Mary Queen of Scots – Tragic Heroine?

Posted By claire on October 29, 2010

Samantha Morton as Mary Queen of Scots

Samantha Morton as Mary Queen of Scots

On this day in history, 29th October 1586, four days after a commission had found Mary Queen of Scots guilty of conspiring to assassinate Elizabeth I, Parliament met to discuss her fate. It was decided that Elizabeth should be petitioned to execute Mary.

In my previous article on Mary Queen of Scots, “The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots”, I told of how Elizabeth did not sign Mary’s death warrant until the 1st February 1587 and we know that she gave orders for it not to be sent to Fotheringhay until she said so. It is clear that Elizabeth was struggling with taking such action against a fellow queen, an anointed sovereign, and a woman with Tudor blood. The idea of regicide horrified her but her Parliament were calling for action and a strong monarch always acts against those who conspire to dethrone and assassinate them. It surely would have been a sign of weakness if Elizabeth had let Mary go on plotting against her.

It seems from Elizabeth’s actions – signing the death warrant but not sending it, asking Paulet to kill Mary under the Bond of association – that she was trying to deal with Mary without taking any responsibility for what happened. As John Guy says, “She had carefully contrived things so that she would win whatever happened. If Mary was killed under the Bond of Association, Elizabeth could disclaim responsibility. If Cecil covertly sealed the warrant and sent it to Fotheringhay behind her back, she could claim she had been the victim of a court conspiracy.” But we cannot know for sure what was going through Elizabeth’s mind at that time. Elizabeth was caught between a rock and a hard place, as Alison Weir describes:-

“If she signed the warrant she would be setting a precedent for condemning an anointed queen to death, and would also be spilling the blood of her kinswoman. To do this would court the opprobroum of the whole world, and might provoke the Catholic powers to vengeful retribution. Yet, if she showed mercy, Mary would remain the focus of Catholic plotting for the rest of her life, to the great peril of Elizabeth and her kingdom. Elizabeth knew where her duty lay, but she did no want to be responsible for Mary’s death.”1

No wonder she procrastinated! What a decision to have to make and I don’t think anyone can blame her for taking her time, for refusing to bow to Parliamentary pressure and for taking steps to distance herself from what happened in the end. What else could she do?

Mary – Tragic Heroine and Martyr?

Recently, this site has been bombarded with comments (see comments on Free Report page and my article on Mary’s trial) proclaiming Mary Queen of Scots’ innocence, protesting that she was the rightful queen of England, Scotland and France, calling Elizabeth a “Killer queen”, accusing Elizabeth of framing Mary and accusing me of romanticising Elizabeth. They were hard to take seriously when that person also thought that Mary Queen of Scots was the daughter of Mary I (!), but they did make me think about how Mary has been romanticised in the past and seen as a tragic heroine and even a Catholic martyr. Even today, she is proclaimed a martyr, not just by the commenter on this site but also the the New Advent Catholic Encylopedia who say:-

“There can be no question that she died with the charity and magnanimity of a martyr; as also that her execution was due, on the part of her enemies, to hatred of the Faith.”2

and then write of how Pope Benedict XIV would have formally declared her a martyr “if only the charges connected with the names of Darnley and Bothwell could be entirely eliminated”3.

Mary saw herself as a martyr. At her execution, on the 8th February 1587, she wore a crucifix and a black gown and as she prepared herself for her beheading she took off her gown to reveal a bodice and petticoat of scarlet, the colour of martyrdom. In her final moments she was proclaiming that she was a martyr to her faith.

However, whatever Mary thought and whatever message she was sending by her garb, I don’t believe that she was a martyr, well, not in the sense that she meant.

martyr – noun (mär-tər)

  1. a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion
  2. a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle
  3. victim; especially : a great or constant sufferer4

Perhaps she could be seen as a martyr according to definitions 2) and 3), but she did not died for her Catholic faith, she was executed because she plotted to kill the Queen of England. Uh oh, now I’m treading on dangerous ground with those who believe she was framed. Well, I do believe that William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham did all they could to bring down Mary Queen of Scots, but I don’t believe that they framed her. They set a trap and she fell into it. She gave them the evidence that they were looking for and that they needed to convince Elizabeth to get rid of her once and for all.

