MARY, QUEENS OF SCOTS – HEROINE OR VICTIM?

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS – HEROINE OR VICTIM?

The 8th February 1587 will go down in history as the day that Mary Queen of Scots became one of Scotland’s most iconic historical figures. It was on this date that Mary Queen of Scots was executed under the instruction of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Her execution was inevitable after spending 19 years as a prisoner of Queen Elizabeth. 

Mary’s entire life involved political intrigue, a long standing dispute between two monarchies, failed romances and religious turmoil. All of these and more would effectively lead her on the path to her eventual death. 

THE EARLY YEARS

Mary was born on 8th December 1542, and was anointed Mary, Queen of Scots 6 days later after the death of her father King James V. She was born at Linlithgow Palace, a favourite palace of the royal family and their court. 

Linlithgow Palace

At this time Scotland had suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss and James had taken it badly.  So much so, that he was confined to his bed. However, he awaited the news that his wife would give birth to a son to carry on his dynasty. When he learnt that he was the father of a daughter, Mary, it is claimed that this finally finished him off. 

He is alleged to have said in his final hours,

“It came wi’ a lass, it’ll gang wi’ a lass”.

This implied that it ‘began with a girl and it will end with a girl’. He clearly didn’t have high hopes that there would be any longevity in Mary’s reign or indeed his dynasty.

The Palace, Stirling Castle

Mary would be crowned the following year at the age of 6 months in Stirling Castle. Until she reached adulthood, Scotland would be ruled by a regent. Already the first political and religious battle took place between the Catholic Cardinal Beaton and the Protestant  Earl of Arran. The Earl succeeded in becoming regent. 

Alongside this internal conflict was pressure from the English King Henry VIII to have Mary Queen of Scots married off to his son Edward. This would further cement his plan to unite England and Scotland and increase his empire and power. 

This did not go down too well with many of the Catholic Scots nobles. The Protestant faction, however, saw its value. Ultimately, King Henry II of France proposed a marriage between Mary and his son Francis. And so in 1548, Mary sailed for France where should would spend her formative years.

LIFE IN FRANCE AND HER RETURN TO SCOTLAND

Francis & Mary

Mary spent a very happy upbringing in France, surrounded by her closest friends, the Four Maries. She was brought up as a devout Catholic and betrothed to be married to Francis. They eventually married and became King and Queen of France in 1559 after the unexpected death of Henry II. 

The marriage would only last a year as Francis died from illness. Without a role, and because of her mother, Mary de Guise’s death, Mary had little choice but to return to Scotland. It was not the same Scotland that she had left – as she was to find out. 

Returning to Scotland in the August of 1561, on the one hand she was welcomed  by her subjugated Catholic subjects. On the other hand because of the Protestant Reformation she was viewed with suspicion by the Protestants. But Mary, as Queen of all Scots, advocated tolerance of both religious beliefs. She would practice her Catholic religion privately at Holyrood. Meanwhile all of Scotland would follow the Presbyterian Protestant faith under the leadership of John Knox. 

This religious conflict would be the first of her many problems to come. 

Darnley & Mary

Her next challenge was to find a suitable husband in order to secure her dynasty. She married her cousin Lord Darnley, also Catholic, in 1565 at Holyrood Palace. In the meantime, the English Queen Elizabeth saw this marriage as a threat to the English throne as both Mary and Darnley through their lineage had a direct claim to the English throne. 

Mary quickly fell pregnant and was due to give birth in the middle of 1566. Darnley, in the meantime had become jealous of Mary’s close relationship with her private secretary, David Rizzio. Darnley’s supporters murdered him in cold blood in front of  the Queen. 

Craigmillar Castle

In June 1566 Mary gave birth to her son at Edinburgh Castle. Mary retired to Craigmillar Castle just outside Edinburgh due to illness in the November of the same year. However, it is claimed that this was an opportunity for Mary and her supporters to conceive a plan to get rid of Darnley. Accounts would later suggest that Mary was not a party to this. 

In any case, the following year Darnley was killed in a botched explosion at the Kirk o’ Field believed to have been orchestrated by Lord Bothwell.  Bothwell who was still married at this point, had his own plans to force Mary to marry him. 

In the May of 1567, Mary was abducted by Bothwell and it is suggested that he may have raped her. Shortly after, having been kept at Dunbar Castle for a period, Bothwell and Mary returned to Holyrood Palace where they were married under a Protestant service. He thought that this would satisfy the Protestant nobles but they too turned against them. So not only did the Catholics think that the marriage was unlawful but there was also a serious Protestant backlash. 

Following a potential battle between Mary’s supporters and the Protestant Lords at Carberry Hill, Mary finally surrendered and was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. 

THE LATTER YEARS

After one last attempt to reclaim her throne and take control of Scotland, Mary was defeated at the Battle of Langside. She retreated to England and sought the protection of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Sadly her hopes were dashed and she was housed in a ‘place of safety’ at Bolton Castle. 

Two years later Mary was moved to Tutbury Castle where she was effectively now under house arrest. The political wheels were now set in motion that would effectively seal her fate. English nobles cajoled and debated with Queen Elizabeth I that her cousin was a threat to her monarchy. But without evidence, she was not prepared to seal her death warrant as she was still Queen of a sovereign nation. 

THE CASKET LETTERS

There are numerous accounts that these letters show that Mary was involved in the planning of Darnley’s  death, and that she also laid claim to the English throne. Lady Antonia Fraser, acclaimed biographer of Mary, came to the conclusion that the letters were forgeries. The French language and grammar used in them were so poorly written that they could not have been written by someone of Mary’s upbringing.

