Even before Henry VIII’s sister Margaret had her sixth birthday, their father, Henry VII, had thought that a marriage between his eldest daughter and James IV of Scotland was a way to end Scottish uprisings. James V of Scotland had been their only surviving legitimate heir and he in turn had married Mary of Guise, from France. Their daughter Mary was born on 8th December 1542 and six days later, she had become the Queen of the Scots on the death of her father. At 5 years old, Mary had been betrothed to the infant French dauphin, Francis, and with the agreement in place, she was sent to France to spend the next eleven years of her life in readiness to enter the French Court as queen consort.
Vivacious and beautiful, Mary had a wonderful childhood with the best available education in languages, poetry, horsemanship, needlework and music. By 16, she was a cultured married woman with the world at her feet and at 17, Mary had become Queen Consort of France and Queen of Scotland and she was more importantly, legitimate. One year later, the French king was dead and her husband Francis was crowned King of France.
With Mary Tudor dead and her cousin Elizabeth on the English throne, you can be sure Mary Queen of Scots watched England with mounting interest. In those brutal and uncertain days, we can only assume she was waiting for the right moment to step forward and stake her claim. As Elizabeth took the throne of England, the eyes of Europe were also watching and waiting. Everyone knew that Mary Queen of Scots had a far better right to the throne than Elizabeth.
At this time in history, there were three women who held power in England, Scotland and France: Elizabeth in England, Mary in France and Mary of Guise, her mother, in Scotland. And with the force of France behind her, Mary stood a good chance of gaining it. Then her world slowly began to fall apart. Her mother died and three months later, her young husband died of an ear infection.
She can be forgiven for thinking that France had turned its back on her by sending her back to Scotland and she can be forgiven for thinking that England had gone too far when they refused her request to dock in London on her way to Scotland from France. Putting aside the fact that she had a legitimate right to contest the English throne, and some would have stated that her claim was an even better one than Elizabeth’s claim, her cousin should have at least awarded her a certain level of courtesy, given her plight and predicament. Inevitably, with the snub, Mary had no choice but to return to Scotland by another longer and more dangerous route.
With news that Mary was on her way home, Scottish Catholics were rejoicing that their ruler, who had declared herself a fervent Catholic, would soon be back in Scotland to take matters in hand. While Mary had been in France and after her mother’s death, Scotland had been under the control of her illegitimate half-brother James Stewart, who was also the leader of the local Protestant group. Local sporadic fighting had broken out but things had settled down a little with news of Mary’s imminent arrival.
Mary seems to have been prone to making mistakes, and before too long, she’d made her first big one. She trusted her half-brother. It’s true James Stewart said all the right things to Mary. He offered his undying support and he gave the appearance of steadfast loyalty. But words are just words and appearances can be deceptive. Unfortunately for Mary, she would find that out the hard way. So instead of dismissing James, she kept him on as her chief advisor. Not only that, she made him the 1st Earl of Moray. Sometimes your worst enemies come disguised as family members.
Then she made her next big mistake. She married her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
Henry Stuart carried his own claim to the English throne through Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s elder sister. After the death of Margaret’s first husband James IV, she had married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. From that marriage, there was one surviving daughter who in turn delivered a baby boy - Henry Stuart Lord Darnley. As a descendant of a daughter of James II of Scotland as well, Darnley was in the front of the line for the throne of Scotland and a good chance for the English throne to boot, which is more than likely what he had in mind in the first place.
Mary had briefly met her cousin in February 1561 when she was still mourning her husband Francis. Darnley’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Lennox, had sent him to France to ostensibly extend their condolences but in the back of their minds there was hope that a potential match could be arranged between their son and Mary. Nothing came of the visit but the seed had been planted. When the two met again in February of 1565, Mary fell in love with him.
And Darnley had plenty to offer. Three years younger than her, he was brought up conscious of his status and inheritance. He was well educated speaking Latin, Scottish Gaelic, English and French and he excelled in singing, lute playing and dancing. He was strong, virile and athletic, a good horseman with a passion for hawking and hunting and he had a sound knowledge of weapons. Who could forgive Mary for snapping him up before someone else did?
The marriage both infuriated Queen Elizabeth and made her very nervous. It was, after all, the marriage between her two strongest claimants to the English throne and Darnley was the natural choice for many of Elizabeth’s enemies because he was male, English born and a Catholic. But the marriage had gone ahead without her permission, (Darnley was after all an English subject), and it was unforgivable.