John Guy, in his book “Mary Queen of Scots: My Heart is My Own” explains Walsingham and Cecil’s roles in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots brilliantly:-

“the plot [Babington plot] was not in itself a ‘projection’ [using agent provocateurs to foment conspiracies that were then conveniently ‘detected’] to frame her – it really existed; but rather than nipping it in the bud, Cecil’s spymaster allowed it to develop so that he could obtain the written evidence to put her on trial for her life”. Walsingham and Cecil let the plot continue so that Mary would ‘hang herself’ by getting involved and she did by replying to Babington who was conspiring to get Elizabeth assassinated by a group of ’six gentlemen’:-

‘The affairs being thus prepared and forces in readiness both without and within the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work taking order, upon the accomplishing of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place, and that all your forces in the same time be on the field to meet me in tarrying for the arrival of the foreign aid, which then must be hastened with all diligence.’ “5

John Guy comments that “Mary’s meaning is clear. She had consented to Elizabeth’s assassination and a foreign invasion. Strictly, she had not specified what the ‘work’ of the six gentlemen was to be, but the letter from Babbington to which she was replying included the graphic passage, ‘For the dispatch of the usurper, from the obedience of whom we are by the excommunication of her made free, there are six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty’s service will undertake that tragical execution.’ When the two letters are read together, Mary’s complicity in the plot was undeniable.”6

Cecil and Walsingham did not frame Mary, they laid a trap and she condemned herself with her own words and actions. She was clearly giving her blessing and her support to Babington’s plot to assassinate Elizabeth. What’s more, Babington confessed and so did Mary’s secretaries.

The Babington Plot was not a one-off, it was not the only time that Mary had conspired against Elizabeth, and as early as 1568 she had approached Philip II to help her with her cause. She also never gave up on her claim to the English throne. Elizabeth spent two decades giving Mary the benefit of the doubt and sympathising with her, yet Mary carried on plotting. I just can’t see Mary as a tragic heroine or martyr and Elizabeth as a cold-blooded killer, however I look at the situation.

What do you think?

Please share your thoughts in comments below – thank you!

Notes and Sources

  1. “Elizabeth, the Queen”, Alison Weir, p375
  2. Mary Queen of Scots, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
  3. Ibid.
  4. Merriam-Webster
  5. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, John Guy, p483.
  6. Ibid.


39 Responses to “Mary Queen of Scots – Tragic Heroine?”

  1. miladyblue says:

    Personally, I think Mary was innocent. She didn’t really have the brains to plan or carry out any kind of complex conspiracy. She didn’t really have the brains to know to stay away from active conspirators, either.

    Before anyone gets on me about the “didn’t really have the brains” comments consider this – I do know she was well educated, and spoke however many languages. But look at how she spent her life, once she left France to take up her duties as Queen of Scotland.

    She was a very ineffectual Queen Regnant – Darnley was unpopular, and her nobles were just about, one and all, against the marriage. She married him anyway, and reaped all of the pains of marrying such a man, not just in terms of her personal misery, but in what it cost her as a monarch. It was well known she wanted to get rid of him, and someone did, though whether that was Bothwell is debatable. Then she gets together with Bothwell, the prime suspect in her unpopular husband’s murder, (whom she pardoned!) is allegedly raped by him, but marries him anyway. Then she is captured, and forced to abdicate in her infant son’s favor.

    That doesn’t sound terribly intelligent.

    Mary then escapes to England, making it known she considered herself the rightful Queen of England, and becomes a “permanent guest” of Elizabeth I. Then she agrees to participate in plot after plot against the royal hostess who was keeping her from possibly being executed by her own nobles.

    Mary was raised in France to be Queen Consort – that is, the wife of a monarch, and she served in such a capacity as wife to Francis II. She was NOT prepared for the realities of being Queen Regnant of Scotland, and she was no match for Elizabeth in terms of intelligence and doing what needed to be done as a true Queen in her own right.

  2. Robert Mylne says:

    Ignorance is no excuse when letter-writing and making seditious overtures – and as for a supposed lack of brain-power, Mary Queen of Scots represents, in my mind, the fulfillment of that old observation, crazy as a fox. Stupidity is one thing, arrogance quite another – and if nothing else, Mary definitely displayed signs of a full-blown superiority complex. My verdict: guilty as charged. And probably mentally imbalanced, to boot. Pity her, perhaps – acquit her, never.

  3. When you look at how masses of people romanticize drug-addicted rock stars, hard-core felons in prison, and any number of other less-than-admirable individuals, it’s no wonder that those with Catholic sympathies, in particular, would turn the self-absorbed, easily swayed, religiously fanatical, and sexually undisciplined Mary Queen of Scots into an icon of romantic illusion — simply because she was executed. When someone has that kind of mythological mindset, no amount of facts will convince him or her. Thanks for the solid, balanced research and writing you provide.

