Mary Stuart: The Six-Day Old Queen of Scots
Several marriages and a claim to the throne led to Mary’s gruesome beheading at the hands of her cousin.
Our fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots, continues despite her death 400 years ago. Crowned at six days old, her hardships have inspired countless works of fiction, and her story still holds strong today. Here, let us learn the events that led to her execution despite being a part of royalty.
The Six-Day Old Queen
On December 8, 1542, Mary was born to King James V of Scotland and Queen consort Mary of Guise. Mary’s parents had two sons before her birth, but they both passed away within 14 hours of each other. Being the sole surviving child of the couple, Mary inherited the throne upon her father’s sudden death.
In her first six days of life, she was crowned Queen. She was too young to do anything, let alone rule. Hence, Mary’s third cousin, the Protestant Earl of Arran, became her regent.
Upon six months of age, her regent signed the Treaty of Greenwich. He agreed that baby Mary would wed Prince Edward, the 5-year-old son of King Henry VIII of England, in ten years. The marriage aimed to quell the long-term rivalry between the two kingdoms. However, it failed to meet its purpose.
Her Two Worlds: A Scottish-French Life
Scottish Catholics rejected the treaty to continue their catholic partnership with France, hoping to defeat England. Given that Mary’s ancestors had been fighting Henry VIII for decades, her security was always uncertain.
Her mother then sent her to France to ensure their alliance. She was promised to the 3-year-old Francis, the heir to the French throne. Mary’s life began in France in 1548, where she would spend the next 12 years. During her childhood, she and her fiancé, Francis, studied together and bonded well.
Vivacious, beautiful, and admired by everyone, Mary was extremely popular with the French court. She was the epitome of medieval female accomplishments. Finally, at the age of 15, Mary tied the knot with Francis and sealed the Scottish-French alliance in 1558. She also signed a secret document in which she stated if she died childlessly, Scotland and the English titles would pass to France.
In 1559, Francis became King of France and Mary became the Queen. However, King Francis II’s reign would come to a relatively quick end. A brain abscess led to an ear infection that killed him at the age of 16. Mary, the young widow, had to return home to Scotland.
Return of Mary
Mary was a stranger in her native land. She was unaware of the struggles that tore the Scots between Protestants and Catholics. It was now her turn to ascend the throne after spending her entire life under the rule of others. She did not pressure her subjects with her religion or culture but instead tried to serve them.
However, Queen Elizabeth I was not impressed by her cousin’s return. She was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and the only surviving sibling of Mary I of England. She refused to acknowledge Mary as her successor. To have Elizabeth formally name her as the heir presumptive, Mary sent an ambassador to London. Since their relationship was in a tenuous position, Elizabeth blatantly refused to do so.
The Hasty Third Marriage
Mary then turned her focus to finding a new husband as the charismatic Queen of Scots. In 1565, she married her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Their union strengthened the Stuart claim to the English throne. In her view, he was the most attractive man she had ever seen.
However, it soon turned out to be a very overwhelming marriage for Mary. Since Lord Darnley was a catholic, the Protestant nobility was outraged. Having passed the honeymoon stage, Mary saw him as the arrogant, immature, and weak man he was. As each day wore on, their marriage soured further.
It was surprising when Mary gave birth to a son, James, in June of 1566. There were assumptions that her secretary and confidant fathered the child. While suffering as a wife, Mary craved an escape from the marriage. This decision, however, would damage her reputation and jeopardize the legitimacy of her son. Later, to everyone’s surprise, Darnley soon tasted the flavor of death.
While the exact circumstances of his death are unknown, what we do know is in February of 1567, Darnley suffered through an illness. On February 10th, however, there was a shocking event that caused many suspicions. A gunpowder explosion destroyed the house Darnley was staying in.
Subsequently, Darnley was found dead but not in the house. He was discovered half-naked in a nearby orchard, strangled and smothered. Due to Mary’s ties with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell was blamed for the explosions.
While her husband was almost on a deathbed, she was forming a relationship with another man. Her political enemies accused the two of murdering Darnley. Later, Mary and Bothwell married even though he already had a wife.
Legend has it that Marry claimed she was abducted and forced into marriage. Regardless of what happened, the wildly unpopular marriage caused unrest throughout Scotland in 1567. There was an accusation of usurpation against Bothwell from both Protestant and Catholic nobility. He was later jailed in Denmark by King Frederick II, where he eventually went mad and died in 1578.
Meanwhile, Mary was held prisoner at Loch Leven Castle. She spent a year in prison before she managed to escape with help from one of her jailers.
Queens at War
On March 25th, 1568, Mary swapped clothing with a laundress who regularly visited the castle, and the two switched places. Her true identity eventually emerged, and she was re-captured. However, the key to her cell was given to her again on May 2nd, and she finally escaped. Due to a half-sibling rivalry in Scotland, she sought asylum in England.
She had little choice but to approach her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, for protection. What relationship could be purer than that of cousins? As a queen, that is not the case.
As the Catholic heir to the English throne, Mary posed a threat to Elizabeth. Numerous plots against the English monarch emerged, and many appeared to involve her Scottish counterpart. Several conspiracy plots were hatched to overthrow Elizabeth, but none of them proved Mary’s involvement.
The Horrifying Execution
In 1586, the English authorities discovered another plot against Elizabeth. The Babington Plot was discovered by the intercept of a coded letter from the Catholic Anthony Babington. In his letter, he described six potential assassins who would kill Elizabeth. Mary wrote back to him about needing the assassins and asking to meet them. Finally, they had a reason to prosecute Mary.
Mary’s trial began in October of 1586. According to Mary, neither England nor its laws had power over her. Nonetheless, the defenseless Mary was found guilty of treason.
A crowd of hundreds gathered to watch Mary Queen of Scots’ execution on February 8, 1587. According to legends, she dressed in black, wore a veil, and met her end with bravery. To finish the job, it took three blows from the executioner. He then picked up her head and displayed it to the crowd.
Why is Queen Mary a highly respected figure today? This is merely the result of the courage she exhibited during her tragic execution. Although her circumstances forced her to make some horrible decisions, she was a heroic victim in the eyes of many.
What other Queens would you like to read about?