But they were to be used against her in her trial. Although she was imprisoned for almost twenty years, everything came to a rapid conclusion over a period of a few months thanks to these letters. From being found guilty of treason in the October of 1586, finally on 7th February 1587 Queen Elizabeth I signed her death warrant. She would be executed the following day. 

Mary Queen of Scots Death Warrant signed by Queen Elizabeth I

Mary Queen of Scots remained calm and noble to the end. Her final words were,

“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. 

CONCLUSION

Mary’s reign may be described by some as disastrous. However, she was a skillful monarch, and was in fact politically astute. It was the timing of her reign that was to be her undoing. The rise of Protestantism would conspire against her Catholic beliefs which she never rejected. She was a tolerant woman who wanted her divided nation to live in peace alongside one another.

Mary Queen of Scots – Linlithgow Palace

She was living in an era when it would be difficult for any woman to rule over an otherwise patriarchal society. She saw off many claimants to her throne. 

Probably her greatest failing was her taste in men. Darnley played his own game but she remained steadfastly against his intentions to be become King of Scotland in his own right. Bothwell was a Machievellan “streetfighter” who used brute force to attempt to dominate her. 

If religion, politics and society had been any different in her day, it is quite possible that she would have been not only Mary Queen of Scots but also of France and England. 

She did leave one very important legacy. With the birth of her son James, the Stuart dynasty eventually united the two countries of England and Scotland on the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The Union of the Crowns would be followed just over one hundred years later by The Treaty of Union when Scotland and England formed one United Kingdom.

Some would say that this was a disaster for Scotland or its saviour. But that is a discussion for another time.

If you want to learn more about Mary Queen of Scots, we can highly recommend her biography Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. Equally, there are movie versions of her life which provide an overview. Mary Queen of Scots (1971) starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson is an entertaining romp through her life. However, the more gritty Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie provides an unglossed version of events.

And remember Edinburgh Cab Tours provide a variety of tours that can incorporate visits to iconic locations with close links to Mary Queen of Scots. Check our TOURS page or ask us to build your own bespoke and customised tour.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The 11th September 1297 was a major turning point in Scottish history due to the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Ever since 1286 with the death of Alexander III, Scotland had been left without strong leadership. Initially, Alexander’s granddaughter and only heir Margaret was to return from Norway to take up the throne. But sadly she died on the journey over to Scotland.

Numerous Scottish nobles claimed their right to the throne but without collective agreement no one could be chosen. Edward I of England was invited to arbitrate over the proposed contenders. Seizing his opportunity, he declared himself overlord of Scotland. At the same time he chose John Balliol to become king but only because he would be “his puppet.”

Balliol only remained King for a few years before Edward returned to Scotland in 1296 and forced him to abdicate. Edward took control of all of the major strongholds in Scotland and placed his trusted nobles in charge. This set Scotland on a path that would lead to the Battle of Stirling Bridge. 

However, Scotland had struggled for centuries to stand up to its much larger and more powerful neighbour. There was simply a lack of belief that they had the will, the manpower and most important of all a strong leader.Now the facts of William Wallace are difficult to establish with any sense of conviction. Much of Wallace’s story is provided by the 15th century poem written by Blind Harry. Bear in mind that this was written almost 160 years after Wallace’s death, much of its content would have been passed down by word of mouth. 

The Life and Heroic Actions of the Renowned Sir William Wallace, General and Governor of Scotland.

Blind Harry

This 12-volume work became the key reference to the life and times of Wallace and most significantly his greatest victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

By the time the Battle of Stirling Bridge took place, William Wallace had been slowly building his army. It was not a conventional army in terms of its size. It certainly wouldn’t have been capable of fighting a full-scale battle on the battlefield against Edward’s army. Instead, Wallace resorted guerrilla-style warfare. With much smaller groups of fighters, he would lay traps and ambush English convoys. He and his men became the proverbial “thorn in the side” of the English army. 

The increasing uprising suffered a blow when many of the Scottish nobles submitted to the English in the July of 1297. But Wallace joined forces with another rebel, Andrew Moray, and together they achieved their first victory at the siege of Dundee. 

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle

This victory gave them the impetus to challenge for the “jewel in the crown.”  Stirling Castle was strategically important for any army if it wanted to control the gateway to the north of Scotland. The Castle itself, like Edinburgh Castle, towered over the surrounding area and was easily defended. More importantly, it controlled the bridge that allowed access over the River Forth. 

The only problem for Wallace and Moray was even with their combined forces, they were still vastly outnumbered by the English army at Stirling. Timing was key. Wallace somehow had to entice the English army from the Castle down onto the plain below. This would mean that the English army would need to cross over the bridge. It was not substantial, barely able to allow two cavalrymen to cross side by side. 

Abbey Craig

However, from the vantage point of the Abbey Craig (the location of the Wallace Monument), Wallace was able to monitor English movements. Over a period of several hours, the English moved their cavalry and infantry over the bridge.  Seizing the moment, Wallace and Murray then brought out the rest of their army and charged at the English. In a panic, the English turned tail despite being trapped in the loop of the river. At the same time, Wallace and Murray sabotaged the bridge.

It was a major defeat for the English, with many being killed on the battlefield, and the remainder drowning in the river. The remainder of the English army back in the Castle immediately retreated back to Berwick. This left the Castle back in Scottish hands and was to instil a new-found confidence in the Scots. Wallace and Murray were appointed Guardians of Scotland. Sadly, Murray died only a few months later from wounds sustained at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. And within a year, Edward I brought an even larger army to Scotland and defeated Wallace’s forces at Falkirk.

Edinburgh Cab Tours provide tours of Stirling Castle and the surrounding areas. Alternatively, let us know what you wish to visit and we will tailor the tour to your requirements. For further details go to our TOURS page.