  4. David says:

    Mary should have been treated better for whom she was. Instead of Elilzabeth keeping her here and then there and moved her yet again and all the places were, well shall we say, not up to the norm for her station. Instead she should have had Mary brought to London and of time had one on one conversations with her. She could have put her under house arrest in say, somerset house on the Strand. Maybe the two women could have become better friends and with Mary spending more time with the Queen she would of had less time on her hands listening to others who were crowding her mind with who knows what causing her to think eventually alone their lines of thought. I think Mary was not a very strong person when it came to making opinions. At least not strong enough to really think them out before making them verbal. Many of her action even back in Scotland were sort of on the spur of the moment? I agree with Claire, she was not a martyr….just a confused, spoiled woman, who made a habit of making the wrong decisions. I still believe if the two women had gotten together and spent time together one on one, things would have been different.

  5. Anne Barnhill says:

    It is interesting to speculate about how history might have been different if these two women hat met in the flesh. I think it might have made it even more difficult for Elizabeth to have executed her, especially if Mary worked her famous ‘charm’ on Elizabeth and gave her proper respect. However, from what I’ve read of Mary’s character, she just as easily could have been haughty and arrogant in a personal meeting with Elizabeth and made Elizabeth’s decision easier! As it was, I think Mary had been raised to think of herself as royal and all that implies. She probably felt she had a better claim than Elizabeth, given Elizabeth’s notorious mother and the fact that Elizabeth was legally a bastard. I don’t believe Mary would ever have given up on trying to take Elizabeth’s throne. She wanted a queenship, thought she deserved one and was willing to take her chances. Her romantic behavior shows she was quite the risk-taker so why not in politics, too. I think she was guilty and her conintued plotting left Elizabeth little choice.

  6. Candice says:

    Jane Dunn wrote a great comparitive book on Elizabeth and Mary. Even after reading it, my opinion of Mary did not change. I find her frivolous, arrogant, and out of touch with the social and religious changes happening in Scotland. While Elizabeth can be faulted for many things during her reign, executing Mary is not one of them. Mary would never have stopped trying to upsurp Elizabeth’s throne. Elizabeth of all people should know the dangers associated with potential rival claimants to the throne a la her own grandfather.
    I’ve never seen the lure or charm of Mary, or any of the Staurts of that matter. Mary is romaticizied for how her life ended, rather than based upon a serious examination of the facts. Yes, it is sad for anyone’s life to end in bloodshed, but that is my 21st century mentality speaking. I try to position my opinion of figures in the confines of their historical era, not based upon my own viserceral reactions to events.

  7. Sarah Rooke says:

    I agree with Claire here

    The penalty for treason in Tudor times was beheading if you were of noble birth – Mary would have known this

    It is tragic and horrific that she suffered though in her final moments, no wonder Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn requested to be dispatached by a sword, much quicker

  8. Karen says:

    As a born again Christian myself, I see Mary’s death as tragic and unnecessary. While she did plot against Elizabeth more than once, and she was deserving of her imprisonment, she did not succeed in murdering Elizabeth so did not deserve the death penalty. I understand the Machiavellian* principles of governing of that day, but those principles were in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ and the Bible.

    If Elizabeth had followed the guidelines of the Bible she would have been protected by God, I believe. Elizabeth was trying to calm her country down regarding these murderous persecutions for one’s faith and I respect her for that. But she should have stayed with it. She should have continued to keep Mary under lock and key for her crimes and sought God’s protection while doing His will and not executing her.

    Mary, on the other hand, was being used by others to gain control over England. She, too should have followed her own faith. The Christ of the Bible proclaimed the same teachings in the Catholic faith as He did in the Protestant faith. She was guilty of plotting against the Queen of England … which was also in opposition to the Bible which states clearly that those in government are placed there by God and we should be submissive to their authority. (Of course, not forgetting that God’s authority is higher than any earthly authority.)

    Both were guilty of breaking Biblical principles however, I favor Elizabeth in that she did try to spare Mary. I wonder what would have happened if Mary had tried to really be a loyal subject to Elizabeth? How might the story be different as well as the ending? The Catholic faction might still have continued to plot and scheme against Elizabeth and if they succeeded in assassinating would they have forced Mary to the throne? Would God have protected Elizabeth because she stood against the powers of the day and stood up for God’s Word? I believe He would have. Just as I believe He did save England from the Spanish Armada. The light of the Reformation was going to succeed because it was driven by God.

    *Definition of Machiavellian “Attempting to achieve their goals by cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous methods; Related to the philosophical system of Niccolò Machiavelli.”

