“In my end is my beginning” —Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary Stuart, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots, is one of history’s most tragic figures. The doomed Queen is most notorious for allegedly plotting to steal Elizabeth I’s throne. But her machinations didn’t succeed and Mary ended up imprisoned and beheaded. But, absurdly, her imprisonment and death are only two of the many catastrophes that burdened Mary’s tumultuous life. Below are 47 ill-fated facts about the tragic Scottish Queen.
Mary Queen of Scots Facts
1. Where the Thistles Grow
It’s said that on the site of Mary’s execution, a small clump of purple thistles grow. The thistles are nicknamed Queen Mary’s tears in honor of the doomed queen.
2. Friend or Enemy?
Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I were first cousins, once removed. Unfortunately for Mary, her Catholic faith made her a serious threat to Elizabeth’s reign. The English Catholics didn’t love Protestant Elizabeth and probably would have jumped ship to support Mary. Cousin or not, it’s hard to be too friendly with someone who might knock you off your throne.
3. Don’t Drink the Water!
When Mary’s father James I suddenly died, the kingdom was devastated. What had happened? After all, the King was only 30 years old. While the exact cause of James V’s death is unknown, historians believe that he either collapsed from the trauma of being defeated at the Battle of Solway Moss. However, there’s also a less dignified option. He may have just drank some tainted water during the war. If only they’d had Evian!
Every year, people pay homage to Mary in an unexpected way. In 16th century France, white was worn for mourning. However, Mary liked the color and disregarded tradition. She boldly decided to wear the ivory hue for her wedding. Bridal shops, raise your glasses to Mary, Queen of Scots.
5. Rough Wooing
In 1543, the English King Henry VIII started plotting to marry his heir Edward to Mary, but when Scotland—still pretty skeptical of England’s power-hungry expansion plans—refused, he implemented darker measures. He began attacking Scotland in what became known as the “rough wooing” to get the Scottish crown to submit to the union.
6. Protecting Their Asset
However, Mary’s mother was no fool. She sent her daughter to be educated in France, cleverly priming her to marry the French Dauphin instead. This baller move also reinforced the French relationship with Scotland and gave the Scots further military support against the English. Your move, England.
7. Bad Timing
Mary was an avid golfer and the first female to play the sport in Scotland. In fact, she was spotted playing golf at St. Andrews just days after her husband Lord Darnley’s murder (more on that to come). While she probably had fun, her excursion made for really bad optics. In the end, I guess you could say that people were teed off.
8. United as One
The marriage of Francis and Mary was very strategic. The idea was that France and Scotland would be united under the pair. They married when she was 15 and he 14 with much pomp and circumstance. However, it’s less known that the marriage was based on a disturbing secret. The French King Henry II took advantage of Mary by convincing her to sign disadvantageous treaties. In the fine print, Henry made sure that Scotland would be subordinate to France. Way to treat your daughter-in-law, Henry.
9. Premature Death
When King Henry II died in an unfortunate jousting accident in 1559, Francis and Mary became the King and Queen of France. But those happy days didn’t last long. Francis was always sickly, and less than two years after he took the throne, he collapsed from a temporary stoppage of oxygen to the brain. He died a few weeks later, apparently from an ear condition.
10. A New Opportunity
1560 was a pretty lousy year for Mary. First her husband died, and then her mother. On the other hand, this all worked out well for the French, who took the opportunity to send Mary back to Scotland and use her to make a play for the English throne. It might not have been a bad idea in theory, but in reality nothing good came of the move for Scotland or for Mary.
11. Looked Good on Paper
Mary’s second marriage was one of her choosing, but that still didn’t leave her free to pick just anyone. She strategically chose her handsome cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. On paper, Mary’s choice made sense. Henry was of an established family and held a genuine claim to both the English and Scottish thrones. Unfortunately, these were about his only plusses.
12. Can’t Resist a Bad Boy
After the marriage, Mary learned the awful truth. Henry was an arrogant scoundrel and a drunk who had also likely contracted syphilis. Charming fellow! Even so, Mary still had the hots for him. She once described Henry in a scandalous manner, saying he was the “lustiest and best proportioned man” she knew. Get it, Mary.
