Every book and movie and TV series about Mary, Queen of Scots winds up digging into her rivalry with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. It’s pretty unavoidable, as the latter part of Mary’s life was basically defined by this relationship in a way that makes it seem like every choice she made was one step closer to an inevitable collision course with her cousin. The two women were of similar age and had similarly messy early lives, making them at first tentative allies but ultimately, bitter enemies. The twisted mirror image they present of one anothers’ lives and choices continues to intrigue the public imagination, most recently with the new film Mary Queen of Scots. But who were these women really, and how did they wind up such bitter enemies?
Well, like so many women’s unfortunate Tudor-era lives, a lot of it comes down to a) patriarchy, b) everybody around them was constantly scheming, and c) the fact that Henry VIII was basically an asshole. Let’s do this!
A Twisted Family Tree
Time for everyone’s favourite thing, Old Timey English Inheritance Rules!! Basically, the way these things ideally went (ideal for them, not for like… society) was that a Male King would die and his Male Son would take over. If the Male Son died young, ideally there would be a Younger Male Son to take over from him. And then that guy’s Male Son would take over, passing the throne from Male Son to Male Son and so on. Of course, not everybody had a son, which is when the crown would pass to the first King’s Male Brother and then, to that brother’s Male Son.
The issue here, of course, is that Henry VIII’s son Edward died as a teen, and Henry’s brother Arthur had died decades before. So the only heirs left were either Henry’s daughters, his sisters, or his sister’s children. But the thing is, both of his sisters only had female children. Where is there possibly a man in this whole family tree?? asked the men in charge. Truly, there weren’t any, anywhere, which meant that one of these girls or women would become the next monarch which put them all on basically an even playing field, making a human chess board with very cool girls in every pawn spot.
Now, as part of Henry VIII’s various marital/religious shenanigans, both of his daughters had been retroactively proclaimed illegitimate. Which meant they couldn’t become the Queen, which meant they had to go look at Henry’s sisters’ kids. Now, this usually went in age order, which meant they’d see who the heirs were of Henry’s older sister Margaret Tudor BUT before he died, Henry pulled a dick move and excluded Margaret and her heirs from inheriting things. Why? Because she had married the Scottish King, and Henry super hated Scotland, and also because Margaret’s heirs were Catholic and Henry super hated Catholics. So, even though the rule was usually to go to the elder sibling, instead the dudes in charge of this stuff turned to Henry’s younger sister, Mary, and her heirs… which is how we wound up with Lady Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey, none of whose stories turned out terribly well.
Throughout all of this, one potential heir was Margaret Tudor’s granddaughter, a certain Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Boss Baby
As Elizabeth was living through some flat-out tumultuous and pretty rough years as the illegitimate-then-legitimate daughter of Henry VIII, Mary QofS was growing up as the baby Queen of Scotland. Why was she the Baby Queen? Well, her father had died when Mary was just a few days old and since there weren’t any other siblings to take over, she was basically it vis-a-vis being the monarch. NOW, while on one hand, Mary’s ancestors were the Scottish royal family (via Robert “Chris Pine in The Outlaw King” the Bruce), on the other hand, she was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret. Remember Margaret? She was the one from a few paragraphs ago who Henry had disinherited (and all her heirs) from the English throne due to her Scottish/Catholic connections. So Mary was, genetically, an heir to the English throne.
Now, Henry had a sort of love/hate with Scotland the way he had a series of love/hates with his many unfortunate wives. Mary was five years younger than Henry’s son, Edward, and initially Henry tried to arrange a marriage between the two and there was even a document signed agreeing to this but Henry was THE WORST and Mary’s mother Marie de Guise hated Henry so much and then this whole thing happened called the War of the Rough Wooing with Henry being like “marry your baby queen daughter to my son!” and Marie de Guise being like “blow me!” and it wound up with baby Queen Mary betrothed to a French prince. As such, she was sailed across the waters to grow up in France, away from all the drama engulfing England and Scotland. Now, we all know things were going to turn messy really soon but at that time, it looked like Henry VIII would be succeeded by his son Edward and then by Edward’s sons; and Mary would become the Queen of France and stay there forever, and that’s how both of their lives would turn out.