  9. Ceri C says:

    I’ve never understood the romaticising of Mary Queen of Scots. From the facts, it’s an inescapable conclusion that to judge the best she was an incredibly foolish woman and to judge the worst an adulteress and a murderess.
    I agree with Candice that Jane Dunn’s book is excellent. It really demonstrates how Mary’s privileged and pampered upbringing prepared her for nothing but the life of a queen consort, whereas Elizabeth’s struggle for survival was the perfect training for a queen regnant.
    I don’t think Elizabeth ever dared bring Mary to the south where she would have become a magnet for plotters and malcontents. She may have remembered her own journey from London to house arrest at Woodstock where all the common people took her to their hearts and brought her flowers and gifts. She could not have allowed Mary to do anything similar. Nor would she have wanted to take her court into Mary’s orbit in the north.
    I don’t think she had much choice about the execution. There was nothing else she could have done.

  10. Lisa Davis says:

    I can understand how Mary could drive anyone nuts. She returns to Scotland and makes one bad decision after another, until finally she has to leave the country. And then she plots with others to try to take Elizabeth’s crown. Certainly not the behavior of a guest. Too bad she couldn’t be shipped off to America! I don’t think Elizabeth had any choice but to get rid of her. Who wants to keep a constant threat around?

  11. Fiz says:

    Lisa and Ceri, I totally agree! Karen, I think most of us here are adult enough to understand the meaning of the word Machiavellian.

  12. TinaII2None says:

    I have tried and tried to like Mary Queen of Scots, particularly after reading Antonia Fraser’s biography years ago, and even tried to “enjoy” her as tragic romantic figure on seeing such actresses as Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave play her. I find I cannot, no matter how many angles I attempt when studying her life. (Another reason why I am putting Jane Dunn’s book on my Amazon wish list). A long time ago, I did my own comparisons of the lives of these two women: Elizabeth as the daughter of a woman called The Great Whore and a King some called ‘the English Nero,’ and considered a bastard by a good deal of Europe; and Mary, born Queen of Scots when she was what? Hours? Days old? Raised in the French court to be a perfect Queen Consort; I doubt a day went by when she was not told she was beautiful, a princess among princesses, superior, and the rightful Catholic heiress to the English throne which had been usurped by her heretical cousin. She was a Queen by inheritance; a Dauphine by marriage. And then her “perfect” life came crashing down around her, and I’m not sure when she finally woke up to reality. Was it when pregnant Mary saw her secretary murdered in front of her? When she fled for her life after that horrific crime? Or when she abdicated her throne in favor of her son? When she realized that Darnley wasn’t what she thought he was?

    I’ve heard she could be kind (such as to her ladies, the Four Maries); she had that unexplainable charm; she may even have had a tinge of courage to her. But for the most part, I find her foolish, arrogant and a believer in her own over-hyped publicity. While I realize that Cecil and Walsingham laid the groundwork for her destruction, Mary voluntarily stepped into it through her desire to become Queen of England and to overthrow Elizabeth. What the two ministers did is what we today would call a sting operation, something to allow a criminal with intent to commit a crime to believe they are participating in reality, while instead, the evidence is being built against them when the time is right. All Mary needed to do was NOT respond to Babbington’s letters and kept herself out of it as much as she could (much as Elizabeth did when contacted by someone like Wyatt), perhaps realizing that a trap was being set or that — whatever her feelings — she shouldn’t commit it to paper. But she was so eager in bringing Elizabeth down, she obviously didn’t think…and we all know the rest.

    Do I think had she been given the chance, she would have been as merciful to her cousin as Elizabeth had been to her for years? I doubt it. So while I, myself, am a Christian, I also believe in survival, and if an enemy of mine — one for whom I have shown some form of pity instead of ridding myself of them when they first appeared — continues to secretly plot or is the center of plots, in the end, I may not have much choice than to execute her. I also understand why Elizabeth hesitated as long as she did — she would be setting precedent executing a fellow Queen, however it was regrettably something that would have needed to be done at some point. But no, I’ve never seen her as a romantic tragic figure and martyr for the Catholic faith.

    Thanks for the article Claire.
    PS: by the way Lisa Davis 😀 I wouldn’t want her in America either, in any century LOL

  13. Impish_Impulse says:

    Bravo, Tina! Very well put.

  14. Christina says:

    Elizabeth did everything possible to allow freedom of worship in England. She would never persecute Catholics until the Pope issued her excommunication, basically exhorting Catholics to kill her with the guarantee of pardon for the crime and a free ticket to heaven (hmm…how times seldom change!).