But Elizabeth need not have worried. With all of Darnley’s accomplishments, he would have been a real catch except for one major flaw. He had a mean, violent streak in him, which was aggravated by his drinking problem.
It’s no wonder this impulsive marriage was a disaster from the beginning. With literally a world of choices at Mary’s feet, Mary had chosen to marry an arrogant man with a drinking problem who soon began making demands to be recognised as the co-sovereign of Scotland as well as having the right to keep the Scottish throne for himself … if he outlived her.
Mary must have had an inkling of the significance of the suggestion and the ominous overtones because she adamantly and constantly refused his request. Apparently, she was smarter than she was given credit for. But her refusals put great strains on the already unsteady marriage and all too soon, Mary realised she was pregnant.
With news of her pregnancy, Darnley decided the honeymoon was definitely over. It meant the child would be in front of him in the queue to the throne and more than likely, he would never become the king. And now for the magic words: as long as the child was his and as long as the child lived.
It’s pretty safe to consider the possibility that the throne was all he ever wanted from the beginning. But with that option taken away from him, he had to come up with an alternative plan. Months before, Mary had employed a secretary by the name of David Rizzio, who was himself a descendent of a noble Italian family. As her secretary, David was in close and regular contact with Mary, which must have sparked the idea into Darnley’s head. What if he could convince everyone that Rizzio was really the father of Mary’s child?
Over the ensuing months, the thought grew and festered in Darnley’s head until it all came to a head when Mary was seven months pregnant. The plan to murder Rizzo and potentially harm Mary was a complex one full of ‘ifs’ but Darnley decided to put it into action on 9th March 1566 anyway. Together with some of his supporters, Darnley was hoping that if Rizzio died, it would have such a traumatic impact on Mary and that it would result in a miscarriage and would ultimately damage her health permanently. If she became ill and if that illness resulted in her slow death before the baby was born, and if the baby died as well, then Scotland would be forced to hand the crown over to him as her husband. As I said, complex and iffy.
It would seem Mary had no idea of the ideas running through her husband’s mind. On 9th March, as she and her secretary were bent over, intent on a document, Darnley, Lord Ruthven and her half-brother Earl of Moray burst into the room demanding that Rizzio leave immediately with them under arrest. There was very little she could do at seven months into her pregnancy but she valiantly stood her ground at gunpoint with Rizzio cowardly hiding behind her skirts as she tried to protect him.
The hysterical screams of both Mary and Rizzio echoed through the palace and into the dark streets of Edinburgh. Many of the locals were warming themselves in the taverns when they heard bloodcurdling screams coming from Holyrood Castle. It was enough to send most of them pouring out of taverns with makeshift weapons and running to the castle. With a gun held to her side, Mary was told to go to the window and dismiss them. In the uproar, Rizzio was stabbed an alleged 56 times and then thrown down the main staircase and stripped of his jewels before people were able to crash through the main door to help them.
Needless to say, the marriage was over. After the rather botched attempt on his wife’s life, Darnley knew he’d have to suffer the consequences of the fiasco sooner or later, so before they could relieve him of his head, he fled.
In England, Elizabeth was horrified by the news filtering back from Scotland. When Mary delivered a baby boy two months later, naming him James in memory of her father, Elizabeth’s horror turned to resignation. You see by then, England had almost resigned themselves to the fact that Elizabeth would never produce an heir. One year after that, when Elizabeth heard that Darnley had suffered a rather sudden and unfortunate death, resignation turned to suspicion. And then she heard the rest of the story.
Mary had made her next big mistake. The scandalous story was that Darnley had been recovering from a bout of smallpox when two explosions rocked the foundation of Kirk O’Field where he was staying. Later on, the explosions were attributed to two barrels of gunpowder placed in the small room under his sleeping quarters. Dressed only in his nightshirt, Darnley had fled from his bedchamber but was later found dead outside, murdered, not from the explosions as originally suspected, but apparently smothered since there were no visible signs of violence on his body. Suspicion quickly fell on a rather close friend of Mary, the Earl of Bothwell, whose shoes had been discovered at the scene of the crime.
Now you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to join the dots together here when only three months later, Mary and Bothwell announced their marriage. Bothwell had obtained a quickie divorce from his first wife twelve days beforehand and the happy twosome had married in secret. Put that with the shoes left rather stupidly near the crime scene and you have no doubt in anyone’s mind who had planted the gunpowder and killed Darnley.