13. An Opulent Ritual
How did Mary keep that fashionable porcelain complexion, even while she spent her later life in prison? She washed her face in white wine to keep her skin smooth, soft, and wrinkle-free. While this kept Mary pleased, the routine was extremely vexing to her English keepers. After all, they had who had to pay for her upkeep out of pocket. YouTube
14. Rejected Treaty
Before sending Mary to France, King Henry VIII and Mary’s regent signed a treaty that would put an end to the fighting between England and Scotland. Had it been accepted by the Scottish Parliament, the Treaty of Greenwich would have created peace between the two countries. As an extra bonus, Mary would have escaped her syphilis-ridden husband and married Henry’s son, the future king Edward VI. Unfortunately, like so many things in Mary’s life, the treaty didn’t work out.
15. A Girl of Many Talents
Mary was quite an accomplished child and managed to learn a number of impressive skills. She excelled in poetry, prose, languages, and horsemanship. Not exactly the most practical skills for non-royals, but useful skills for a Queen to have. And finally, slow clap it out: Mary also made sure to cultivate the coolest medieval hobby: falconry.
16. No Path to Sainthood
Since her death, many people have tried to make Mary a Catholic saint, but over four centuries later, one dark question still undermines her claim. Nobody can prove for certain whether or not Mary killed her second husband Lord Darnley. We checked and it turns out that a possible murderess can’t be a saint.
17. Which One Is She Mourning?
When Mary’s husband Francis died, she went into official mourning. Although they were reported to get along, it’s hard to say whether she was more upset over losing him, or her French crown.
18. Assassination Plot
In 1586, a plot was hatched to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and to place Mary Stuart on the throne. The plot was called the Babington plot after one of the co-conspirators, Anthony Babington. Mary might have been able to feign innocence, but a letter sent by Mary while she was imprisoned revealed that she authorized the assassination. That note sealed her brutal fate.
19. Boy Bye
While Mary was eventually beheaded for her role in the Elizabeth assassination plot, her execution was a walk in the park compared to the fate of Mary’s third husband. Though, to be fair, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, may have thoroughly deserved it. After the suspicious death of Mary’s second husband Darnley (in which the Earl was a murder suspect), Bothwell, according to some sources, took Queen Mary by force, imprisoned her, and then married her. He’d regret it.
20. Mismatched Pair
When it came to their looks, Mary and her first husband Francis couldn’t have been more different. Mary was considered to be an attractive woman and, at 5’11, she was unusually tall for a girl. Francis, on the other hand, was short, fragile, and had a stutter. All in all, he didn’t have a lot going for him—but that crown definitely helped.
In the early morning of February 10, 1567, two large and loud explosions rocked Mary’s world. The blasts almost reduced Kirk o’ Field, near the Scottish Royal estates, to dust. People from throughout the area gathered to see the disaster. Could it possibly have been an accident, or was something darker to blame?
A later investigation of the explosion revealed that two barrels of gunpowder had been hidden in a very suspicious place: under none other than Lord Darnley’s bedroom. They definitely should have killed him, but his body wasn’t found in the rubble. Instead, a soldier found his body, along with the body of his valet, on the grounds.
23. Someone Call Medieval Miss Marple
The weird part? Both Darnley and his valet were clearly not blown up, but strangled. Even stranger, they were surrounded by a cloak, a dagger, a chair, and a coat. Darnley was only in his nightshirt, as if he had fled his rooms. A lot of people wanted Darnley dead, including Mary and her next husband the Earl of Bothwell, but the identity of the killer(s) officially remains a mystery.
24. Never Met Her
Believe it or not, throughout their deadly feud, Elizabeth and Mary never met face-to-face. Elizabeth sent a representative to Mary’s son’s christening, and despite promises to visit her in prison in England, she somehow always managed to avoid the trip. She couldn’t even be bothered to attend Mary’s funeral in person, sending the Countess of Bedford in her stead. That’s cold.
