ELIZABETH I VS MARY QUEEN Of SCOTS
Discover how family became the bitterest rivals as two queens went head-to-head for England’s succession
The bloody death of Mary, Queen of Scots ended the rivalry that had consumed both her and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, for almost three decades. Pitted against each other as female rulers in a man’s world, the once seemingly affectionate relationship between the two queens soured as scheming and intrigue intervened to the point where only one of them could walk away alive.
Mary was just six days old when she became Queen of Scots after the death of her father King James V. With her mother, Mary of Guise, left in Scotland to rule in her stead Mary was sent to France at the tender age of five to be raised as the future wife of Prince Francis, son and heir of King Henri II and Queen Catherine de Medici.
The couple married in a sumptuous ceremony in April 1558 and after the sudden death of Henri just a year later, Mary and
Francis ascended the throne to begin their long-awaited reign of glory. Unfortunately, it was tragically brief as Francis, suffering from a deadly ear infection, died in December 1560. No longer needed in France, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 as an 18-year-old widow, setting eyes on her realm for the first time in 13 years. Welcomed warmly by her people, Mary’s return was met with suspicion by the Protestant lords who had seized power during her absence. After all, they weren’t eager to see the return of their young, Catholic queen after establishing Protestantism in Scotland.
They weren’t the only ones to dread her return. Just seven months after Mary’s marriage to Francis, Elizabeth had ascended the throne in England. It was no secret that Roman Catholics, both in England and the rest of Europe, perceived Elizabeth to be a bastard and a pretender to the throne. In their eyes it was Mary, as a great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, who was the rightful Queen of England.
Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth’s Privy Council and in particular her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil, were disturbed to hear that Mary had incorporated the arms of England into her own during her time in France.
Although Mary had been raised by Henri to believe that she was the rightful Queen of England for his own personal gain, his ambition had become Mary’s – and it was all-consuming.
Now in Scotland, Mary was obsessed with the issue of the English succession. Adopting a charm offensive, she sent her cousin countless affectionate letters and gifts to her “dearest sister and cousin” as well as an ambassador to England, hoping to encourage Elizabeth to name her heir.
Understanding that Mary was a rival but not, at this stage, an enemy, Elizabeth also indulged in exchanging letters and gifts, although she avoided answering the ambassador’s questions and danced around the topic of her heir.
Meanwhile, Mary found herself embroiled in political intrigue and poor decisions in Scotland. The question surrounding her own succession had sparked debate amongst
Mary’s nobles, who argued over who would
make a suitable husband for their queen. Even Elizabeth waded into the discussion, suggesting her own favourite, Robert Dudley, as a suitor.
Mary was left infuriated by Elizabeth’s suggestion. Not only was Dudley far beneath her in terms of rank, but Mary knew that he was Elizabeth’s rumoured lover – why would she want her cousin’s leftovers? Bizarrely, Elizabeth even went as far as to suggest that Mary and Dudley could live in England – with her – in a ménage à trois. Needless to say, both Mary and Dudley were not impressed.
Taking matters into her own hands, Mary chose her own husband – her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. They married in 1565 and since Darnley had his own claim to the English throne, their marriage bolstered Mary’s position in her quest to be named Elizabeth’s heir – a decision that left the English queen furious.
Arrogant and violent, Darnley infuriated Mary’s nobles as well. When Mary refused to grant her husband the Crown Matrimonial, thereby making him King of Scots, Darnley was blinded with rage. If she would not give him the crown, he would find a way to take it.
On 9 March 1566 Darnley burst into Mary’s private dining room with his supporters and stabbed her secretary and confidante, David Rizzio, to death. The brutality was even more shocking since Mary, who witnessed the murder, was pregnant with Darnley’s baby.
She gave birth to her son and heir, Prince James, just three months later.
Rizzio’s death was the beginning of the end for Darnley and in February 1567, he was found dead following an explosion at Kirk o’ Field house in Edinburgh.
Darnley’s body was discovered in the orchard and with no markings to suggest that the blast had killed him, it was quickly agreed that he had been murdered. Soon enough, accusations were being thrown at Mary that she had ordered her husband’s assassination.
Elizabeth implored Mary to find those responsible and clear her name.
There was a strong belief that the Earl of Bothwell, a powerful noble with his own armed following, was responsible for Darnley’s murder and that he had been having an affair with Mary. Before his trial, Elizabeth wrote to her cousin in hope and warning “that all the world may feel justified in believing you innocent of so enormous a crime, which, if you were not, would be food cause for degrading you from the rank of Princes…”.
