Mary Queen of Scots – romance, intrigue in Scotland of old

Mary Queen of Scots still fascinates visitors. Read here about the power struggles, involving Scotland, England and France, into which she was born.

Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-87, is one of the best-known figures in Scottish history. Often she merits a comma after Mary, but I left it out for SEO reasons. (If you must know…)

She still seems to cast a curious spell on visitors to Scotland. (Or did I steal that sentence from one of those reverential tourism brochures?)

She showed the strange charm of the Stewart dynasty which added so much turbulence and uncertainty to Scotland’s story.

But the life of Mary Queen of Scots was part of a larger drama, played out in the Royal Houses of Scotland, France and England. Mary’s grandmother was Margaret Tudor, sister of England’s King Henry VIII.

Her mother was Mary of Guise, a Frenchwoman, and second wife of Scotland’s King James V. (Yes, it is a bit confusing. This is isn’t a purely Scottish matter.)

Mary, Queen Of England?

By birth she was to be Mary Queen of Scots. By her first marriage she was Queen of France. (Her husband became King Francis II of France in 1559.)

Most importantly – and pay attention at the back, please – she might also have been the perfectly legitimate ruler of England.

However, the English throne had gone to Elizabeth, a child of the English King Henry VIII’s second marriage, but who was conceived in adultery. Yes, I know this is complicated and meant to be a story about Scotland.

But here’s the important bit. If the English King Henry’s line was, technically, extinct, then it seems likely that Mary herself was perfectly aware of what might have been.

And this underpins the whole story of her time in Scotland.

Huntingtower Castle, Perth
Huntingtower Castle, Perth – one of the many Scottish castles with Mary, Queen of Scots connections.
Costumed actor - Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots, still turns up for re-enactments. This one was at Falkland Palace. I forget now who the other chap was, but definitely not Brian May.

(Pictured here) Huntingtower, near Perth. Visited by Mary Queen of Scots, though its owner, Patrick, third Lord Ruthven, was a leading supporter of the Reformers during her reign.

(Also pictured here) Mary, Queen of Scots, still turns up for re-enactments, guest appearances etc. This one was at Falkland Palace. Maybe she does Xmas lights switch-ons and supermarket openings too. Not sure.

The woman destined to be Mary Queen of Scots was born at a troubled time for a Scotland in the first upheavals of the Reformation.

Setting the scene – Scotland and France

Ah, yes, the Reformation…

The Protestant Reformers favoured an alliance with England as King Henry VIII of England was a vigorous opponent of Catholicism.

Meanwhile the supporters of Catholicism looked towards France. With the religious struggle intensifying between France and England, France expected Scotland (with its Catholic monarchy) to side with it against the English King Henry.

Thus Scotland was drawn into an English-French quarrel – a dangerously unstable political situation for the young queen.

The ‘Rough Wooing’

Just before her birth, a half-hearted attempt by Scotland to aid France had ended in defeat by England at Solway Moss, on the Scottish-English border.

Soon, the English King Henry VIII was well aware that several Scots lords were unhappy with the established church and thus demanded that the infant Mary should marry his own son Edward, thus creating a Protestant dynasty on both sides of the border.

Before Mary was three years old, King Henry VIII of England had sent an army to back his claim in an episode known as ‘the rough wooing’.

That’s when the invading English armies destroyed the Border Abbeys, and burned the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and many other parts of southern Scotland.

It’s mostly why the Scottish Border abbeys are in such a ruinous and knocked about state today.

Falkland Palace, Fife
Falkland Palace, Fife. A former Stuart hunting lodge.

(Pictured here) Falkland Palace, the Stewart dynasty’s hunting lodge in Fife. Mary’s father, King James V, died here only a week after she was born.

Scotland In Turmoil

By the time Mary was five years old, even though the English King Henry VIII had died, English forces occupied Scotland, following the Scots defeat at the Battle of Pinkie, near Musselburgh.

Many Scots did not know which way to turn. Though the tide of anti-Catholicism was rising, the English invaders, representing the new Protestantism, were very unpopular.

In the absence of a strong monarch, the nation was indecisive, though it finally appealed to France to rid the country of the English invaders.

Already a pawn in a political game, the price for this was the removal of the future queen to France.

Taken for safety to Inchmahome Priory on the Lake of Menteith, west of Stirling in 1547, she sailed from Dumbarton Castle in 1548. There had been much conflict and bloodshed – and Mary was only six years old.