    Mary, to my mind, was a pawn in the hands of ministers and hadn’t the intellectual brilliance to play the game being played by those amazingly intriguing Renaissance minds around her. She was a martyr in the third depiction of the word because she viewed herself as a victim from the start – small wonder that she became a victim. Elizabeth was clear-thinking and astute. She refused to be a victim or martyr. Mary ‘played her’ and lost.

    It had very little to do with religion (in the sense of spirituality) and everything to do with power. Elizabeth had the best interests of her country at heart. Mary had the best interests of herself at heart…

  15. Sharon says:

    Tina, I’m with you. Masterfully said.

  16. TinaII2None says:

    Thanks Impish_Impulse and Sharon — that rant came after overtime at work and not a lot of sleep LOL so I’m glad it made sense.

  17. Lisa Davis says:

    Tinall2None, I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of sending Mary to America – can you imagine her living in a colony and having to do actual work? I’ll bet the other colonists would have asked the indians to take her as a hostage!

  18. Eliza M.L. says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with the Queen of Scots. I believe that she was a woman who was ambitious and greedy, but didn’t have the street smarts to pursue either trait wisely.

  19. shtove says:

    No doubt MQS was guilty, but she did go to her death with spirit.

    The bigger question is Elizabeth’s authority to sign the warrant of execution. She had none, I have no doubt about that, but results trump justice when it comes to politics.

    The deception over the signing of the warrant is the most revealing thing, because it put at risk those who had risked everything for Elizabeth – vicious.

  20. MadameDeMerteuil says:

    From Elizabeth’s accession onwards, Mary Stuart openly declared herself the real queen of England. The reason here is that Mary was a catholic and therefore subscribed to the idea that Elizabeth was the result of a liaison with a concubine, not a legal marriage. If such had been the case, Elizabeth would have been excluded from the succession and Mary, being next in line, would have had the throne.
    The fact that Mary believed she should have had the crown is the very basis of what some people call Elizabeth’s ‘rivalry’ with her.
    In my eyes, Mary’s understanding of the situation is simply erroneous. The only thing she should have thought about was that Elizabeth was in the succession as per Henry VIII’s will. Elizabeth was, therefore, Queen of England by law.
    And then, there are the fact of real life: Elizabeth WAS on the throne, realistically Mary would have to live with that, so declaring she was the only real Queen of England as early as 1559 was starting a cold war abd putting oneself in a very precarious situation.
    Mary would never leanr from that first major political blunder. She would persist making mistake after mistake in hope to turn her unrealistic aspirations into reality.
    She did plot against Elizabeth (and more than once) and, I agree with john Guy, Mary gave tacit consent to Babington’s murderous plans.
    Her back against the wall, Mary came up with her one and only good political move: she would from then on project the image of a martyr. A brilliant PR coup, this ensured Mary’s posthumous reputation as victim and religious icon.
    The catholic powers in Europe in the 1580s reprised and amplified the myth, which provided them with the ideal story to defend their cause. Even now, Mary is a favourite figure among catholics.
    Long gone are the criticisms about her marriages to Darnley and Bothwell, the suspicions of her involvement in Darnley’s murder and other accusations.

    I do not believe that Mary was innocent nor a martyr. She wasn’t a ‘villainess’ either. Elizabeth was not a ‘killer queen’ and she wasn’t without fault. Thinking of them in terms of rivalry stems from a complete lack of understanding of history. Both women were queens, involved in defending what they stood for and / or were responsible for. Their worlds were not defined by personal likes / dislikes but by politics. Elizabeth was better at politics than Mary. But both had the same obligation to think politically. That is why they were both preocupied of being good political symbols. Elizabeth created a myth around herself by inspiring artists and writers to make her into Gloriana, during her lifetime but, also, for posterity. Mary did the same at her trial: she manipulated her image for posterity.
    In posterity at least, Elizabeth and Mary have a lot in common: due to both women’s PR, we have problems peeling off the divine masks to reveal the real ladies underneath. Our appreciation of their actions is clouded by the myths they developed.

  21. Clinton says:

    I have really enjoyed reading the comments here, as well as the excellent article. As a Catholic, I sympathise with Mary as a fellow religious; as a political scientist, I sympathise with Elizabeth. One cannot help but add: if Mary had been a Protestant, would she have been executed? Probably not; all manner of effort would have been made to deal with her differently. And is it not simply a terrible crime for one anointed monarch to order the execution of another anointed monarch? Simply horrendous!

