February was a very bad month in the life of one of Britain’s most charismatic and controversial monarchs: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, Dowager Queen of France and, in 16th-century Catholic eyes, the heir to ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor and rightful Queen of England.
Mary’s claim to the throne came via her descent from Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and great-niece of Henry VIII. The latter had barred the Stuarts from the succession in a characteristic fit of rage, having been outmanoeuvred in the dynastic marriage stakes when her mother Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, had married the young queen to the French dauphin instead of to Henry’s son Prince Edward. Nonetheless, this lineal descent from the founder of the Tudor dynasty made Mary a powerful threat to Elizabeth I, (who was widely viewed as illegitimate), and to the Protestant Reformation – a threat made more ominous by her power-hungry Guise family, who proclaimed her Queen of England on Mary Tudor’s death. Unsurprisingly, such dangerous presumption perpetually soured relations with Elizabeth and her chief adviser William Cecil; and while the widowed Mary was prepared to relinquish her immediate claim when she returned from France in 1561 to rule her Scottish kingdom, her determination to be recognised as heir-apparent was a constant thorn in her sister-queen’s side.
Comparisons between these two prodigies, Queens-Regnant in a male-dominated world, sharing the same small land-mass separated only by a lawless and disputed border, are usually made to Mary’s detriment. Modern commentators represent Elizabeth as coolly rational, governing from the head not the heart – whereas contemporaries saw her as irresponsible and unnatural, refusing to be a proper woman by marrying and breeding legitimate heirs to settle the succession; and her much-vaunted statesmanship consisted largely of prevarication and wrong-footing Parliament and foreign ambassadors alike by repeatedly changing her mind; the only wonder is that so many people fell for the same game for so long. Mary, on the other hand, was more amenable to male guidance; she had also done her marital duty once and was willing to do it again, if only a suitable husband could be found.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s all too easy to criticise her subsequent choice of Henry, Lord Darnley, son of the Earl of Lennox, a tall, slim, handsome youth with whom she became infatuated in summer 1565, and who proved to be a disaster in every respect (except for his crucial ability to sire a son); however, from Mary’s viewpoint, he was a sound dynastic prospect whose royal Tudor blood, as a descendant of Margaret Tudor by her second marriage to the Earl of Angus, could only bolster her own claim to the English crown. Alas, the spoilt, syphilitic, drunken Darnley was hopelessly out of his depth in the murky sea of Scottish clan politics; and after alienating almost the entire nobility, was done to death in the early hours of Monday, 10th February 1567. As assassination plots go, this one could hardly have been more inept or less discreet; Darnley was supposed to die when his lodgings were razed to the ground by a massive explosion of gunpowder, but the assassins made so much noise that they woke him and he escaped through a first-floor window, only to be caught and strangled in a nearby garden.
The regicide became the scandal of Britain and Europe, a public relations disaster which, even if Mary was entirely innocent of complicity, severely undermined her authority and reputation. She then made matters worse by failing to observe the proper period of mourning, burying her late husband at night without the ceremony due a king-consort, and giving away his prize possessions to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell – one of her most stalwart supporters, but also a prime mover in the assassination plot! Three months later, she sealed her fate by marrying the Earl, precipitating a revolt which ended in their defeat, Bothwell’s flight, (he fetched up in Norway, where he spent 12 years as a state prisoner until his death in 1578), and Mary’s imprisonment and forced abdication in favour of her infant son, James. Her escape and attempt to re-take her throne the following year having failed, she fled to England to throw herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy – a decision which resulted in her spending the rest of her life under house arrest in castles and manors of varying degrees of comfort and security until, in 1586, she was found guilty of conspiring to assassinate the queen and seize the English throne.
Typically, Elizabeth dickered over signing the death-warrant and thereby setting the extremely frightening precedent of having an anointed lawful monarch put to death; but she finally succumbed to her ministers’ relentless pressure, and Mary, Queen of Scots was duly beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8th, 1587. It was a sad, gruesome end for a woman arguably more sinned against than sinning, a victim of the self-interested ambition of the men in her life – so spare her a thought on this day, the 429th anniversary of her execution.