Government and Politics

House of Stuart

Who was Mary, Queen of Scots?

Mary Stuart was born in 1542 to James V of Scotland, who ruled from 1513 to 1542, and his wife, Mary of Guise. When Mary was just six days old, her father died, making the infant a queen. Her mother ruled the country as a regent until 1561, when Mary officially took on her duties. She was, by all reports, a beautiful and charming young woman whose courage and mettle would be tested by time. When she ascended the throne, she inherited her mother’s struggle with the Protestants, who were led by John Knox (1513–1572), a former Catholic priest who was involved in the Reformation. As a Roman Catholic, Mary was subject to harsh verbal attacks issued by Knox, who denounced the pope’s authority and the practices of the church. But this was not the worst of her troubles: In 1565 Mary wed her English cousin, Lord Darnley (1545–1567), in an attempt to secure her claim to the English throne as successor to Elizabeth I (1533–1603), also her cousin.

But Mary’s ambitions would be her undoing. She quickly grew to dislike her husband, who became aligned with her Protestant opponents and successfully carried out a plot to murder—in her presence—Mary’s adviser, David Rizzio (c. 1533–1566). Surprisingly, Mary and Darnley reconciled shortly thereafter (a politically savvy move on her part), and she conceived a child, James, who was born in 1566. Darnley had enemies of his own, and one year later he was murdered. Mary promptly married the Earl of Bothwell (1536–1578), with whom she had fallen in love well before becoming a widow. Bothwell was accused of Darnley’s murder, and though he was acquitted, his marriage to the queen shocked Scotland. The people took up arms, forcing Mary to abdicate the throne in 1567. She was 25 years old.

Fleeing to England, Mary, Queen of Scots, was given refuge by Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Though she was technically a prisoner, Mary nevertheless was able to conspire with Elizabeth’s enemies—including English Catholics and the Spanish—in attempts to kill her. When one such plot was discovered in 1586, Mary was charged for her involvement in it and was put on trial. Found guilty, she was put to death in 1587, though Elizabeth hesitated to take such action.

Meantime, Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland (1566–1625), had taken on his responsibilities in 1583—after Scotland had been ruled on his behalf by regents since Mary’s abdication some 16 years prior. He had promptly formed an alliance with Elizabeth I and, in 1587, accepted with resignation his mother’s execution. In 1603 James succeeded Elizabeth, becoming James I, King of England, uniting Scotland and England under one throne. The union was made official about a century later (in 1707) when Parliament passed the Act of Union.


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