The life and legend of Mary, Queen of Scots

Explore the moments that shaped the woman and her country.


Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) (1558 - 1560) by François ClouetRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Life, death & myth

Inheriting the Scottish throne as an infant, Mary's reign was fraught with death, conspiracy and treason. Yet she became a romantic heroine, with her life inspiring artists, poets and writers for centuries. But who was Mary, Queen of Scots and why is she so famous more than 400 years after her death? This tour uses a combination of portraits painted during her lifetime and romanticised history paintings to tell the story of Mary's life and the making of a legend.

Mary, Queen of Scots , 1542 - 1587. Reigned 1542 - 1567 (In white mourning) (Probably a 19th century replica after an image of 1561) by UnknownNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

Mary's formative years

Mary Stuart inherited Scotland's throne as a baby after the death of her father, King James V. Mary was sent to live with her mother's family in France when she was just five years old. She grew up at the French court as the future bride and queen of François II. Mary and François were married in 1558, but within two years the sickly fifteen-year-old François died.

This portrait shows Mary Stuart aged about eighteen years old wearing the traditional, white mourning clothing of the French court. She stares out of the painting with a maturity that belies her age. Not only had she just lost her husband but her father-in-law and her mother, Mary of Guise, had also died.

Mary, Queen of Scots: The Farewell to France (1869) by Robert HerdmanNational Galleries Scotland: National

Returning to Scotland

Eight months after her husband's death and having lost her position as Queen of France, Mary landed at Leith on 19 August 1561 to take up her duties as Queen of Scotland.

The return of the Catholic Mary, to a Scotland rife with division between Protestant and Catholic factions, led to distrust of the new arrival.

Queen Elizabeth I of England (late 16th–early 17th century) by Frans Huys|Elizabeth I, Queen of England|Paul de la HouveThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Introducing Elizabeth

One of the biggest worries of Mary’s reign was the relationship with her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England. Elizabeth had no heirs, which meant that Mary, as her closest relative, was seen as perhaps the best candidate to succeed her as Queen of England.

The English establishment, however, loathed the idea of a Catholic queen and Elizabeth was reluctant to choose a successor.

Maqry Queen Of Scots PortraitsLIFE Photo Collection

Marriage woes

Mary attempted to show her Protestant and pro-English commitment by making an acceptable marriage, but Elizabeth opposed almost every candidate. In the end, Mary decided to marry her cousin, Lord Darnley.

Elizabeth and members of her court were outraged by the match, as Mary and Darnley were both legitimate heirs to the English throne and their marriage strengthened each other’s claim.

The Murder of David Rizzio (circa 1833) by Sir William AllanNational Galleries Scotland: National

Jealousy and murder

Mary soon discovered that Darnley was arrogant, impulsive and vain, and his struggles for personal power created instability in an already fragile political situation.

Mary stopped short of giving Darnley the ‘crown matrimonial’, which would have made him king in the event of Mary’s death. This infuriated Darnley who tried to convince Parliament to crown him without his wife’s approval.

Jealous of Mary's friendship with her private secretary, the Italian musician David Rizzio, on 9 March 1566 Darnley and a group of Lords barged into Mary’s private apartments in Holyrood Palace and stabbed Rizzio to death in a frenzied attack.

LIFE Photo Collection

An heir is born

On 19 June 1566 Mary gave birth to Prince James at Edinburgh Castle. Darnley had served his purpose by providing an heir and the Lords were already plotting to remove him from power for denying his role in the murder of Rizzio.

On 10 February 1567 an explosion took place in the house at Kirk o’Field where Darnley was recuperating from an illness. Darnley was found dead in the garden and appeared to have been strangled.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (1566) by UnknownNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

A second marriage

Despite a lack of real evidence, the person generally held responsible for the murder was James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. He was a swashbuckling military man who had gained Mary’s trust, although his motives were questionable.

He was tried for the assassination, but was cleared and within months he and Mary were married.

The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh (1870) by James DrummondNational Galleries Scotland: National


Around the time Mary realised that Bothwell didn't love her, a group of Protestant nobles known as the Confederate Lords rebelled against her. Despite their own role in Darnley’s assassination, the Lords now accused Mary of involvement in the murder.

After occupying Edinburgh, the Lords’ army met Mary’s dwindling troops at Carberry Hill. No fighting took place, because Mary surrendered in return for honourable treatment and Bothwell’s safety.

The offer was accepted and on 15 June 1567 Mary was taken back to Edinburgh, where she was met with a hostile and humiliating reception.

Scene from the Life of Mary, Queen of Scots - Mary is Forced to Abdicate (About 1790) by David AllanNational Galleries Scotland: National

Taken prisoner

Now a prisoner of the rebel Lords, Mary was taken to the castle of Loch Leven while opponents worked to turn public opinion against her by claiming she'd conspired with Bothwell to murder Darnley.

She was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son and to authorise her brother, the sly Earl of Moray, to reign in his place.

Mary, Queen of Scots Escaping from Lochleven Castle (1805) by William Craig ShirreffNational Galleries Scotland: National

Escape and recapture

On 2 May 1568 she escaped from the island and assembled an army, but was defeated at The Battle of Langside.

She fled to England in the hope that Queen Elizabeth would help her, but Elizabeth was not keen for Mary to cause trouble in England; she had Mary imprisoned for nearly two decades.

Marry Queen Of Scots Trial & Execution (1560)LIFE Photo Collection

A tragic end

Through the years Mary found herself the focus of several Catholic plots to free her, eventually replying to a secret letter from Catholic conspirators who planned to kill Elizabeth.

Unfortunately, English secret agents knew about the plot and Mary was charged with treason.

A reluctant Elizabeth signed Mary's death warrant, and on the 8th of February 1587 Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay.

Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542 - 1587. Reigned 1542 - 1567 (About 1610 - 1615) by UnknownNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

Remembering Mary, Queen of Scots

When Mary had signed the abdication documents at Loch Leven Castle, James became king aged only thirteen months.

Following Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and James’s subsequent ascension to the English throne, he set about restoring his mother’s reputation. This portrait from around 1610 shows Mary as a virtuous queen, and is typical of the type of portrait that James was keen to promote.

In 1612 he ordered her remains to be removed from Peterborough Cathedral to be interred in Westminster Abbey, where they remain today.

An enduring legend

The fascination that Mary, Queen of Scots’ life has held over the centuries has endured, and today she is the subject of numerous books, films and plays.

Mary is seen as the strong and beautiful one who rules with her heart, while Elizabeth ruled with her head. This romanticised view of Mary has a long tradition, but the image of the lone woman struggling to keep control of her kingdom while conducting herself with grace and honour is the central element that makes Mary so attractive.

By comparison, Elizabeth is famous as the agent of Mary’s death, an action that will always be seen as cowardly and unnecessary.

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