Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton

The Tragedy of a Queen

The lakes in Scotland are called lochs, with one exception, and that is the Lake of Menteith, not far from the famous Trossachs. There are some islands on this lake, and on one of them, called Inchmahome, which means the Island of Rest, there are the ruins of a monastery. Many, many years ago—to be exact, in 1547—a little girl of five, called Mary, ran about and played on this island, beneath the chestnuts where the rooks cawed and quarreled, and built their nests. In the early spring, when the snow-drops pushed up their little white buds through the soil, she was the first to see them, and when the wild daffodils dotted the ground under the trees she it was who gathered them in handfuls, and no one stopped her, for she was the Queen of Scotland.

The monastery was not a ruin then, but a substantial, well-built house, inhabited by grave monks, who, as they paced about in their long robes, could not resist a smile at the tiny child so quaintly and stiffly dressed, who had, nevertheless, even then that winsome charm which was to bind so many to her throughout her life. Mary had come into the world at Linlithgow Palace, while her father, King James V., lay dying at Falkland Palace, where, you remember, the Duke of Rothesay was murdered. Mary's mother was a Frenchwoman, called Mary of Guise, and she had brought to Scotland many French customs, while much of the architecture of the palaces built about this time shows that French styles had been adopted. Queen Mary had had two sons, who had died one after the other as mere babies before little Mary was born. It was a sad blow, therefore, when the next baby turned out to be a girl. The King, hearing of it, said sadly the crown of Scotland "came with a lass, and will go with a lass," meaning that it had come to his family of Stuart through Marjory, Bruce's daughter. He died a few days later, so Mary had been a Queen ever since she was a week old.

When she ran about on Inchmahome she had many attendants, and also for playmates four little girls of noble blood, all bearing the name of Mary too. They were Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Livingstone, and Mary Fleming, and they remained with her throughout her girlhood and much of her troubled life.

It was the custom at that time to betroth children to be married very young, and after only a year on the quiet island Queen Mary was sent over to France as the promised bride of the French King's eldest son, the Dauphin Francis, who was a delicate little boy, a year younger than herself. This project was favored by the Queen-Mother, who was French herself, and was now ruling in Scotland for her daughter. Only ten years later, when Mary and Francis were still mere children, they were married, and two years after the boy-husband, who had been King Francis II. for a year, died. So that at eighteen Queen Mary was a widow; she had had a strange and eventful life even at that early age, but she had much more yet to go through. Her mother had died in the same year as Francis, and so Mary determined to go back to Scotland, and begin to rule on her own account.

She first applied to Queen Elizabeth, then reigning in England, for a safe-conduct or passport, so that she might not be captured whilst on her way. This Elizabeth refused. Perhaps it was natural enough that she should, for Mary, who was the next heir to the English throne through her grandmother Margaret, daughter of Henry VII., had not been content to wait till Elizabeth was dead, but had laid claim to the throne of England, saying she had more right to it than Elizabeth.

In spite of this refusal, Mary determined to set forth. She suffered anguish in leaving France, and only went into what she considered exile because it was her duty.

The vessel took four days to reach Leith, and this, which is the port of Edinburgh, was considered a very quick voyage. Unluckily the Queen had come so fast that no one expected her, and there was no one to receive her in state, and not even a carriage to convey her to her palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. It was a damp, foggy morning, too, though the month was August, and the rawness of the northern climate struck chill to the hearts of the butterflies of France. At length a clumsy vehicle, not in the least like the elegant coaches to which she was accustomed, was prepared for the Queen, and she set forth in this humiliating way on her journey.

She was soon dissolved in tears between misery and anger, and no doubt bitterly regretted ever having come. Everything was so strange, she felt as if she were in a foreign land. However, when she arrived at Holyrood, and saw it was really a fine palace and in good repair, she cheered up a little. Thus she began her real reign among her own people, though she had actually been Queen from a baby. Queen Mary was a Roman Catholic, while the great mass of her subjects were Protestants, so that her religion gave great offence to her subjects, and still more did the gay foreign ways of her Court, the laughing, and dancing, and fasting, which did not appear seemly to the Scots.

There was at that time in Scotland a minister, called John Knox, a very austere man, who preached 45) ?> openly against the Queen's ways; so she sent for him, hoping to beguile him with her charm as she had beguiled many another. But Knox was made of stern stuff; he did not give way a bit, even telling her to her face that when a Sovereign's ways were evil it was the duty of subjects not to obey. "My subjects, then, are to obey you and not me," said she ironically, and she dismissed him, and went on her own way.

