Mary, Queen of Scots (8 December 1542 – 8 February 1587), was Queen of Scotland from 1542 until her abdication in 1567. She was found guilty of plotting to assassinate her rival and cousin Elizabeth I and sentenced to death by beheading.
Mary was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise. She inherited the throne when she was six years old after his father’s death. In 1548 Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward of England. However, as England had separated from the Catholic Church, Scottish Catholics objected to this idea and the match was annulled. As a result, England attacked Scotland in raids that became known as “The Rough Wooing”. Soon afterwards, Mary was sent to France and betrothed to Francis, the Dauphin of France. The two got married in 1558, and Mary became queen consort of France until he died in 1560.
In 1561, Mary returned to Scotland, where she encountered an agitated religious and political climate since prominent Scots had managed to change the official religion from Catholicism to Protestantism. As a Roman Catholic raised in France, Mary was perceived as an outsider and her authority was put into question. Still, she succeeded in creating an atmosphere of religious tolerance.
In 1565, Mary married her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, with whom he had a son, James. Two years later, Lord Darnley died in mysterious circumstances. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was initially accused of plotting to murder him, but he was acquitted of the charge and married Mary in May 1567. Following these events, the Scottish nobility rose against her and forced her to abdicate in favour of her son.
Mary then fled to England seeking her cousin Elizabeth I’s support. However, instead of helping her, Elizabeth imprisoned her. She knew that, as the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, Mary had a strong claim to the English throne. Moreover, many Roman Catholics did not recognize the validity of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, and considered her rule illegitimate. To avoid the threat, she kept Mary in captivity for 18 years. In the meanwhile, English Catholics orchestrated a plot to get Mary onto the throne by assassinating Elizabeth. In 1586, the queen’s spymaster discovered the correspondence between Mary and one of the plotters and she was accused of treason.
It took several months for Elizabeth to sign the death warrant, as she knew that doing so would sanction the death of an anointed queen, possibly provoke an attack by other monarchs and set a dangerous precedent. Eventually, her councillors convinced her that Mary’s death was essential for her safety and got her to sign the document on February 1st 1587.
Mary’s execution took place in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587. Firstly, the executioner knelt before Mary and asked for her forgiveness, since it was customary to do so. Mary pardoned him and turned to her servants to remove her outer garments, revealing a crimson brown gown, the liturgical colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church. She was then blindfolded, put her neck on a cushion and pronounced her last words in Latin “into your hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit”.
It took two strikes to behead Mary, as the first blow missed her neck. Afterwards, the executioner held her head and declared “God save the Queen”. At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand turned out to be a wig and the head fell to the ground. Then, according to eyewitnesses, a small dog owned by Mary emerged from hiding among her skirts. Finally, all of her clothing and objects touched by her blood were burnt. Elizabeth refused Mary’s request to be buried in France and instead buried her at Peterborough Cathedral in July 1587. Her body was exhumed in 1612 when her son, King James VI and I, ordered that she be reinterred in Westminster Abbey.
Even more than four hundred years after her reign, Mary is perhaps the most well-known figure in Scottish royal history. Her life and the circumstances of her death established her in popular culture as a romanticised historical character. Still, from a historical perspective, her execution set a legal precedent since no other monarch had been put to death by the state.
Nevertheless, her most important legacy resulted from the birth of her son, James, who became James I of England and VI of Scotland after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. James made it possible for the Stuart line to continue, and for Scotland, Ireland and England to unite thanks to the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
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