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Mary Queen of Scots: Stories, Trivia, And A Botched Beheading

People | February 8, 2020

Portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. (Wikipedia Commons)

When King James V of Scotland died at the ripe age of 30 (hey, it was ripe for medieval times), his kingdom was in a bit of a pickle. His only surviving legitimate child was a little girl born just six days earlier, but an heir's an heir, so Mary Stuart became Scotland's baby queen. She would spend most of her childhood in France, however, in preparation for her arranged marriage to the heir to the French throne, the Dauphin Francis. Sadly, it was a short romance. Young King Francis died only a year into their marriage from an ear infection that caused his brain to swell, and it was back to the homeland for Mary, Queen of Scots.

A widow at only age 18, she thought being back among her people would be a welcome change, but we all know that family can be complicated, especially when one of your cousins happens to be the queen of your longtime frenemy nation. While Mary initially approached Queen Elizabeth I of England with earnest familial respect, Elizabeth was wary of the younger queen. After all, since Elizabeth never married or had children, Mary could fairly lay claim to the English throne if push came to shove.  

John Rogers, the first victim of the Marian persecutions in England, 1555. (Wikipedia Common)

Push may very well have come to shove between the Protestants and Catholics, as it had during the reign of Elizabeth's sister, Mary Tudor A.K.A. Bloody Mary. English Mary tried to reinstate Catholic rule over England after her father, Henry VIII, departed from the Church, and in the process, she burned a few hundred Protestants at the stake. One could see why the Scottish Protestants side-eyed the Roman Catholic Mary Stuart, afraid that she would set the stage for another reign of Protestant oppression.

Engraving from 1885 featuring Mary, Queen Of Scots. (Getty Images)

Things didn't really go sideways for the Queen of Scots, however, until her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord of Darnley. No, Stuart wasn't just a common surname in Scotland: She married her first cousin, which also made him Elizabeth's cousin, for those trying to keep track. The marriage did not please Elizabeth I, who recognized that any resulting offspring would be a direct threat to her claim to the English throne, but the Lord of Darnley didn't help himself much when he demanded a promotion from king consort to the proper ruling King of Scotland. Mary refused, and their relationship soured. Darnley grew so resentful and jealous that he ganged up with a Protestant rebel group, and together, they stabbed Mary's closest friend, David Rizzo, 57 times. In front of her. At a dinner party. While she was six months pregnant. Kind of a jerk, that Darnley.

The Murder of David Rizzio by William Allan, 1833. (Wikipedia Commons)

Soon after, Mary took an understandably needed vacation to attend a wedding, and in her absence, their castle mysteriously exploded. Darnley's body was found, but weirdly enough, the cause of death was determined to be strangulation. Although Mary herself was away, fingers began to point at her close associate, Lord Bothwell. After only a seven-hour trial with no real evidence presented, Bothwell was released, and his first act as a free man was to marry his queen. The precise details of this event and the extent to which Mary consented to Bothwell are still not well understood. Some historians accuse her of orchestrating the whole plot, while other evidence suggests that Bothwell blackmailed, raped, and forcibly married her under threat of violence.

Whatever the case, the new marriage caused further division between the royals and the other nobles, especially the Catholics who believed a marriage done under Protestant rites did not stand under the eyes of God. The Protestants likewise hated Bothwell, who may have been found innocent in the law, but the court of public opinion was another matter. The lords rioted against Mary, and she was quickly imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. Her infant son, James, became king. 

Queen Elizabeth I. (Wikipedia Commons)

As bad as it looked, Mary probably should have stayed put. Hated or not, she was still mother to the king, and that meant enough to keep her around. Ambition would get the best of her, though, and in 1568, she raised a small army of loyalists to try to reclaim her throne. The Battle of Langslide was short, and though Mary had more men, she lost. At this point, Mary had little hope, so she ran off to England to beg her cousin for help. Elizabeth was understandably suspicious of Darnley's murder, so she responded by having Mary imprisoned in the Carlisle Castle. Mary's loyalists tried to rescue her but once again failed.

Mary spent 18 years imprisoned in England under Elizabeth's rule, but it was the royal kind of imprisonment where you're just locked in a fancy castle with a bunch of friends, getting free food and clothes. It was a pretty sweet gig, as far as incarceration goes, but Mary remained restless. In 1586, Elizabeth discovered a plot against her life, coined the Babington Plot, in which Spanish, French, and English Catholics planned to assassinate her so that Queen Mary could rule England. All conspirators, including Mary, were convicted of treason and sentenced to death.  

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, 19th century. (Wikipedia Commons)

All were hanged, drawn, and quartered except for Mary, who was sentenced to beheading due to her sex and status. She was given only one day's notice and walked into the execution chamber wearing red for all Catholic martyrs. It took two swings to decapitate her (the first hit the back of her head), and when the executioner lifted her head to show the crowd of more than 300 people, he was horrified to discover he'd picked up her wig by mistake. The Queen's head fell to the ground with a thud. Elizabeth I was outwardly upset about the quick demise of Mary, insisting that she had felt pressured to sign the arrest warrant and never imagined it would happen so swiftly. Still, she knew what signing the warrant meant, and she secured her throne for another 16 years until her natural death.

And just in case you saw the movie: No. They never actually met face to face, but there were many letters.

Tags: crime | death | England | queen elizabeth | royal family | Scotland

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