Placed on trial in April, Bothwell was acquitted of the murder due to lack of evidence, although many remained convinced of his guilt. It didn’t help that now Mary was a widow, Bothwell was already scheming to marry her. Travelling back to Edinburgh after visiting her son in Stirling, the queen was intercepted by Bothwell and his men. Claiming that her life was in danger and that he would escort her to safety, Mary had no choice but to go with Bothwell as his men left her outnumbered.
What happened next is still debated, but it is suggested that Bothwell raped Mary to force her into marriage.
They were subsequently married on the 15 May, just three months after Darnley’s untimely demise. It was the final straw for Mary’s exasperated nobles, who decided to remove their embattled queen once and for all.
One month after their ill-fated wedding Mary and Bothwell faced the nobles and their troops at Carberry Hill. The queen bravely led her men into battle but her support soon dissipated, and Mary agreed to surrender with Bothwell fleeing into exile. Taken to Edinburgh and then imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, Mary endured the agony of miscarrying twins.
On 24 July 1567 Mary was offered a choice – either abdicate or have her throat slit. Terrified, Mary signed her abdication in favour of her son James, who was just a year old, leaving her halfbrother, the Earl of Moray, as his regent.
When news of Mary’s abdication reached Elizabeth, she immediately sent her ambassador, Nicholas Throckmorton, to Scotland try and convince the rebellious lords to restore their queen, to no avail. After a year in captivity Mary escaped from Loch Leven and fled across the border to England in panic, believing that Elizabeth would help her regain the Scottish throne. It was a naïve decision because as soon as Mary set foot in England, Cecil began plotting to get rid of her by any means necessary.
He had Mary immediately placed under house arrest, first at Carlisle Castle and then at Bolton Castle where she remained for six months. Despite these bleak circumstances Mary wrote to Elizabeth begging for a meeting to plead her case.
However, Elizabeth refused to meet until Mary had been proven innocent of Darnley’s murder and suggested setting up a tribunal to investigate the accusations made against her.
The tribunal began in October 1568 and the charges of adultery and murder were examined. As evidence of Mary’s conduct, Moray suddenly produced the infamous Casket Letters, which she had supposedly written to Bothwell between January and April 1567.
The letters confirmed the queen’s adulterous relationship and a plot to kill Darnley, making her look as guilty as sin.
Outraged, Mary declared that the letters were forgeries and as an anointed queen, she refused to believe any court had the right to try her. As her commissioners were refused permission
“It is alleged that Bothwell raped Mary to force her into marriage”
to look at the letters, Mary demanded to personally appear at the tribunal to plead her innocence, but Elizabeth refused her request.
Despite the letters, the case was ultimately deemed ‘not proven’ in January 1569.
It was exactly what Elizabeth wanted, since this verdict allowed her to avoid making a choice regarding her cousin’s fate.
Interestingly, the queen’s failure to intervene in the trial indicates that she may have known that the Casket Letters had been fabricated to condemn Mary.
With Mary declared neither guilty nor innocent, Elizabeth could keep her cousin under house arrest for as long as she wanted. She could also avoid receiving Mary at court to prevent upsetting her allies in Scotland while at the same time, stop her cousin from seeing those who would turn her into a figurehead for Catholic plots against the crown.
These fears weren’t helped by the volatile situation occurring in Europe, with the counterreformation taking a hold in France with the Wars of Religion, as well as the Dutch Revolt in the Low Countries against King Philip II of Spain. The rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth mirrored this battle between Catholicism and Protestantism, turning them into symbolic representatives for their respective religions.
It would be easy to paint Elizabeth as the evil queen who kept Mary imprisoned, but the truth is she sympathised with her cousin.
Though Mary was her rival, Elizabeth knew exactly what it was like to be used by the opposition, because it had happened to her just over a decade earlier, during the reign of her Catholic half-sister Queen Mary I.
Embroiled in Wyatt’s Rebellion against
Mary in 1554, Elizabeth almost lost her head. Imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months, Elizabeth failed to incriminate herself with her clever and evasive answers, to the dismay of Mary and her advisors.
With no hard evidence to condemn her, Elizabeth was released and placed under house arrest for a year in Woodstock, followed by a short return to court to attend to Mary during her first phantom pregnancy. Afterwards, Elizabeth retreated to Hatfield House to escape court gossip and further implication in malicious plots, choosing to remain there for the rest of Mary’s reign.
Coming so close to death had taught Elizabeth that even without concrete evidence, she was in constant danger – just like her cousin – and that if Mary was to be condemned, there had to be definite proof of her guilt.
Following the tribunal, Mary was placed in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, at Tutbury Castle.