(Cue martial Scottish music with appropriate bagpipe wailings, as we move on to the next chapter somewhere below….)

Mary Queen Of Scots Returns To Scotland

Twelve years later, she’s back home, so this is the second part of Mary’s story. There may be trouble ahead….

Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland at the age of 18, already widowed, following the death of the King of France, her husband Francis, who reigned for only 17 months.

Contemporary accounts speak of her beauty: she was tall, dark-eyed and graceful. She had particular support in the staunchly Catholic Highlands.

The new Protestant religion had by no means claimed all of the influential people in Scotland. However, by the time of Mary’s return, the Reformer John Knox, among others, was already preaching armed resistance to any attempt by the monarch to interfere with their style of worship.

Mary Queen Of Scots’ Second Marriage

Mary fell in love with Henry, Lord Darnley, whom she described as ‘the lustiest and best-proportioned lang man‘ that she had ever met. (At over 6ft tall he was one of the few eligible men taller than her!)

They were married in 1564 in the Chapel Royal at Holyrood.

It didn’t work out. He soon proved to be fond of taverns and thoroughly unreliable. If he had been born today it would have been nightclubs, legal highs and fast cars with stupid-looking spoilers.

Mary excluded him from court business.

Darnley also became jealous of her secretary and close friend, an Italian musician David Riccio.

As part of a wider power-plot, Riccio was murdered by Darnley and his supporting conspirators before the queen’s eyes in the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

A plaque marks the spot to this day.

(A positive historic highlight in the gloomy and po-faced experience which is the Palace of Holyroodhouse today. Sorry, that’s probably just me…)

Edinburgh Castle, from The Vennel
Edinburgh Castle, from The Vennel, looking north.

Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to a son, James, at Edinburgh Castle (pictured here) in 1566. You can still see the date painted on the wall of Queen Mary’s Apartments.

(James was destined to be King James VI of Scotland, later I of England, succeeding the childless English Queen Elizabeth. But all that came later.)

Meanwhile, factions and plots among Scotland’s noble families were rife at this time, in a complex political situation involving church and state.

It was rumoured that Mary was to be removed from the throne and Darnley set up as regent over her child.

By 1567, the year after the birth of her child, Mary had pardoned the murderers of Riccio, failed in her attempt to reconcile Darnley and had become attracted to one of her staunch supporters, the Earl of Bothwell.

Then Darnley was found murdered after a mysterious explosion at the Kirk o Field, south of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Bothwell was implicated but soon had himself acquitted of the accusations.

Borthwick Castle from train
Borthwick Castle still stands today. (It’s a hotel.) Here is a distant winter view – top left – from the Waverley Route train through the rolling Borders countryside.

Mary Queen Of Scots’ Third Marriage

The Earl of Bothwell abducted Mary and took her – perhaps willingly – to Dunbar Castle. They were married shortly afterwards. Scotland was shocked and rebellion loomed.

Besieged in Borthwick Castle (on honeymoon!) in Midlothian, both Bothwell and Mary escaped, the standard histories recounting that Mary disguised herself as a boy.

(Maybe it’s just me, but I always imagine a Monty Pythonesque moment with the chief gunner of the besieging forces yelling out ‘Hold your fire, men, it’s a boy. Gosh, isn’t he tall for a boy?’)

They raised their supporters and their forces were eventually challenged by the opposition, an army of confederate lords, at Carberry Hill, south-east of Edinburgh. She was forced to abdicate on her imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle(pictured here).

The Loch Leven Castle boat
Catch the wee ferry across to Loch Leven Castle with its romantic associations with Mary, Queen of Scots

Visiting Loch Leven Castle, in picture, distant, left, means a short ferry ride to an island on the loch.

With the help of some still-loyal supporters she escaped in disguise from her island prison after a year. (Didn’t they just love disguises?) Next, she was defeated by the Protestant forces (‘the Lords of the Congregation’) at Langside near Glasgow.

She fled southwards and her last night in Scotland was spent at Dundrennan Abbey in Galloway.

She went into England, hoping for an audience with Queen Elizabeth of England. She was held captive south of the border, a pawn in the political game played around her.

She was finally executed at Fotheringay, in England, 19 years later. 

More romantic and historical characters? How about the great-great-great grandson of Mary? Wait,  that must be Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Or how about that Highland hero and rogue, Rob Roy?