Mary Queen of Scots Part 1 – Real English

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Welcome to this month’s Real English video where I tell you about Edinburgh and Scotland’s history and culture, and you get a great English lesson looking at language in context! This month is the first part of Mary Queen of Scots’ story. Check out our video and read our interactive blog for some great English practice.

Who was Mary Queen of Scots?

Mary Queen of Scots is Scotland’s most famous monarch, which is funny because her rule was actually very short. Nevertheless, her story continues to attract people from all over the world. In February 2019, the National Library of Scotland did a special display of Mary’s letters. People queued for hours to see them​. This shows how much people still love and connect with her story. So why is her tale so popular?

I would argue because it’s the ultimate soap opera! Mary’s story has It’s a story about​ destiny​, murder​, treachery​, love​, war​, politics​, and sexism. Like any good soap opera, there are A LOT of characters, so first we need to meet them

  • Mary Queen of Scots – star of the show
  • Elizabeth 1st – The woman pitted against her​
  • William Cecil​ – Elizabeth’s political advisor, and Mary’s real enemy
  • Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – Her half-cousin AND second husband
  • James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell > Mary’s third husband
  • John Knox – yes, he’s back again
  • James 6th of Scotland – Mary’s son
  • David Rizzio – Her friend and private secretary

The start of Mary’s story

The drama of Mary’s life started directly with her birth. Her father, James V, had returned from a failed war against England which had seen many of his men die, and during which he had most likely caught cholera. On his return to Scotland, he stopped at Linlithgow Palace to see his Queen, Marie de Guise who was heavily pregnant at the time with their third child. The King and Queen had tragically lost their two infant sons within hours of each other some years back, and what had seemed like a guaranteed line of succession for Scotland. This new baby was desperately needed for the country, and it needed to be a boy. 

James left his wife and went to Falkirk Palace where his fever got worse, and he was soon on his deathbed. When the news reached Marie de Guise, she couldn’t go to him because she was in early labour, possibly brought on by the shock of seeing her husband so ill. 

Pciture of Linithgow Palace, birhtplace of Mary Queen of Scots, taken from the view of the loch
Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots

Mary was born on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace. Just when the nation needed a boy, they got a girl. Rumour has it that as he was dying, James 5th said “It cam wi’ a lass and it will gang wi’ a lass!” – referring to the fact that the Stewarts came to power in Scotland by marrying a princess, but the line would end with Mary as queen.  This prediction would prove to be wrong, but it certainly wouldn’t end well for Mary. 

Mary’s lineage was extremely important​

She was the great-niece of King Henry VIII of England, as her paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was Henry VIII’s sister​. She became Queen of Scotland when she was only 6 days old, when her father died on 14th December​. And the politics began almost immediately, As she was only a baby, this meant that Scotland would need to be governed by regents until she came of age to take her throne. 

This soon saw a power struggle in the country as various nobles and leaders fought to gain control. England was quick to see an opportunity, and Henry 8th got involved by arranging a marriage treaty with his son. This anglo-centric policy proved very unpopular in Scotland, and long story short, led to a period of horrific attacks from England called The Rough Wooing. Mary was being used as a bargaining chip by ambitious men in Scotland’s government, and her mother Marie de Guise, a very smart cookie, saw that the only way to keep her daughter safe was to get her out. She pushed for a French Alliance, and unbelievably, thanks to her connections at the French court, secured a marriage with the Dauphin, or crown prince. Mary was snuck out of Scotland and sent to France. Mary’s mother stayed to fight for her daughter’s inheritance. 

Mary Queen of Scots becomes Mary Queen of France

Mary was brought up in the French court, but was never allowed to forget her Scottish heritage, and her divine right as Queen of Scots. She was raised to believe that she had been chosen as queen, and this would prove to be one of the reasons she continued to fight so much for her throne even when everything seemed impossible. Receiving an excellent education, she was taught French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Greek, as well as her native Scots. Contemporary reports describe her as vivacious, beautiful, and clever​

mary youth
Mary Queen of Scots as a child and with her future husband

Married at 16, a year later she would become Queen Consort of France in 1559. But even in France, she wasn’t safe from the political ambitions of men, in this case her family. Her de Guise uncles began to say that Mary was the true heir to the English throne, not Elizabeth the 1st. This claim to the throne would prove to be one of the reasons for her downfall. After only a year as queen, Mary was widowed at the age of 18 in 1560. No longer wanted at the French court, she took the decision left to her. She went back to reign over her country, Scotland.

When did Mary Queen of Scots come back to Scotland?

