The 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, focuses on the notorious Queen’s life between 1561-1567. Like most bio-pics, Rourke and her team needed to focus on just one part of her subject’s life. Moreso than with many other biographies, though, it means having to leave out an awful lot of wildly interesting stuff. I truly enjoyed this movie AND also it sent me back to my books to double-check what bits were (necessarily) left out. Like, to cover the entirety of the interesting bits of Mary’s life would be like a twelve-hour movie, and even then it likely wouldn’t all fit in. She only lived for 44 years, but other than the first five days of her life (when she was a little baby and not Queen yet), it was unrelenting drama. Here’s a thing I wrote about her whole life, helpful maybe if you’re curious who she was and how she got to this point. Or, hopefully, you can also get a sense of things from reading on the rest of this.
So as the new film shows, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, after living out her childhood and teen years in France. The next six years of her life — the subject of this movie — found our gal raising armies, marrying twice, put on trial for murder, and ultimately thrown in sort-of jail. The movie (spoiler?) skips from the arrest bit forward 19 years to Mary’s death.
I’m here to tell you about what happened during those nineteen years. Because she didn’t just sit back and wait for life to happen to her because Mary, Queen of Scots never stopped fighting.
Part One: Buh-Bye Bothwell
OK so this part isn’t technically Mary doing stuff, but if you’ve seen the movie you know that Bothwell was AWFUL and it’s important to me we all know how horribly his life ended up. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, all you need to know is that Bothwell (in the movie and in real life) was Mary’s loyal protector and lieutenant, and was also sort of gross, and she never wanted to date or marry him. Things took a turn when he decided that he wanted to get more powerful, which he could do by marrying the recently-widowed Queen. Literally, her husband Darnley had only just been blown up/strangled a week before — more on that here — so even wanting to marry her was a total dick move. Especially because he was already married.
Oh, but no worries, he divorced his first wife, Jean Gordon, EIGHT DAYS before he kidnapped, raped, and forced Mary to marry him by lying that this was what her advisors wanted her to do. Like every man in her life, Bothwell was The Worst. But sidenote: the basis for his divorce from Jean was that he’d been sleeping with her servant, which is like: I hate you, Bothwell, truly and deep from within my soul.
Post-marriage, and with Mary already pregnant, she quickly realized that Bothwell was full of shit and literally nobody supported their quickie wedding. In fact, marrying Bothwell had made the people of Scotland hate her even more than they had before, and lost her the support of most of the Lords she’d need to get to be Queen again.
How much did everyone hate this marriage? Well, a group of Scottish lords raised an army against Mary and Bothwell, which like: serves him right, but also poor her, honestly. That said, Mary joined her awful husband and their soldiers to confront these lords. However, so many of her forces deserted during this confrontation that she and Bothwell basically had to surrender. The people fighting them were mad that Mary and Bothwell seemingly had conspired to jointly murder Darnley — who had it coming, for sure, but we don’t know if Mary was actually complicit in his death via explosion-strangulation. To then, Mary was a woman who’d had her lover kill her husband and then quickly remarried which is, to be fair, a pretty shitty sort of person.
Upon their defeat, their enemies let Bothwell peace out and good riddance, Mary thankfully never had to see him again. He went into exile, and wound up in Norway, where the family of his first abandoned wife (note: not Jean Gordon, this was a previous abandoned wife, Bothwell was overall THE WORST. not the one he’d divorced to marry Mary) had him arrested for abandoning her. This vengeful and wonderful woman was named Anna Throndsen, and she had him arrested for being awful to her. When the King of Norway heard that not only was he a deadbeat, but also was wanted for the murder of Darnley, he threw Bothwell in a dungeon and basically left him there to go insane and die. GOOD RIDDANCE.
Back to Mary. After her defeat against the asshole Lords, she was sent off to live in the island prison-castle of Loch Leven. Basically, this was like Old timey Scottish Alcatraz, an island in the middle of a body of water that you can’t get off of without swimming or stealing a boat. Shortly after she arrived, like days later, she miscarried twins. And then a few days later, she was forced to abdicate the throne of Scotland, making her baby son James the new King, with her asshole half-brother James Moray as his Regent.
Things inarguably super sucked for her at this point. But she wasn’t done fighting back.
Part Two: Escape From Loch Leven Castle
While Loch Leven Castle was Alcatraz-like in the island part, it was non-Alcatraz like in the sense of it was a castle, not a jail. Mary was trapped on the island, but she got to sleep in a real room, to have servants helping her out, and was allowed to go outside and get fresh air. But she wasn’t free. It was nicer than jail, but it was still just a pretty cage. And so our gal began plotting a Great Escape. She had three secret helpers: her lady in waiting (also named Mary), her half-brother’s teen half-brother George, and George’s teen BFF Young Willie.
