The True, Lamentable Tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots, Part One

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Part One (Two Noble Kinswomen or The Rival Queens)

The Elizabethan Age has been decorously described, perhaps often over-simplified and romantically idealised by many historians fixated by its ostentatious, narcissistic pomp and ceremony. Yet despite all its sophistication it was a brutal age. All the conflicts and restraints caused by the aristocracy and their relationship with the monarch themselves had yet to be resolved openly. Like many other aspects of regal autonomy in the 15th to 16th centuries it had its unequivocal “dark side”. During Elizabeth’s reign the minister in charge of that Machiavellian “dark side” was none other than Sir Francis Walsingham. Francis Walsingham (?1532-90) was born at Footscray, Kent and educated at King’s College, Cambridge (1548-50). His strong Protestant affiliations meant he spent his early life abroad, especially during Mary Tudor’s reign, in Padua and Venice in exile. He was fluent in French and Italian and in 1563 and from 1566-7 he was a councillor for Lyme Regis. When Elizabeth assumed the throne he was knighted some years after in 1577 and this meant he entered the civil service and remained there until his death developing an extraordinary network of spies, agents, double-agents and exceptional espionage at home and abroad. His role was the equivalent to the head of MI5 today and together with William Cecil (Lord Burghley) they ran the complex affairs of state with a velvet glove. The whole question of who had the last laugh or for that matter the last word in Church and State hinged precariously on the supremacy of Papal decree in opposition to the Regal decree in England, Queen Elizabeth I.
The Two Rival Queens, Queen Elizabeth Tudor and Queen Mary Stuart

I am sure that this particular subject has already studiously been reported and written about by various authors reviewing the Tudor dynasty from its inception. In fact I was inspired to write myself on the subject after seeing the 2018 film (Mary, Queen of Scots) by Director, Josie Rourke, from a screenplay by Beau Willon, starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth. On the whole I enjoyed the film although the cover advised “strong violence, sex, and sexual violence” should you have considered letting your children watch it too. While much of the action and narrative takes place after Mary leaves France to ascend to the Scottish throne, a great deal of the conspiracies surrounding her, details of the intrigues and counter-espionage was missing entirely. The film did nothing to feature her eventual trial and much of the despair of her imprisonment in England. No doubt that would have required a further two or three films, Mary Stuart One, Two & Three? For the entire story of Mary we are obliged to seek some historical authority such as “The Reign of Elizabeth” by J.B. Black, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Aberdeen. He writes: “If Francis II of France had lived, it is more than doubtful whether Mary Stuart would ever had set foot on so uncongenial a soil as Scotland”. Which also concerned me when she no doubt had offers from more promising quarters, why on earth did she decide to reign in a country that had little to offer such a monarch who was accustomed to the ostentatious luxuries and delights of the French court? One reason could have been the jealousy of Catherine de Medici’s daughters who had monopolised the French court that prompted her migration to a barbarous, turbulent and rebellious region that was undergoing a religious transformation under the influence of the ardent Protestant John Knoxe. The other reason could have been the temptation to rule under her own auspices in Scotland, and lay aside the prospect of being a dowager consort in France. Whatever the case, and despite the challenges she would inevitably face the other prospect could have been to be poised perfectly to accede to the English throne should something unexpected occur to Queen Elizabeth. If the latter was her sole intent then the Papal authorities would have had some influence in her eventual decision, regardless of the dire and acrimonious consequences. While Mary Stuart had spent a large proportion of her life and education in France, Elizabeth (as the daughter of Anne Boleyn) had spent her entire life growing up and being thoroughly educated in England. Comparatively speaking Mary had endured an extremely sheltered and protective existence as the niece of the Cardinal of Lorraine, her grandmother was the dowager Duchess of Guise. The inherent contrast between Mary and Elizabeth in terms of lifestyle and education reflects much of the contrast found between the French and English courts and parliaments. While Elizabeth was fluent in various languages, including Welsh, and fully committed to the New Enlightenment, Mary had no command of the English let alone the Scots tongue or was even aware of the “New Learning” that was sweeping Europe and England at the time. While she was indomitable, charming and largely too libertarian for her own well-being she lacked the archaic perspectives long held in Scottish culture and simply attempted to “import” aspects of the French and Italian courts into Scotland without understanding its troubling consequences. However, unlike Elizabeth she was warm-hearted, passionate and violent in her hates and compassionate in her loves yet in her personal loyalties she was inconstant and idealistic. In the drama of her own life and circumstances she rejoiced vehemently in her successes and wept bitterly in her disappointments and personal failures. She was euphemistically defined by Elizabeth as “a lamb lost among wolves” (Froude, History of England). It seems that among others, Elizabeth had refused to marry the Earl of Arran as a move or gesture towards the union of Scotland and England. The refusal simply threw the Scottish people towards the notion of national independence under a stronger papal authority.

