“I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.”
Mary Stuart, daughter of King James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise of France, forgave her executioners. As she cast off her outer garments and stood before the blade that would take her head, she fell to her knees, adjusting the white blindfold that stood in stark contrast to her dark velvet petticoat and crimson-colored sleeves. Lowering her neck upon the cold stone, she commended her spirit to God.
Until the very end, Mary never expected her cousin Queen Elizabeth I would fulfill the death warrant signed five months before in October of 1586. She had been a prisoner of England for 20 years and, according to varying historical records, Elizabeth claimed her writ was fulfilled without her knowledge by the Privy Council of England. Whether or not this was true, Elizabeth appeared guilt-free.
This is one of the reasons Mary I, Queen of Scots, is such a fascinating study in history. There are so many unknowns surrounding her life and her intentions in her 46 years of life. She suffered great suspicions, sadness and loss. But Mary’s story helps us better understand the role of women in Scottish history and the unique pressures of women who rule. No doubt, Mary is one of the most popular Scottish stories showing how women were pawns in a political game of thrones.
If you’re like millions of HBO series lovers of Game of Thrones (GOT), this probably sounds familiar. Royal women were used to assuage or reinforce political alliances among countries regardless of personal preferences or freedoms.
The Stark sisters in GOT were a classic example, as Sansa Stark and Daenerys Targaryen were married off to forge alliances between warring rulers in the Seven Kingdoms while Cersei Lannister ruthlessly killed anyone who threatened her power.
The ruling women in real history at the time of Queen Mary were no different. Mary of Guise was married off to King James V of Scotland to strengthen France’s allied ties to Scotland. James was thrilled to have Mary as his wife because she accepted the challenging conditions of living in Scotland (endearing her to James). and the King of France offered a handsome dowry of 80,000 livres (present value of just under $6 million U.S.). This gift and her hand afforded France greater influence and power against England. James gratefully gave thanks by spending some of her dowry on improvements to make their new home at Sterling Castle more comfortable.
The women of ruling parents had little choice, and advisory councils helped determined their fate. Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, worried about weakening her power by marrying, especially having seen the effect from her older sister, Mary of England, to Prince Philip of Spain. Elizabeth knew ruling as a Queen limited her power so choices in marriage were critical: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
As the Queen of Scotland, Mary’s fate was largely set from the moment she was born in 1542.
Her father was the King of Scotland and nephew to King Henry VIII. As a practicing Catholic during England’s Protestant Reformation, he was not well-liked by Henry so his death just 6 days after Mary’s birth made Scotland vulnerable to England.
Mary of Guise knew her daughter was in danger, so she had her crowned Queen before sending her to the safety of her homeland, France. King Henry offered to betroth Mary to his son Edward but Mary’s mother arranged for King Henry II of France to have his son, the Dauphin Francis, betrothed instead to Mary. This would make Francis the new King of Scotland, as well as France.
Growing up in France was likely the only happy time for Mary, who was well-educated and learned to speak Latin, French, Italian and Greek. She was skilled in sewing, horsemanship and writing prose, and made an attractive match for Francis with her physical beauty and intelligence. When she turned 16, they married but Francis died suddenly a year later when an ear infection spread to his brain.
That same year in 1558, Queen Mary of England who had set out to change her father’s Protestant rule by killing thousands of Catholics, also died. Her younger sister, Elizabeth I, assumed the throne. Catholics living in England, who had suffered under Bloody Mary’s reign, believed Queen Mary of Scotland was the true heir to the throne because she was a more senior surviving descendant of Henry VIII than Elizabeth I.
This caused tension between the two cousins, especially when Mary returned to Scotland after her husband’s death. Protestants in Scotland were suspicious of Mary whose mother had tried to preserve the Catholic faith. To add to Mary’s hardships, her mother, died within a year after Mary’s return making Mary even more lonely. Mary needed to assert her authority and secure the country’s military power.
Yet, much of what Mary did upon her return was interpreted differently by both religious groups. Mary did nothing for Catholics who wanted her to defy the Reformation or at least reduce the number of Protestant advisors on her council. And Protestants were disappointed because they wanted Mary to take a new Protestant husband immediately so she could strengthen her rule and keep England at bay.
This infuriated the Scots who saw Mary’s stance as a sign of weakness. They wondered if Mary was eyeing the English throne and thought her untrustworthy. When she married her half-cousin, Lord Darnley, four years later in 1561, the Scots were even more enraged. Darnley was an unworthy lower noble to the Scots, and Elizabeth worried about the future rule of England if Mary bore an heir.
Elizabeth remained unmarried and barren, and Darnley was a threat as the grandson of Margaret Tutor – the sister of King Henry VIII of England. Together, Mary and Darnley had a stronger right to the throne and a baby might usurp Elizabeth’s right. At the very least, the baby would inherit the throne of both Scotland and England.
Sadly for Mary, her marriage was a disaster except for one thing: it produced an heir. Because Darnley was angry Mary did not name him King. he jealousy murdered Mary’s Catholic Personal Secretary when Mary was five months pregnant. There was some speculation the baby was not Darnley’s or that Darnley hoped the emotional distress might cause Mary to miscarry. But baby James VI was born and Mary’s most important role was fulfilled.
Unfortunately for Mary, more tragedy followed when Darnley was murdered and baby James was ripped away from her only a year after his birth. Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567 and when she turned to Elizabeth I for help, Elizabeth imprisoned her. Mary would never see her son again and would spend the rest of her life as a prisoner.
Elizabeth’s court argued Mary had conspired to murder her and the proof was evident in what became known as the Casket of Letters. These were thought to be forged and untrue, but their validity continues to be hotly debated among modern historians. After nearly twenty years of suffering, Mary was executed in 1587.
The legacy of Mary I, Queen of Scots is a convoluted one. Outspoken Protestants leaders like John Knox vilified Mary while Catholics lamented her misfortunes. Historical records are unclear about so many of the events that lead to her death, and whether they were the result of poor decisions or the machinations of scheming advisors who manipulated Mary’s vulnerabilities.
Whatever the case, Mary remains a fascinating figure in history who faced incredibly difficult circumstances and was under constant seize by saboteurs.
For more information about these ruling queens, visit Historic-UK.com or read the wonderful stories of G. Lawrence on Amazon like The Bastard Princess or Elzabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. You can also follow G. Lawrence on social media @TudorTweep