At this point, which was around the year 1548, Elizabeth was about 15 years old and living a pretty decent life with her little brother as King and the country still Protestant, which was the religion she supported. For her, at this point, she was probably thinking she’d be married to some random royal dude pretty soon and would like a sort of nondescript aristocratic lady sort of life. But then EVERYTHING CHANGED when her brother/King fell ill and died very young, and he named Lady Jane Grey his heir. Jane was Queen for nine days before Elizabeth’s big sister Mary burst into town with an army of supporters and took over in a blaze of FUCK YOU glory (more on that here).
Elizabeth attended her sister’s smiling and waving at the crowd, two redheaded sisters just being amazing together. But pretty soon after, her life got pretty shitty when Mary suspected Elizabeth of trying to steal the throne from her and threw her in jail. Like, Elizabeth had barely known her mother, Anne Boleyn, a woman who she’d grown up knowing had been executed by her horrible father. Her little brother became King, then died, and then her cousin Jane became Queen then got executed. Now, Elizabeth’s sister was the Queen, had turned English Catholic again, and Elizabeth’s Protestant ways were under attack. And then things got even MORE messed up as Mary claimed to be pregnant twice, and maybe she was, but no live babies were ever born to her (more on that here). Mary only reigned for five years before she passed away from various illnesses. Though she had toyed with naming a distant Catholic relative her heir, she wound up naming the 25-year-old Elizabeth her successor as Queen.
And so Elizabeth — daughter of an executed traitor/witch, the until-recently-considered-illegitimate daughter of a gross asshole of a King — became the monarch of a pretty fucking unstable country filled with men who thought women were genetically incapable of leadership. As such, a not-insubstantial amount of people felt she shouldn’t be in charge. Isn’t there a man somewhere who can be King instead of her? They asked but the answer was still: no. All the descendants from every branch of this family tree were girls or women. And so Elizabeth’s Catholic enemies decided that, if they had to have a female monarch, Mary Queen of Scots was a better choice. After all, Mary QofS was the descendant of Henry VIII’s older sister, and had never been illegitimate, and most importantly to her supporters, she was Catholic. Mary was, inconveniently, currently living in France as the fiancee of the Crown Prince, but that didn’t stop her supporters from secretly whispering about how she should really be the Queen, and sort of waiting for a good opportunity to seize the throne for her.
A year after Elizabeth became Queen, Mary QofS’s father-in-law died in a jousting mishap and so she and her husband ascended to the throne to be King and Queen of France. Just throwing this out here, too, that Mary QofS was something like 5’11” tall, which is tall for a woman nowadays in our era of calcium in milk and fluoride in toothpaste; back then, she would have struck an incredibly striking figure. Elizabeth wasn’t as teeny-tiny as her older sister Mary I had been but was nowhere as statuesque. Know who else was really tall? Mary’s mother, the badass Marie de Guise, who clocked in at something like six foot tall. She’d been doing her best to fend off all the assholes, leading Scotland in Mary’s absence. Scotland was in the midst of its own Catholics-vs-Protestants battle royale, but their Queen was sixteen years old and living in France and not a part of this whole thing.
Marie de Guise died in 1660, leaving some paperwork left unsigned, and some of the assholes went to Mary in France like, “So your mother’s dead, but will you sign this treaty saying you accept Elizabeth as the monarch of England?” And sixteen-year-old, 5’11” Mary QofS was like, “Basically: hell, no.”
Mary’s husband died in 1661 from an ear infection, leaving her no longer the Queen of France and also sort of a random person in a country without a place for her. So, she decided to return to Scotland, the country she was Queen of and where she hadn’t set foot in over a decade. While she’d been away, the country had gone through political and religious upheaval, and she was a total outsider with her French outfits and French accent and Catholic religion. The Protestants were like, “We don’t want a Catholic Queen,” and the Scottish people were like, “We don’t want a French Queen,” and the misogynists were like “We don’t want a female Queen,” so she was pretty unpopular right from the get-go, because the world is not fair.