An unpopular and quarrelsome man, the Orkney born nobleman, Bothwell, seems to have appeared when he visited Mary at the French Court in the autumn of 1560. He supported Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, in Scotland and together with 24 followers, he took 6000 crowns of English money destined to be used against Mary of Guise at an ambush near Haddington on Halloween 1559. After her death, he appears to be no more than a troublesome nobleman at court, (although he was obviously smitten with Mary), until the Darnley murder when he showed his true colours. He was acquitted of any wrong doing in a trial on 12th April 1567 and a rumour circulated that he would marry Mary. That is until eight bishops, nine earls, and seven Lords of Parliament put their signatures to what became known as the Ainslie Tavern Bond, declaring that Mary should marry a native-born subject and they handed it confidently and smugly to Bothwell.
Four days later, while Mary was on the road from Linlithgow Palace to Edinburgh, Bothwell suddenly appeared with 800 men and assured Mary that danger awaited her in Edinburgh. She was to come with him to his castle at Dunbar, out of harm’s way. It appears Mary agreed to accompany him and arrived at Dunbar at midnight where she was taken prisoner by Bothwell and allegedly raped. Bothwell’s reasoning was that this would secure his marriage to her (although whether she was a willing accomplice or an unwilling victim remains a controversial issue.) On 12th May, Mary created him Duke of Orkney and Marquess of Fife and three days later they were married at Holyrood.
In England, Elizabeth was livid as the updates filtered back to her. It wasn’t just Elizabeth who was adding two and two together, the Scottish nobles were doing the same thing as well. As the realisation suddenly hit them that Mary was probably involved in Darnley’s murder, they knew a decision had to be made. And you can believe that her half-brother, James Stewart, played a major part in making that momentous decision. Without too much delay, a council informed Mary that she would have to abdicate in favour of her 1-year-old son James. Coincidently, they said, her half-brother had helpfully and willingly stepped forward and nominated himself as Regent and the nobles had already accepted his generous offer. As a finishing touch, they informed Mary that after she abdicated, she was then to be imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle ready for the charge of murder to be heard in a court of law. There was nothing she could do, they informed her. It was a done deal.
By this time, Bothwell had seen the writing on the wall. He’d fled after one final embrace from Mary, leaving her to face the music alone. Bothwell was never seen again but reports filtered back over the years that he had been imprisoned in Denmark and was slowly going insane. Still reeling from the desertion of her new husband, Mary miscarried a set of twins.
From somewhere deep in her soul, despite her immense grief, Mary must have been determined that her rights as queen should, and would, be restored. Inside a month, she had lost a husband and a set of twins: she was not about to lose her throne as well.
Loch Leven Castle was actually a grey stone house with small windows that barely kept out the cold winds that blew across the water. Outside was a narrow strip of scrubland and further still was the lake that took half an hour for a strong man to row to the mainland. When the weather turned foul, the strip submerged and the waves lashed the stones of the perimeter wall.
It was a hard prison from which escape and endurance seemed impossible. For someone like Mary who had been raised in a glittering court in France surrounded by priceless jewels and gorgeous clothes, attending banquets and plays, it was beyond hell to endure. The boredom would have driven her almost insane. During her time in the prison, she constantly declared that her abdication had been forced upon her under the threat of death and most of Scotland believed her. And she continually plotted her escape.
It took Mary almost a year to accomplish, but on 2nd May 1568, with the help of George Douglas, the handsome half-brother of Sir William Douglas, owner of Loch Leven, she escaped. Whether she granted George certain ‘favours’ more than mere kisses, (if you know what I mean), is unknown but I would assume that anything more would have been risky with her already besmirched reputation. But then again, she had made some terrible blunders up until then so anything was possible. In any case, Mary’s supporters smuggled her out and whisked her away, hoping to reach the safety of Dumbarton Castle.
News of Mary’s imprisonment had not been popular with the Scots in the first place so when word circulated that she had escaped, the news was widely welcomed. With an escort of 50 supporters led by Lord Hamilton, she rode in to Lanarkshire to join up with many more nobles who were willing to take up the fight with her and within a few days; she had managed to gather 6,000 men. With this sizable army standing at the ready behind her, plus the assistance of eight earls, nine bishops, eighteen lords, twelve abbots and nearly one hundred barons, the council was more than willing to pass a ruling that the Earl of Moray’s actions had indeed been treasonable.