Although she was locked away, Mary still remained a threat to Elizabeth’s throne. As a solution, it was suggested that Mary should marry a loyal English nobleman in order to neutralise her power. In particular, there was one man, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was willing to marry the Scottish queen.
Norfolk, the man who had led Mary’s tribunal, had been plotting to marry her for some time. The proposed marriage was supported by a few leading nobles, including Dudley, who hoped Mary would convert to Protestantism and be restored to her Scottish throne as an ally for England. Mary readily agreed to marry Norfolk, hoping it would secure her freedom.
The nobles had conducted the negotiations in secret, fearing the queen’s wrath.
When the scheme was discovered, a furious Elizabeth had Norfolk thrown into the Tower of London in October.
In a letter dated 31 January 1570 Mary remained defiant, writing, “You have promised to be mine, and I yours; I believe the Queen of England and country should like of it”.
In the meantime, a Catholic plot to depose Elizabeth and replace her with Mary was underway, known as the Rising of the North. Led by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, they were accompanied by a total of 6,000 rebels.
When news of the rebellion broke, Elizabeth moved Mary to Coventry so the conspirators couldn’t free her.
The rising was crushed and many of the rebels fled to Scotland, while another 600 to 800 of them were sent to the hangman’s noose.
Nevertheless, this rebellion was the first uprising against the queen and it had left Elizabeth shaken – she knew that Mary’s presence was a threat, but now it had come to fruition.
The danger to Elizabeth’s life was highlighted further after James Hamilton, whose family supported Mary, assassinated Moray in
“If Mary was to be condemned, there had to be definite proof of her guilt”
Linlithgow on 23 January 1570. Just a month later, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her a heretic, adding that her Catholic subjects didn’t owe any obedience to her – calling Elizabeth’s authority into question.
In August, Norfolk was released from the Tower of London after ten months imprisonment.
As calculating as ever, Norfolk quickly became involved in the Ridolfi plot to free Mary and depose Elizabeth with the help of King Philip. Norfolk and Mary would then marry and together, begin a quest to restore Catholicism across the realm.
Realising that it was increasingly unlikely that Elizabeth would help her regain her throne, Mary had communicated with Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian who was leader of the conspiracy and in the employ of the pope. He had travelled across Europe to garner support for her cause, even visiting the Spanish court to discuss the details with King Philip himself.
However, Ridolfi had confessed the plot to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who subsequently informed Elizabeth.
With her spy network on high alert the plot was quickly uncovered and Norfolk’s treachery was quickly revealed after his servants were interrogated. During a raid on his home, several coded letters from Mary to Norfolk were discovered along with a cipher, which Cecil’s spies promptly used to decode them.
Norfolk and his conspirators were arrested and despite his denial, the evidence was stacked against him. Meanwhile in Westminster, Cecil rubbed his hands with glee believing that he now had grounds to push for Mary’s execution.
Hoping to force Elizabeth’s hand, he had the Casket Letters published anonymously just before the convening on the 1572 parliament to smear Mary’s reputation.
In June 1572, Norfolk lost his head after being found guilty of high treason. Luckily for Mary, she hadn’t written anything incriminating in the letters and so she escaped the consequences for her involvement. She may have survived but Mary’s role in the plot nonetheless damaged Elizabeth’s opinion of her, with the queen realising that her rival may just be more than a figurehead for the opposition after all.
In spite of everything, Mary still hoped to secure a meeting with Elizabeth.
Along with her numerous letters, she sent various gifts to Elizabeth in the hope of capturing her attention.
In 1574, Mary even handmade a crimson skirt with silver needlework for Elizabeth, securing the materials from the French ambassador in London and asking him to present it to the queen for her. Elizabeth was reportedly pleased with Mary’s gifts, yet she still ignored her pleas to meet. In 1583, the Throckmorton Plot to depose Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, was successfully foiled. In response, Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster and secretary of state, drafted the Bond of Association. The bond was a pledge to defend the queen and prosecute those who either attempted to assassinate Elizabeth or usurp her throne, whether they were successful or not.
Among the signatories was Mary, who agreed to sign the bond to demonstrate her loyalty to her cousin. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond Mary’s control deepened the divide between her and Elizabeth. In 1584, the Dutch Republic’s Protestant ruler William of Orange was assassinated, heightening the fears of Elizabeth’s government that her life was in imminent danger.
Their answer was the Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Royal Person, signed in 1585, which allowed for any claimant to the throne to be tried for plots against Elizabeth carried out in their name, regardless of whether they were involved or not.
The act was the first step in creating a legitimate, legal process that could be used to
“Mary’s role in the plot nonetheless damaged Elizabeth’s opinion of her”
try Mary and potentially put her to death if she plotted against Elizabeth.