  22. robert says:

    The great irony of Mary’s life and death is that had she been allowed to live and out live Elizabeth , she would have been curtainly bypassed by the English Parliament for the Crown and the Stuart line in England would have never been ,by her death it virtually assured the Stuart’s of the Crown of England ( James V1 being a Protestant to boot !) .So maybe she WAS a martyr..but not in the the religous sense , her supporters today should be content with that , in the end it was HER son who ” inherited the earth ”
    Mary did conspire against Elizabeth but didn’t Elizabeth do the same against Queen Mary 1 in the Wyatt Revolt ,the tragedy of Mary’s life is not that she came to a ” sticky end ” it’s that she took so many people and the catholic cause with her ,this and the Gunpowder plot put pay to the old faith in England .

  23. Annebell says:

    What you are missing is that they have found that the so called letters were in french and interriptted by those who seek to comdem her.The letters npersented to Elizabeth where not in Mary hand. From what I have read they now say that the letter were interriptted to make it sound like she was conspirising. Mary NEVER waned the the English throne for herself, It was her uncles who had declaired her Queen of England and pushed her to persure the English throne. She did not want England she just wanted Scoland back. Yes She had ruled with her heart more then her brains, But I do beleive that the Scottish parlerment had Darnly killed and sought a way to get a rif of both Bothwell and her in 1 stroke so they could rule Scotland under their religin. All Mary wanted was the saftey that was promised to her so she could get her son and country back. Scotland not England. Cecil was so scared that Mary would raise up the English Cathloc that he did everything he could to murder Mary in which he did. If Elizabeth would have meet with her instead of listing to Cecil things would have been different.
    She was imprisioned as soon as she went to England when she promised help so she probly did call Elizabeth a few choice words and plotted to escape. But because she was Cathloc she was imprisioned, then beheaded without a proper trial. So in a way she was a Maytr.

  24. Claire says:

    We’ll have to agree to disagree, particularly on the point that Mary did/did not want the throne. However, Mary had a proper trial, she was not beheaded without a proper trial. She was not attainted, she had a full and detailed trial, quite long and drawn out, where evidence was presented and examined – see Even if you discount the letters, her secretaries confessed. It was nothing to do with her being Catholic and all to do with her being involved in plots against Elizabeth.

  25. Cynthia Layne says:

    I don’t see how Mary could be described as someone who “carried on plotting”. There was no evidence that Cecil could find until after many years of long imprisonment. Mary was held prisoner by Elizabeth without legal cause for all those years. How many of us could withstand unjust confinement for years without finally trying something, anything, to be free again? Judicial murder? Some of us would say “yes”.

  26. Hannah Chiu says:

    I think Mary’s biggest mistake was claiming herself as Queen of England when she was just ousted out of Scotland, with no hope to return, if only by aide of her cousin, the Queen of England. She must have realized that people who were against the reigning monarch had the habit plotting against the king or queen usually supported a claimant to the throne, like Elizabeth for example, except she had the good sense to deny all culpability to the plots and protest her innocence. Mary may have done that but it just seems to me that she lack any good sense, after all, marrying two people who were vastly unpopular, her third husband having been thought to be guilty of murdering her second husband.

  27. redroxfirefox says:

    mary Queen of Scots is an interesting character, but i think it was the unfortunate series of events and her inabiltity to make good desicisions that ultimately lead to her death. she was not the politician Elizabeth was and therefore possible could not comprehend the consequences of her actions. mary was used by her husbands (not the first one) and could not control the damage they did unfortunately this affected her reputation. It really was an unfortunate series of events that lead to her execution.

  28. Kerry says:

    I have to agree with Cynthia. Mary fled to England for help and instead of refuge was imprisoned for decades, never to see her son nor her cousin Elizabeth. Tossed from prison to prison she had every right to be angry and resentful. Surely normal response to captivity would be to want release?

    I think from her birth Mary was surrounded by relatives and court officials who advised, taught and influenced her badly, possibly to enhance their own positions rather than Mary’s. She could only make decisions on what she was taught and told.

    Right from her arrival in Scotland she was never given the support her position deserved, particularly from her brother who was rather powerful.

    I tend to think she was poorly served all her life.

  29. Darya says:

    I have greatly enjoyed this thread,very interesting! So even Pope Benedict XIV agreed that her decisions concerning Darnley and Bothwell were disasters! Regardless of whether she was the “victim” or not of these two men, her subsequent decisions were impulsive. Nor was she was unable to control her nobles. Had she supported Elizabeth more before and after she fled to England (in fear of her life!) things would have been much different, but Mary could not resist an intrigue and she was outsmarted by Walsingham. Again, had she been able to control her impulses, she would have thought it through and realized she was in his trap.

