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Throwback Episode 29: Mary Queen of Scots

Episode 29 of the Renaissance English History Podcast was about Mary Queen of Scots. Listen to the show, or read the transcript below.


(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)

Hello, and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast. I’m your host, Heather Teysko. I’ve been talking a lot about different things swirling around Mary Queen of Scots ­ the Catholic experience in England, the life of Francis Walsingham who rose to prominence through his entrapment of her…so she really deserves an episode of her own.

But before I get started, just a reminder that if you like this podcast, please rate it in whatever service you use to listen to it, whether it’s itunes or Stitcher, or whatever. Also, remember that at h​ttp://www.englandcast.com​ there are continually updated resources like reading lists, listening lists for music, and buttons to donate and links to the Patreon page if you are so inclined to support this podcast, either by giving a one time tip, or by making a regular subscription contribution. Both are appreciated.

So, let’s get started.

Mary Queen of Scots was born Mary Stuart into family drama in 1542, so she never really had much of a chance to have a normal life. It’s also important to realize that she was Henry VII’s granddaughter, and as far as the Catholics in England were concerned, Elizabeth was a bastard because Queen Katherine was still alive when Anne Boleyn had her, so it was a product of a bigamous relationship. So she was sadly always going to be a figurehead for Catholic rebellion no matter what she did.

The fact that she was brought up believing that she had a good claim to the English throne, and could easily press that claim, didn’t help her ingratiate herself with Elizabeth, once it became clear that Elizabeth’s hold on the throne was fairly secure.

From the time she was born, she was caught up in the dynastic struggles of her mother’s French family. I​n November 1542, King James V of Scotland was dying, heart broken by his army’s defeat by the English at Solway Moss. At Falkland, he was told that Mary of Guise, his French­born wife had given birth to a daughter, Mary. Upon receiving news of Mary’s birth, he reportedly said, ‘Woe is me. My dynasty came with a lass. It will go with a lass.’ James’s ancestor, Robert II, had become King of Scots in 1371 through his mother’s line. Mary’s father, James V, believed this lineage had ended with his daughter’s birth, certainly never contemplating that his grandson could rule both Scotland, and his old enemy England.

James died within a week of Mary’s birth and, before she was even a year old, the child was crowned queen of Scots. T​he Scottish nobility agreed that she should marry Henry VIII’s son, Edward because she was so young and they were so vulnerable. But nearly as soon as the treaty was finalized, Catholics favoring the French on her mother’s side took her to Stirling Castle, and to Henry VIII’s great fury they broke the treaty agreeing to the match, and decided that Mary should be married back into France.

Henry wasn’t happy about this, and he ordered a series of raids into Scotland which are known as The Rough Wooing, in which he tried to force a marriage with Mary Queen of Scots.

The English set fire to the Abbey of Holyroodhouse where James V was buried, burned crops in the Tweed Valley, and set fire to several abbeys on the border. Scotland still went ahead with the French plan, and Mary left her mother sailing to France in 1548 to be brought up at the French court.

Even though she was without her mother, Mary did have many friends at court including relatives of her mother, and four of her best friends. She grew up in the French court studying with the other royal children in the nursery, being given precedence over the King’s own daughters. T​he king also became very fond of the child, saying, ‘The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen.’ While in France, Mary’s maternal grandmother, Antoinette de Guise, wrote to her daughter in Scotland that Mary was ‘very pretty, graceful and self­assured.’

After ten years she married the Dauphin Francis in 1558. This was also the year that Mary Tudor passed away in England, and Mary’s French family encouraged her to assume the royal arms of England. In the eyes of most of Catholic Europe Mary was the next heir to the English throne, given that Elizabeth was considered illegitimate. It was this central belief that would reverberate throughout Mary’s life.

Queen Elizabeth would never feel fully safe while her Catholic relative was alive, and posted such a threat to her rule.

But she was inclined to forgive, after being persuaded that it was more Mary’s family that had the ambition for her to be Queen rather than anything Mary wanted herself.

Mary had always been exceedingly trusting of her family and those who advised her. As proof of this, when she was in France, she sent 35 sheets of signed blank pages back to her mother, who was acting as Regent in Scotland, to be used how she saw fit. Mary was beautiful and precocious, but one of her main faults was the level of trust she put in those around her who did not always have her best interests at heart.

King Henry II died in 1559 and his son became King Francis, with Mary as Queen of France. But Francis died young in 1560 and Mary’s life was again turned upside down. After Mary Tudor had died and Elizabeth became Queen of England, the Protestants came back from exile, including John Knox, who went back to Scotland. Reaching a peace with Elizabeth was a main concern of many of the Scots, and the entire country officially became Protestant, in part thanks to the return of the reformers.

Mary was Roman Catholic, but had been assured by the nobles that she would be able to worship in peace. W​ithout waiting for a safe­ conduct pass from Elizabeth, whose ships were patrolling her route, M​ary went back to a country that was vastly different in religion than the one she had left over a decade before, reaching Edinburgh in August 1561.