A rather sympathetic portrait of Queen Mary Stuart

While Queen Elizabeth prevented Mary from landing at any English port, on her arrival at Leith in August 1561 she recieved a lack lustre reception from the people at Edinburgh and when the effigies of Korah, Dathan and Abiram were ritually burnt before her at Holyrood she affirmed her intention to remain a Catholic despite her unpopularity. Her basic philosophy one might say was “live and let live” as she clearly had little objection to the Protestant or Presbyterian churches as such, nor to any insistence to Papal rule and religious indoctrination in Scotland. For this reason alone she gradually gained support and a following beyond her wildest dreams as courtiers and lords flocked to take their place in the new court. This series of events diminished the zeal and subsequently aroused the antagonism of John Knoxe towards the Queen, who laid out his intention to oppose her sovereignty, at least from a religious perspective. Her position as “heir presumptive” to the English throne cast a dark shadow over her rule as she was forbidden by a clause in the Treaty of Edinburgh to make no claim or alter her coat of arms to further establish and maintain that claim. Although her negotiator Lethington applied to Elizabeth for a revision of the Treaty of Edinburgh, the English monarch suggested that her position would be publically diminished saying “more people worship the rising sun than the setting sun” and that Mary would remain second in name but not in title. As Mary’s claim for a revision was also supported by the Duke of Guise, Mary wrote to Elizabeth to request a meeting to discuss the matter further. Although her council, along with Lord Burghley objected strongly to a meeting with Mary on this basis, the political climate in France changed with the coup d’etat of the Guise weighing ominously against the welfare of the Huguenots and so the meeting was postponed. Sir Nicholas Throckmorton was enlisted to place pressure on the Guise so that a meeting might take place at Nottingham to discuss the details further. This never happened although in the film there is an oblique reference to a “secret meeting” between the two monarchs, which may or may not have happened. It would appear that Mary then sought to marry because that would strengthen her hand and force Elizabeth (as yet unmarried) to give way to her requests. But Elizabeth strongly objected to any marriage that would involve a noble from Spain, France or Austria, these being mortal enemies to Protestant England and to Elizabeth’s rule. While Mary considered a marriage to Don Carlos of Spain, Catherine de Medici sought to secure him as a suitable consort to her daughter, Margaret. But it was never to be, the Duke of Guise died in February 1563 and Don Carlos was gripped by a terminal illness shortly after, so the matter of her marriage floundered on the fateful storms engulfing both France and Spain. It was at this point that Elizabeth graciously intervened offering Mary the “opportunity” to marry an esteemed nobleman from England, namely her previous paramour, Sir Robert Dudley, known euphemistically as the “Gypsy”.

Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Captain of the Queen’s Horse

All this was offered and promised along with other matters of sovereign rights without actually naming the “nobleman” in question, while Mary simply gave no answer to Elizabeth’s proposal nor gave any indication who she might be inclined to marry. Finally, Elizabeth decided to divulge the name of the proposed suitor (Sir Robert Dudley) which took Mary totally by surprise so that an egregious exchange took place between the two Queens, who were both without a successor or a husband. The matter lingered in prevarications on both sides until the Earl of Lennox returned to court after a long period of exile and requested a restitution of his inheritance and estates. Along with this the Scottish Lords were anxious of their own power and influence at court should Mary accept Elizabeth’s offer and choose Dudley as her consort. Finally, Mary decided that Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (the Earl of Lennox’s son) would become a suitable husband for her and sent word of her intention to marry closer to the Scottish homeland to Elizabeth in England. Again Lethington attempted to intervene saying that all previous negotiations on the matter would be forsaken and that the Queen of England thought her proposed marriage to Lord Darnley was ill-advised and likely to plunge Scotland into further disarray and conflict. On his way to deliver his message to Queen Elizabeth, he was intercepted by another message from Mary basically saying the Queen of England should mind her own affairs and business and not to interfere with matters in Scotland or decide who Mary should marry in the final analysis.

