Mary, the only surviving legitimate child of James V of Scotland, was six days old when her father died and she acceded to the throne. She spent most of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents.
King Henry VIII of England took the opportunity of the regency to propose marriage between Mary and his own son and heir, Edward, hoping for a union of Scotland and England. On 1 July 1543, when Mary was six months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which promised that at the age of ten Mary would marry Edward and move to England, where Henry could control her movements. The treaty provided that the two countries would remain legally separate and that if the couple should fail to have children the temporary union would dissolve. However, Cardinal Beaton rose to power again and began to push a pro-Catholic pro-French agenda, which angered Henry, who wanted to break the Scottish alliance with France.
In 1558, she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. He ascended the French throne as King Francis II in 1559, and Mary briefly became queen consort of France, until his death in December 1560.
In the meantime, Mary I of England, was succeeded by her only surviving sibling, Elizabeth I. Under the Third Succession Act, passed in 1543 by the Parliament of England, Elizabeth was recognised as her sister’s heir, and Henry VIII’s last will and testament had excluded the Stuarts from succeeding to the English throne. Yet, in the eyes of many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate, and Mary Stuart, as the senior descendant of Henry VIII’s elder sister, was the rightful queen of England.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed by Mary’s representatives on 6 July 1560, France and England undertook to withdraw troops from Scotland and France recognised Elizabeth’s right to rule England. However, Mary, still in France and grieving for her mother, refused to ratify the treaty.
King Francis II died on 5 December 1560, and Mary was grief-stricken. Her mother-in-law, Catherine de’ Medici, became regent for the late king’s ten-year-old brother Charles IX, who inherited the French throne. Mary returned to Scotland nine months later, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561. Having lived in France since the age of five, Mary had little direct experience of the dangerous and complex political situation in Scotland. As a devout Catholic, she was regarded with suspicion by many of her subjects, as well as by the Queen of England.
Four years after her return to Scotland, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, but their union was unhappy. In February 1567, his residence was destroyed by an explosion, and Darnley was found murdered in the garden.
James Hepburn, was generally believed to have orchestrated Darnley’s death, but he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567, and the following month he married Mary. Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in favour of James VI, her one-year-old son by Darnley. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, she fled southwards seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I, but Elizabeth had her confined in various castles and manor houses in the interior of England. After eighteen years in custody, Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth in 1586. She was beheaded the following year.