At first Mary ruled successfully and with moderation, advised by Lord James and William Maitland of Lethington. Similarly to Elizabeth, she did not want to push people to worship in her Catholic manner, and was mindful of the religious wars that were erupting, as well as Mary Tudor’s growing reputation as Bloody Mary. She promoted Protestants and Catholics in her administration, and gave money to Protestant churches. She tried to get a grip on the notoriously difficult­to­rule Scottish nobles who were prone to clan warfare, which made her popular with the common people, but not the nobility.

Though she was a Catholic, Mary became friends with one of the most learned Protestants of the time, George Buchanan. She also peaceful relations with France, Spain, and England. But, in 1566, she discovered the English ambassador’s spying; she ordered him out of the kingdom. Her peace with France and Spain was kept without a treaty, even though a treaty would have given Scotland some measure of protection against England. But Mary was aware that any treaty could also involve her subjects in a war they may not have supported. Her main aim was to make Scotland prosperous, and so she did her best to keep the peace, and keep out of the growing tensions between England, Spain and France.

She also tried several times to meet with her counterpart in England, Queen Elizabeth, but William Cecil, fearful of a Catholic plot, managed to keep a meeting from happening.

Events in France where Hugenots were being killed by Mary’s relatives frightened him into almost a paranoia of having Elizabeth name Mary as her heir, and meet with her in person.

Mary decided that marrying again was of paramount importance in keeping control of her country. However, her marriage in 1565 to her second cousin Henry, Lord Darnley (also a great­grandson of Henry VII) initiated a tragic series of events that was made worse thanks to the factionalism within the Scottish nobility. Darnley was a weak and unstable man, and but on paper the match made sense as he was also directly descended from Henry VII, and made her own claim to the English throne that much stronger. He was perpetually angry that she did not make him a co­monarch, acted spoiled, and let himself be used by Mary’s enemies.

When she was six months pregnant in March of 1566, Darnley was part of a group of Scottish nobles who broke into her room at Holyrood Palace and dragged her secretary into another room and stabbed him to death.

While they said that he had too much influence over her foreign policy, they probably meant to cause Mary to miscarriage and potentially die in childbirth from the upset at watching the scene take place. Mary herself believed that Darnley wanted to kill her.

Then the nobles Mary prisoner at Holyrood Palace. Entering the later stages of her pregnancy, she was desperate to escape and using her charm, she brought Darnley around, and they escaped together. Three months later the future James VI of Scotland was born and congratulations came from all over Europe. Still young and healthy after the birth, Mary now had an heir. This was the height of her reign. In December 1566 James was baptized in the Chapel Royal of Stirling Castle.

Mary, once the fragile last hope of the Stewart dynasty, was still only 23 years old and had fulfilled one of a monarch’s greatest duties – providing a healthy son and heir. Queen Elizabeth, nine years older and unmarried by choice, would have been watching with interest because she knew that Mary’s son would eventually be her heir as well.

James’ birth only provided a brief respite, though. The nobles who had plotted with Darnley now felt that he had betrayed them; after all, they had captured the queen and her potential heir, murdered her dear friend, and were in a position to demand anything. But Darnley’s decision to help Mary escape infuriated them.

In February of 1567 they blew up Darnley’s house and his body was found in the garden. Many nobles were implicated, most particularly James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, and he met with Mary about six miles outside of Edinburgh. He had 600 men with him and asked to escort Mary to his castle at Dunbar; he told her she was in danger if she went to Edinburgh. Mary, unwilling to cause further bloodshed and understandably terrified, followed his suggestions.

Bothwell had previously been considered as a potential husband for Mary, but she had refused the the proposal then, preferring to marry Darnley, but now she was in a much worse situation with her infant son to consider. She consented to wed Bothwell, hoping that this would finally stabilize the country. Also, Bothwell showed Mary an agreement the nobles had signed which indicated they were prepared to accept him as their overlord. In May 1567 they wed at Holyrood and Mary wrote to the foreign courts that it was the right decision for her country.

But the nobles were still not to be trusted. Now, they were angry at Bothwell for the power he held over them. Just a month after the marriage, rebel forces met Mary’s, and the nobles demanded that Mary abandon Bothwell, whom they had earlier ordered her to wed. She refused and reminded them of their earlier order.

To avoid the bloodshed of battle, Mary Queen of Scots turned herself over and the rebels took her to Edinburgh while Bothwell struggled to rally troops of his own.

Mary was taken to Lochleven Castle and held prisoner; fearing for her own life, she became incredibly ill. She was forced to sign a document abdicating the crown in favor of the toddler, James. At the end of that month, July 1567, James was crowned king and James Stewart, the Earl of Moray, Mary’s bastard half­brother, became Regent. Moray wasted no time in repaying Mary’s earlier kindness to him by stealing her son and jewels. Of course, Scottish history reveals that all these nefarious nobles came to a bad end – Moray was murdered just 3 years later and the next regents were also killed; in fact, her son James had one of the traitors executed in 1580, when he was just a teenager.