Escape attempt #1: Other Mary stood in the window pretending to be the queen while Mary, disguised as a laundress, left the island on a pre-arranged rowboat. But her hands were so clean, the guy rowing the boat was like “no way you’re a laundress” and brought her back to jail. George and Young Willie’s involvement was discovered and the boys were sent away – but first Mary gave George an earring and they agreed he’d use it to secretly let her know when he came back to rescue her. But Mary didn’t wait around to get rescued by random teen boys!
Escape attempt #2: Mary was 5’11” and the castle walls were 7’ so she decided to CLIMB out. First she got Other Mary to try as a guinea pig, but Other Mary fell and hurt herself and the guards figured out what’s up and stopped them. Ugh can’t a queen just LIVE???
But then the jailer missed Young Willie and invited him back so she had a lil helper again.
And then, on May 2nd 1568, it all went down. On this day, boatman arrived with one of Mary’s earrings like “hey girl did you lose this?” And she was like “oh shit my teenage pal George is busting me out!!! Yes please!”
This gets PHENOMENAL so get ready because Young Willie had schemed to get himself named the “Abbott of Unreason” which was a thing back then at May Day parties, and it meant for 24 hours everyone had to do whatever he said like they were his slaves. Young Willie, well done sir
So he was like “I, Young Willie, am the Abbott of Unreason and I command everyone to GET AS DRUNK AS POSSIBLE and DANCE TILL YOU DROP” and everyone was like “woo!” And all started to get mega wasted because Young Willie could throw an amazing hootenanny
When everyone was good and drunk, Young Willie went outside to peg all the boats to the shore except for one — so Mary could escape but anyone chasing her would be slowed down — but Sir William Douglas saw him out the window like “Och aye Young Willie! What are ye doin’?” And Mary was like “AHHH IM SO SICK LOOK AT ME NOT OUT THE WINDOW AHH! NOTHING TO SEE OUTSIDE NO WAY”
And the jailer was like, “Oh no poor you! You should go to bed early!” and excused Mary from the May Day party but that was ALSO PART OF THE PLAN as she had to be in her room to keep an eye out for Young Willie’s signal it was time to sneak out. Everything was going perfectly!
Except… the jailer still had the keys to the castle, so Young Willie had to get him ever MORE drunk until he put down the keys by accident. Young Willie spotted the keys on the table and, under the very drunk nose of the jailer, he hid the keys in a napkin and snuck out.
From her room, Mary spotted Young Willie waving in the courtyard outside, and so she ran out – 5’11”, dressed in a servant disguise – and they literally sauntered right out the front gate and locked it behind them! Everyone was too drunk to notice or care! The plan had worked!!!
They threw the keys in a cannon, then got on the boat Young Willie had readied earlier and rowed ashore, where George was there waiting for them!! Because he’d secretly helped plan everything! And so Mary and her teen boy pals rode off to meet up with her other supporters
Part Three: Royal Sister vs. Bastard Brother
Mary’d had a year in quasi-jail on Loch Leven to plan her next moves, and with the help of George and Young Willie, they began uniting all her secret supporters together into an army. There were still some Scottish lords who supported Mary’s claim to the throne, one of whom let her stay safely in his castle. She was able to enjoy FREEDOM!!! and sleeping in a nice bed for just two weeks before her forces faced off against her gross half-brother and his army. Mary had amassed 6,000 troops, way more than her brother had, and she positioned herself at the top of a nearby hill to watch the battle. Unfortunately, her brother’s army was more clever, and ambush attacked Mary’s forces. Her troops not only lost but they super lost, with backstabbing and betrayal and just a lot of messiness.
So what did our gal do? What she did best: fled for her life. She headed off on horseback across the country, in the company of about 15 lords who were still loyal to her cause. They overnighted in a former abbey. Mary and the Lords brainstormed all night: what should they do?? To her, their best and only option was to sail down to England, and try and get help from Queen Elizabeth I. Now, these two had been enemies up to very recently, sure. But Elizabeth had said at one point that she didn’t like how Mary was being treated. Maybe they could leverage that into Elizabeth funding them to Take Back Scotland. The lords were like, “Or… we could try and get help from France, which is a Catholic country who actually support you?” But Mary’s mind was decided: to England they would go!
