Francois Clouet, Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, c.1549 

Mary Stuart was born at Linlithgow Palace on 7th December 1542, the daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise. Six days after her birth her father died, and she became Queen of Scotland. From her infancy, Scotland’s rival pro-English and pro-French factions plotted to gain control of Mary. Her French mother was chosen as regent, and she sent Mary to France in 1548.  Mary lived as part of the French royal family. In April 1558 she married the Dauphin Francis; she secretly agreed to bequeath Scotland to France if she should die without a son. In July 1559 Francis succeeded his father becoming King Francis II and Mary became Queen of France as well as of Scotland.  In addition, many Roman Catholics recognised Mary Stuart as Queen of England after Mary I died and the Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded her to the throne in November 1558. 

Mary Stuart’s claim to the English throne was based on the fact that she was the grand-daughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII–Elizabeth’s father. To the Roman Catholics, Mary’s claim appeared stronger than Elizabeth’s because they viewed Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn as illegal.  Mary’s young husband Francis II died in December 1560 after a reign of 17 months. Mary, who was about to become 18 years of age, was left in a difficult position. Unwilling to stay in France and live under the domination of her mother-in-law Catherine De Medicis she decided to return to Scotland and take her chances with the Protestant reformers.

On 19th August 1561, Mary landed at Leith and immediately took the advice of the moderates James Stuart (her half-brother, later earl of Moray) and William Maitland of Lethington. She recognised the Reformed (Presbyterian) church and allowed it a modest endowment but not full establishment. The Protestant reformers, including John Knox, were horrified because she had Mass in her own chapel, and the Roman Catholics were worried about her lack of zeal for their cause. For the next few years Mary tried to placate the Protestants and befriend Elizabeth while at the same time negotiating a Catholic marriage with Don Carlos, the son of Philip II of Spain. When refusals came on both the English succession and the Spanish marriage Mary accepted a marriage of love rather than a purely political match. She married her first cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley on 29th July 1565.

Scotland: The Final Years

This marriage was unacceptable to the Protestants, and Moray, with the aid of other nobles, raised a rebellion which Mary quickly suppressed. Nevertheless she felt betrayed by her Protestant advisors and withdrew some of her support from the Reformed church. Her marriage with Darnley soured and she refused him the right to succeed if she died without issue. Alone and disappointed, Mary turned to her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, for comfort and advice. The Protestant lords disliked Rizzio’s influence because they suspected him of being a papal agent, and Darnley openly stated that the Italian was too intimate with the Queen. On 9th March 1566 a group of Protestant lords, acting with the support of Darnley, murdered Rizzio in Mary’s presence at Holyrood Palace. Mary, who was six months pregnant, survived the horrible ordeal. In Edinburgh Castle on 19th June 1566, estranged from her husband and his allies, she gave birth to a son James (later James I of England).  By the end of 1566 Mary had befriended James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and was seeking a way to dissolve her marriage with Darnley. Various schemes were concocted; it seems unlikely, however, that Mary was aware of the actual plot to eliminate her husband. On 10th February 1567 Darnley was murdered at Kirk o’ Field; the circumstances of his death to this day remain a mystery. At the time, Bothwell was believed to be the chief instigator. Nevertheless he was acquitted after an all too brief trial. In April, Mary went off with Bothwell (perhaps a victim of abduction); early in May he obtained a divorce from his wife, and on 15th May 1567 he and Mary were wed according to the Protestant rite.  These events alienated even some of Mary’s closest supporters. The nobles, many of whom disliked Bothwell, banded together to face Mary and her new husband at Carberry. The Queen was forced to surrender, and Bothwell fled.  Mary was imprisoned at Lochleven Castle and on 24th July 1567, she was compelled to abdicate in favour of her son who became King James VI of Scotland. With the help of a few brave friends, Mary escaped from the castle and immediately rallied a large force behind her. They engaged in battle at Langside on 13th May 1568, and were soundly beaten by the army led by the Protestant lords. At this point Mary decided to leave Scotland and go to England to beg support from her cousin Elizabeth.

England: The Captive Years

Mary crossed the Solway into England and nearly 19 years of captivity; she never returned to Scotland. While she was incarcerated in England, numerous plots by English Roman Catholics and foreign agents evolved around her. These plots were frustrated by English agents, but serious alarm was raised concerning the safety of Elizabeth. The Babington plot, which called for the assassination of Elizabeth, was formed to trap Mary. Mary was found guilty of complicity and sentenced to be beheaded. Although reluctant to execute her cousin, Elizabeth gave the order that was carried out at Fotheringhay Castle on 8th February 1587. Mary was buried first at Peterborough; in 1612, after he had ascended the English throne, her son James had her interred in Westminster Abbey.


Mary of Guise (Marie de Guise), unknown artist / date. This lovely portrait of Mary’s French mother shows some similarity between mother and daughter. Mary of Guise was once courted by King Henry VIII, but shunned him for his nephew, King James V of Scotland. She proved herself an astute politician during her daughter’s regency, deftly manipulating both the French and English governments to her own advantage. She sent Mary to France at the age of 5; she saw her daughter only once more, but the final visit to France was tragic. Mary’s only surviving son from her first marriage died in her arms. She returned to Scotland, dying in June 1560.

