Mary Stewart became Queen of Scots aged only 6 days old after her father James V died in 1542. Her family, whose name was anglicised to Stuart in the seventeenth century, had ruled Scotland since 1371 and were to do so until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Raised in France from 1548, she married the heir to the French throne (1558) and did not come to Scotland until after he died in 1561. By then a six-foot redhead, Mary looked every inch the queen and, with a flamboyant lifestyle suited to an age when appearance was everything, she acted like one. Astute and energetic, she managed to juggle the deeply divisive forces of religious and political faction within her realm. More than this, she trod a diplomatic path between Scotland’s far more powerful neighbours: England, for whom the Scots were an abiding nuisance, and France, where her heart, her roots, and many of her best alliances lay.
For six years she battled a self-interested aristocracy and increasingly radical Protestant reformers before disgruntled nobles rose against her, behind the smokescreen of protecting her from bad influences. She was then imprisoned in Lochleven castle. Within weeks, however, radical Protestants forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son, 549 years ago today on 24 July 1567. This was James VI, who became from 1603 James I of England. Mary escaped in the following year and rallied support, but she was pursued like a fox by a pack of hounds until she made the mistake of surrendering to the English. She spent the last 18 years of her life in prison, before being beheaded for treason against her cousin Elizabeth I in February 1587, all her possessions burned.
So what went wrong? Mary’s misfortune lay in the fact that her country was ungovernable. Sixteenth-century Scotland was torn by factional rivalry and had yet to find religious equilibrium. The nobility regarded themselves not as subjects, but as co-rulers entitled to intervene whenever and wherever they felt their personal interests were threatened. Strident, priggish, and implacable, the Calvinist leader John Knox had far less time for Catholics like Mary than she had for Protestants. Yet Mary’s abdication does not mean she was a failure. Anyone would have struggled to bring stability to her fractious country. That she so often proved the equal of her detractors, and bettered a good many is a testament to her tolerant, dynamic, and forceful qualities.
Mary was a woman of extraordinary political talents and immense personal courage, a lover of life as much as a conscientious and charismatic queen, who should be judged not by her failure to bring stability to her fatally unstable country, but by her many successful attempts to do so. She managed to fight her way out of some seemingly impossible situations, like complicity in the murder of her second husband (Lord Darnley) by the man who was to become her third (Lord Bothwell). She was defeated not because her enemies were more able but because they were many, bigoted, and ruthless. Her heart may have been her own but, like the country of which she was queen, she found out that strength of spirit was not sufficient defence against opponents whose power was ultimately far greater.
Featured image credit: “Lochleven Castle”, by Otter. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.