The question of her second marriage soon began to be discussed; it seemed impossible that any woman so young and graceful should remain unmarried in her position, and yet there were few men of suitable rank to marry her. At length, after a great deal of talking and letter-writing and uncertainty, within four or five years after her return she married Henry Stuart, Earl of Darnley. He was a cousin of her own, and after herself next heir to both the Scottish and English thrones. But, as it happened, neither she nor Darnley lived to wear the two crowns together, and they were united in James VI. of Scotland and I. of England, who was their son.

After the marriage trouble soon began. There was a powerful body of nobles, headed by James Stuart, Earl of Moray, or Murray, Queen Mary's near kinsman, who opposed all her attempts to make Roman Catholicism the religion of Scotland. The Reformation, when all the monasteries had been suppressed, and Protestantism became the religion of the country, had only happened a comparatively short time before, and the men who were rejoicing in the freedom of their worship were not likely to acknowledge the power of the Pope again. The quarrel increased, and at length went so far that the Queen actually raised an army against Moray, and his adherents, and attempted to capture them, but they escaped into England.

Now, Mary was very fond of flattery, and dancing, and music, and was not always so careful as she might have been of her dignity as Queen. She showed great favor to an Italian musician called David Rizzio, which made her husband very jealous, and his jealousy was increased by the nobles, who were anxious to get rid of Rizzio, but hardly dared touch him themselves. One evening Mary was in a small room—very small it appears to us now—in Holyrood Palace, with Rizzio and attendants, when her husband entered with some of the nobles, and dragging out Rizzio, though he actually clung to the Queen's skirts, killed him there and then. Mary never forgave this; she pretended to make friends with her husband again, to serve her own ends, but she remembered all the time it was he who had murdered her favorite. If you ever visit Holyrood you will be taken into the tiny room where the tragic scene took place, and see the winding stair by which the conspirators entered.

The year after Rizzio's murder a son was born to Mary and Darnley; she called him James, and had him christened with great magnificence at Stirling Castle, while his father sulked apart, and refused to take any part in the ceremony, as Mary would not recognize him as King, or grant him that title. She now quarreled openly with him, and they parted from one another. Another year went by, and then Darnley fell ill at Glasgow, whereupon Mary went to see him, and pretending to have forgiven him, enticed him back to Edinburgh, and there, instead of taking him to the Palace of Holyrood, she took him to a lonely house called Kirk o' Field, near the city wall. She slept there herself a night or two, and then left him. During the very first night he was alone the house was blown up with gunpowder, and the wretched Darnley perished in it.

It was the last day of January when Darnley had arrived in Edinburgh, and only ten days later his murder took place. There is no doubt whatever that a new favorite of Mary's, the Earl of Bothwell, was responsible for carrying out this murder; but everyone said that Mary must have known of it, because she it was who had brought Darnley to the house and left him there. They said that she had done it partly to revenge the murder of Rizzio, and partly because she wanted to marry Bothwell; and this was confirmed by the fact that on May 15, only three months afterwards, she married Bothwell, who had been tried for the crime, but had managed to get acquitted, as it was not then difficult for so powerful a man to do, whatever the evidence against him.

The whole country was shocked by the Queen's conduct, and even those who still loved her tried to pretend that Bothwell had carried her off by force, and made her marry him. The most powerful nobles rose against him, and he and the Queen fled to a tower called Borthwick Castle, about twelve miles from Edinburgh. Here they were pursued by a band of armed men under Lord Morton and Lord Hume. Bothwell escaped, and Mary met the leaders courteously, and pretended to welcome them, as they had professed to come to rescue her from Bothwell; but both sides knew that it was all acting, and that the Queen had come to Bothwell of her own free will. In the night, when all was still, Mary dressed herself as a page, which she could easily do, being very slim and slight, and she stole out, and, mounting a pony, rode over the rough moorland alone in the darkness to join Bothwell. The two went on to Dunbar.

The nobles now collected a large number of armed men, and went forward to meet the force which the Queen had got together. The two armies met at Carberry Hill, and possibly even Mary felt remorse when she saw so many of her own subjects, Scot against Scot, ready to kill one another as a result of her foolish and wicked conduct. At any rate, instead of a battle a conference took place, after which Mary was carried off prisoner by her own subjects, and Bothwell once more escaped. He had been made Duke of Orkney and Shetland, and he fled to these northern islands, and then went across to Norway and thence to Denmark, where he was thrown into prison, and eventually died insane.

As for Queen Mary, she was compelled to sign an Act of Abdication giving up her throne to her son James, after which she was kept a close prisoner. Meantime, Moray was appointed Regent, and governed in the name of the young Prince.

Queen Mary was taken to Lochleven, and placed for security in a castle on an island there.

