Even for a 16th century history fan like me, for the longest time I didn’t 100% understand what the deal was with Mary, Queen of Scots. Her contemporaries, England’s Queens Elizabeth and Mary, were the daughters of Henry VIII and I could connect the dots from two of his doomed six wives to these two half-sisters; they were part of the same story. But Scotland’s Mary had just one crossover with this crowd: her life was ended by Elizabeth.
I knew from reading, and from watching the Vanessa Redgrave and Katharine Hepburn bio-pics, that Mary wed at least one terrible person; that she, as played by Samantha Morton in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, was beheaded by her cousin for… some sort of scheming, I guess? But the way she wound up, a sad footnote in Elizabeth’s story, was pretty much the way I situated her in my mental tally of interesting women of 16th century Europe.
I may never truly understand the labyrinthine family trees that decided who would be King and Queen in a part of the world where literally everybody was related to everyone else. I know that through some fluke of accession, Mary became Queen when she was six days old — clearly that meant the death of her father, and with him, any other possible heir to this particular throne. She was Catholic, as was her family, because this still during a time when Henry VIII’s various manias (a story for another day, maybe) had led to the creation of the Church of England, and Protestants were running wild. Ones choice of religion was often a matter of literal life and death (as it still is, in many places; but I don’t think the Protestant/Catholic thing is quite as visceral these days. I could be wrong.)
Anyway, Mary was a girl but also a Queen but also a baby, and not quite ready to actually take the throne (or wear a crown, let’s be real, with that soft baby skull?), which meant that Scotland was not super-secure vis-a-vis monarchy. To strengthen both her position, and Scotland itself, she was promised at a very young age in marriage to the French crown prince, Francis. A union between France and Scotland wouldn’t do much for the former, but was crucial for the latter: with France as the most powerful Catholic country on the continent, they would surely help protect the much smaller, and weaker, Scotland from the growing threat of England.
Mary grew up in France with Francis and his siblings, marrying him when they were both young teens. By every account, she loved him dearly, and also by every account (save the historically-adjacent Reign TV show), Francis was sickly and unwell and likely the reason behind their never birthing an heir. Was their young marriage consummated? Who knows, and who cares, because the point of it is that Francis died not long after their marriage, without procuring a child who would have been the heir to both Scotland and France — and leaving Mary basically all on her own, in France.
There is a children’s novel called Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without A Country which is such a good title I almost give it to this piece before I remembered where I’d heard it before. But following Francis’s death, basically, that’s who she was: no reason to stay in France, and not having spent any time in Scotland since her infancy, she was sort of floating around unmoored until it was decided to ship her back to Scotland — a Catholic country rapidly becoming Protestant, which had been led in her absence by her Protestant half-brother, James, who had as little allegiance to her personally as she did to them. One pictures Steve Buscemi showing up at the port that day, dressed all in tartan: “Hello, fellow Scots!”
Basically, girlfriend had to get married again, and quickly, to someone who Scotland would like and, ideally, who would also help give her/Scotland a leg up against England/Elizabeth. Which leads us to Lord Henry Darnley, The Worst Man In History. Or, maybe The Worst Man In Scottish History. At the very least, Probably The Worst Man Mary Got Married To.
For the same blah blah family tree reasons, though, Darnley was it for her; his distant claim to the English throne meant any child he shared with Mary would be like a weapon to wield against Elizabeth. Too bad he was such an asshole.
As portrayed on Reign, Darnley is a handsome, if unpredictable rake, somewhat focused on being named her co-monarch but mostly busy blustering around. In the Vanessa Redgrave film, a bleached-out Timothy Dalton plays him as a Scottish Caligula figure — certainly still power-hungry, but that pales in comparison to his debauchery and cruelty. Redgrave’s Mary is trapped by circumstance as is Kane’s; but one gets the sense that Kane is able to extricate herself of this spouse, while Redgrave is only able to nobly watch him ruin her.
In every story of these years, the marriage to Darnley is key to her eventual downfall; but of course, it could have just as easily led to her ultimate triumph. It’s impossible to know how much of Darnley’s odiousness destroyed Mary’s claim to the throne; what is well documented is that the real Darnley coordinated an attack upon Mary’s beloved friend David Rizzio, having him stabbed 56 times in front of the then-pregnant Queen.
As Wikipedia drily notes, “the murder of Rizzio led inevitably to the breakdown of her marriage.” Like: no. kidding.
Darnley was The Worst, but what of her eventual third husband, Lord Bothwell?
