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Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-87, is one of the best-known figures in Scottish history. She still seems to cast a curious spell on visitors to Scotland. (Or did I steal that entence from one of those reverential tourism brochures?) She showed the strange charm of the Stewart dynasty which added so much turbulence and uncertainty to Scotland's story. But the life of Mary Queen of Scots was part of a larger drama, played out in the Royal Houses of Scotland, France and England. Mary's grandmother was Margaret Tudor, sister of England's King Henry VIII. Her mother was Mary of Guise, a Frenchwoman, and second wife of Scotland's King James V. (Yes, it is a bit confusing. This is isn’t a purely Scottish matter.)
By birth she was to be Mary Queen of Scots. By her first marriage she was Queen of France. (Her husband became King Francis II of France in 1559.) Most importantly – and pay attention at the back, please – she might also have been the perfectly legitimate ruler of England. However, the English throne had gone to Elizabeth, a child of the English King Henry VIII’s second marriage, but who was conceived in adultery. Yes, I know this is complicated and meant to be a story about Scotland. But here’s the important bit. If the English King Henry’s line was, technically, extinct, then it seems likely that Mary herself was perfectly aware of what might have been. And this underpins the whole story of her time in Scotland. I wonder if Hollywood will ever re-visit the tale? After all, they’ve done Rob Roy.
(Above) Huntingtower, near Perth. Visited by Mary Queen of Scots, though its owner, Patrick, third Lord Ruthven, was a leading supporter of the Reformers during her reign.
Let’s do some more scene setting. (Hang on in there, readers.) The woman destined to be Mary Queen of Scots was born at a troubled time for a Scotland in the first upheavals of the Reformation. The Protestant Reformers favoured an alliance with England as King Henry VIII of England was a vigorous opponent of Catholicism.
Meanwhile the supporters of Catholicism looked towards France. With the religious struggle intensifying between France and England, France expected Scotland (with its Catholic monarchy) to side with it against the English King Henry. Thus Scotland was drawn into an English-French quarrel - a dangerously unstable political situation for the young queen.
Just before her birth, a half-hearted attempt by Scotland to aid France had ended in defeat by England at Solway Moss. Soon, the English King Henry VIII was well aware that several Scots lords were unhappy with the established church and thus demanded that the infant Mary should marry his own son Edward, thus creating a Protestant dynasty on both sides of the border. Before Mary was three years old, King Henry VIII of England had sent an army to back his claim in an episode known as 'the rough wooing'.
That’s when the invading English armies destroyed the Border Abbeys, and burned the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and many other parts of southern Scotland. It’s mostly why the Scottish Border abbeys are in such a ruinous and knocked about state today.
Falkland Palace, the Stewart dynasty's hunting lodge in Fife. Mary's father, King James V, died here only a week after she was born.
By the time Mary was five years old, even though the English King Henry VIII had died, English forces occupied Scotland, following the Scots defeat at the Battle of Pinkie, near Musselburgh.
Many Scots did not know which way to turn. Though the tide of anti-Catholicism was rising, the English invaders, representing the new Protestantism, were very unpopular. In the absence of a strong monarch, the nation was indecisive, though it finally appealed to France to rid the country of the English invaders.
Already a pawn in a political game, the price for this was the removal of the future queen to France. Taken for safety to Inchmahome Priory on the Lake of Menteith, west of Stirling in 1547, she sailed from Dumbarton Castle in 1548. There had been much conflict and bloodshed - and Mary was only six years old. (Cue martial Scottish music with appropriate bagpipe wailings....)
Mary Queen of Scots - what happened after France
Or you can find out exactly where Mary Queen of Scots fits in with the list of Scottish monarchs. Or go back to the Scotland History page - though as you've read this far, you might as well find out what happened to Mary.
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Scotland in Three Days