Mary landed in a hotbed of religious facetious politics. On 19th August 1561 Mary sailed into Leith docks​. As a catholic monarch in a newly protestant country, she had a fine line to tread. ​To make matters worse, her half-brother James Stewart the 1st Earl of Moray was a leader of the protestant factions.​ She disappointed the catholic factions by choosing to allow the country to follow their chosen faith.​ She even helped put down a catholic rebellion in the Highlands​. She continued to follow her catholic faith, and would attend private mass in Holyrood Chapel​.

This desire not to rock the boat continued with her choice of political advisors. She basically kept the status quo. Her reasoning for this was that she might be able to strike up a good relationship with England. Mary wanted to be named heir presumptive, because she believed she had the best claim to the English throne. And she wasn’t wrong. In fact, Elizabeth 1st even told Mary’s ambassador that she knew no-one with a better claim.

Did Mary have a bad relationship with Elizabeth 1st?

Despite the way their relationship is often portrayed, these two female monarchs didn’t hate each other. Elizabeth is often said to have been jealous of Mary’s looks and personality. But this is really another example of women being pitted against each other.

They would certainly go on to have a problematic relationship but initially they were civil to each other​. Most importantly, they both strongly believed in the divine right to rule​. And both were caught between a rock and a hard place​. In order to produce an heir, they had to marry​. But if they married, they had to obey their husband and risked losing their crown and authority​.

Mary’s real enemy was a man called William Cecil.

Cecil was Elizabeth’s political advisor throughout all her reign​ He was a passionate protestant who wanted to avoid catholic rule at all costs.​He had been instrumental in helping destroy  Marie de Guise’s regency, and  continued to thwart Mary’s plans at every step . When the time came for Mary to find a husband, he wanted a protestant husband for her, so to buy time he sent Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Darnley was never meant as a real marriage option, he was only a distraction. ​

But his plan backfired. Darnley was Mary’s half cousin and also had a claim to the English throne​. As a person, he was petulant and politically inept, but very good at hiding it​. He was good looking and charmed Mary with his courtly graces​. Not only that, but he was tall! This was change for Mary, who normally towered over the men of her court. Mary fell hopelessly in love with him and they were married.

Mary’s choice in men cause her a lot of problems in her life, and this was no exception. Elizabeth was angry that she hadn’t been consulted about the marriage and worried as it strengthened their claim to the throne​ Darnley was a catholic, which provoked the Protestant lairds​, and her half-brother the Earl of Moray joined other lairds in open rebellion to her​. Mary started to bring more Catholics into thePrivy Council which did nothing to improve her relationship with John Knox​.

Portrait of Lord Darnely, Mary Queen of Scots' second husband
Portrait of Lord Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband

Did Lord Darnley murder Mary’s best friend?

In a word, yes! Mary’s bad choices soon came back to haunt her, as Darnley turned out to be arrogant and a drunk​. Not content with his position as king consort, he demanded the Crown Matrimonial​. This would have made him a co-sovereign of Scotland with the right to keep the Scottish throne for himself, if he outlived his wife​. He and Mary had managed to conceive, but his drinking made him increasingly unpleasant​. He became incredibly jealous of David Rizzio, her private secretary and Darnley convinced himself he was the real father of the child​. While Mary was 6 months pregnant, he stormed her apartments at Holyrood Palace​ with a group of his followers.

They murdered Rizzio in front of Mary, stabbing him 57 times​. 

painting of the murder of David Rizzio. You can see Mary Queen of Scots fainting while he is being stabbed
Jean LulvesThe Murder of David Rizzio

While this was going on, her enemies were busy finding a way to get both her and Danrley off the throne and put Mary’s exiled protestant half-brother on the throne. In fact, The Earl of Moray (that’s her half-brother, it’s confusing, I know!) was allowed back to Scotland and given his old job on the Privy Council, despite having openly rebelled against her. Mary was losing control.

And then she gave birth to a boy

James 6th was born on 19 June 1566 in Edinburgh Castle. This had a lot of implications. Scotland now had a male heir to the throne, and potentially one for England too. However, her husband murdering her best friend in front of her meant the break down of her marriage. Something had to be done about the Danrley problem. Some historians think Mary had planned to imprison him somewhere for life​, but a much more definitive solution was found​.

The murder at Kirk o’ Field

Drawing of the Kirk o' Field after the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
Drawing of the Kirk o’ Field after the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Darnley had been lodging at Kirk o’Fields (now the location of the Chamber Street Museum).​ Mary visited him daily, so that it appeared a reconciliation was in progress.​ On the night of 9–10 February 1567, Mary visited her husband in the early evening and then attended the wedding celebrations of a member of her household. ​In the early hours of the morning, an explosion devastated Kirk o’ Field. Darnley was found dead in the garden, apparently suffocated.​ There were no visible marks of strangulation or violence on the body​.

This murder would prove to be the end of Mary’s reign. But more about that next time….

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