But! Mary stomped around all 5’11” of herself and did her best to play to both camps. She appointed Protestants to important roles in government to show that she was willing to work with them, and retained her Catholic religion to show her Catholic supporters she was keeping it real. She also, significantly, sent a messenger to Elizabeth in England saying basically, “Hey sis, since I’m your cousin and also a Queen, it would be cool if you named me your heir.” Elizabeth, by this point, was pretty obsessed with never revealing who her heir would be because as soon as she did, that person would start gaining supporters and might try to overthrow her. So she replied basically, “Hey girl hey, nice to hear from you! Let’s meet up and have a mimosa brunch or like venison or whatever people eat in this century, etc.!” Like, Elizabeth didn’t brush off Mary’s claim but she also didn’t necessarily agree to write down on paper that Mary would be her heir. But, I’m so sad to tell you, the mimosa brunch never happened because their schedules never lined up.
Elizabeth came up with a plan to make Mary less of a threat to her, which was: to arrange a marriage for Mary to some guy who sucks because nobody wants a Queen with a husband who sucks. Mary knew that finding a husband to turn her into half of a power couple was her strongest move, too, so she also sent out feelers to find an Awesome Husband. It was like the most polite, etiquette-laden way of Queenly fighting: just both of them aggressively trying to find Mary a husband that would suit their own purposes. Elizabeth at one point offered up her longtime on/off sidepiece Robert Dudley as a groom, and Mary was like LOL no. Mary tried to arrange her own marriage to Don Carlos, the mentally unstable brother of Philip of Spain, but Phil (who had his sights set on trying to marry Elizabeth; this is like Gossip Girl levels of people dating other people) was like LOL no.
Sidenote: Mary was so tall and gorgeous and amazing that men were literally falling over themselves to try and convince her to marry them. One such loser was a poet named Pierre who hid underneath her bed (!!) because his plan was to jump out when she was alone (!!!!) to declare his love for her (!!!!!!!). Mary, correctly and obviously, banned Pierre from Scotland forever. But like the protagonist in a 1990s romantic comedy, Pierre wouldn’t take no for an answer, and just two days later forced his way back into her room just when she was getting undressed (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Mary yelled out, and her half-brother came in to defend her and she screamed at him to STAB THIS CREEPY WEIRDO POET ALREADY, but instead, Pierre was put on trial for treason, and was beheaded. Was Pierre just a weird creeper? Or had he been paid by someone to act like this to try and ruin Mary’s reputation? Like, things were so bonkers in this castle at this time that nobody knows, each thing is equally possible.
Love Is A Battlefield
Mary finally wound up choosing her own husband, and her choice kinda sorta sealed her fate because it was kinda sorta a declaration of war. The man she chose was her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Darnley was also a descendant of Henry VIII’s older sister Margaret, making him also part-Tudor. He was also more than six feet tall, which to someone of Mary’s height was probably especially appealing. The pair of them together was sort of equivalent to one full Tudor, making them as a power couple a viable threat to Elizabeth’s rule in England. And if they had children? Those kids would be extremely possible rivals to Elizabeth’s claim to the throne.
Sidenote: Darnley was THE FUCKING WORST. Like, if he’d been even maybe 10% less THE WORST, things may have turned out differently for the entire history of Scotland and England and Mary and Elizabeth. But, regrettably, Darnley? WAS THE WORST.
But anyway, nobody knew yet how awful Darnley was going to be. For Mary, he was a way to solidify her reign in Scotland and make a power play for England. For Elizabeth, Darnley’s genetics alone made him a threat. So their marriage raised eyebrows in both countries, like even Mary’s advisors in Scotland were like, “Are you sure you want to marry this tall Catholic person?” and she was like, “Yes” and they were like, “But like are you sure?” And she was like, “Yes, stop asking me!!” And they were like, “But like… for real?” And she was like, “I’M IN LOVE WITH HIM!! I DON’T CARE IF NOBODY APPROVES AND IT’S LIKE A DECLARATION OF WAR! HE’S TALL AND I LOVE HIM!!!!”
