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Queen of Scots Mary

(1542—1587) queen of Scots

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B. 7 Dec. 1542, da. of James V and Mary of Guise; acc. 14 Dec. 1542, abdic. 24 July 1567; m. (1) Francis, dauphin of France, 24 Apr. 1558; (2) Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, 29 July 1565; (3) James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, 15 May 1567; d. Fotheringhay, 8 Feb. 1587; bur. Peterborough, rebur. Westminster abbey.

Mary, queen of Scots, continues to be the most heavily romanticized of the Stewart monarchs. On the thrones of Scotland and France, and with a strong claim to that of England, her vicissitudes were shaped more by political circumstances than her occasional impulsiveness and folly. Three husbands, long exile, and imprisonment, then execution ordered by her cousin Elizabeth, have spawned plays, novels, and opera, portraying her as catholic martyr or papist plotter, and increasing the mythology.

Succeeding to the throne when barely a week old and crowned at nine months, Mary spent most of her first five years at Stirling, while England and France sought to gain control. Following the peace negotiated after Solway Moss, Mary's marriage to the young son of Henry VIII was agreed at Greenwich (July 1543), but pro-French Scottish opposition led to rejection of this treaty and alliance instead with France. Henry, furious, replied with devastating invasions of south-east Scotland (the ‘rough wooing’), but despite a resounding victory at Pinkie Cleugh (1547), the English could not sustain their position. The assistance of French troops had come on condition of Mary being sent to France, since she was now betrothed to the young dauphin. In August 1548, she sailed from Dumbarton castle to be brought up and educated with Henri II's children. Marriage to Francis when she was fifteen was followed by unexpected accession to the French throne the following year (1559) after the death of Henri II from a splintered lance at a tournament. Mary was now queen of two kingdoms, but any dynastic potential was short-lived as Francis died in December 1560, and, despite her long absence from Scotland, she chose to return there as queen regnant rather than remain as queen dowager.

During her absence in France, much had changed in Scotland: the catholic and French causes had collapsed with the death of her mother, Mary of Guise; English and French troops had agreed in the treaty of Edinburgh to withdraw all troops (July 1560); the following month, parliament agreed a series of protestant reformist measures. Mary, strongly catholic, trod carefully and, with her half-brother James as her adviser, was able to engineer a unity amongst the nobles barely seen since 1513. Many thought her policies fair, and she travelled widely throughout the country between 1562 and 1566.

The question of succession remained a matter of concern, and Mary still had eyes on the English throne. Various suitors were considered and dropped, until she fell in love with Henry, Lord Darnley, himself in line to both crowns. It was soon realized that this second marriage was a mistake. Not only did it alienate Elizabeth, but the marriage was by catholic rites, and Mary's advisers saw themselves displaced by a youth ill-suited to bear the title of ‘king’. No longer on good terms with Darnley, the pregnant Mary seemed to be spending too much time with her Italian-born secretary, David Rizzio; the atrocity of his murder in front of the queen (9 March 1566) is well documented, and the assassins' return from England was tantamount to a death-warrant for Darnley. The future James VI was delivered safely in Edinburgh castle in June, but the following February Mary was again a widow after Darnley's murder at Kirk o'Field. She may not have been directly involved in the plot, but was certainly affected by the suspicion that fell on James Bothwell, with whom she had become infatuated and whom she married in May. This third marriage proved too much. They were forced to flee, and on 15 June 1567 were confronted at Carberry Hill, east of Edinburgh. Bothwell fled north, but Mary surrendered, was imprisoned in Lochleven castle and, after miscarrying twins, was compelled to abdicate on 24 July in favour of her infant son James.


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