It allowed Elizabeth and her government to remove Mary from the line of succession, although the queen specified that the act shouldn’t exclude the heirs of those found guilty of treason, unless they were also involved. Elizabeth was clearly thinking about King James VI and the future of the English succession when she included this caveat. However she wasn’t the only one thinking about James, as Mary had to reach out to her son for help in negotiating her freedom. Sadly, Mary’s hope was in vain.
In her absence, James had been raised to believe that she was an adulterer who deserved to lose the crown and now that he was King of Scots, he had no desire to see her return home.
Mary was crushed by her son’s rejection and to twist the knife further, James forged a new Anglo-scottish alliance with Elizabeth, signing the Treaty of Berwick on the 6 July 1586. After almost two decades of captivity, abandoned by James and resigned to the fact Elizabeth would never help her, Mary was forced to accept any support that came her way.
It soon arrived in the form of a young English nobleman – Anthony Babington. On the same day that the Treaty of Berwick was signed, Babington wrote to Mary seeking approval for his plot to free her from imprisonment while his accomplices assassinated Elizabeth. Waiting 11 days before choosing to reply, Mary offered no resistance to the “accomplishing of their design” and suggested that they would need foreign help to secure her the English throne.
What Mary and Babington didn’t realise was that Walsingham and his spy network had known about this plot for some time, waiting for concrete evidence that would force Elizabeth to finally execute her cousin. Sending in a double agent to infiltrate the plot, Walsingham ensured that he could intercept Mary’s correspondence with Babington, waiting for the moment she would incriminate herself.
As Walsingham had hoped, Mary’s response to Babington was everything he needed.
The moment that Elizabeth read the letter, her lingering sympathies for Mary and her predicament finally disappeared – it was the final, ultimate betrayal.
With Babington and his conspirators rounded up by Walsingham, the queen decided to make an example of them to deter future plots against her life.
Hanged, drawn and quartered, Babington and his men were brutally disembowelled and forced to watch their entrails burnt before their very eyes before they died.
Arrested in August and tried before a special commission, Mary was found guilty of treason on 25 October 1586 despite her protestations of innocence.
While her advisors clamoured for Mary’s execution, Elizabeth remained reluctant to condemn Mary, a fellow anointed queen, to death, fearing retribution at God’s hands. After weeks of indecision, Elizabeth succumbed to the pressure and had Mary’s unsigned death warrant drawn up on 4 December 1586. The following month, James wrote to Elizabeth to ask for mercy on behalf of his mother but he didn’t threaten their alliance, considering his own position as Elizabeth’s likely heir.
On 1 February 1587, Elizabeth finally put her pen to paper and signed Mary’s death warrant but left it unsealed, ordering her secretary and privy council member, William Davison, not to send it. However, Cecil, on the cusp of achieving his long-awaited goal, ignored Elizabeth’s wishes.
Sealing the warrant, he sent it before the queen had an opportunity to change her mind.
Exactly one week later Mary was executed at Fotherinhay Castle.
Her dignified composure, clasping a prayer book and a rosary, transformed Mary into a Catholic martyr.
Upon hearing the news, Elizabeth flew into a rage. Placing the blame squarely at the feet of her council, she banished Cecil from the court for weeks and threw Davison in the Tower for handing over the warrant without her consent.
Elizabeth wrote a pleading letter to James and protested her innocence in Mary’s death. James accepted Elizabeth’s version, with his path to the English throne clearer now that his mother was gone. For the rest of her life, Elizabeth could never escape the memory of her cousin and it was said that Mary’s ghost continued to haunt her for until the end of her days – even on her deathbed Elizabeth supposedly uttered her cousin’s name. Although Mary lost her battle against Elizabeth, in the end she won the war with James’s accession to the English throne.
While awaiting her execution, Mary famously embroidered the phrase ‘In my end is my beginning’, a prophecy that has come true – her rivalry with Elizabeth has ensured that she will always be remembered, entangled in a bitter fight to the end.
“Elizabeth finally put her pen to paper and signed Mary’s death warrant”
Cecil and Walsingham were determined to find a way to trap Mary
Mary pictured with her first husband, King Francis II of France David Rizzio stabbed to death in front of Mary while she was pregnant with her son James
The ruins of Loch Leven Castle, where Mary was imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots escapes from Loch Leven Castle Mary’s trial for her involvement in the Babington Plot
A portrait of Mary in captivity Mary’s death finally brought an end to her bitter rivalry Elizabeth
Mary tirelessly sent letters to Elizabeth during her imprisonment Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in favour of her son
Mary’s final moments as she is led to her execution Mary’s death mask