Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland only six days after her birth at the death of her father King James V. Mary was born at Linlithgow Palace a short distance from Edinburgh on December 8th, 1542, while her father lay dying in Falkland. Even before her birth and her father’s death, Scotland was seemingly in peril at the uncertainty of the monarchy. Henry VIII, the current King of England, sought to conquer Scotland in order to have total control of the British Isles. A victory that would help him in his quest for control of France as well. Just weeks before his death, James V had suffered a crushing loss at the Battle of Solway Moss; a loss that resulted in the captured of up to 1200 Scots as England’s prisoner, include 23 Scottish nobles and lairds. It was this loss that fractured the psyche of James V and caused him to shut himself away at in his Falkland Palace. Learning that his newborn child was a girl instead of the male heir he wished for did not help his mindset and he died locked away without having ever set eyes on his daughter.
Mary Queen of Scots’ reign was as tumultuous as her first days on Earth. Her first several years of life were spent in the care of her mother Mary de Guise at Sterling Castle in Scotland. Once she was actually crowned Queen of Scotland a little before her first birthday, Mary de Guise, after playing her political enemies against each other, renewed the Scottish alliance with France. This alliance infuriated the then English King, Henry VIII, who had long hoped to take control of both Scotland and France. He had also hoped to contract a marriage alliance between Mary and his son Edward. It was this “treachery,” as he saw it, concocted by Mary de Guise, that led him to invade Scotland, attempting to both destroy the port of Leith and take Edinburgh Castle. Instead of taking Edinburgh Castle, however, the English troops burned the city of Edinburgh, as well as other smaller outlying towns, and ransacked Holyrood Palace. Fortunately, Mary de Guise and her infant queen were heavily protected miles away at Stirling Castle.
During this time, Cardinal David Beaton had been jockeying to become the regent for Mary Queen of Scots. However, on May 29th, 1546, after he ordered the execution of a powerful Protestant preacher for heresy in a terrifying spectacle of gunpowder, Beaton was assassinated. His assassination was carried out by a group of Protestant lairds from Fife who had become unhappy with Beaton’s level of power. After sneaking into St. Andrew’s Castle, the lairds cornered Beaton in his bedroom, stabbed him to death and then hung his naked body on the castle walls for all to see. Beaton’s assassination was a major turning point for Scotland, as it signaled both a shift towards Protestantism and had a destabilizing effect on the nation.
After Henry VIII died in January and Francis I died in March of 1547, the new King of France Henry II began negotiations to betrothe the dauphin of France, Francis, to Mary Queen of Scots. By the summer of 1548, the treaty between France and Scotland was ratified and the now five year old Mary was sent to France. The young queen was made to feel at home in France and eventually became comfortable being away from both Scotland and her mother.
In 1551, after spending a year in France with her mother, Mary de Guise, touring the French countryside, an attempt was made on her life. One of the men who had attacked St. Andrews Castle at the urging of the English, and who had been imprisoned in France until his sentence was up, had joined the Garde Ecossaise to exact revenge on Scotland’s monarchy. This assassin made his way to Mary’s apartments and planned to subdue her cook so that he could poison her as she ate her favorite dessert. Luckily, the assassination plot was revealed and never came to fruition, and the would-be-assassin was tried and executed.
Several years later, King Henry II of France was killed after a jousting accident in which the lance splintered into his brain. This left the young Francis and Mary to take the throne. In 1559, Francis was named King of France and Mary was named Queen of France. She was now a queen of two countries at the young age of seventeen. However, due to her young age, the death of her mother, and the ambitions of her uncles, one of the most prominent being a bid for the English throne, Mary was more of a pawn than a queen in her own right.
Mary’s status as Queen of France lasted a little under a year and a half. Her husband, Francis, died on December 5th, 1560 from what historians have argued was either an ear infection or possibly a brain tumor. Francis’ death left Mary with no real place in France and so in 1561 she set sail for Scotland. Upon reaching Scotland, she found a country that was considered uncivilized to the life she had known in France. Mary was forced to land in Leith without her royal attire or horses and so her homecoming lacked the pomp and circumstance she had planned for as queen.
In 1563, another one of Mary’s relatives was killed; her uncle, the Duke of Guise. The duke was assassinated during the siege of Orleans, having been shot three times by a Huguenot. Mary was particularly impacted by his death as he had been her favorite uncle since childhood and had grown up under his mentorship in France. It was after the Duke of Guise’s death that Mary began to feel very much alone…
Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2014.
Guy, John Alexander. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. United Kingdom: Fourth Estate, 2004.
Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Williams, Kate. The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival. United States: Pegasus Books, 2020.