Expert curators are working in a facility just off the historic district of Canongate in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. There, in the Museum of Edinburgh archives, they find some astonishing documents – a bundle of papers unseen since the 1920s. And unbelievably, some of these overlooked documents actually bear the signature of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots can be thought of as a romantic – yet tragic – character in Scottish history. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the life of this troubled queen and her unique place in history. Indeed, it’s a fascinating story with many twists and a deeply disturbing conclusion.
Mary Stuart was born on December 8, 1542, in the splendor of one of Scotland’s royal residences, Linlithgow Palace. Her father was King James V of Scotland and her mother was a Frenchwoman known as Mary of Guise. Mary was born under specific circumstances – and three things in particular would cause her trouble as an adult.
First of all, Mary was the only child of James V who survived. This would eventually make her heir to Scotland’s throne – a poisoned chalice, if ever there was one. After all, 16th century Scottish dynastic politics was not for the faint-hearted. Secondly, she was born and brought up a Roman Catholic in a land that was rapidly moving toward Protestantism.
Third – and most dangerously of all – Mary was King Henry VIII of England’s great-niece. Later in life, this would embroil her in a deadly controversy about succession to the English throne. But on top of all that, other aspects of her childhood were hardly fortuitous. For a start, her father James V died just six days after she was born.
James was at war with the English in 1542 – the year of Mary’s birth. The context of this clash was that Henry VIII – James’ uncle – had broken with the Roman Catholic Church so he could annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He had pushed his nephew to follow suit. But James declined and his decision ultimately led to war.
The Scots were roundly defeated by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss, at a site in England just south of the Scottish border. Upon receiving word of his forces’ defeat, it seems that James fell and took to his bed. Indeed, it turned out to be his deathbed – and it was here where he lay when Mary was born.
Although not yet a week old, Mary was now Queen of Scotland. But naturally she was unable to effectively rule at this stage, so the kingdom came to be governed by regents. This caused squabbles over who should take over the regency – revealing the Protestant-Catholic split that ran through the kingdom.
Two claimants for the regency emerged. One was the Protestant Earl of Arran and the other was the Catholic Cardinal Beaton. The latter based his claim on a will that he asserted James V had written – but this was branded as a forgery. So Arran got the job and he held it until 1554. But then the Queen’s Catholic mother, Mary of Guise, usurped him to become regent herself.
Meanwhile, Henry VIII had believed that there was an opportunity to unite the crowns of England and Scotland. This was planned to be achieved by Queen Mary marrying his son Edward. So with Mary still in her infancy, the Treaty of Greenwich was drawn up and authorized on July 1, 1543. This stipulated that by the time she was ten years of age, Mary and Edward would be joined in marriage.
However, things turned out rather differently. In December 1543 the Scottish Parliament refused to accept the terms of the Treaty of Greenwich. This did not please Henry VIII and so he started a military campaign against the Scots. The English actually attacked Edinburgh in 1544 and fears for Mary’s well-being were raised.
In the ensuing years, the Scots suffered because of the English – despite Henry VIII having died in January 1547. And in September 1547 there was a resounding loss for the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. As for Mary, she was being considered at the age of five for a new marriage contract.
The English army had continued to pillage southern Scotland after their Pinkie Cleugh victory. But in June 1548 a French force sailed to Scotland and pushed the English back. The following month, the Scottish Parliament agreed to a proposal from the French monarch, Henry II. Mary was now pledged to wed the heir of the French throne, the three-year-old Dauphin Francis.
For the sake of her security, Mary was transported across to France. On the journey, she was joined by a governess, her two half-brothers and four other girls of a similar age and social standing. After her arrival, Mary would go on to call France her home for the next 13 years.
It seems that Mary’s time in France was happy and some accounts depict her as having been quite popular. She occupied her time with pursuits such as falconry, playing the lute and learning languages including French, Spanish and Italian. With her brown eyes and reddish-brown hair, her contemporaries apparently regarded her as a beautiful young woman.
On 24 April, 1558, Mary and Francis married and the latter consequently assumed the position of Scottish king consort. Meanwhile, back in England Queen Mary I died in November. Otherwise known as “Bloody Mary,” Mary I is remembered for her ruthless persecution of Protestants to restore Catholicism to a position of primacy in England.
By November 1558 Mary I’s half-sister – they were both the daughters of Henry VIII – was now crowned as Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth did not share her sister’s Catholicism and so many Catholics considered Mary, Queen of Scots – who was a descendant of Henry VIII’s father – to be the true heir of the English throne. This put her in a position which would ultimately prove perilous.
And there was yet another dramatic development in Mary’s life. In July 1599 Henry II of France died and his son Francis II and Mary became the French monarchs. But with Francis just 15 and in poor health, real power lay with a pair of Mary’s uncles – the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duke of Guise.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth I took a direct hand in events in Scotland. Mary’s mother – the Catholic Mary of Guise – had continued as regent in her daughter’s absence, backed up by French soldiers. But Elizabeth viewed these Catholic troops with suspicion and sent English soldiers to support Scottish Protestants in ousting them.
The upshot of this military intervention was the removal of the French and the July 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh, which confirmed the legitimacy of Scottish Protestantism. It also saw the French recognize Elizabeth as Queen of England. But just a month before the treaty was signed, Mary’s mother – the regent of Scotland – died.
Six months later, Mary also lost her husband Frances II. This led to the succession of Francis’ younger brother, Charles IX, to the French throne. It was now time for Mary – by this point aged 18 – to return to her homeland to take up her throne. She duly arrived in Scotland in August 1561.