Henry Stuart (1545-1567), Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary, Queen of Scots

However, it seems that Mary had to apply to the Papal authorities for a special dispensation on the matter of “impediment of blood” between her and Darnley (who were cousins by blood) which was nevertheless granted and on the 22nd of July 1564 Mary and Lord Darnley were married at St. Giles, Holyrood and the Chapel House. Darnley was after all the son of the Earl of Lennox, so you could have sang “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout!”, for this whirlwind romance caused the confederate lords to make good their escape from Scotland over the border to Berwick while essentially civil war broke out in Edinburgh as Darnley’s troops and his co-conspirators took control of the city. Subsequently, Anglo-Scottish affairs fell into numerous intrigues, chaos and confusion, and without the stability of English support the old vendettas between Catholic and Protestant Lords was re-ignited leading to even further conflicts and disagreements both political and religious. Spain promised troops but they never landed and Phillip of Spain clearly was unprepared for a war with England but Rome sent 40,000 crowns in financial support.

The cold-blooded murder of Queen Mary’s secretary, David Riccio in her presence

The next scene in this “horrifying Scottish drama” was the execution of David Riccio, the Queen’s secretary and a favourite of hers apparently while he was in her presence in early 1566. But this was all planned and done with the consent and knowledge of Lord Darnley who was simply jealous of Riccio’s influence on the Queen. Furthermore, Darnley insisted on matrimonial supremacy above that of Mary’s ‘sovereign rights’ and had planned to assume the role of sole monarch demolishing Mary’s own legitimate accession to the Scottish crown. In England this led to a renewed claim of Lady Jane Grey’s to succeed both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s claim.

Titles from the Film, Mary Queen of Scots

What made matters worse for Elizabeth’s standing in the country and in parliament was her unmarried status particularly after the birth of a son to Mary in Scotland in 1566. The idea of a reigning Queen being unmarried and without issue or an heir was for the most part deemed “unnatural” in a largely patriarchal society. If Elizabeth had for any reason died then the Kingdom would be perfectly poised for insurrection and invasion from several quarters. There were other candidates for the English throne waiting in the sidelines should the opportunity arise such as the Earl of Huntingdon and the Earl of Hertford, both of which were illegitimate offspring of Henry VIIIth. After Elizabeth had prorogued Parliament they reconvened to review the issue of the Act of Succession as laid out by Henry VIIIth to ensure the integrity of the Tudor bloodline remained intact. In the Act of Succession Henry had ensured that no illegitimate child could accede to the English throne, and as he had annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn, then summarily decapitated her, that Elizabeth’s claim was tenuous if not illegal, despite the fact that Parliament had supported her claim (on the grounds that she was an ardent Protestant) in order to prevent a Catholic monarch acceding to the throne. This meant that Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the English throne was tenuous unless she were to give birth to or name a probable successor. Therefore in November 1566, the third Parliament convened with added determination to resolve the issue of the Queen’s neglect of marriage and lack of an heir with the peers of the realm, Duke of Norfolk, Leicester and Pembroke supporting the commons view and insistence. Instead of responding directly to their demands, on the 5th November Elizabeth summoned the thirty members of both houses to the palace where, rising to the occasion, she delivered her most passionate and rational speech of her entire reign. They were then summarily dismissed to pass on her comments to their colleagues. The following is a summary of the Queen’s cleverly protestations to the lords assembled:

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth Ist

“I muse how men of wit can so hardly use the gift they hold, did they not know who she was? Was I not born in the realm? Are not my parents born of this country? Is there any reason why I should alienate myself from being careful over this country? Is not my Kingdom here? Why take you not of my assurance that I would marry? I will say it again that I hope to have children, otherwise I would never marry. As for the limitation of the succession, I have staid it for your benefits alone, for if you should have liberty to treat of it, there would be so many competitors…that it would be an occasion of a greater charge than any subsidy. Had not my will bowed to reason then that would be the thing I would gladly desire to see you all deal happily with. For myself I care not for death because all men are born mortal, and therefore one thing I will not do is be constrained by violence. I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom. As soon as there be a convenient time, and it may be done with least peril unto you-though never with great danger unto me-I will deal therein for your safety, and offer it unto you as your prince and head, without request; for it is a monstrous thing that the feet should rule the head.”