And so they got married. Elizabeth lost her SHIT because she thought they should have asked her for permission but didn’t, which was like an insult to her and further increased her paranoia that the marriage was a threat to her. Mary’s half-brother also lost his shit, because remember he was the leader of the Protestants and she’d just married a Catholic, and so he led a rebellion against her (!!) but Mary rode out — again, the fact she was 5’11” makes this all look so much more badass in my imagination — all like, “GO AWAY, JAMES!!!” And James, in fact, went away. Mary scared him out of Scotland entirely, to the point that James fled to England to try and find some Protestants to be his friends.
So things were great except for the part where DARNLEY WAS THE WORST, because he’d been bugging Mary to name him as her co-monarch. This would mean that if and when Mary died, Darnley would take over as King. Mary was like, “I’m familiar with murder mysteries and I know if I do that, you’ll probably murder me,” and Darnley was like, “AGGHGHHGHGHG” and then he stabbed her best friend 56 times in front of her to try and make her miscarry (because she was by now pregnant) and so Darnley could take over. So, not only did Mary not miscarry, she also managed to convince Darnley to switch sides and support her AND got him to help sneak her very-pregnant self out of a castle full of people trying to murder her.
I mean, let’s all take a break to sip on some mimosas in memory of the brunch Mary and Elizabeth never got to share, because this piece of the story is LIKE A LOT.
What’s The Scottish Word For Telenovela
Mary’s riding off to safety with Fuckbag Darnley, who decides mid-escape that know what, he’d rather not hang out with her anymore and so he peaces out, leaving her ALONE and PREGNANT and HAVING JUST WITNESSED HER BFF STABBED 56 TIMES IN FRONT OF HER BY A GANG OF MEN WHO ARE TRYING TO STEAL HER THRONE. So what does our gal do? Basically (and you can read a more complete account in this essay) Mary winds up running off with a guy named Bothwell*, Darnley’s house gets exploded and Darnley’s strangled body is found outside, and everyone is like “Um, Mary, looks like you and Bothwell conspired to blow up Darnley and his house?” And she’s like “NOT GUILTEEEEEE” and runs away.
* Mary may have been kidnapped by Bothwell, we’re not sure why she and he ran off together, but they then got quickie married, she became pregnant with twins, then miscarried the twins, and then Bothwell ran away to Denmark where his — surprise twist — WIFE ALREADY LIVED, that’s right, he was already married when he married Mary, he was AWFUL — and he was trapped in a dungeon by his wife’s family and went insane and is said to haunt that dungeon even to today. The fact this nugget of info is a sidenote just really shows how bonkers the whole saga is.
SO! While all this is going on, back in England, Elizabeth writes Mary a letter like, “Girl, what are you doing, did you blow up Darnley on purpose? You’re just making yourself look bad. For sure I’ll never make you my heir now, you kind of look like a murderer xoxo Liz”
AND THEN back in Scotland, Mary was captured and made to abdicate as Queen. Her little baby, the one who she hadn’t miscarried during the stabbing scenario, was named the new King of Scotland and his name was James and one day he’d grow up to be a messy witch-burning weirdo who married a cool woman named Anne of Denmark and who would start the whole Stuart dynasty, but that’s all in the future. WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW IS, Mary was sent away to be a prisoner in a place called Loch Leven and you can learn more about what happened to her there in this recent children’s picture book which is really, really good. But basically, she escapes from the prison-island disguised as a washerwoman, rallies up some troops, but loses a battle and has to flee AGAIN. Her whole life is basically just FLEEING at this point.
The Beginning of the End
Elizabeth was just hanging out in England at this point, like “Amazing, my main rival Mary QofS is self-immolating her life via terrible boyfriend decisions, I’ll just chill out here and watch it happen with my toxic on/off sidepiece Robert Dudley who will shortly secretly marry my own lookalike niece.” And then one day, surprise! It turns out Mary has fled herself all the way down to England, where she’s hoping her cousin Elizabeth will do her a favour and help her regain the throne of Scotland. Elizabeth was like “I think not, you hot mess,” and put her on trial for the murder of Darnley.