  30. Martina says:

    I guess it really depends on if you believe that Anne Boleyn was legally married to Henry vIII or not. If you believe that until Catherine of Aragon’s death she was his wife and queen per the fact that the pope did not approve of the divorce which was required at the time then Anne Boleyn was never queen and Elizabethan I wasn’t the rightful queen and there for Mary queen of Scott’s did not try to kill a queen she tried to take what was rightfully hers. And Elizabeth murdered the queen when executing Mary Queen of Scotts. but if you believe like most people Anne Boleyn was his wife then Elizabeth did what the law required of her at the time and executed a criminal.

  31. Lori F. says:

    Thanks for the article and the opportunity to respond, Claire. It seems to me that the point isn’t what type of women they were; that seems too simplified and black & white. It seems much more complicated than that- which shows in how passionate people are today about these women and the outcome of events so long ago.

    We know the obvious that Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth was the “Protestant hope”. But the men behind Elizabeth’s throne were largely fundamental protestants, severely afraid of Mary and what her reign might bring to them. They had been lucky enough to live through Mary 1 and didn’t want to do that again. While none of them appreciated a female monarch it appears to be a case of “the devil you know”. Hence it had a covert taste of religious martyrdom, an element that Mary played so well in a final act of payback. But we cannot ignore that it was there in the actions of the men of Elizabeth’s court to bring about this end whatever means necessary to save their own necks. I think history shows that both women were played.

    I think that Cecil and Walsingham, along with the rest of her counsel played to Elizabeth’s fears of overthrow & death and the change in “her” country. she had lived a life of fear and constant religious change. The tightrope was difficult and any slip would mean death. Elizabeth played that game all her life and would be too affected by it. I think they orchestrated the plot so that a desperate Mary would take the bait to escape and be the Queen she knew herself to be somewhere. She also knew that she was the heir to the English throne according to all terms of the day. She knew she was being treated very badly for such a position and learned she could not rely on the truth of Elizabeth’s letters. The men made certain that both Queens would never meet and created the situation. Mary was willing to do anything to obtain her freedom. After all, she WAS an anointed Queen and raised to believe in that divine right. A plot was the best way to remove her as a threat.

    Ultimately neither woman was ready to go to this tragic end, but how many of us would be ready to agree to continued confinement, even though it was safe. And who in their right mind would willingly agree to go against their most basic beliefs to kill a fellow monarch (considering the promotion of the divine right) without a push, nudge or continued bombardment by outside trusted sources. It is said that Elizabeth was a nervous wreck and forever after regretted her bowing to the pressure from her advisors. Mary accepted the inevitable and made her last statement by taking the religious road, a very powerful tool of the time, to her death. She was most calm and regal at the end and even her enemies were moved by her actions. Elizabeth knew that she had put her neck in an international noose and lashed out at the men around her for it’s cause.

    And so we come to the present day. Both women have followers who will defend each of their actions. That doesn’t mean that there were any winners or losers. Both women won and lost. The men who plagued both women kept their lives and property, but were never quite trusted the same way again by Elizabeth and were overshadowed by Mary’s death. I’m sure that they thought they had eliminated a threat and if given a 2nd chance, would do the same thing. They were not thinking of how history would perceive them, but both women were very aware of how their legacy would be reflected.

    The whole episode is a sad and shameful note in history and we should pay homage to both women for their sacrifices and lessons that they have taught us.

  32. Thank you for your extensive research, Claire. Based upon my own research, I do believe Mary can be considered a martyr of the Catholic faith. First of all, Elizabeth should not have been holding Mary prisoner all of those years. As much as I admire Elizabeth, she had no legal right to keep Mary captive. She did so for several reasons, one of which was that Mary was a Catholic and a contender for the throne of England. Mary was a rallying point for the Catholics of the realm who were being persecuted by Elizabeth. Secondly, Mary did not plot to kill Elizabeth; she plotted to *escape* which as the prisoner of a foreign power she had every right to do. Why is it so wrong for Mary to plot against Elizabeth when Elizabeth was holding her as a prisoner? Thirdly, Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir demonstrate that Mary played no part in Darnley’s murder and she married Bothwell unwillingly, after he raped her. Elizabeth should have helped Mary instead of having her imprisoned. Fourthly, Mary was told by one of the gentlemen escorting her to the scaffold that her death would mean that Protestantism would live, whereas if she lived it might mean Protestantism would die. It was THAT statement (which I paraphrase) which told Mary that she was indeed dying because she was a Catholic and a Catholic queen.

