Mary Queen of Scots Part 2 – 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 second part of Mary Queen of Scots’ story. Check out our video and read our interactive blog for some great English practice.

Mary Queen of Scots’ reign so far….

Before reading this blog, make sure to catch up with the first part of Mary’s story here. If you don’t have time for that, here’s a super quick rundown of where we are in her story!

  • By the age of 18, Mary had become Queen of France, was widowed, and had returned to govern a fractious Scotland recently converted to Protestantism​
  • Elizabeth the 1st had become Queen of England​
  • Mary’s uncles had deliberately antagonized England by stating Mary’s claim to the English throne
  • Mary asked Elizabeth to name her heir to England’s throne, Elizabeth kept quiet on the matter​
  • Mary re-married Lord Darnley who turned out to be an arrogant drunk. He started plotting about how best to get Mary’s crown for himself​
  • Mary’s friend Rizzio was murdered in front of her and stabbed 57 times, organized by Darnley.​
  • Mary gave birth to her son James 6th of Scotland​
  • Darnley got the protestant lords who had openly rebelled against Mary to come back to Scotland and take their seat on the Privy Council.​
  • Darnley dies “in an explosion” at Kirk o’ Fields but no burn marks were found on his body. He had however been suffocated​

But first, it’s time to meet Bothwell

Part 2 of Mary’s story starts with a new character – James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell​. Bothwell had been a supporter of Marie de Guise and had become a trusted friend of Mary​

To get an idea of Bothwell’s character, here is some background for you; he’d been engaged (and possibly married) to a Norwegian noblewoman who he abandoned in Flanders after asking her to sell all of her possessions, and ask her family for more money​ He then married Lady Jean Gordon.​ They were divorced on 7 May 1567, citing his adultery with her servant Bessie Crawford​. As you can see, he wasn’t exactly good husband material. But that’s exactly what he became!

Portrait of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, c 1535 - 1578 and Mary Queen of SCots third husband
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, c 1535 – 1578.

The commonly told story of Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Bothwell

The most well-known history about Mary and Bothwell is that they were lovers. It was Bothwell who had murdered Darnley at Kirk o’ Fields in order to be able to marry Mary​, and she allowed his trial to be whitewashed by not allowing evidence and he was acquitted.​ They then got married, proving that they had been having a passionate affair​. Mary got pregnant with twins, so the marriage was consummated.​ All of this greatly angered the Protestant lords (AGAIN!), and Mary and Bothwell lost their battle against them, forcing them both to flee the country ​. Mary was made to abdicate and leave the throne to her protestant son, and also miscarried the twins​.

But this wasn’t what happened.

Mary and Bothwell were both manipulated by the protestant lairds and William Cecil, Elizabeth’s 1st political advisor. They orchestrated a smear campaign to convince the public that they were guilty of murdering Darnley and had been having an affair with the end goal of getting Mary’s half-brother on the throne as regent.

It was clear that Mary wouldn’t divorce her problematic husband Darnley because it would affect her son’s claim to the throne. So the lords who advised her decided the best way to solve the problem was by murdering him. They persuaded Bothwell to do it, but because he was loyal to Mary, they told him that he would marry her and be king consort to help persuade him to do it. They then went further and posted placards all over Edinburgh saying Bothwell had murdered Darnley and that Mary was involved​. Mary was portrayed as a mermaid, the symbol of a prostitute, sitting above a hare, which was Bothwell’s crest.​

Sketch of the posters which aimed to smear Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, c.June 1567 of a mermaid sitting on top of a hare
Sketch of the posters which aimed to smear Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, c.June 1567

When they tried to get Mary to marry him though, she refused. This was a major spanner in the works of their plan. Bothwell solved the problem by abducting her 4 days later,  and took her to Dunbar where he persuaded her they needed to get married for their mutual security​. Bothwell wasn’t divorced yet form his first wife, so they needed to consummate before the marriage to add claim, as that meant she might be pregnant​. It is also suggested that this was not consensual, and he raped her​.

Mary and Bothwell went to war

A group of protestant lairds called the Confederates immediately took up arms against them. But this was also part of the plan. They let Bothwell escape because if he was put on trial, the conspiracy would come to light. Mary was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle and forced to abdicate​. She was told that to save her dignity she wouldn’t face trial, but this was also most likely because it would have exposed the plot​. The protestant plotters had been successful. They had got rid of the catholic queen and replaced her with the infant proestant king.