As a result of her Catholicism, there were those in Scotland that viewed Mary with distrust – and sometimes with outright hostility. And conversely, Catholics who might have hoped for a restoration of their religion in Scotland were also disappointed. This is because Mary adopted a position of tolerance towards the new Protestant domination of the kingdom’s affairs.
Historians have cited two reasons for Mary’s failure to assert her Catholic faith on Scotland. Firstly, the powerful aristocrats of Scotland controlled the military. And secondly, rather than becoming embroiled in the domestic politics of Scotland, Mary’s thoughts were directed towards gaining the English throne.
But as well as coveting the English crown, Mary also found time to think about a second marriage. And this was where Henry Stuart – otherwise known as Lord Darnley – came into the picture. Mary fell in love with her cousin Darnley after a meeting at Wemyss Castle in Fife, Scotland. The two were considered tall for the era, with Mary standing at 5 foot 11 and he at more than 6 foot.
Mary and Darnley married in July 1565 at Holyrood Palace, the royal residence in Edinburgh. This marriage did nothing to allay Elizabeth’s suspicious attitude towards Mary. Like Mary, Darnley was a Catholic and a descendant of Henry VII. This meant that he too held a case for the rule of England.
Mary’s union to a prominent Catholic also caused dissent in Scotland. Some leading Protestant lords – including the Earl of Moray, her half-brother – now rose in rebellion against her. However, Moray and his allies didn’t have the support to topple Mary and he was forced to take refuge in England.
Meanwhile, not long after her second marriage, Mary became pregnant. But her husband Darnley got it into his head that the father was Mary’s personal secretary David Rizzio. Darnley showed up during dinner one day with a gang – which then set upon Rizzio in front of Mary. They killed him in a frenzied attack, reportedly stabbing him 56 times.
Mary gave birth to a son, James, in June 1566. Eventually this James would later unite the crowns of England and Scotland – but that would be almost 40 years in the future. For now Mary had to deal with Darnley. And as it happened, Darnley was killed in February 1567 by an explosion at his Edinburgh house.
The finger of suspicion pointed at various potential murderers. James Hepburn – more widely referred to as Lord Bothwell – was charged but later acquitted of the killing. Lord Bothwell later went on to abduct Mary. The circumstances behind this abduction are unclear; Mary may have acquiesced to the plot. Yet there are also reports that suggest Bothwell had actually raped her. In any case, Bothwell divorced his wife and married Mary.
Mary’s marriage to Bothwell – whom many believed had killed Darnley – was too much for the Scots to stomach. Mary was arrested by some of the Scottish lords and taken to Edinburgh where the masses condemned her. Bothwell, meanwhile, escaped Scotland and ended up in Denmark. The Danish king, Frederick II, seemingly had little use for the Scottish nobleman and he threw him into captivity. There, he remained confined in chains for a decade until his miserable death in 1578.
Mary was now imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. And on 24 July, 1567, she was compelled to give up the throne to her infant son James. Tragically, she had suffered a miscarriage of twins just a couple of days earlier. During the following May, Mary was able to escape captivity in Scotland and make for England.
Arriving in England, Mary had hopes that her cousin Elizabeth would help her to regain the Scottish throne. But Elizabeth had other ideas. At first, Mary was held in Carlisle Castle in the north of England and then transferred further south to Bolton Castle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth ordered an enquiry into the circumstances of Darnley’s suspicious death in the Edinburgh explosion.
Documents – which may or may not have been forged – were produced as evidence that Mary had been involved in Darnley’s murder. The documents were purported to be letters between Mary and Bothwell. Mary’s trial ended without a conviction, but she remained a captive. It seems Elizabeth was content merely to see Mary’s perceived threat to her throne neutralized.
Mary’s imprisonment continued in various English castles and grand houses. And although she was a prisoner, Mary lived a life of luxury. Each time she changed location, it was said that 30 carts were required to move her belongings. But in 1586 Mary was implicated in a plot to kill Elizabeth. And that changed everything.
Mary was now tried on a charge of treason before a panel of 36 lords. On October 25, 1586, the lords found her guilty – with just one contradictory voice – and Mary was condemned to death. And so, some 20 years after she had been forced to give up the Scottish throne, Mary was beheaded. She was 44 years old when she died.
It’s easy to forget that not every single moment of Mary’s reign of Scotland was steeped in high drama. Indeed, there was also the daily routine of running a country. And those recently discovered documents we heard about at the beginning of this piece have provided fascinating evidence of that.
As we’ve seen, the papers were discovered in an archive in Edinburgh belonging to the city’s museum. The Museum of Edinburgh is located on the Canongate, just a few hundred yards from Holyrood Palace – where Mary married Lord Darnley in 1561. The 15 documents had been in storage there since the 1920s and had seemingly lay in obscurity since then.
Although many of the papers date from Mary’s time as Queen of Scotland, some are from the earlier period when she was in France. The documents span the years 1553 to 1567. One of them is signed by Mary’s third and final husband, the Earl of Bothwell. Some of the documents are permissions for merchants to ply their trade.
One such document – bearing both the signatures of Mary and Bothwell – granted land to traders from London to make salt. Others granted permissions to sellers of meat known as fleshers and to a variety of other tradesman. Curator Vicky Garrington told The Scotsman that the documents would remain in storage for appraisal for now – but that it was hoped they would be exhibited in future.
“We all know the tragic story of Mary, Queen of Scots – her eventful life and eventual execution in 1587,” Garrington said, commenting on the documents’ historical significance. “But in these documents we see a different side to Mary. Here, she can be seen carefully managing the everyday affairs of Edinburgh, both from France and Scotland. It’s fascinating to think of her reading through these official papers before carefully applying her signature.”