Whatever her faults, she had a high spirit, and she had no intention whatever that this should be the end; she meant to regain all she had lost. She was in charge of Lady Douglas, the mother of the Earl of Moray, and with her in the castle were George Douglas, a younger brother, and several sisters, besides, of course, numerous attendants. The Douglas girls shared Mary's room and bed, so great was the fear that she might escape. Mary's brain was very busy; she quickly realized that George Douglas would be the most useful ally she could have, so she set herself to captivate him with all the fascination she knew so well how to use, and he soon was devoted to her. Lady Douglas noticed what was going on, and George was sent away from the island; however, this did not hinder him from planning Mary's escape. She, for her part, looked about for another ally in the castle, and soon captivated also the heart of Willy Douglas, a boy of eighteen; history does not say what relation he was to the others. He was of just the right age to carry an adventure through, and, not being very carefully watched on account of his youth, was able to possess himself of the keys of the castle.

[Queen Mary] from Peeps at History - Scotland  by G. E. Mitton


One night Mary, according to the arrangements she had made with him, crept downstairs; he unlocked the gates carefully, locking them behind him to prevent anyone following, and they made their way down to the boats. Young Douglas had broken holes in all but one of these, so that here also any-one who attempted to follow would have found it difficult; however, his precautions were not needed. Mary had doubtless left one of the Douglas girls asleep in her bed, but neither she nor anyone else found out what was going on, and in the dusk of the May night, not quite a year after she had been brought to the castle, the captive Queen was rowed back to the land again. Douglas rowed straight to the place agreed upon, where the Earl of Seton and George Douglas, with heads uncovered, bowed before their Queen in the light of that beautiful May morning. Then they rode on horseback for twenty miles to Seton's castle, going on afterwards to Hamilton Castle.

The charm of the young Queen, her romantic adventures, and a certain dissatisfaction with Moray's government for the young King, made many flock to Mary's side, and soon Hamilton Castle was surrounded by a regular army of men willing to fight for her.

Moray, however, was not of a character to give in easily. He collected his forces, and as the Queen moved on, making for Dumbarton, which is a very strong fortress on the Clyde not far from Glasgow, he followed, and when he came up with her at Langside, close to Glasgow, a pitched battle was fought. It was a curious fight, for the soldiers were in armor, and fought with spears hand-to-hand for three-quarters of an hour; sometimes the spears stuck in the joints of the armor of the opposing side, and it became a deadly game of push until the stronger side forced the other back. The stronger side was Moray's; it is said that he had only one man killed, while of Mary's followers three hundred were left dead on the field. The Queen had watched the battle from a safe distance, and when she saw that all was lost she rode off, making for the Border so as to seek refuge in England. She reached it in a few days, during which, she herself says, she "suffered hunger, cold, and fear; drank sour milk and fed on oaten meal, and had been three nights like the owls," by which she probably meant without shelter. It is said that her last night in Scotland was passed at Dundrennan Abbey, and then she crossed the Border, never again to set foot in the country to which she belonged.

However, if she had reckoned on Elizabeth's helping her to make war on her subjects, she was mistaken, for, instead, she was made prisoner herself at Carlisle, and Elizabeth refused to see her until she had cleared herself of any suspicion in regard to Darnley's murder. Henceforth, for the next nineteen years, Mary was a prisoner in England, while her son reigned in Scotland. She was moved from place to place; more than one attempt was made for her escape, and there is no doubt that her restless spirit was never content to be kept captive. At length she was accused of conspiring against Elizabeth herself, and was tried for this and condemned to death. She was executed by being beheaded at Fotheringay in 1587, when she was a month or two over forty-four years old.

The last awful scene took place in the great hall of Fotheringay, where a scaffold was erected. About 300 knights and gentlemen filled the hall. Mary, dressed in black satin, with a veil of white lawn and a great gold crucifix at her neck, swept in with dignity, for her high spirit did not desert her at the last. She held a crucifix also, and when she had mounted the scaffold and ceased praying, two of her ladies came forward and began to remove her upper dress. Then, to the astonishment of everyone, she appeared clad in crimson satin from head to foot! She had evidently chosen this color carefully beforehand in order to make a sensation. At the second blow her head was struck off, and Mary Stuart ceased to live.

Never has any woman created so much discussion or so much difference of opinion; some hold her to have been a fascinating, beautiful woman, cruelly done to death, and unfortunate all through her life, but guiltless of any great evil. Others hold that, even if she were not guilty of the plots against Elizabeth, she at all events deserved to die for the murder of her husband years before. It is certain that, whichever view is true, she failed as a Queen, and during her reign, until her lords had taken the matter into their own hands, there was nothing but misery and unrest in Scotland.