Photo of Loch Leven castle where mary Queen of SCots was imprisoned, taken from the main land. You can see the castle on the isalnd surrounded by trees in the middle of the loch.
Loch Leven castle, where Mary was kept as a prisoner

Mary escapes to England

Mary managed to escape Loch Leven and fled to England​. She fully expected Elizabeth to give her sanctuary and support her in getting her crown back​. Elizabeth was cautious, ordering an inquiry into the conduct of the confederate lords and the question of whether Mary was guilty of Darnley’s murder.​ A commission of inquiry, or conference, as it was known, was held in York and later Westminster between October 1568 and January 1569 to determine Mary’s position​

The Casket Letters

Then the ultimate scandal blew up​. As an anointed queen, Mary refused to acknowledge the power of any court to try her. ​ She refused to attend the inquiry at York personally but sent representatives. Elizabeth forbade her attendance anyway.​ To support his claim, Moray presented the infamous Casket Letters in court​. These showed that Mary had been having an affair with Bothwell and that they were both involved in his murder​. Mary denied writing them and insisted they were forgeries​. We still don’t know if they were or not.

The majority of the commissioners accepted the casket letters as genuine after a study of their contents and comparison of the handwriting with examples of Mary’s.​ But Elizabeth had never had any plan to acquit or execute Mary. There was never any intention to give a verdict, the conference was intended as a political exercise. ​ In the end, Moray returned to Scotland as regent and Mary remained in custody in England. ​ Elizabeth had succeeded in maintaining a Protestant government in Scotland, without either condemning or releasing Mary.

Mary would be a prisoner for the rest of her life

For the next 17 years, Mary would remain imprisoned in various castles and houses in England. She was implicated in a number of plots to take back control of Scotland or overthrow Elizabeth​, but nothing was proven. Elizabeth continued to sit on the fence. When the English Parliament introduced a bill barring Mary from the throne,Elizabeth refused to give it royal assent​. Mary tried everything she could think of to get her freedom, including writing to her son and giving up all her principles just to be released. Mary hadn’t seen James 6th in 17 years, and he had been raised to believe his mother was a traitor.  Instead of a treaty with his mother, he signed an alliance treaty with Elizabeth, abandoning Mary. 

The Babington Plot

Her final undoing was the Babington Plot​. Letters were intercepted which implicated her in trying to de-throne Elizabeth​. There is evidence to say she was manipulated into doing this, but her downfall was a letter which said:​

Let the great plot commence. Signed, Mary​

A photo of the leters of the Babington plot and the cypher that was used to decode the messages and implicate Mary Queen of Scots
Mary’s enemies decoded the letters where she implicated herself in the plot

Mary was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death, despite her protests that she couldn’t be tried as she wasn’t an English subject​. Elizabeth however hesitated in signing the death warrant​, with valid reasons. She was concerned that the killing of a queen set a discreditable precedent ​ and was worried about the consequences, especially if James 6th formed an alliance with the Catholic powers and invaded England​. And she believed in divine right to rule​. But on 1 February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant,

How did Mary Queen of Scots die?

She was executed on 8th February 1587​. It is stuff of legend​. When the executioner asked her for forgiveness, which was typical for executions at the time, Mary replied, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.​ She dressed in crimson brown, the catholic colour of martyrdom​. Her last words were, In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”​. It took 3 strikes to cut off her head. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. ​

Mary Queen of CSots being led down some steps to her execution
Mary, Queen of Scots, being led to her execution by Laslett John Pott (1871)

The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew, which the executioner cut through using the axe. ​ When the executioner lifted up her head, her famous red hair stayed in his hands and her head rolled away​. She had been wearing a wig, and in reality had short grey hair​. All her clothing, the block, and everything touched by her blood was burnt in the fireplace of the Great Hall to stop people taking them as relics.

Elizabeth I reacted badly

When the news of the execution reached Elizabeth, she became indignant ​. She claimed that her orders had been disobeyed and that she hadn’t signed the death warrant. Her vagueness and indecision allowed Elizabeth to avoid responsibility for Mary’s death.  Or perhaps, she was genuinely upset

Portrait of King James 6th Scotland as an adult, son of Mary Queen of Scots
Kimg James VI of Scotland and I of England

But Mary kind of had the last laugh. Elizabeth died without leaving any heirs.​ That meant that the next in line to the throne was James 6th of Scotland, Mary’s son​. He became James 1st England as well, and through him we saw the Union of the Crowns​

This would fundamentally change Scotland forever​, but that’s another story.

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