Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mary Queen of Scots and a Kingdom Lost

by Barbara Kyle

This is the story of how Mary Queen of Scots lost her kingdom. Twice.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, about age 15

       Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scotland when she was five days old. At the age of six she was sent to France to join the French royal family in preparation for her marrying the king's heir, Francois. The two teenagers were wed, and a year later, in 1560, Francois became king. Mary, at seventeen, was queen of France. 

Elizabeth 1 of England
At this time the young English queen, Elizabeth Tudor, was in the first year of her reign. She feared a French invasion through Scotland, and to prevent it she sent an army to back Scottish rebels who had risen up against their mighty overlords, the French. A leader of the Scottish rebels was Mary’s half-brother, the Protestant Earl of Moray, and with Elizabeth’s help he and his fighters beat the French army, ending French domination in Scotland and putting a Protestant government in power.
Elizabeth’s victory over the French in Scotland was a turning point in her fledgling reign. By gambling on intervention she had defied France, elevating her status at home and in the eyes of all Europe, whose leaders had to acknowledge her as a formidable ruler. She did this at the age of twenty-six.
Elizabeth could not have realized that her problems with Mary Stuart had just begun. The two were cousins: Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, was Elizabeth’s grandfather and Mary’s great-grandfather. With untainted Tudor blood Mary publicly maintained her claim to the throne of England.
In 1561 Mary’s husband, the young French king, died. A widow at eighteen, she came back to Scotland to take up her birthright as its queen. 
She found a country that had undergone the Protestant Reformation in her absence. Her return upset the balance of power among the Scottish nobility, setting off a sporadic civil war between her supporters, who were mostly Catholic, and those of her Protestant half-brother, the Earl of Moray, the de facto head of the government. For six years this unrest smoldered.  
Henry, Lord Darnley

     Mary fell in love with a young Englishman, Lord Darnley, and against the advice of her council she married him. She gave birth to a son, James, but the marriage quickly turned sour. Everyone at court knew that Mary and Darnley were fighting. 
Mary began to rely on a tough, soldierly man on her council, the Earl of Bothwell. Many whispered that the relationship was adulterous.
The Earl of Bothwell
In the winter of 1567 the rivalry between the power-seeking factions came to a head when Darnley was killed in an explosion: the house he was staying in was blown up with gunpowder. Three months later Mary wed Bothwell. Suspicion for Darnley’s death fell on them both. Moray acted quickly to take power. He indicted Mary for masterminding her husband’s murder, took charge of her baby son, and imprisoned her. Bothwell fled to Denmark.

  Mary Queen of Scots, at age twenty-four, had lost her kingdom.

Mary’s prison tower rose from an isolated fortress, a castle on an island in Loch Leven. She had been a captive for ten months when one of her young supporters helped her slip out of the castle dressed as a country woman. He rowed her the mile across the lake. Waiting on the other side were her loyal nobles.

All of Europe gasped at the news of Mary’s escape. She was notorious for the scandals that had swirled around her: Was she a murdering adulteress who had deserved to be deposed, or an innocent victim horribly wronged? Everyone had an opinion – and waited to see what would happen next. It held enormous significance for every leader. The kings of Spain and France, fiercely Catholic, were eager to see Moray’s Protestant government destroyed. If Mary ventured to reclaim her throne it could start an international war. Elizabeth, once again, feared invasion.

Mary quickly gathered an army. So did Moray. They faced each other on the Glasgow moor near the village of Langside. As Mary looked on from a hilltop her commander, Lord Herries, led a cavalry charge that forced Moray’s men to retreat. But when another of the Queen’s commanders led his infantry through the village’s narrow street they met close fire from hackbutters (arquebusiers) that Moray had placed behind cottages and hedges. Hundreds of the Queen’s men fell under the gunfire. Moray’s main force, moments ago in retreat from Herries’ cavalry charge, turned and attacked. Mary’s demoralized men began to flee, deserting. Moray’s men chased them. The Battle of Langside was over in less than an hour.
Mary had lost her kingdom for a second time.

She panicked. She galloped down the slope, terrified of being captured again. Several lords loyal to her rode after her, begging her to take flight for France, but Mary galloped south. In her terror she wanted to put Scotland behind her as quickly as she could. She rode for England.
It was the worst decision of her life. She would never see Scotland again.

