst in the country, and it says much for Elizabeth that she did not execute her before she did.
The Revolt of the Northern Earls (see node) sought to capture Mary and place her on the English throne, and the Ridolfi plot was an attempt to marry Mary to the Duke of Norfolk. Ridolfi was a Florentine banker and a papal agent (it was to he the Bill of Excommunication against Elizabeth was sent), and his plan was for the Duke of Alva to come to England with 6,000 troops. Mary, married to Norfolk - England's premier noblemen - would be placed on the throne of England and Elizabeth's meddlings in the Netherlands would be stopped. All unravelled (not in small part due to Ridolfi's loose tongue) and the Duke of Norfolk was sentenced to death in 1572. Due to Elizabeth's fickle nature the order was later reversed (then re-issued, then reversed, ...) but in the end was carried out to placate Parliament. The change in her attitude to Mary was palpable, and so she allowed the House of Lords to begin debating the issue of what to do with her. The executioner's hand was stayed for now - but it could not be for ever. It became a crime to advocate Mary's coming to the throne of England and her official claim to the throne was asserted to be based on falsehood. Mary also became personally responsible for any plot that developed around her.
By the 1580s, an impending Spanish war with England looked certain. In 1585, the Treaty of Nonsuch meant England would begin to send companies of men to aid the Dutch revolt against the Spanish. As external hostility grew Elizabeth became less sure within, and began to take to harsher persecutions of Catholics. Elizabeth's grand spymaster Francis Walsingham needed proof of Mary's complicity in the plots which invariably sprang up around her person. Finally her complicity was proved in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and be placed on the throne herself (Mary had been convinced - wrongly - that her correspondence to France was entirely secret). Once again Elizabeth's humane and political instincts rose against the tragedy of execution - but the Council and Parliament could not be dissuaded. Finally she signed the warrant but did not despatch it, until finally the Council did without her knowledge. After Mary's execution on the 1st of Febuary 1587 Elizabeth was absolutely furious. She talked of prosecuting her whole council for murder, but eventually her wrath passed.
Mary's passing caused great stir initially abroad, but eventually the fury of France and Scotland was abated. Elizabeth at last was safe, and tomorrow belonged to a new generation of Stuarts - James I would soon be King of both Scotland and England, just as his mother had once wished she might be.
Churchill, Sir Winston. A History of the English-speaking Peoples volume 2: Cassell, 1956.
Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors 2nd. ed.: Methuen & Co, 1974.
Neale, J. E. Queen Elizabeth I: Penguin Books, 1934.