25. False History
The recent Mary Queen of Scots film has come under fire from historians for a false and misleading depiction of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth I. The film portrays the women as friends who turn into rivals, and portrays a meeting between them that never happened. Obviously they’ve never heard of dramatic license!
26. A Hostile Act
After the death of Francis, Mary started looking for a new husband. She entered into negotiations with Phillip II of Spain, hoping to make a Catholic marriage to his son Don Carlos. When Queen Elizabeth got wind of the potential union, she made it pretty clear that she wouldn’t regard that move kindly. Determined to keep power to herself, Elizabeth nixed the marriage.
27. Marrying a Murderer
When Mary’s unpopular, possibly forced marriage to Bothwell backfired and caused him to flee, it also backfired on the Queen herself. You see, forced or not, Scotland was none too happy that she had married a suspect in her late husband’s murder. They also suspected she had been having an affair with Bothwell. Within weeks, the lords turned against her and forced her to abdicate.
28. Loched up
As if abdicating her throne wasn’t enough punishment, Mary was also held at Lochleven Castle, which was on an island in the middle of, yes, a loch. But Mary wasn’t about to waste away her life on a island. 11 months later she hatched an ingenious plan. Mary got her guards drunk, disguised herself, and walked right out the front door during May Day celebrations.
29. No, You Marry Him!
Elizabeth’s choice of husband for Mary after Darnley’s death was Robert Dudley, a good (possibly more than) friend of the English queen. But her reasons for the match contained a dark secret: Elizabeth to be able to control Mary’s husband. As such, even if everyone thought that Elizabeth had feelings for Dudley, her attempt to pair him with her cousin showed that Elizabeth would give anything to keep her power.
30. Love Triangle
Mary agreed to the match, only for her jaw to drop. Dudley refused to play along with Elizabeth’s scheme. Unlike the Queen, Dudley wasn’t willing to sacrifice love for power. He hoped that if he stayed single, Elizabeth might change her mind and marry him. He was also more than a little worried that Elizabeth would eventually see his marriage to the Scottish queen as a betrayal.
31. A Difference of Opinion
Mary’s half-brother James Stewart had a conflicted relationship with his sister. When she was a child, he roused the Protestant Lords against her because he was tired of her efforts to preserve Catholicism in Scotland. On the other hand, he supported Mary when she fully became queen, despite her Roman Catholic religion. Yeah, that truce wouldn’t last long.
32. Questioning Authority
Stewart’s support of Mary ended, however, when she married her Catholic cousin Lord Darnley, and he led a group in rebellion against her. They acted in the name of the Scottish Reformation. The event became known with a quirky name: the Chaseabout Rebellion. This was due to Mary’s forces “chasing” the rebels about Scotland. Hey, sometimes first thought = best thought.
33. Taking Control
Mary of Guise had always assumed that she would become her infant daughter’s regent when the girl was crowned Queen, but she was terribly mistaken, Mary’s mother was passed over for James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, who just so happened to support Protestant England. In 1554, Mary of Guise finally got her wish and amassed enough power to take control of the regency. Unfortunately, her rule was neither easy nor peaceful. She was constantly under threat from those who supported the English and the Protestant cause.
34. Not a Warm Welcome
After escaping from her island prison in Scotland, Mary fled to England, hoping that Elizabeth would throw her support behind her and help her take back her Scottish crown. However, Elizabeth had other things in mind. Instead of welcoming her cousin, she decided to lock Mary up, keeping her imprisoned in multiple remote castles across England for 20 long years.
35. Poor Execution
When the time finally came, even though the English had 20 years to prepare, Mary’s execution went far from smoothly. When the executioner took his first swing, he missed and hit her in the back of the head. He swung again, but the head hung on. Finally on the third swing, he managed to get the job done. But the humiliation wasn’t over.
36. A Horrible Twist
The executioner reportedly held the head up by its tresses and said, “God save the Queen.” In a horrible twist, it turned out that Mary had been wearing a wig. The disgraced queen’s head toppled to the ground, revealing short grey hair. One eyewitness account also added that Mary’s lips kept moving in the minutes after her beheading.
