|Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)
Mary, Queen of Scots is an enigma, to say the least. Her guilt or innocence in the murder of her husband has been debated for centuries. As many historians point out, every argument in favor of her innocence can be countered by one against. Most of the calumnies heaped against her in her own lifetime were the work of Scots scholar George Buchanan.
Mary was born at Linlithgow in 1542, the daughter of James V and Mary de Guise (who had been courted by Henry VIII of England). The princess became queen at the age of six days upon the death of her father. At age six, Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII's son, the ill-fated Edward, but with what results history will never disclose, the proposed union was nullified by a pro-French and Roman Catholic faction. The ire of the English king, exemplified by the period of invasions of his Scottish neighbours known as "the rough wooing," resulted in the defeat of the Scots at Pinkie (1547) and Mary's being sent to France.
In 1558, now a beautiful, blossoming 16 years of age, Mary married the heir to the French throne, the Dauphin Francis (who was only 14). She secretly agreed, if she were to die without a child, her Scottish kingdom would go to the French monarch. At the premature death of Francis, one year after he had become King, the firm hand of Catharine de Medici took control of France. Despite a revolution in Scotland that had rejected the French alliance and the supremacy of the Pope, Mary returned to Scotland.
The plot then thickened. When Elizabeth I became queen, Mary became heir presumptive to the English throne as the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor. Not only that, but Roman Catholics throughout Europe considered her to be a better claimant to the Crown of England than the queen herself, for they believed that Elizabeth's mother Ann Boleyn had been married illegally to King Henry.
Mary's reign started out well. Though she absolutely refused to recognize the Protestant Church. She took the advice of James Stuart, Earl of Moray and William Maitland in conceding recognition to the reformed church and modest endowment while continuing her own Catholic worship in private. Mary might have forfeited her Scottish throne had her husband not died in 1560, but her return, despite her early caution, had raised Protestant fears. These fears were partly allayed when, though negotiations were afoot for her marriage to Catholic Philip II of Spain, she settled on her first cousin, Lord Darnley. The marriage turned out to be a grievous error.
Scottish Protestants greatly feared that even the marriage to Darnley would mean a resurgence of Catholicism. They were not prepared to stomach that reversal of fortune. The Reformation in Scotland had taken place partly because it seemed as if the country was rapidly becoming nothing more than an appendage of France. Protestantism represented, in a very real manner, Scottish independence. The Darnley marriage ceremony was a Roman Catholic one. Moray raised a rebellion, easily crushed, but Protestants were further incensed when the Queen foolishly began to rely heavily upon non-Protestant, foreign courtiers, including her Italian secretary David Riccio, suspected of being a papal agent.
In 1566, Riccio was murdered by a group of Protestant lords, Darnley being implicated. In the same year, Prince James was born (later to reign as James VI of Scotland and James I of England). Mary, tiring of Darnley, began to show affection to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, whose guilt in the murder of Darnley, along with that of Mary, is set out in the notorious Casket Letters, now considered a forgery.
Mary went ahead in a second disastrous marriage, this time to Bothwell, who had abducted her and divorced his wife. For the proud Scottish nobles, this was too much, and they forced Mary to abdicate her throne in favor of her young son. A feeble attempt by Mary to regain the throne was defeated at Langside, following which the unfortunate (and some say, foolhardy) queen fled to England and the protection of Elizabeth.
After the Bothwell marriage, the Queen's supporters had been placed at a decided disadvantage compared to those influenced by the ballad writer Robert Sempill, who attacked Mary as an adulterous whore, and thereby justified her forced abdication. Queen Elizabeth, in the meantime, made sure that Mary's shortcomings were made the only criteria of her fitness to rule, and Mary's reputation was consequently so besmirched that even Catholics found it difficult to support her.
The most savage attacks on Mary's character came from George Buchanan, who sought very successfully to completely undermine her right to rule by showing that her reckless and malicious behavior proved her to be unworthy of her title. In the long run, however, such attacks on Mary's immorality could only play second fiddle to the much more important question of her religion, of her threat to Protestantism through her claim to the English throne. In her supporters' eyes, too, Mary's so-called immorality was a minor issue compared to her steadfast Catholicism. Her character and career as Queen of Scots was defended by no less than John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, who also supported her particular claim to succeed Elizabeth as Queen of England.
After Mary's execution, which was finally ordered by Elizabeth following a series of ill-conceived plots against the English Queen, the accession of a Protestant sovereign finally brought to an end the hopes of a return to Catholicism that Mary had personified. It also ended the vitriolic attacks on the person of Mary herself. Even leading Protestant writers now began to depict her as an unfortunate queen whose downfall had been brought about more through the caprice of fortune than by defects in her morals. More than one historian has pointed out that Mary's modern resurgence as a handsome, brave and proud woman, defeated through ill-circumstance and powerful enemies, seems to bear out her personal motto: "In my end is my beginning."
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