I’ve been working on a podcast about Mary Queen of Scots, which I’ll be recording this week, and as part of that I’ve been reading John Guy’s book, Queen of Scots (available to read on Oyster, too). Most people who know Elizabethan history are familiar with the story of the tragic Catholic queen, but you don’t really ever look at her life in the context of being, sadly, a product of a very Protestant form of predestination. She was pretty much destined to have a life full of drama and potential execution, thanks to forces that were both beyond her control (ie her first husband dying) and her naive willingness to trust people and allow herself to be caught up in plots against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.
Mary Stuart was born a week before her father James died. She was the only living child and heir. Initially, everyone thought it would be in Scotland’s interest to have an alliance with England, and so she was proposed as a bride for King Henry VIII’s son Edward, to the point where a contract was agreed and signed. But then Mary’s mother, who was French, decided that she really needed to press a French marriage to the Dauphin, Francis, and pulled back out of the contract. Henry was seriously pissed off and sent an army into Scotland, which is now called The Rough Wooing. It didn’t work, and the English pulled back, burning some border villages along the way – par for the course with English and Scots relationships.
When she was five Mary sailed to France without her mother where she was raised with the French royal children, including her future husband. Mary was always healthy and strong, but Francis was a weak and sickly child. They wed after Mary had been in France for nearly ten years. Her mother visited once, and then left to go back to Scotland where she was acting as Regent for the absentee Queen. Mary never saw her mother again after that one visit. Her grief doubled when, after only being married to Francis for a year, and still a teenager, he died, leaving her a widow. She had been the Queen of France for only a year or so, and sailed back to Scotland, truly alone at age 20.
Mary had two problems that made her life turn out the way it did. First, she was Catholic on a Protestant island (John Knox was preaching in a newly-converted Scotland, and of course after the death of Mary Tudor, England became solidly Protestant under Elizabeth). Second, she was Elizabeth’s heir apparent. And for many Catholics, she was the actual true Queen of England because when Elizabeth was born to Anne Bolyen (Henry’s second wife) his first wife Catherine of Aragon was still alive. Meaning that to many Catholics, Elizabeth was born out of wedlock, and was a bastard. Mary was the closest person in line to the throne, being the great granddaughter of Henry VII (she was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister who married into Scotland).
So as long as Elizabeth was unmarried and childless, Mary was the focus for any Catholic rebellions who would wish to replace Elizabeth on the throne. And Elizabeth was always nervous about naming an heir – she never named one even before her death, because she knew that once she did, the pressure on that heir would be enormous, and all the focus would shift to them. Poor Mary was caught in this impossible position of being the heir apparent, but not named, and being the figurehead of a movement she didn’t really even care about.
Because Mary was incredibly fair when it came to religion. She recognized that her country was Protestant, and she promoted Protestants equally with Catholics. She also tried many times to form a relationship with Elizabeth, offering to meet her, and thinking that as they were cousins and Queens on the same island, they should help each other out. Unfortunately for Mary, Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil, a staunch Protestant who was fearful to the point of paranoia about Catholic plots, continually thwarted any kind of relationship.
Mary made a mistake in her second marriage. She chose a Scottish nobleman who was raised in England and also descended from Henry VII, in order to make her dynastic claim that much stronger. He turned out to be a serious asshole, to the point where he killed her secretary in front of her when she was 6 months pregnant. She thought that he had tried to kill her by making her miscarry the baby, which most likely would have ended in her death given that it was the 16th century. A few months later, his house was blown up and she was implicated in his murder. She married the other chief conspirator of her murder – at the time she may have felt forced into it to bring peace to the warring Scottish nobles, but in the end it made her Protestant nobles revolt against her.
She had to abdicate in favor of her infant son James, and decided to flee to England where she expected that Elizabeth would help her. Elizabeth had no such plans, and had herself been stirring up civil unrest in Scotland to keep Mary busy and distracted from her claims to the English throne. When Mary arrived in England, Elizabeth had her kept under house arrest, a state in which she stayed for 19 years.
During that time she obviously tried to escape. She was an anointed Queen effectively being kept a prisoner. But she allowed herself to become implicated in the plots to help Spain invade England and put a Catholic on the throne, and that was down to too much trust and political naivety. Cecil and Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, tightened their grip around Mary and eventually got letters where she discussed Elizabeth’s death.
She was put on trial and defended herself well despite the fact that the ending was a foregone conclusion. Mary’s chief problem was that as long as she was alive, she could be used by people who wanted Elizabeth dead, and that just didn’t work for Elizabeth. She was executed when she was only 44 years old, having spent almost half her life as a prisoner in England. When she died she wore red, the traditional color for Catholic martyrs.
Over the years the legend of Mary Queen of Scots spread, and she became famous as a martyr. In truth, she was just a tragic person who was put into an impossible situation, and didn’t really have the brainpower to navigate her way out. Making her into a martyr both makes too much and too little out of her situation. She wasn’t a Catholic martyr. But she born into a tragic situation; the British Isles just weren’t big enough for two Queens, one of whom was Catholic, and she’s the one who lost.