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Mary Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots
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Mary, Queen of Scots, was Queen of Scotland from 1542 until her forced abdication in 1567. She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise, and she became queen at only 6 days old when her father died on 14 December 1542. As she was too young to rule her mother governed as regent.

Mary was related to the Tudor royal family of England as she was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII, who had married King James IV of Scotland (Mary's grandfather). Henry VII wanted to secure a marriage between Mary and his son, Prince Edward, who was only five years older than her, but met with opposition from Mary of Guise. She was raising Mary as a Catholic and did not want her daughter to marry the Protestant heir to the throne of England. Instead she wanted Mary to marry the heir to the throne of France, Francis. Fearing Henry VIII would try to force the matter, she arranged a betrothal of Mary to the French heir and sent her at five years of age to live in France. Mary was brought up there, married Francis in 1558, and became Queen of France the following year when King Henri III was killed in a jousting tournament.

This happy state of affairs was not destined to continue, however, as things soon started going wrong for Mary. In the June of 1560 her mother, still Regent of Scotland, died, and six months later her husband, Francis, died, leaving her a widow at only 18 years of age. Mary had no choice now but to return to Scotland and made the journey in the summer of 1561.

Now, for the first time in history, there were two reigning queens resident in Britain: Mary, Queen of Scots, in Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I in England. They were both young, parentless, and cousins, but Mary was a Catholic and Elizabeth a Protestant. This made them rivals, especially as Mary believed she, not Elizabeth, was the rightful Queen of England by order of succession. Like most Catholics, she believed Elizabeth was illegitimate, having been born in the lifetime of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and therefore was illegally usurping the throne of England.

From the very beginning of Mary's reign in Scotland, even before, relations between the two queens were strained. But while Elizabeth succeeded in establishing her authority and in controlling her nobles, Mary failed miserably. Unlike her English cousin, who was a good judge of character, shrewd and pragmatic, Mary made poor choices, especially in men, and made one mistake after another. She picked the wrong husband in Henry, Lord Darnley, an English Catholic who also had a claim to the throne, and suffered considerably at his hands. When he was found dead in 1597, strangled in a garden following a house explosion, Mary was implicated in his murder, along with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, but rather than distance herself from the Earl to exonerate herself in public eyes from wrongdoing, she married Bothwell. The Scottish people and lords were outraged, and this was the beginning of the end of Mary's reign in Scotland.

In 1568, after months of imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle, Mary was forced to flee to England and throw herself on Elizabeth I's mercy. She had been forced to abdicate the Scottish throne, in favour of her infant son, James, and had failed to reclaim the crown in battle. Mary hoped Elizabeth would help her reclaim her throne but she was sadly mistaken. While Elizabeth did take her 'under protection', giving her a place to stay with all the risks and costs involved, in reality Mary was now the Queen's prisoner. Indeed, she was held captive by the Queen for the next 19 years, her main residence being Sheffield Castle in South Yorkshire.

As the years passed, Mary's health deteriorated, but she never lost hope that one day she would be free again. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth would die and she would succeed to the throne or perhaps a French or Spanish army would successfully invade England to liberate her and place her on the throne. Mary certainly did what she could, within her limitations, to encourage her supporters to free her, and there were several plots hatched over the years with this aim. One of them was the Babington Plot of 1586. Led by Anthony Babington, a group of English Catholics hoped, with French and Spanish help, to invade England, kill Queen Elizabeth, free Mary, place her on the throne, and restore the Catholic religion in the country. The plot was discovered, however, and so was Mary's support of it. She was accused of treason against Queen Elizabeth, put on trial, and condemned to death by execution.

Queen Elizabeth was now in a difficult position. It was up to her to sign Mary's death warrant (she could not be executed without one) and Elizabeth was very reluctant to do so for various reasons, not least because Mary was, like herself, a crowned and anointed monarch in her own right. However, Elizabeth finally gave into pressure and signed the death warrant on the 1 February 1587. Mary was executed a week later at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire and it took three strikes of the executioner's axe to sever her head.

Mary's life had begun with great promise, and for a while she was Queen of both France and Scotland, but ended in great tragedy. However, while the Tudor dynasty died with Queen Elizabeth I, Mary's son, James, went on to rule England and Scotland, uniting the countries under one crown and founding a new dynasty, the Stuart dynasty. All monarchs since, including Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, are descended from Mary, Queen of Scots.


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