Sketch of 12 or 13 year old Mary, by Francois Clouet, c1555. Clouet was court painter to Mary’s father-in-law, King Henry II of France. As such, he sketched and painted Mary several times. I love most of his work and this sketch is particularly beautiful. Other artists often imitated his style.


‘Francois II and Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland, his wife’, c1558. This is a double portrait of Mary and her first husband, Francois. It was made during their brief reign as king and queen of France. The portrait was made for Catherine d’Medici’s Book of Hours. Catherine was Francois’s indomitable mother. She was never fond of Mary or her ambitious Guise relatives, unlike her avuncular (and notoriously unfaithful) husband, King Henry II.

‘Francois II and Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland, his wife’, c1558. This is a double portrait of Mary and her first husband, Francois. It was made during their brief reign as king and queen of France. The portrait was made for Catherine d’Medici’s Book of Hours. Catherine was Francois’s indomitable mother. She was never fond of Mary or her ambitious Guise relatives, unlike her avuncular (and notoriously unfaithful) husband, King Henry II.

Mary’s signature (Marie R). ‘Marie Regina’. Mary’s handwriting was not as elaborate or beautiful as Elizabeth Tudor’s, but the queen of England had been taught calligraphy by the great Roger Ascham. Mary was well-educated and a great patron of the arts. But her education was never focused on the intricacies of politics and other matters of state. She was educated to be a queen consort, not queen in her own right; her marriage to Francois was arranged by her Guise relatives to make Scotland an appendage of France.


Mary, queen of Scots, c1565. I am still searching for information


Miniature portrait of Mary, c1565. This portrait is a later copy of one made in France in the mid-1560s, after Mary had returned to Scotland as queen in her own right. It isn’t particularly striking, but the hat and gown are interesting. It’s actually quite rare to find Tudor portraits which stand alone as great art (aside from Holbein) – portraits we would admire even without the colorful personalities attached – but even the worst ones have some interesting features. And this one has the hat. Go hat! (This portrait, sans hat, is on the cover of the American edition of John Guy’s new biography of Mary.)


Mary, queen of Scots, c1565. This striking portrait of Mary was painted during her brief adult rule in Scotland.


Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, c1566. Darnley was Mary’s second husband, a love match which quickly soured. They wed on 29 July 1565; he was nineteen, vain and spoiled. Mary was twenty-two and rather melancholy, susceptible to Darnley’s superficial charms. He also possessed Tudor royal blood, sharing the same grandmother (Margaret Tudor) with Mary. The union should have been popular, but it was not. Darnley’s family was disliked as overbearing and presumptuous; the Protestant lords did not like having a rival to their influence over the queen; and Elizabeth I, officially at least, did not like the dynastic implications of the match. Elizabeth knew Darnley from his time at the English court and was not concerned with his political acumen. In fact, she privately celebrated the match, knowing it would cause trouble for the Scottish queen. Poor Mary, who had every reason to believe she had made a sensible choice, was faced with the realization that any marriage would bring dissension and criticism upon her. She genuinely loved Darnley but he soon disappointed her with his immaturity and demands. They had a child together, James, who would later unite Scotland and England after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Unfortunately for Mary, Darnley was mentally unstable and felt slighted by her inability to persuade the Scottish parliament to crown him king. He was also susceptible to malicious gossip; he participated with the Scottish lords in the murder of Mary’s beloved secretary, David Riccio, on 9 March 1566. Darnley was eventually murdered under highly suspicious circumstances at Kirk o’Field on 10 February 1567. Mary’s reputation never recovered from the scandal.


Mary, queen of Scots, and Lord Darnley. This is a rare double portrait commemorating Mary’s second marriage. The artist has certainly captured Darnley’s vanity and effeminate appearance, as well as Mary’s legendary height. Many courtiers whispered she wed Darnley simply because he was one of the few gentleman of her stature.


 Coin struck to commemorate Union   
 Reverse of coin showing Coat of Arms 
 Engraving of Mary and her second Husband Darley  

Mary’s son, King James VI & I, as a child by Arnold Bronckorst, c1571. Mary last saw her son at Stirling Castle on 22 April 1567 when he was just ten months old. It was on her way back to Edinburgh from Stirling that she was captured by Bothwell. James’s childhood was deeply unhappy, hardly surprising given the tumultuous events which led to his mother’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. He was put under the care of Mary’s hated half-brother, Moray, and starved of affection. He suffered from rickets, which affected his walk, and developed a drooling problem which became more pronounced as he aged. He was also deeply paranoid; as king of England, he wore a diamond waistcoat to prevent stabbing. And though he did not help his mother during her imprisonment, he did move her body to Westminster Abbey upon becoming king of England.