But how to get to England? Well, the former monastery had a shipping boat that nobody seemed to be using, so Mary and her guys commandeered it and TALLY HO, off they went across the water to England. In order to get there from the abbey, they had to cross a body of water called the
Colin Firth Solway Firth. In their little fishing boat, this journey was expected to take about four hours. Mary had been through so much in the past few months that I’m sure this was nothing to her; at least she didn’t have to wear a disguise this time?? But mid-way across, she had a sudden premonition: if she went to England, she would die there. So she was like, “Turn back! Let’s go to France instead!!” but the winds were like, “LOL” and made it so the little boat couldn’t turn any direction other than straight ahead to England.
And so, she landed in England where she was taken into protective custody by the local officials until Queen Elizabeth figured out what to do with her.
Part Four: A Scottish Queen in England
Elizabeth was basically at a loss over what to do about Mary. On the one hand, Mary was her relative, and a Queen, and had been treated incredibly horribly by most of the Scottish lords. Should Elizabeth back her up, to show that being a Queen was more important than being Catholic or Protestant? But if she did that, then Mary might try and take over Elizabeth’s throne in England. And there was the whole messy business re: had Mary blown up Darnley?
So Elizabeth took her time, ordering an inquiry into WTF had been going on in Scotland. While all this was happening, Mary was again being held quasi-prisoner in a castle, her fate seemingly out of her hands. While she sat around, presumably working on her stitching and reading books etc., a civil war was happening in Scotland with her supporters continuing to face off against her horrible half-brother.
Finally, Elizabeth’s inquiry decided that there was enough evidence to proceed with putting Mary on trial for the murder of Darnley. Mary was like, “How dare you put me on trial, I am a LITERAL QUEEN, and I cannot be put on trial because I can only be judged by a jury of my peers and I HAVE NO PEERS, suck on that.” So instead of attending the trial, she sent someone to stand in for her — but Elizabeth was like, “Psych, you aren’t invited to the trial anyway” and their rivalry was back the fuck on.
Do you know who they brought in to testify at this trial? Only Mary’s ODIOUS HALF-BROTHER, who was like, “Behold! In a weird coincidence, I found these love letters and poems, written between Mary and her HEINOUS third husband, Bothwell! These prove they were in love, which proves they worked together to kill Darnley! And sure, the letters aren’t signed, but they’re probably hers, I mean, why would I lie??” These were known as the casket letters, as her half-brother claimed to have found them in a small casket which was like a fancy storage box. Mary was like, “Girl, no, I never wrote those because a) I never loved Bothwell and b) my handwriting is nothing like that.” Elizabeth was sent a description of the letters, and everyone agreed that if they were real, it proved Mary was super-guilty. But were they real??? *
*We will never know because the letters are lost to the mists of time and/or Mary’s grown-up son seems to have burned them. Whether they were real or fake kind of doesn’t matter at this point, centuries after this all went down, but note that at least three prominent biographers of Mary have concluded that the letters were either forged, were actual letters someone snuck incriminating info into, or were letters Mary wrote to someone else other than Bothwell. It’s a whole thing, lots of people have written about the casket letters if you’re into handwriting analysis and this sort of CSI stuff.
Whether the letters were real or not kind of didn’t matter anyway. Elizabeth had never wanted to convict Mary of anything because that would show that Queens were fallible and could put herself in danger. So, the whole inquiry ended with a verdict of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, and Mary was sent back to castle-prison, and her AWFUL half-brother continued on as Regent in Scotland.
Part Five: Hardwick Hall Homewrecker
But the thing is, with Mary not officially guilty but also not not-guilty, she couldn’t just be set free — especially as Elizabeth (correctly) suspected Mary would never stop scheming to take over England. And so Mary was placed on house arrest in the custody of her trusted friends Bess of Hardwick and her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury. These two were legit land barons who owned a bunch of properties, and part of the conditions of this arrangement was that Mary couldn’t ever leave Bess and the Earl’s lands. It just so happened that all of these properties were land-locked, preventing Mary from being anywhere near boats, which I think we all know by now she liked to use for escape purposes.
So it was like jail in the sense of she could never leave. But it was like being a long-term houseguest in the sense of Mary was able to keep sixteen of her personal domestic staff, and when she travelled with Bess and the Earl between properties, she got thirty carts to transport all of her belongings. So mostly had to stay indoors, but that wasn’t so bad as she had an elaborately decorated bedroom, a personal chef who prepared her thirty-one meals to choose from, and was mostly left alone. BUT even Queenly upper-crust house arrest is still house arrest, and Mary had always been a sporty outside-y type of person and she missed the fresh air. Bess and the Earl let her go outside every once in a while, and even let her take a holiday to the spa town of Buxton for seven summers in a row (!!). Like, for being under arrest, this was pretty much best-cast-scenario.