37. Doing the Dirty Work
Elizabeth may have been fine with keeping Mary locked up and out of the way, but her spymaster Francis Walsingham knew that ordering Mary’s death was another story entirely. He realized that he’d have to come up with some pretty compelling evidence to make Elizabeth take that fatal step. When he heard about Babington’s plot to assassinate Elizabeth, he got a double agent to intercept Mary’s letters in hopes of catching her red-handed.
38. Forever Apart
Mary’s abdication marked the last time she would ever get to see her son. He was just 10 months old. With Mary in prison, James grew up under the influence of Protestant regents. They taught him that the Catholic religion and his mother were evil. According to them, his mother deserved to be locked up and executed.
39. Queen’s Best Friend
There’s loyalty and then there’s loyalty. See: Mary Queen of the Scots’s little Maltese terrier, who reportedly hid beneath the skirts of his queen even as she walked to her execution in 1587. It wasn’t until Mary was fully decapitated that the dog ran away from her body—but he didn’t go far. The poor dog reportedly lay down in a puddle of Mary’s blood and pined for her long after her death.
40. Premature Aging
Though Mary was revealed to have grey hair at her execution, it may not have been only from aging. Historians believe her hair might have greyed because of the trauma and suffering she endured while in prison.
41. Not Guilty
During her infamous trial for treason, Mary gave a pretty good argument in her defence. She argued that she had not been afforded legal counsel, and that since she wasn’t an English subject, she couldn’t possibly be guilty of treason. Unfortunately, neither argument worked. She was found guilty and sentenced to a heinous death.
42. Forgive Us!
According to eyewitness accounts of Mary’s execution, the two men charged with her execution followed the custom of asking their victim for her forgiveness. On that fateful, cold, February day, Mary responded with heartbreaking words. She said, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.”
43. Jealous Husband
In addition to being a drunk and a knave, Mary’s second Darnley was also a jealous idiot. He really didn’t like how much influence Mary’s secretary David Rizzio seemed to have over her. Unable to stand it any longer, he arranged for men to rush into Mary’s private rooms, where they did the unthinkable. They murdered Rizzio in front of a pregnant Mary and her ladies-in-waiting. Darnley claimed not to have had anything to do with it, but his accomplices gave him up.
44. Just Say You’re Sorry
In a last-ditch effort to avoid having to execute Mary, Elizabeth pleaded with her to just admit to her crimes. If she begged for forgiveness, Elizabeth would pardon her.
Mary refused. The Royal Family
45. Those Weren’t My Orders!
After the trial, Elizabeth’s councillors decided to carry out Mary’s death warrant without telling the Queen. (However, we should also note that Elizabeth did knowingly sign the warrant. She just wasn’t told that anyone was planning to use the paperwork any time soon). When Elizabeth found out what had happened, she became irate and sent the secretary who held the warrant to the Tower of London. The council claimed that they put Mary to death to save the Queen from all that unpleasant business. Elizabeth always maintained that they went against her wishes when it came to actually executing her cousin.
46. We’re Still Cool, Right?
Just a year before Mary’s execution, King James and Elizabeth I signed the Treaty of Berwick. This treaty ensured that England and Scotland would help each other if either one was under attack. But both monarchs had dark motives for signing the document. First, it would let James become the heir to the English throne.
Even worse, Elizabeth had Mary in custody. Se knew her execution would threaten the peace between England and Scotland and figured the treaty would help keep the peace when things really hit the fan. Of course, Elizabeth’s role in Mary’s execution is still debated, but there’s no denying how awkward James and Elizabeth’s subsequent meetings must have been.
47. A Horrible Death
Though some sources at the time argued that the marriage between Bothwell and Mary was consensual, despite appearances, the union certainly looked pretty sinister. It even had the nobles, who didn’t approve of the union, literally up in arms. The obviously super upstanding Bothwell ended up fleeing the country. He wound up infamously imprisoned in the Danish fortress of Dragsholm.
During his ten long years in prison, Bothwell was chained to a pillar short enough to prevent him from fully standing up, and was kept in the dark in his own dirt and grime. He apparently died insane and covered in hair, and up until recently, his alleged mummified remains were on display in a nearby museum. Good riddance.