  33. I will add that Elizabeth had no legal right to have Mary put on trial. English law adamantly insisted on a trial by one’s peers. Mary was an anointed Queen and had no peer but Elizabeth, and Elizabeth had no right to try a foreign head of state. Furthermore, Mary was not given counsel and she was in a foreign land where the customs and proceedings were strange to her. She was put at a distinct disadvantage during her trial, which had the air of a kangaroo court and contravened the laws of the kingdom.

  34. Shosana says:

    Mary was raised in France to be the wife and Queen of the King of France. Once Francis died her reason for existence ended and I imagine she was flung into a state of confusion. Not having training to rule a country alone, of course, she made many mistakes and in an effort to show her subjects she would rule, she made many more including her marriage to Darnley. She was saying, in effect, “I am Queen and I will make the decision as to whom I shall marry regardless of my subjects desires.” That she was also a Catholic ruler of a Protestant country did not help her image with her subjects; I would think most assumed that once enthroned in Scotland she would see the “errors” of her religion and convert to the national religion. If she had done that, much would have been different; her strong faith prevented her from living a lie and when her Lords determined she would never change nor did she have the knowledge needed to rule effectively, her days were numbered. Her biggest mistake was thinking she could enter England without permission and expect help from Elizabeth. Truthfully, the two countries were not extremely friendly to one another and had not been for years. It was only through careful negotiations that peace was kept; there were many hard feeling between the countries. Her Lords wanted Mary gone and Elizabeth wanted her off the throne so of course, her entry into England just handed them the perfect opportunity to put her away. Her execution was for plotting Elizabeth’s death and planning to usurp the throne; there was no other way to ensure there would be no more plots. If she had lived and continued to plot Elizabeth’s death; at some point someone might have succeeded in assassinating Elizabeth. Death was the only way to insure rebels would not continue to try to find ways to free her and put her on the throne. It did make her a martyr in many eyes because her faith and because it was the only weapon the Catholic faction had to continue to try to discredit Elizabeth and to persuade people to come back to the Catholic faith.

    Mary was just not equipped with the education and knowledge to be a ruler of a country that frankly, did not want her because of her religion. She was trained to be a wife and a queen; to dance at balls and support her husband/King as she provided heirs. If Francis had lived, I have no doubt that she might never have set foot in Scotland again and would have been happy to be the center of attention at the French court.

  35. robert says:

    All that can be levelled against the personage of Mary Stuart, dowager Queen of France and Queen of Scotland is that she gave tacit support to a scheme that would have resulted in her freedom. This is entirely understandable considering that she has been unlawfully held against her will for nineteen years. Her entire motivation was not for the assassination of Elizabeth but to gain her freedom which had been denied her. As she stated at her trial, without her papers, without recourse to evidence, without counsel and essentially without due process, she could not be held accountable for the actions of certain unruly men. If they wanted to assassinate Elizabeth it was their affair, she was essentially concerned with her freedom.

    The comments above are truly tragic and betray a real lack of understanding. She was in fact well received in Scotland but made some unfortunate choices, especially with regard to her second husband which earned the enmity of certain nobles. It was absolutely nothing to do with ignorance or an inability to rule as some of the above have ludicrously asserted ironically betraying their own ignorance in the process That she was after the death of her first husband a ‘without reason for existence’, is beneath any rational persons dignity to furnish with rebuke. She was a dowager Queen of France and a Queen of Scotland, of Royal descent. May she rest in peace.

  36. SashaF says:

    I’m just finishing reading “The True Life of Mary Stuart Queen of Scots” by John Guy, and I have to say, I’m pretty shocked to read the comments on this website as they don’t match the depiction of Mary in the book at all.

  37. Bilbo says:

    None of this changes the fact that Mary Queen of Scots was the rightful heir. Elizabeth was and is the usurper, if you want to speak of legalese.

  38. Claire says:

    How was Elizabeth a usurper?

  39. Neil says:

    Mary Queen of Scots was not the legal heir of May I of England because at that time the law of England prohibited an alien from inheriting the throne. Mary was born in Scotland and was therefore an alien. Parliament had to change this law to allow James VI to become King of England. If you believe Elizabeth was barred from inheriting the throne then the heir of Mary I was Lady Margaret Douglas [ daughter of Margaret Tudor and aunt of Mary Queen of Scots, mother of Darnley and born in England]. Alternatively if you believe the will of King Henry VIII determined the line of succesion then Elizabeth’s heir was Lady Katherine Grey [younger sister of Lady Jane Grey].

Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.