Head of England’s Secret Service, Sir Francis Walsingham

Meanwhile, in Scotland Lord Darnley’s chickens had come home to roost, rejected and alienated by his peers and bondsmen, as well as his pregnant wife, he planned an exile in Europe, wrote to the Pope for advice aware that his enemies were planning his eventual demise. However, Mary appears to have suffered a post natal depression or some illness (haematemesis) that seemed she would die and lay in her bed somewhat comatose. Needless to say she survived and Mary returned to her negotiations with Queen Elizabeth through her secretary, Melville to discuss the matter of succession. In Scotland, while the nation and its peers rejoiced at the news of Mary’s survival the question arose of a divorce or worst still the elimination of Darnley, thus freeing the Queen of her psychological anguish given Darnley’s treatment of her and his collusion over the murder of her secretary, David Riccio. The Council of Craigmillar was assembled consisting of Murray, Huntly, Argyll and Lethington to resolve the matter to which the Queen expressed her desire to remove herself until Darnley had either left Scotland or had expressed contrition for his crimes against her and her son, James. But the members of the council intimated that they had contemplated more severe measures to eliminate Darnley altogether, and by force if necessary. Although Mary insisted that they should not decide anything in the matter that would leave a stain on her honour and conscience, the lords dispersed giving her their assurances. But Mary must have known what they had in mind and she never passed her concerns onto her husband but awaited the final outcome. There followed James’s baptism where Darnley was absent for obvious reasons, and news followed that he had removed himself to Glasgow where he seems to have fallen ill with smallpox or syphilis. He eventually returned to Edinburgh and was carried on a litter to the Old Provost’s House to be cleansed of the fever. During the night an explosion occurred in the property causing a fire and when he awoke, Darnley was seized, tortured and garrotted by an unknown group of assailants. This event has been mused over by historians for centuries since, with fanciful or ridiculous assertions on what actually happened and who was involved (The Tragedy of Kirk o’ Field, Mahon-1930). Four months after the event agents for Elizabeth or rather Lord Burghley found what was known as “The Casket Letters” which incriminated Mary, Lord Bothwell and several other conspirators at the Westminster Conference of November-December, 1568. On reflection it would appear that the evidence was “cooked up” by Francis Walsingham to incriminate Mary further and deny her the benefit of doubt (“The Mystery of Mary Stuart”T.F. Henderson, 1912). One could say of course that Mary was simply at the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time because the terrifying circumstances she endured mentally, physically and emotionally would have been the impetus of suicide for an average person, let alone a monarch of Scotland.
Yet she persevered despite what fate had lain in her path which would continue to be the subject of history and fiction for years to come. As it turns out Bothwell was acquitted of any involvement but Mary’s role or involvement in Darnley’s death was a matter of ongoing public and private debate in Scotland and England in the ensuing years.