         Her arrival in England, and her pleas to Elizabeth to help restore her to her throne, put Elizabeth in a terrible quandary. She sympathized with Mary for they were cousins, and fellow queens. But the Scots would not have Mary back and Elizabeth was not going to foist her on them by force of arms. Besides, Elizabeth needed Moray's Protestant government in Edinburgh as a bulwark against possible invasion by France through Scotland. However, neither could she afford to let Mary move freely around England, because Mary attracted powerful Catholics to her who wanted to see her on England's throne. 

         Elizabeth's solution was to keep Mary under house arrest. It was a comfortable captivity befitting her royal status, but captivity nevertheless. Mary's incarceration lasted for nineteen years, and during those years she was the focus of many schemes to overthrow Elizabeth. Finally, in 1587 evidence of her plotting Elizabeth's assassination was uncovered. Elizabeth, in the hardest decision of her life, signed Mary's death warrant. Mary was beheaded. 

James 1 of England

      The quirk of history is that at Elizabeth's death sixteen years later her throne passed to Mary's son. Legitimately and peacefully, James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. In death, Mary's claim was vindicated.

        Yet James was devoutly Protestant, a defender of the Reformation doctrine that Mary had abhored. It was he who authorized the epochal King James version of the Bible.

        So perhaps, in some measure, both queens won.

*   *   *   *   *
Barbara Kyle is the author of The Queen's Gamble, The Queen's Captive, The King's Daughter, and The Queen's Lady which follow the rise of an English middle-class family, the Thornleighs, through three tumultuous Tudor reigns.
The Queen's Gamble was an "Editor's Choice" of the Historical Novel Society's
Barbara's new book, Blood Between Queens
the fifth "Thornleigh" novel
will be released in May 2013

It features Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots

Visit Barbara's website at
If you'd like to receive Barbara's occassional newsletters Click here.


  1. My grandmother was obsessed with Mary Queen of Scots and gave me a hefty book about Mary's life when I was in my early teens. I remembered being totally absorbed by the woman's life. You've done a wonderful summary, Barbara.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mary. It got me pondering how many women were captivated at an early age by Mary Queen of Scots. (I was one.) I think it's her role as "wronged victim" that appeals to very young women. However, in later years I have come to view her differently, as a ruler with a dismal understanding of politics and one who made disastrously selfish decisions in leadership. But Mary and Elizabeth both have their loyal supporters over four hundred years later, fueling the ongoing debate about each queen's merits. A very good thing, too, since the debate fuels lots of stirring historical novels!

  2. Great post! I have always been bothered by the "wronged victim" version of Mary's life--especially after reading some of the primary source material written by the Scots Protestants. James, the Earl of Moray, her half-brother, is one of my favorite historical characters!

    1. I'm with you, Roseanne - and I think a novel highlighting Moray would be quite stunning. He fought with Knox to bring about the revolution, orchestrated Mary's downfall, and was eventually assassinated. A Shakespearean life. If you're considering writing a novel about him I'd love to read it!

  3. I've always felt sorry for her. Despite being raised in the French court, or because of it, I doubt she ever learned to make the decisions she need to be able to make.

    1. You're so right, Ella. Growing up petted and pampered by the French royal family, and then being the merely decorative queen consort to the young King Francois, was terrible preparation for the brutal politics Mary would return to preside over in Scotland. Maybe she never had a chance. Yet Elizabeth was not raised to be a queen either and she, rising to the throne at age 24, definitely took firm charge of her overmighty nobles. The two women are endlessley fascinating!

  4. After seeing the play Mary Queen of Scots years ago, I was enamored with this period in Scottish history. I enjoyed your post because it has been so long that I was forgetting the order of things and some of the principle players.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. My pleasure, Sophia. Happy to suppy the "refresher" info!

  5. Poor Mary. She is one of those folks whose world disintegrated around her, sometimes with her assistance. An excellent summation, Barbara, and thanks so much for sharing. The feckless Stuarts seemed to have had a penchant for "riding off in the wrong direction," which carried on to her grand and great grandchildren.

    (Am looking forward to the Met's version via the music of Donizetti in January!)

    1. Oh, Juliet, I do envy you getting to hear Donizetti at the Met! Enjoy the opera. I like your word "feckless" applied to the Stuarts. The Tudors were a hard act to follow!

  6. You fit so much into one blogpost! I've never read any of Mary's history, so totally enjoyed this summary.

    Thanks, Barbara.

  7. I really appreciate your comment, Dianna. The story of Mary and Elizabeth has so many extraordinary twists and turns - the inquiry, the "casket letters," the Babbington plot, etc - it's good to know that you enjoyed this very condensed outline.


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