Scotland's Bloody History
Scottish Heritage and Historical Stories

1542 MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Raised as a Catholic in France, James V’s daughter Mary had been sent there for safety after being crowned Queen of Scotland in 1543 at the age of one.

In France in the sixteenth century there was no “w” in the alphabet so Mary Stewart became Mary Stuart. Some Stewarts even retained the “e” spelling their names “Steuart”.

By the age of 17 she had married the son of Henry II of France. On Henry’s death he was crowned François II and Mary became the Queen Consort of France.

However, because the French considered Henry VIII of England’s divorces illegal under Catholic principles, this meant that the new Queen of England, Elizabeth Tudor was illegitimate. According to the French, therefore, Elizabeth could not be Queen of England.

In the previous chapter I said that it would become important that James IV, Mary’s grandfather had married Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor. Now that comes into play because it means that Mary was also the granddaughter of the sister of Henry VIII and this, in turn, implies that if Elizabeth was illegitimate, Mary was the rightful Queen of England.

The upshot of this was that the French officially proclaimed her Queen of England and you can just imagine how that went down with Elizabeth and the English Court! It is no wonder the French and English have never seen eye to eye.

So, seventeen-year-old Catholic Mary was Queen of Scotland, Queen Consort of France and, according to the French, also the rightful Queen of England. Her tremendous fame in history is really down to what she was rather than who she was - her personality and abilities etc.

It must also be borne in mind that even under the English system, Mary was next in line to the childless Elizabeth I of England. With all of this combined, it is no wonder that Catholic Mary was seen as being extremely dangerous to Protestant England.

In 1561, after the death of François, Mary returned to Scotland where she walked right into the middle of the Protestant Reformation of the church. She was viewed with suspicion in Scotland owing to her religion and also viewed with some suspicion by Elizabeth I of England, her father’s cousin. Mary was to be nothing if not a controversial monarch.Mary Queen of Scots during one of her debating sessions with John Knox

Arch-Protestant John Knox and Mary had many debates over the merits of the two religions. Mary always gave a good account of herself in these arguments, but Knox usually came off best.

Mary was relentlessly forced into an intolerable situation as a Catholic monarch in an increasingly puritanical Protestant country.

Both the Scottish and English courts tried to influence Mary’s choice of husband, but she was not going to be coerced to the wills of others and married Lord Darnley.

Darnley was also a Stuart in his own right and so the matter of “it started with a lass and will end with a lass” didn’t quite come true. He was also Mary’s cousin and one does wonder at all of this interbreeding.

They had a son, who was called … you’ve guessed it, James.

When James was but one year old Mary was forced into abdicating the crown and James became King James VI of Scotland. Yet another infant monarch. Mary, however, was far too dangerous to release and so she was imprisoned in an island fortress in Loch Leven, just to the north-east of Edinburgh.

Mary Queen of Scots escapes her island prison on Loch LevenMary’s imprisonment continued, but she had friends who sought her release. Using subterfuge and, to no small degree, her womanly wiles she managed to get around her guards and escape from her island prison.

A brief attempt was made to rise up to put her back on the throne, but it failed and Mary escaped to England, although Ireland may have been her planned destination.

In England she was captured and eventually placed under a sort of deluxe house arrest. Although Elizabeth may not have wished her any serious harm, she was growing increasingly annoyed with Mary and, behind the scenes, the situation was becoming intolerable.

After all, Mary was just one heartbeat from becoming the legitimate Queen of England and unifying the two countries, but under the Catholic church. Elizabeth’s courtiers and the politicians were becoming more and more concerned with the precarious situation.

Sir Francis Walsingham, considered by many to be the forerunner of what is today MI5, the British Secret Service, took matters into his own hands and implicated Mary in a plot to have Elizabeth assassinated. This was the last straw and Mary was charged with treason and sentenced to death.

The execution of Mary was one of the most bloody in history, perhaps not quite as dreadful as that of William Wallace but in his case it was deliberately intended to be a torture as well.

Mary arrived at the gallows wearing a full length cloak with a hood.

Some believe that the executioner may have been a closet Catholic[1] and this may explain some of what happened on the gallows.

Mary had to remove some of her garments for the execution and once they were removed there may have been a gasp from the assembly as they saw that from head to foot she was wearing crimson red, the colour of the martyr in the Catholic church.

If the executioner had not already been nervous he must have now been shaking in his boots, because he was about to execute not just the Queen of Scotland, but also the legitimate heir to the English throne and a Catholic to boot.

She put her head on the block and he struck.

According to eye witnesses he miss-hit her. The axe went into the side or back of her head and she cried, “Sweet Jesus”, then continued to mouth prayers while the axe-man struck a second time, still failing to sever the neck. He eventually had to use the axe as a saw to cut through the remaining tissues and the head plopped into the basket.

But it is still not over.

Suddenly the body started moving, as if to rise. Screams came from the assembly.

Was Mary coming back to life, headless? Could God be making a statement through the most amazing miracle seconds after her death?

No. Mary had taken her small terrier dog with her to the execution and it was concealed under her petticoats. You can just imagine the terror the dog felt as life suddenly extinguished from its mistress and it struggled to escape, eventually running off barking and covered in blood.

And it still wasn’t over!

In those days there had been occasions where a “switcheroo” had occurred on the gallows, the condemned person being switched and some poor innocent executed in his/her place. So it became a tradition for the executioner to show the severed head to the gathered assembly to prove that the correct person had been executed.

Surely after making such an awful mess of everything else that day he could hardly get this final duty wrong?

He reached into the basket, grabbed hold of Mary’s beautiful auburn red hair and lifted the head into the air in a single motion.

The execution of Mary Queen of ScotsTo his horror he discovered that Mary had been wearing a wig and the bald head flew through the air and rolled across the ground!

Oh yes, in case you wondered, the execution is finally over at last.

Mary’s son James, now twenty-one years old, was the legitimate James VI of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I of England could now sleep secure in her virgin bed.

Mary’s personality and influence on events may not have been too great, but her name is still tremendously emotive and she is probably the most famous, if not the most stainless, monarch in Scotland’s history.



[1] A closet Catholic is a Catholic pretending to be Protestant, often for the sake of their health!

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