They say the road to death is a long march full of terrors and Mary had every intention of dodging that horrific end to her story. One of the ways to do that was to avoid battle at all cost. Her plan was to retire to Dumbarton Castle while expected reinforcements came from the north to help and with this added strength, she was certain she could take back the country by degrees from her half-brother.
With the full intention of temporarily bypassing Moray, Mary rode to Rutherglen Castle intending to pass on the north side of the Clyde estuary to avoid a direct confrontation with him. She had no wish to ride into a trap so until she had a full army at her disposal, she had to err on the side of caution.
Unlike Mary, Moray wasn’t about to give up without a serious fight. His plan was to draw up his army close to the village several miles south of Glasgow, well within the city limits, and attack at the moment when Mary would least expect it. One of his commanders noted Mary’s movements and he ordered his musketeers to stand ready behind each of the horsemen hiding among some cottages, hedges and gardens bordering a narrow lane through which Mary’s army needed to pass. Moray would lead the rest of the army across a nearby bridge.
Moray’s army had only just established themselves when Mary’s army advanced through the village. The battle was on.
Mary’s commander, Lord Argyll, had very little military skills so he hoped to simply push Moray aside by sheer force of numbers. As Lord Hamilton advanced slowly, Mary remained safe and secure at the rear. All was going to plan until Hamilton was met with fire from the musketeers and it was as if the world exploded in an almighty crash of metal. Many in the front were killed but Hamilton determinedly pushed on through the mayhem, finally reaching the top of a hill. What he saw frightened him. The enemy had totally blocked them off and they were advancing quickly.
What happened next has happened many times throughout history. Both armies collided in a forest of spears so thick, it is said that if anyone had thrown their discharged pistols at the enemy, the weapons would have come to rest on top of the shafts rather than falling to the ground. Forty-five minutes later, the Battle of Langside was over.
As the cries of screaming men and horses reached her, Mary watched in abject horror as over 300 of her men were slaughtered. Feathered shafts protruded from bodies, limbs had been hacked off and the smell of blood hung heavily in the air.
As dreadful as it was, if Moray had not called a halt to the fighting, it was certain the count would have been much higher. But if Mary had been in danger before, her capture at this crucial moment would certainly have been her final chapter. In a panic and with an escort, Mary fled across bleak windswept moorland, burning bridges behind her to slow pursuit, in an attempt to reach Dumbarton Castle. But then suddenly, she changed direction and turned south, heading towards a magnificent Gothic church by the name of Dundrennan Abbey on the south coast of Scotland. We can only assume she believed the Abbey seemed more reachable and safe. From there she could head for England and be out of harm’s way.
After all the mistakes Mary had made, this one turned out to be the worst. She would never see Scotland again.
In Mary’s mind, the only choice she had was to throw herself on Elizabeth’s mercy. And Elizabeth may have initially been tempted to do exactly that and take her cousin in. Especially when she remembered the night she’d refused Mary permission to dock in London on her way back to Scotland from France after the death of her French husband. That night, it was as if God had unleashed a powerful, vengeful storm following her refusal and the result had been that St Pauls Cathedral had been reduced to ashes, burnt to the ground and in ruins.
But with this horrific memory came doubt. The old Mary had been dangerous enough but this new Mary was more dangerous and treacherous to Elizabeth than the one she’d sent that letter to years ago. This new Mary seemed out of control. Could she even be trusted?
If there was one thing we can be certain of is that Elizabeth would have remembered the past mangled generations of her dynasty. She would have remembered the stories of how her grandfather, Henry VII, had kissed the ground reverently as he invaded England before slaughtering Richard III and she would have remembered the stories of his tyranny. She certainly would have remembered that her father had excelled at disposing of anyone who stood in his way. Her own mother had been one of those disposable people. And I’m sure it would have been those same horrific memories that made Elizabeth hesitate and finally resist her government’s advice. Beheading traitors was one thing, but beheading someone of royal blood, more to the point her own cousin, was something she could not bring herself to do. All you had to do was look at how the War of the Roses has turned out if you were in any sort of doubt. For a woman and a queen who had suffered first-hand at her family’s brutality, there seemed only one option available to her. Rather than risk temporarily sheltering Mary and then returning her to Scotland at a later time with an English army, or even sending her back to France, Elizabeth imprisoned Mary in Carlisle Castle and then one month later, moved her a little further away from the Scottish border to Bolton Castle.