The trial was a three-ring circus, and the most important evidence was a set of probably very likely forged documents that the prosecutors alleged Mary had written that were like, “Ha ha ha! I am going to kill Darnley! Ha ha ha! xoxo Mary!” At the end of it, Elizabeth was like, “Well, she’s a Queen, so I don’t want to say she’s guilty, but I can’t say she’s not guilty, so let’s just like… keep her under house arrest for the foreseeable future.” And this is the part of the story where Mary is sent to live with Bess of Hardwick, and she quite skilfully ruins Bess’s marriage and makes some very nice embroidered tapestries.
After so much FLEEING and DRAMA, once Mary was in Bess’s house, things finally calmed down for her somewhat. Elizabeth had now been Queen for eleven years, so she’d really begun to settle into the role and mostly everyone was used to her being there. The whole Mary QofS scenario had been mostly quashed, and seemingly Elizabeth’s plan was to keep her cousin out of sight and out of mind and just let her sort of waste away in house arrest.
But then!! In 1569, a group of rebel Catholics had an uprising with the goal of freeing Mary and putting her on the throne in place of Elizabeth. (Their plan was also to marry her to another Tudor relative named Thomas Howard). Elizabeth’s troops defeated the rebels, and then she ordered the execution of more than 700 people involved in the uprising, including Thomas Howard. But meanwhile, the Pope published a thing like “Queen Elizabeth is a heretic! All good Catholics should turn against her!” which just made even more Catholics want to free Mary and get rid of Elizabeth, so everything was basically chaos yet again.
In the midst of all of this was Mary, who had by now been kicked out of Bess’s house and was staying in a different manor/prison. Sometimes the people scheming would send her secret letters telling her about their plots to get rid of Elizabeth, which they wrote in secret codes. Elizabeth’s team of spies were on top of this, for the most part, and began secretly keeping a file of all of Mary’s alleged complicity in the various plots. When Elizabeth was presented with all the evidence she was like, “Right, but I don’t want to kill her because she’s a Queen and also my cousin so like… that’s not cool.” Finally, she sort of vaguely told one guy, “I guess you can do… whatever.” And that guy took that to mean they should behead Mary, and so on February 8, 1587, Mary was beheaded.
After the fact, Elizabeth was like, “Wait, that’s not what I meant!! You misunderstood me!! But also I possible spoke vaguely so I could claim innocence after the fact, for political reasons!!” And so we don’t know if Elizabeth meant to have Mary put to death or not. We do know that years later, when Elizabeth was on her deathbed, she claimed to have visions of Mary, to whom she expressed regret for how things turned out between them.
Mary and Elizabeth were both born into lives that were dramatic and unpredictable from basically day one. They’re often paired up in histories because their stories are such intriguing parallels to each other: Mary strove for power through strategic marriages and was undone; Elizabeth avoided marriage and emerged victorious. Both were Queens, but were constantly being used as pawns by the ridiculously ambitious and ruthless men who surrounded them. It’s a story with so many possibilities for a sliding doors happy ending — what if Mary had married Henry VIII’s son in the first place? What if the two had met for that initial mimosa brunch? What if Mary had married literally anyone else in the world other than Darnley??
Ultimately, Elizabeth would be remembered as one of England’s longest-serving and most consequential and powerful monarchs, a Queen who oversaw England’s shift from minor kingdom to international power player. As she had no children, though, it was Mary’s son James who would succeed Elizabeth. James was the first Stuart monarch, though he was also a Tudor by ancestry. His descendants, including Anne of Great Britain, are the ancestors of the current British royal family. Mary, Queen of Scots is the great-grandmother 11 times of Queen Elizabeth II, and therefore a direct ancestor of Prince Charles, Prince William, Princess Charlotte, and the other current generation of British royals.
There are zillions of great books and films about Mary and Elizabeth and all of this drama, notably the new film Mary Queen of Scots which stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth. One book I’ll recommend on the topic is The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams, which digs into all of this bonkers, juicy, messy, tragic story. Another great book on the topic of these two women is Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn.
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