Now I have already mentioned that Scotland harboured a rather draconic, sexist or misogynistic and patriarchal attitude to women, perceiving them consistently as “witches” or “whores” whenever the occasion ensued or whenever they transgressed their out-dated cultural and sexual norms. In fact more women were imprisoned, tortured, and executed in Scotland during the 15th and 16th century than anywhere else in Europe, a dire, historical statistic which the Prime Minister of the Scottish government, Nicola Sturgeon recently felt obliged to apologise for. The Earl of Oxford writing pseudonymously as “William Shakespeare” made several allusions to the incident in his plays “Romeo & Juliet” and the historical drama “Macbeth”. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s illustrious poem, “The Rape of Lucrece” seems to sum up Mary’s horrendous plight of abduction and sexual ravishment by the Earl of Bothwell at his stronghold at Dunbar. A little known fact is that the Earl of Bothwell (alias James Hepburn), was a direct ancestor of the Hollywood actress, Audrey Hepburn. In fact the Papal authorities cared little for Mary’s fate or circumstances saying “One cannot as a rule expect much from those who are subject to their pleasures”, and James Beaton confessed that: “It would have been better in this world that she had lost life and all”. However, one has to admire her resilience given the cards dealt out to her she was still determined to stay in the game and play out her cards to the bitter end if necessary. She defied the entire world by marrying Bothwell (after he had conveniently obtained his divorce) who was summoned to account for his involvement in the murder of the King, when he was this time found guilty, imprisoned and later exiled to Denmark where mentally deranged and poor in health finally died in obscurity (1578). Alone in the world, without comfort or support and surrounded by hostility and rage from all quarters Mary was finally imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. At this point Queen Elizabeth felt obliged to intervene, not only as her ‘step-sister’ but as a neighbouring monarch who knew how one monarch’s incarceration would pan-out politically and socially. She had previously been imprisoned herself during “Bloody Mary’s” reign (along with Robert Dudley), but survived to tell the tale and accede to the English throne. Before she succeeded to the English throne Elizabeth had already suffered from the violent sexual assault of Sir Thomas Seymour so she knew what Mary had suffered and endured at the hands of Darnley and Bothwell.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton

However, Nicholas Throckmorton was again dispatched to Edinburgh in 1567, his remit was to establish a concord between Mary and her lords, to secure her liberation by persuasion or treaty (and secretly by force if necessary), and to urge the trial and punishment of the King’s murderer. None of which was he able to secure or establish from the Scottish lords, who now eager and in a position to maintain their influence and contentions were backed up by John Knoxe and deeply suspicious of Elizabeth’s intervention and intent. Throckmorton did however manage to smuggle a message to Mary requesting that she forsake her marriage to Bothwell, which she categorically refused to do saying she would rather renounce her crown and live as a commoner than deny him. Whether she was suffering from the psychological condition of her “victim mentality” (subservience and loyalty to her captor and abuser) is unsure although quite likely. Mary’s eventual abdication signalled the end of her reign in Scotland and her son, James VIth was crowned King of Scotland in 1567. However, it seems that Mary was far from doomed or prepared to live a life in exile because on the 2nd of May 1568 she managed to escape from her incarceration at Carlisle Castle and join her compatriots, the Hamiltons who blazed the torch for the ensuing civil war. She was congratulated and urged on by Queen Elizabeth in a message but before her message had arrived the Marian troops were facing defeat at the Battle of Langside. Mary then fled to the border in order to secure her own life and that of her son, James. Mary recalls her ordeal and her escape with great passion and defiance:

“I have endured injuries, calumnies, imprisonment, famine, cold, and heat, a flight not knowing wither, ninety-two miles across the country without stopping or alighting, and then I have had to sleep upon the ground, and drink sour milk, and eat oatmeal without bread, and have been three nights like the owl’s, without a female in this country.”

In a letter by messenger Elizabeth warned coldly:

“If you find it strange not to see me, you must make a metamorphose of our persons, then you will see it would be a malaise for me to receive you before your justification. But once honourably acquitted of this crime, I swear to you before God, that among all worldly pleasures that will hold the first rank.”

Mary replied somewhat arrogantly:

“Remove madam, from your mind that I am come hither for the preservation of my life, but to clear my honour and obtain assistance to chastise my false accusers; not to answer them as their equal, but to accuse them before you. Being innocent as, God be thanked, I know I am, do you not wrong me by keeping me here, when I am just escaped out of one prison, as if I were in another, encouraging by that means my perfidious foes to continue their determined falsehoods, and dispiriting my friends by delaying the aid others have promised if I would employ it. Here I neither can nor answer their false accusations, although I will with pleasure justify myself to you voluntarily as friend to friend, but not in the form of a process with my subjects.”

Meanwhile Lord Burghley reminded the Privy Council:

“Her Majesty can neither in honour nor with surety aid Mary, nor permit her to come into her presence, nor restore her, nor suffer her to depart without a trial.”

The second part in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots can be found by clicking on the following link:

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,