Mary, Queen of Scots was in a world of hurt. Her husband, Lord Darnley, had been murdered and she was being implicated in his death. It was well known the relationship was on the rocks. He was constantly drunk and kept company with whores. The last straw was his involvement in the death of her secretary, David Rizzio. His house in Kirk of the Field had exploded, but Darnley’s body had been found strangled in the garden. It could have caused nothing but relief for Mary. However, suspicion for his murder fell on several nobles, including James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Mary had consulted Bothwell and a council of nobles to see what could be done about Darnley, as he was unfit for the crown matrimonial. Divorce would have made their son illegitimate, but what could be done? Now Darnley was conveniently dead. It was very suggestive. Bothwell was tried for the murder of Darnley and acquitted on April 12, 1567, but only for lack of evidence. Not exactly comforting.
After the trial, Bothwell convinced Mary it was too dangerous for her to return to Edinburgh, and he conveniently had 600 men ready to escort her to his castle at Dunbar. Whether or not Mary was involved in Darnley’s murder, she was understandably afraid of more bloodshed. She went with Bothwell hoping a powerful noble on her side would help her get things under control. Things did not go exactly as planned. Again, there are several versions of the story. One says that Bothwell imprisoned and raped Mary so she would have to marry him. Another says they were secret lovers waiting for their chance and the rape story was concocted to save her honor later. In either case on May 15, 1567, Mary married the man who only a few weeks earlier was accused of murdering her husband.
It destroyed any credibility she had left. Scotland went wild, posting placards of her depicting her as a mermaid, which was a euphemism for a prostitute . The Scottish nobles divided along the lines of those who supported Bothwell as king and those who didn’t. They met to fight at the Battle of Carberry Hill, but there was no official battle. The French ambassador tried to negotiate single combat to settle the matter. Bothwell would be fighting for himself and Lord Lindsay was chosen as the champion for the Lords of the Congregation. However, this too fell apart and Mary was offered safe passage to Edinburgh if she sent Bothwell away. She convinced him to leave for his own safety, and he fled hoping to get to Norway. The two would never see each other again.
Things got worse for Mary. She was taken to Edinburgh long enough to gather her things and taken to remote Loch Leven castle. There she miscarried the twins – said to be boys – she had conceived in her brief time with Bothwell. On June 24, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, James, with Mary’s half brother, the Earl of Moray, acting as regent. The Lords threatened to slit her throat if she refused, so to save her skin she signed. Mary was never to see her baby son again. Mary was imprisoned in the castle on the island, and that was supposed to be that. The Lords of the Congregation had not counted on Mary’s ability to charm. In the midst of a drunken May Day feast, Willie Douglas stole the keys to the postern gate and spirited Mary away to a waiting boat. There George Douglas and Lord Seton aided her to gather an army. There was a battle at Langside, Glasgow and Mary lost. Against all advice, she proceeded south to escape to England. She was sure her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, would help her regain her throne.
In a life full of miscalculations, this was probably Mary’s biggest. She had antagonized her cousin by quartering the arms of England with the arms of France when she was a young Queen in Paris. She also neatly refused the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed with England by the Lords of the Congregation. The biggest problem was she was the focus for every Catholic plot to get Elizabeth off the throne. Elizabeth was no fool, and rarely forgave and most certainly never forgot. However, she did have a thing about the sanctity of royal blood. What to do with this troublesome cousin?
Elizabeth put her under lock and key, in the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Bess of Hardwick. Then set out to determine Mary’s guilt or innocence in the matter of Darnley. She appointed a commission and in 1569, the so called Casket of Letters made their first appearance. These have been lost to time, however, many believe they were either outright forgeries or were letters written by Mary and Bothwell to other people with incriminating passages added. No charges were made, and some English nobles supported a plan to marry Mary to the Duke of Norfolk. This ultimately led to the Duke’s imprisonment and execution.
Plots swirled around Mary and brought down those around her, but she seemed to side step them all. She pined away under the Earl’s care, bankrupting his household and some said stealing his heart until the final straw was the Babington Plot in 1586. Communication between Mary and Philip II of Spain supporting an invasion to put her on the throne was found. A coded letter between Anthony Babington and Mary was discovered and she advocated her rescuers to kill Elizabeth. It was enough to send her to the ax. Even with this evidence, Elizabeth dithered, finally signing the execution decree in a fit of pique then imprisoning the man who delivered it.
On February 7, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots met her tragic end. She mounted the scaffold with grace and poise. Eschewing the protestant minister sent to give her comfort, she prayed her Catholic prayers on her own begging God for the conversion of the British Isles back to the Old Faith. Then she tied a handkerchief over her eyes and bared her neck for the executioner. When it was done, the executioner picked up her head and proclaimed the familiar saying, “God save Queen Elizabeth! May all the enemies of the true Evangel thus perish!”. However, Mary in her vanity wore a wig. The auburn hair came loose in his hand revealing the white hair she had tried to hide. Around her feet, her little Skye terrier had hidden staying with his mistress until death. The poor dog pined away and died not long after.
Mary was dead, but was Elizabeth safer on her throne? Philip was preparing his Armada spurred on by Mary’s execution. Time would only tell if this stroke of the ax would help or hinder England.