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Mary, Queen of Scots | The Tragic Scottish Ancestor Of The British Royal Family

a painting portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots holding a necklace

Today, England, Scotland, and Wales are all united to form Great Britain or the UK. But in the 1500s, England and Scotland were two different countries, and it was a very tumultuous time with several wars fought between the two nations. However, Mary, Queen of Scots would help to bring the two nations together, in a very unexpected way...

The Early Life of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary was the daughter of James V of Scotland. Her great-grandfather was Henry VII, who had won the English throne years before. His son, who you probably know as Henry VIII, was now on the English throne.

a painted portrait of King Henry VIII

Unfortunately, Mary’s father died when she was 6 days old, and she became Queen of Scotland. She didn’t rule all by herself though and shared rule with advisors. Her advisors also wanted to secure Scotland’s future, so they betrothed her to Henry VIII’s son, Edward, the heir to the English throne.

a painted portrait of young King Edward VI

However, in those days, there was a huge divide between Protestants and Catholics because of the recent Protestant Reformation and the separation of the English Church from the Roman Catholic Church.

As a result, when the catholic Mary of Scotland was betrothed to the protestant Edward VI of England, Scottish catholic nobles were outraged and the match was called off. Henry VIII was angered by this and sent troops to raid villages on the Scottish border.

Mary in Paris

When she was five, Mary was sent to France. She was now betrothed to the heir of the French throne (the Dauphin), Francis. Francis was the son of French King Henry II (Henri) and Catherine de Medici, the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

an illustration of a young Mary, Queen of Scots

The Scottish Catholic nobles favored an alliance with France over England because they had strong ties with them in the past; both were Catholic, and Mary’s mother was actually French. So, Mary was raised by French royalty, and she grew to become a Renaissance princess. She loved music and poetry, hunted and danced, and grew to be 5'11.

In England, Elizabeth I rose to power after Edward VI died young, and Elizabeth’s older sister, Bloody Mary, died. Because she was Elizabeth's cousin, Mary of Scotland, our Mary, became next in line for the throne.

a tapestry of King Francis of France and Mary, Queen of Scots wedding

Francis and Mary married in 1558, and Francis ascended to the French throne a year later. He then died a year later… because of an ear infection. Mary was now widowed for the first time at the age of 18. And, around a year after that, she moved back to Scotland.

a photo of a scottish castle on an island Eilan Donan Casrie Castle in Scotland
a painting of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Becomes Queen of Scotland

Scotland had changed while she was gone, and it had changed from a Catholic country to a Protestant one after John Knox’s reforms. And the Scottish nobility were more focused on gaining power and fighting each other than supporting the Queen. So, Mary’s return was about to be alienating for both her and Scotland. However, she was welcomed back by Scotland. Her half-brother, Lord James Stuart, helped Mary rule, and she was allowed to remain Catholic.

And for a while, things were good. She allowed religious tolerance, letting Protestants and Catholics live in peace. Besides, Mary was a young, beautiful, and intellectual royal who embodied the Renaissance in Scotland. However, a series of events led to the young queen’s tragic downfall.

Mary’s Tragic Love Story

a painting of Henry Stuart or the Earl of Darnley

First, she recklessly fell in love with her handsome cousin, Henry Stewart (or "Stuart"), Earl of Darnley. This marriage made everyone angry. Queen Elizabeth of England was mad because Mary had married a Tudor, a member of Elizabeth’s family, and had a chance of succeeding Elizabeth if she died. Her half-brother, Lord James, was angry too, and he rebelled. Darnley was handsome but spoiled, weak, vicious, and, even worse, ambitious.

The disastrous marriage came to a head when Mary’s enemies began to use Darnley. In 1566, Darnley and a group of conspirators burst into Mary’s room while she was late in her pregnancy, threatened her, and killed her friend and secretary, David Rizzio, stabbing him 56 times, right in front of a very pregnant Mary.

Mary gave birth to a son later that year, but it didn’t reconcile Mary’s relationship with Darnley. And in 1567, when Darnley was killed after an explosion outside Edinburgh, people suspected Mary was involved.

Mary’s Downfall

an illustration of James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

Mary had confided over the years in James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was known to exert significant influence on her. Three months after Darnley’s death, she consented to marry Bothwell… after Bothwell abducted her. People disliked this marriage too since it was believed that Bothwell was the main suspect in Darnley’s murder. Not a good look for Mary. He did have ambitions to become king, and everything seemed to be falling into place. Encyclopedia Britannica describes Mary’s degrading state,

If passion is rejected as the motive, Mary’s behavior can be ascribed to her increasing despair, exacerbated by ill health, at her inability to manage the affairs of tempestuous Scotland without a strong arm to support her.

This was the last straw for the Scottish nobles, who marched on Mary and forced her to surrender. Bothwell was forced to flee to Scandinavia, where he died in prison, and Mary was imprisoned at Loch Levan, a tiny island in a loch (lake). Her son James became King of Scotland after Mary abdicated. In 1568, a year later, Mary escaped. Her supporters were defeated at Langside, and Mary fled to England.

Mary's Last Years in London

She fled to England and sought refuge from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. However, Elizabeth imprisoned her, where she stayed for 19 years. She sought to end her imprisonment, and over the years, her beauty faded, and she found comfort in pets and her faith.