Mary’s cause was aided in 1568 when John Hay, before his execution, made a statement from the scaffold that told how the nobles had murdered Darnley. Before this, the nobles had attempted to make the people believe Mary was responsible. Now, she was able to win sympathy and friends. George Douglas, one of the brothers of her keeper at Lochleven, helped her escape. After 10 months of captivity, she was free to fight for the throne. Against all advice, she was determined to go south and ask Elizabeth I for support, feeling sure that her cousin and fellow monarch would help her. But this was sadly not the way things would pan out.

Mary sailed to England on 16 May 1568. She arrived in Workington, Cumbria; Elizabeth was in a quandary. All along she had been stirring up drama in Scotland, pitting the nobles against Mary, and creating chaos in the north. If Mary was busy with her internal issues, she would have had fewer resources to try to press her claim in England.

At the same time, Elizabeth was nothing if not Henry VIII’s daughter, and her support for monarchy in general was firm. So she appointed a commission to investigate what was going on, and they met throughout 1568 and 1569. In 1569 everyone had decided that Mary was not guilty of any kind of conspiracy, and Elizabeth had nothing to fear from her.

Sadly for Mary, that same year the conservative Catholic nobles in England backed an idea that Mary should wed the Duke of Norfolk. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk was Elizabeth’s second cousin, so also had a claim to the throne, and he was decidedly Catholic leaning. This would have been another threatening match for Elizabeth, and so she put Howard in the Tower. When he was released, though, he stupidly got involved in another plot to help Spain invade England and bring the Catholic faith back to the island, and he was executed in 1572 for treason.

Elizabeth also effectively put Mary under house arrest, which is how the situation would stay for the next decade and a half. Mary was moved from prison to prison, eventually ending up at Fotheringhay Castle, about 70 miles north­west of London and as close to Elizabeth as she ever came. Of course, Mary plotted from the very beginning to escape. And you can’t really blame her ­ she was an anointed Sovereign being held against her will, and so she felt justified. However, as the years passed, the plots grew more threatening to Elizabeth, and it seemed like the only way for the issues around Mary to be resolved was for her to be executed. As long as she lived, she would be the focus of plots and attempts to take Elizabeth’s life.

In October of 1586, Mary was put on trial at Fotheringhay for plotting to kill Elizabeth and claim the English throne. Elizabeth’s last letter to Mary was delivered at the start of the trial:

You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you, but have, on the contrary, protected and maintained you like myself. These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. Yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. I therefore require, charge, and command that you make answer for I have been well informed of your arrogance. Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me. Elizabeth.

Mary defended herself well though she was not allowed to have any friends or supporters at the trial and, essentially, the verdict had been decided before the trial had even started. Mary admitted her desire to escape but stated, ‘I have not procured or encouraged any hurt against Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.’ And she appealed for mercy, mentioning her own reputation for tolerance and kindness: ‘My subjects now complain they were never so well off as under my government.’ But she also accepted the inevitable. When the verdict was read to her, she said, ‘I do not fear to die in a good cause.’

The trial lasted just two days and was over on 16 October 1586 but it was not until 7 February 1587 that she was told she would be executed the next morning.

She asked for her chaplain but was refused. The Earl of Kent said: ‘Your life would be the death of our religion, your death would be its life.’ B​y orders of the English government, all of her possessions were burned after she had died so that Catholics would not save things that were linked to her as relics of a Catholic martyr.

The death­ sentence was signed by Elizabeth who later argued that her secretary Davison had deceived her as to its contents; she said she would not have signed it otherwise.

Though many people believe that this was her way of saving face since she had essentially murdered another Queen. Her letter to Mary’s son James about the execution, written on 14 February, claims her innocence.

My dear Brother, I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolor that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. I have now sent this kinsman of mine, whom ere now it hath pleased you to favour, to instruct you truly of that which is too irksome for my pen to tell you. I beseech you that as God and many more know, how innocent I am in this case : so you will believe me, that if I had bid aught I would have bid by it.

I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or Prince should make me so afraid to do that were just; or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage, nor carry so vile a mind. But, as not to disguise, fits not a King, so will I never dissemble my actions, but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me, that as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others’ shoulders; no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.

The circumstance it may please you to have of this bearer. And for your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate. And who shall otherwise persuade you, judge them more partial to others than you. And thus in haste I leave to trouble you: beseeching God to send you a long reign.
Your most assured loving sister and cousin,
Elizabeth R.

A year later, the Catholic Philip V of Spain invaded England with his Armada, perhaps – to some degree – urged on by Mary’s execution.

Sixteen years later, Mary’s son James became King of England and Scotland. In 1612, he moved her body to Westminster Abbey, constructing a magnificent tomb which rivaled Elizabeth I’s.

So that’s it for this week. The book recommendation is Queen of Scots by John Guy. I’ll put a link up on the site and facebook page, which is facebook.com/englandcast, where you can again contact me, send me show ideas, or just say nice things. I’ve also started doing regular quick segments on different aspects of Tudor history on youtube, called the Tudor Minute. There’s a link on the blog and facebook page. Many of you send me notes saying you’re getting anxious for me to do more with Elizabeth’s time period, and so my next episodes are going to start looking at her life and times. I kind of went on an early Tudor kick there for a while, but I’m starting to move on.

Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you soon!

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)