What we know for sure: Bothwell either worked with Mary, or on his own, to blow up and murder Darnley, or, neither of them did. One way or another, Darnley’s house wound up exploding, and Mary wound up hitting the road with Bothwell — either his willing kidnappee, an unwilling captive, or a sort of Stockholm Situation somewhere between the two. Whatever the cause of their absconding, it wound up with them returning to town and her marrying him; she would later miscarry twins.
Darnley was — again, this cannot be overstated — THE WORST, but at least the people of Scotland (and England, and elsewhere) could understand the necessity of this marriage. Bothwell was no one, brought nothing to the crown, and while he did not bring her ultimate downfall, marriage to him did nothing to stay it.
Mary was an infant Queen who would grow to be mostly remembered for her string of marriages, a sort of Elizabeth Taylor/Kim Kardashian of the European Renaissance. But the woman herself was nothing if not interesting, for instance, she was an avid athlete and more or less responsible for popularizing golf in Scotland. In fact, that she was seen golfing shortly after Darnley’s death was seen by some as a hint that she had been involved in doing the deed.
She is also famous for her alleged feud with her cousin Elizabeth, though you may have noticed by now that mostly everyone was cousins with everyone in Western Europe at this time so it’s not like the fact they were cousins meant anything in particular. What’s striking about the pair of them was they were both Queens ruling during a time of chaotic uncertainty, both religious as well as by lineage (I’ll write about Elizabeth’s whole circumstance another day) but at the time that Mary wed Darnley, who would win was still unclear.
Because, basically, that’s what happened. Bothwell fled to Denmark (to be captured in a castle by his first, and still-alive, wife’s — !!! — family to die in a dungeon that is maybe now the basement of a hotel that I would love to visit); Scotland fell behind Mary’s brother James, who oh yeah also mostly led a Protestant revolt against her; and her son with Darnley, also named James (because: Europe only had so many names), became the new baby ruler of the country, again with James The Older as regent.
Mary was either complicit, or not, but definitely found guilty of scheming to assassinate Elizabeth. Again, it’s a series of notes and claims that who knows what’s true and what’s not. But inarguably, she was found guilty and sentenced to beheading by Elizabeth. As was noted in a recent episode of Reign; it’s not important whether Mary was actively scheming to supplant her or not, the very existence of a pretender to the throne means some factions will support her — as long as Mary lived, Elizabeth could not have full control of her own country.
For understandable reasons, many projects about Mary pit her against Elizabeth. Two young Queens engaged in a power struggle, even from afar; one choosing a series of marriages opposite the other’s ferocious commitment to singledom, ending with the latter beheading the former: the story writes itself, really. So it comes as no surprise to hear of a new Mary/Elizabeth project coming to fruition, this time starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as the warring Queens. If nothing else, the wigs and costumes will be glorious.
What is it about Mary that keeps us revisiting her story? It ends in tragedy, of course, and it’s all just grey area enough it’s not clear if this was something that happened to her or something that she brought upon herself. Elizabeth is remembered for her lengthy rule, her marriage to her country, her red hair and white lead makeup and how she one-upped her son-obsessed father (Also Terrible; a story for another day) by ruling better than he ever did. Mary was born into a similar situation, but events conspired to pull Elizabeth into the winner’s circle and Mary into an extended downward spiral. They are one anothers’ yin and yang, after all — only one could win in this game of thrones, but watching it all played out — on Reign, or by Katharine Hepburn or Vanessa Redgrave or Saoirse Ronan — gives us that sort of Romeo & Juliet feeling like, maybe this time, she’ll be lucky. Maybe this time, Elizabeth will lose her heart and head and Mary can be the one to lead England into decades of prosperity.
And perhaps it’s that hope that keeps us coming back. Her story is not just that she died, because that’s the end of everyone’s story: any life could seem like a tragedy if you only look at how it ends. But the fascination with her, at least for me, is one part her unarguably romantic nature set against a place and time when basically everyone was against her, combined with a forensic interest in just how did it all go so very wrong for her?
Reign‘s thesis, in part, was reminding us that Mary was so much more than how she died; by focusing for three seasons on her time in France, we get to see a glimpse of the woman she was on her own terms. The various filmic treatments dispose of her first marriage within the first few minutes, if at all, jumping right to the murdery Darnley/Bothwell bits. But this underrated CW television show has stealthily been laying track, if not to change how Mary is remembered, but to add to it. The new film, too, seems intent on presenting her story in the present tense, allowing room to hope that this time, things may just work out for her.
Looking to read and watch more about Mary Stuart? Obviously I recommend watching all of Reign, that’s just a given. But the other Mary films are interesting to watch too: 1971’s Mary Queen of Scots, 1936’s Mary of Scotland, and her appearance in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. There are oodles of great books about her, but I’m partial to Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter