When we think about Elizabethan times, many iconic and iconic characters come to mind. From Queen Elizabeth herself, to Shakespeare and Francis Drake. Another important character is Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s lifelong enemy, who was kept in a secluded tower for almost half her life. But actually, Mary’s life was much more than her feud with the Queen. Hers is a story of constant deceit and trust in the wrong people, and she was also a woman always looking for love and getting none in return. Elizabeth overshadowed Mary for the many achievements she had during her reign (I mean, that's why it's called the Elizabethan era), but actually, back then, she felt very threatened by Mary in many ways, like her beauty, grace, intelligence, and the people’s support for her. So, how did such a great woman end up having such a tragic life?
All her life Mary had to make the most of difficult circumstances. Born in 1542, in Linlithgow, Scotland, she was the only child of King James V and Mary of Guise. When she was only six days old, her father died unexpectedly, making her Queen of Scotland. Under a regency, Scotland decided to make an alliance with England by betrothing their Queen to Henry VIII's heir, Edward. They were supposed to be married when she turned 10. However, when Cardinal Beaton rose to power in Scotland, he told the regent Queen Mary de Guise they should break that alliance and secure a better prospect for her daughter with France’s Dauphin. Both Beaton and the royal family were Catholics, and on top of that, the Guise family was one of the most prominent ones in France, which was dealing with their own religious conflict. For them, this would be a religious alliance to fight the Protestants (or Huguenots, as they were known).
If you've ever watched a movie or read about Henry VIII, you'll know that he wasn’t a man you could offend and walk away like nothing happened. He sent several groups to raid Scotland, but they weren't successful. These raids came to be known as the "Rough Wooing," and they so were unsuccessful, they actually ended up pushing Mary to marry the Dauphin. They tried to seclude her in castles and priories, but ended up asking for help in France. The French King, Henry II, formally proposed the union between his son Francis and Mary. As a result, she was sent to France not only for her own protection, but also so that she could be raised in the French court and people wouldn’t see her as a foreign Queen.
At this point in the story, Mary’s future looked extremely promising. France was one of the richest kingdoms in Europe, and Mary’s position couldn’t be better. As was mentioned before, the Guise family was one of the most prominent with the Duke of Guise having a tremendous influence over the king and his brother Charles being an influential Cardinal. In addition, Francis' mother, Catherine de Medici, raised him to become the most powerful man in Europe, and with a Scottish bride they could actually have a chance to defeat their longtime rival, England. So, what could go wrong? The couple got married in 1558 in a pompous ceremony in Notre Dame. One year later, King Henry II died, making her not only Queen of Scotland but also Queen consort of France. However, this moment of glory proved to be quite short.
Catherine de Medici might have used all her power and intelligence to make her son a prominent figure, but he was actually a very weak and sickly young man. In 1560, he died from an ear infection that reached his brain, leaving 18-year-old Mary a childless widow. Not even her influential family could do anything to secure her future, so having nothing to do in France, she decided to return to Scotland. Her mother, the regent Queen had passed away some months earlier, so she was the rightful Queen, but her country wasn’t going to receive her with open arms.
Just like England, Scotland was going through a bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants. With the death of Mary Tudor (a devout Catholic who sent many Protestants to the stake), the Catholics wanted Mary Stuart to take over the throne of England as the only legitimate heir (remember that Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter, so her marriage to King Henry VIII was seen as illegitimate by the Catholic Church), but since she was already Queen of France they couldn’t do much, and Elizabeth became queen in the middle of violent battles and plots to murder her. However, when Mary returned to her country, people's hopes to overthrow Elizabeth grew both in England and in Scotland, which started the eternal feud between the Queens.
Long story short, while the Catholic Scots were happy to welcome Mary as their queen, the Protestants tried their best to convince her to accept their faith as the right one, which she eventually did. As queen, she tried to keep things friendly with both sides and would constantly seek Elizabeth’s friendship and support, but the latter could never see her as an ally because she always saw Mary as her only threat to the throne, so she did everything to prevent that from happening. She felt so threatened by Mary that she forbid her to marry any European royal, or else she would attack Scotland. Mary, in turn, wanted to obey her powerful cousin, but she wasn't going to let her get away with everything, so, in 1565 she decided to marry Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. She was madly in love with him, but also knew this was a great union from the Catholic perspective, something that would infuriate Elizabeth. However, despite her high hopes for the marriage, Darnley proved to be a jerk who only wanted to get more power and get closer to the English throne by any means necessary.
Darnley was a neglectful and abusive husband, so she sought for love elsewhere and found it in her Italian secretary, David Rizzio. Before long, rumors of the affair between them were all over the country, to the point that people believed she was pregnant with his child. The affair was never confirmed, but Darnley was convinced it was true, so he decided to murder Rizzio in Mary’s presence. Scared of her husband, she fled to Edinburgh Castle in 1566, where she gave birth to James while she tried to convince Elizabeth to help her dissolve her marriage to Darnley. Apparently, Elizabeth was very concerned about Mary, but she didn't do anything to help her. However, the following year, Darnley was murdered, and Mary was the main suspect for the crime (although to this day, it’s still a mystery who did it).
After Darnley's death, Mary lost basically all her supporters except for James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, whom she married just a few months later. Angry at her decision to marry the man they suspected was behind the death of the consort King, most nobles decided to rise against Mary and attacked her in a battle, which she lost. Although she cared for Bothwell very much, he fled and left her alone without the support of anybody. As a result, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her son and was imprisoned alone. Nonetheless, she had a strong character, and she wasn’t going to let them defeat her that easily. She managed to escape and decided to flee to England to ask Elizabeth for help. That was the last time she would set foot in Scotland and the last days of freedom she would enjoy.
The moment she reached England she was arrested and imprisoned for nineteen years, far away from her son and her country, and without the support of the person she had always tried to be in good terms with. Throughout all of these years, many plots to save her were orchestrated, but failed terribly. Knowing that the Catholics saw Mary as a martyr trapped by a Protestant queen, Elizabeth knew she couldn’t just get rid of her because that would cause a huge revolt that she wasn’t sure she would be able to suppress. So, for years she tirelessly tried to prove that Mary was plotting against her, but it was in vain. That is, until 1586, when Mary started writing to Anthony Babington, a Catholic conspirator who wanted to murder Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s main secretary, intercepted the letters, giving his Queen the evidence she had been looking for nearly two decades.
As a result, Mary was tried and sentenced to death, but Elizabeth was still reluctant to sign the death warrant, fearing that the execution would spark the war she had feared for years. Finally, after some months pondering the matter, Elizabeth signed the order, and Mary was executed in February 1587 at the age of 44. Her story is that of a woman who felt like an outsider everywhere she went, even in her own country. A woman who tried to find love but all she got in return was deceit and treason. Above all, though, she was a woman who could’ve had it all, but life decided it wasn't meant to be.
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