Mary also kept busy waging psychological warfare by pitting Bess and the Earl against one another, to the point that the Shrewsburys’ marriage dissolved completely. Bess was like, “Elizabeth can you please get this woman out of my house??” And Elizabeth was like, “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” because the whole thing wasn’t up to her, it was up to her Parliament and the Scottish lords, and none of them wanted Mary going free.
In 1570, Mary’s useless half-brother was assassinated which is a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that he sucked, and the world was free of him. The bad news is that his death coincided with a Catholic rebellion, which made Elizabeth remember how much of a threat Mary was to her as Queen. So Elizabeth sent troops up to intervene in the Scottish civil war, ensuring that the anti-Mary faction came out on top. She also had spies placed in Mary’s household, to ensure that the captive Queen wasn’t secretly planning her own escape or revolt, etc.
It was these very spies who, in 1571, uncovered the Ridolfi Plot. One of the coordinators of this plot was a guy named the Duke of Norfolk, who had been trying for years to scheme a way to marry Mary as part of his plan to… who knows, just take over England and Scotland, presumably. This plot was centered around having Norfolk and Spanish troops help Mary replace Elizabeth as Queen. Norfolk was executed due to all of this, and surveillance of Mary stepped up a notch. Additionally, the casket letters somehow became published, which worked to wreck Mary’s reputation in England so that she wouldn’t have public support to take over as Queen.
Other Mary-related plots continued to spring up, only to be squashed by Elizabeth’s spies. Even the Pope got involved, trying to fix Mary up with one of his relatives in order to try and take over England. Basically, Mary’s continued existence was a very real and constant threat to Elizabeth’s power. And the years just went on and on, and Mary was still trapped with an increasingly unimpressed Bess. Mary also began to exhibit symptoms of health issues, such that she wound up unable to walk due to severe rheumatism in her legs. But did she ever stop scheming? OF COURSE NOT!!
In 1585, Mary made a proposition to Elizabeth with a bunch of terms in it such as that she promised to stop trying to be English Queen, she’d respect Elizabeth, etc., in exchange for Mary being set free and being allowed to rule Scotland in association with her son James. Mary’s son James, who by now was an adult, was like, “Ummm… I’m going to pass on this because I’m #TeamLiz” and Elizabeth was like, “I don’t trust Mary not to betray us in the middle of signing the paper this is written on, so, pass” and it didn’t happen. Elizabeth tightened the house arrest conditions for Mary, finally removing her from the Shrewsburys’ custody and placing her in a smaller castle with less nice things. But did Mary stop scheming? WHAT DO YOU THINK??
Part Six: Another Trial
So, Elizabeth’s #1 spy was a dude named Walsingham, and he was just as tired as Elizabeth of Mary’s constant scheming. So he made a plan to entrap her. Using his web of spies, he arranged so that all of Mary’s letters in an out of her prison-castle would go through him first. Mary’s letters were all written in code, but Walsingham figured out the codes, and if this were a movie it would be a truly suspenseful part of two clever people (Mary and Walsingham) trying to trick one another. Unfortunately, it was while going through her mail — which Mary thought was secure — that he learned about her involvement in the Babington Plot. The letters that Walsingham read seemed to indicate that Mary was aware of and had approved Elizabeth’s assassination.
Mary was arrested while out horseback riding, which shows that even this prison-castle still provided her some fun, and was taken to yet another prison-castle to await a trial for her involvement in this assassination attempt. The charge this time was treason, and her jury included 36 noblemen — including the former captor whose marriage she’d ruined (Shrewsbury), along with Chief Spy Walsingham himself (!) so things were stacked against her from the beginning. As when she’d been put on trial before, but this time in person instead of via letter, Mary was like, “I am a Queen and this is bullshit” and despite her rheumatism and health issues and inability to walk, she was still 5’11” and gorgeous and had a very commanding presence. She also had a way with words, telling them (this quote is verbatim):
“Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England.”
She also noted that she hadn’t been given access to a lawyer, or a chance to look over the evidence against her, and anyway she wasn’t an English subject so technically she couldn’t be found guilty of treason. But, despite her phenomenal showing in the courtroom, the jury found her guilty and sentenced her to death by execution.
