Born a Queen of Scotland, she was crowned Queen of France, and died Queen of Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, reigned in a turbulent era that takes its name from her illustrious cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Both descendants of King Henry VII, their respective reigns were inextricably entwined.
Mary was born 8 December 1542 to Mary of Guise and King James V of Scotland. She was granddaughter to Margaret Tudor, King Henry VIII’s sister, who married King James IV of Scotland. Elizabeth, of course, was Henry VIII’s daughter. However, Mary’s “legitimate” status and Catholic faith made her the only possible successor to Queen Mary I, to Catholic Europe. The English Parliament had a different take on the situation and named Elizabeth.
James V died when his daughter was only a week old, granting her the succession to the throne of Scotland. The regent lords had originally contracted Mary to marry King Edward VI of England, but Henry VIII effectively ended that arrangement when he was implicated in the murder of Cardinal Beaton. The Scots Parliament then approved a marriage with the Dauphin of France, and Mary made the journey there at age 5. She was raised in the French court and a favorite of all the royal family.
When Queen Mary I died, King Henry II of France encouraged his daughter-in-law to assume the arms of England on her coat of arms. Elizabeth was enraged at this presumption, and like her father, carried the grudge.
Mary ruled as Queen of France with her young husband as king, from 1559-1560. Then, her mother died and her husband died within six months of each other. With no official place in court except as the Dowager Queen, she decided to go back home to Scotland, where she would once again be the preeminent lady of the court. She was warmly welcomed and impressed the people of Scotland with her love for the hunt and her vivid zest for life.
Aware of her dynastic duties to produce an heir, Mary settled on Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. She was a tall woman for her time and the even-taller Lord Darnley impressed her with his social graces, outward charm and liking for courtly amusements. It was a bad decision.
Darnley was a weak-willed narcissist with a lust for power. Mary would not grant him the crown matrimonial, however, and his anger probably led him to kill her secretary while she was pregnant with his child and heir. A miscarriage, he thought, would have been beneficial. She kept her child, though, but was never easy around Darnley again, and probably breathed an initial sigh of relief when he was murdered in 1567. She was implicated in this plot, and although later cleared, it tarnished her image.
Although Catholic, Mary was tolerant of the Protestant faith and like Elizabeth, was not interested in having religious persecution bloody her country’s hands. Her son, in fact, grew up a staunch Presbyterian. The queen struggled to keep her country’s tenuous peace with England, Spain and France, knowing she could not afford a war with any of those nations.
After Darnley’s death, Mary married James Hepburn, Lord of Bothwell, in an attempt to unify Scotland’s squabbling lords behind her. It was only a temporary solution. The lords rebelled at Bothwell’s new power and forced her to abdicate the throne in favor of her son James, in 1567.
Mary fled to England, hoping for sanctuary, but Elizabeth was wary of her cousin’s residence and as a queen without an heir, worried that Mary might try to gain the English throne for herself and her son. Elizabeth had probably already decided James VI of Scotland would be her heir, but to name him so would have been disastrous for her political position.
Elizabeth kept Mary under close guard for the remaining years of her life, and as Elizabeth aged, she grew more fearful about the security of her throne, and more afraid of Mary’s involvement in plots against her. Was Mary guilty of plotting against her cousin? It all depends on who is analyzing the history. In all likelihood, the worst she did was fail to discourage plots, rather than actively encourage them. She did, however plot escapes that were never successful. In any event, Elizabeth was running scared by 1586 and ordered Mary to stand trial for treason.
The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion and Mary knew it. Still, she defended herself vigorously and even to her death on 8 February 1587 maintained her innocence. Her execution led to her being remembered as a martyr, and her life and case have been discussed at length in the intervening 400 or so years.