an unknown artist is the only known likeness of Mary’s third husband, born c1535. It is part of a double miniature; the other portrait is of his first wife, Jean Gordon. Since they were married in 1566 and divorced a year later, I have assumed the miniatures were painted in 1566 to celebrate the union. Jean actually divorced Bothwell on 3 May 1567, and the marriage was also annulled on the charge that Bothwell had seduced her serving maid. Bothwell was a notorious womanizer, but he was also an intelligent and capable leader. His hasty Protestant marriage to Mary on 15 May 1567 at Holyrood was an unmitigated disaster, whatever personal happiness it may have brought either spouse. Five centuries later, it is impossible to understand Mary’s feelings towards Bothwell. He had given her (and her mother before her) unwavering support but he was also implicated, like many of the Scottish lords, in Darnley’s murder (as was Mary herself.) She had been taken under duress to Dunbar Castle by Bothwell in late April 1567. It was asserted by her councilors that he ‘ravished her and lain with her against her will’ and so ‘the Queen could not but marry him’ to protect her honor. Mary herself wrote to the Bishop of Dunblane, ‘Albeit we found his doings rude, yet were his words and answers gentle.’ They married in a quiet and tense ceremony, fraught with immense consequence. It was widely believed that Mary loved Bothwell and they were both murderers. Placards mocking the queen as a prostitute and temptress (see below) were posted throughout Edinburgh; European leaders were scandalized by the union. And barely a month after the marriage, on 17 June 1567, the ‘Casket Letters’ were produced. These controversial letters, later determined to be forgeries, were used by the queen’s enemies to prove her and Bothwell’s adultery and complicity in Darnley’s murder. The sonnets included with the letters, however, and written by Mary to Bothwell, are not so easily dismissed as forgeries. Their order may have been altered and some lines tampered with, but they are strikingly similar to the sonnets she wrote during her English captivity. If the sonnets are authentic, and I believe them to be, then it is clear that Mary loved Bothwell. Their union ended with the loss of her throne. Bothwell himself died in captivity in Denmark in 1578. The imprisonment was politically motivated; the Scottish lords did not want him to return home. But it was also incredibly cruel. After a lifetime of action and love of the outdoors, Bothwell was driven insane by comfinement.
‘The Mermaid and the Hare’: Placard denouncing the adultery between Mary and Bothwell. This anonymous placard was one of many plastered throughout Edinburgh during the fateful spring of 1567. Rumors of adultery with Lord Bothwell were only encouraged when Mary wed him just three months after Darnley’s very suspicious death. In popular culture, the mermaid symbolized a prostitute; the hare was Bothwell’s insignia. The initials ‘I H’ refer to his full name, James Hepburn. ‘M R’, of course, stands for Maria Regina. Mary was devastated by this sort of anonymous slander. Her reputation in Scotland never recovered.
‘Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord!’: Placard in which the infant Prince James prays beside the corpse of his father, Lord Darnley. Yet another anonymous placard, one which encapsulates the most explosive charge against Mary. Even today, her complicity in Darnley’s murder is debated; no definitive answer is possible.


Mary, queen of Scots and the infant Prince James. This is my favorite portrait of Mary and her only child. It was a contemporary portrait, but the artist is unknown. I am still searching for more information. It is certainly more attractive than the portrait directly below.


Mary, queen of Scots and King James VI of Scotland, c1583. This is the most famous double portrait of Mary and James, made four years before her execution. The artist’s debt to portraits of Mary in captivity is evident. Her appearance, clothing and all, is a virtual reproduction of contemporary works. Compare this, for example, to the portrait directly below; Mary even clutches the same jewel.


Mary, queen of Scots in captivity, c1580, unknown artist. This is my favorite portrait of Mary in captivity. The figure is not especially stiff; the face and hands are more lifelike than in other portraits


Mary during her captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard, inscribed with the date 1578. This is perhaps the most famous image of Mary; it was painted during her imprisonment in England. I am almost certain the artist is Nicholas Hilliard. There are, however, numerous copies of the portrait, most done in the early 17th century during her son’s reign as king of England.

Mary, queen of Scots, c1575, by an unknown artist. This miniature portrait of Mary was made during her English imprisonment.


Miniature portrait of Mary during her captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard c.1615. This portrait was identified as Mary, queen of Scots, in the 18th century. Is it Mary? Some people dispute this claim; others support it. The inscription ‘Virtutis Amore’ is an anagram of the name ‘Marie Stouart.’ The style and costume indicate it was made as a memorial portrait after Mary’s execution in 1587.



A tapestry Mary embroidered while imprisoned in England. Mary was a talented embroiderer; many examples of her needlework survive.

Mary’s execution at Fotheringhay Castle, 8 February 1587. This is a narrative woodcut; the inscription is in Dutch. You can see Mary’s possessions being burned to the left.

  Her [Mary queen of Scots] prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.’ Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other her apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone. 

All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, ‘that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company.’ ….

  Robert Wynkfielde’s written account of the execution.

Execution of Mary Queen of Scots


Mary Queen of Scots Being Led to Execution, by Laslett John Pott, 1871. This 19th century portrait is one of the more celebrated ‘history paintings’ about Mary’s tragic life.