Elizabeth still didn’t want to have Mary killed. Partly because, as ever, she worried that to kill a Queen would make more people want to kill her. Kings and Queens were supposed to be untouchable — if she had Mary put to death, it would make them seem fallible. She also worried that Mary’s son James would want revenge, and might team up with another Catholic country to invade England. What to do??? First, she tried to barter with Mary’s guardian to see if he could secretly poison her or something, so Mary would die but it wouldn’t be Elizabeth’s doing. The guardian was like, “Girl, never in a million years,” so Elizabeth was like, “Ugh, fine” and signed Mary’s death warrant.
So the end seemed inevitable now. OR WAS IT??
Part Seven: Death of a Queen
The way these things were supposed to work was that Elizabeth would sign the death warrant, and then the Privy Council would meet to talk about it, and then they’d give Elizabeth a heads-up, and then Mary would be executed. But the Privy Councillors — possibly because they knew how reluctant Elizabeth was to carry this out — met secretly without letting her know, and arranged a date for the execution ASAP. Mary was set to be executed on February 8th, 1587, nineteen years after she’d arrived on that absconded monk’s fishing boat in England.
The night before the execution, Mary was given advance warning that this was going to happen. She spent her final hours preparing for her death by praying, writing a will, and distributing belongings to her loyal servants.
She was brought out to the scaffold the morning of her execution, accompanied by two of her female servants. In a bold and timeless move of fashion violence, these women removed Mary’s black outer garment to reveal a bright crimson inner outfit with black accents — red being the colour of martyrdom in the Catholic church. Mary may be going down, but she was going down on her own terms. She quipped, as this grand reveal was taking place, that she’d “[never] put off her clothes before such a company” before. As was the custom, the executioners begged her forgiveness. Her reply was not the typical one, as she said to them the achingly sad words, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.”
Mary’s last words, said as she lay her blindfolded head on the executioner’s block, was the Latin prayer said to have been spoken by Jesus at the time of his death: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”).
And then, as per ever with this story, things did not proceed according to plan. The executioner’s first blow, meant to fully decapitate her, missed her neck and hit her on the back of the head so basically just hurt her but didn’t kill her. The second blow was better aimed, but it didn’t cut all the way through her neck as a bit of sinew was left like this was Amateur Hour, like they called in some sort of Substitute Executioner who’d never held an axe before. HONESTLY, couldn’t anything in this poor woman’s life just go ACCORDING TO PLAN?
So anyway, the Substitute Executioner hacked his way through that sinew before the beheading was complete, which is just poor form for an executioner. To make it all more gruesome, he held up the severed head (which was the custom) but it turns out Mary had been wearing a wig and the head fell out and he was left just holding her wig. Rather than the long red hair she’d been known for in her youth, and which she’d seem to have on her head up to five minutes ago, Mary’s natural hair was grey and short. This makes total sense given the amount of unrelenting stress and health stuff she’d been going through HER ENTIRE LIFE.
But, remember how the Privy Council had secretly met without telling Elizabeth? She only found out that Mary had been executed after it was all done, and she FREAKED THE FUCK OUT. She yelled at the Privy Council and at the guy who’d taken her signed document back tot he Privy Council and was like, “WTF YOU GUYS???” and furthermore, she was like, “I had literally nothing to do with this execution, so don’t blame meeee” which was maybe part true, but also part of her not wanting to look like the bad guy here. She got the letter courier thrown in the Tower of London for not following her instructions, and he stayed there for more than a year until Walsingham convinced Elizabeth to let him out. Still, her role in Mary’s death haunted Elizabeth literally to her last days — when she was on her own deathbed, she claimed to be visited by Mary’s spirit, blaming her for killing her.
Mary had requested to be buried in France, which was in retrospect the only non-horrible part of her life’s journey. Elizabeth refused, though, and made a bold move by having Mary’s burial service by Protestant instead of Catholic, and had her buried in Peterborough Cathedral. When Elizabeth died, she named Mary’s son James as her successor and, as King, he had his mother’s body re-interred in Westminster Abbey — in a tomb directly opposite that of Elizabeth. In death, as in life, their lives were inextricably linked.
There are a lot of books out there about Mary Queen of Scots because, if you haven’t noticed, her life was bonkers and there’s lots to discuss. The book Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy was the basis for the 2018 film. Mary Queen of Scots by Stefan Zweig is also well-regarded AND was just re-released with a cute new cover. Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen Of Scots is another good one, as is the recent book The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams, which gets deeper into Mary’s story by focusing on one aspect of the series of bonkers things that were going on around her.
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