Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born on 8 December 1542, the last child and only daughter of Marie de Guise and King James V of Scotland.


Mary’s two elder brothers had died as infants, and now the tiny newborn was heir to the throne of Scotland. John Knox recorded the almost certainly mythical tale that King James, upon hearing that his wife had birthed a girl, declared, “It cam wi’ a lass and it will gang wi’ a lass!” The House of Stuart had come to the throne via the marriage of Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce, to Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland, and now someone else would marry a king’s daughter and found a new line.

That isn’t how it happened, however. Mary’s only child, James IV of Scotland and I of England, was also a Stuart on his father’s side. Mary had wed her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a fellow grandchild of Margaret Tudor. Mary’s son thus had a double claim to the throne of England through his decent from Henry VII of England as well as the right to be King of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots depicted with her son James VI & I

King James V died on 14 December 1542, leaving the six day old Mary the new monarch of a kingdom divided by ancient feuds and new religious schisms. The baby’s mother guarded little Mary firecely, and used every diplomatic and womanly wile she possessed to keep her daughter safe and uncontrolled for as long as possible. Marie de Guise had finally run out of other options to escape England’s “Rough Wooing” for her daughter’s hand in marriage when she helped the French smuggle the five-year-old Mary out of Scotland. Marie, a Frenchwoman, much preferred her daughter to be wed to the Catholic Dauphin of France, Francis, than to the inevitably Protestant King Edward IV.


Mary was a great favorite in the French court, admired by everyone but Queen Catherine de’ Medici for her beauty, charm, intelligence, grace, and musical abilities. She was, however, like all children, easily influenced by those who she saw as parental figures. Thus, her future father-in-law, King Henry II, convinced the 15 year old girl to sign “a secret agreement bequeathing Scotland and her claim to England to the French crown if she died without issue” on 4 April 1558. The teenaged Queen of Scots then married the Dauphin in Notre Dame Cathedral three weeks later.

Mary was only 16 when she became queen consort of France after Henry II’s in a jousting accident on 10 July 1559. King Francis II and Mary didn’t really rule France; they just followed the ‘advice’ of the unspoken regents, the queen’s maternal uncles, the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine. Even though she was Queen of Scots, Mary had very little grasp of how to run that strange country to the north, and relied on her mother to continue to administer the turbulent nation.

Francois II and Mary Queen of Scots

Alas, on 11 June 1560, Marie de Guise died. Mary’s uncles, unable to send more French troops to help fight the Protestant Lords of the Congregation in Scotland, tried to settle matters diplomatically. On 6 July 1560 the representatives of France and England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, which agreed that both countries would withdraw troops from Scotland and that France would recognize Queen Elizabeth I as the legitimate monarch of England. The angry, devoutly Catholic, and grieving Queen of Scots refused to ratify the treaty, which she believed betrayed her mother and the Church.

Although her husband was odd-looking and much shorter than his wife, Mary loved him. Her heart was broken when King Francis II died of a brain abscess caused by a middle ear infection on 5 December 1560. Dowager Queen Catherine de’ Medici, who hated Mary for her popularity, became regent the new king, her 10 year old son Charles IX, and made it clear there was room at court for only ONE dowager queen. Mary therefore had to leave only home she could really remember and return to Scotland, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561.

The Queen of Scots wasn’t exactly welcomed back with open arms. The kingdom was as unstable as a herd of angels balanced on the head of pin, and was at constant risk at being ripped into pieces by warring Catholic and Protestant factions. By the time Mary returned, the Protestants had come to the fore and her illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray, was their leader of the Protestants. This anti-Catholic base was decidedly against the Catholic Queen Mary. The nursery rhyme Mary, Mary Quite Contrary may have been written at this time as a Protestant mockery the Queen of Scots. 

A leading Protestant reformer, John Knox, who had already become famous for his sermon The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, railed against Mary from the pulpit. He condemned the queen for not only for hearing Mass, but also for dancing, wearing finery, and generally enjoying life. How very dare she be happy AND have a vagina AND wear a crown! Mary would eventually have him charged him with treason, but his adherents secured his acquittal.

As queen, Mary tried her best to work with the Protestants, and kept her half-brother Lord Moray as her chief advisor. The majority of her privy council was made up of Protestant leaders from the reformation crisis of 1559–1560, and only four of the 16 councillors were Catholic: the Earls of Atholl, Erroll, Montrose, and her Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Huntly. Some historians, such as Jenny Wormald suggest “that Mary’s failure to appoint a council sympathetic to Catholic and French interests was an indication of her focus on the goal of the English throne over the internal problems of Scotland.” In contrast, I think this was a sign of wisdom. She was outnumbered and outgunned and alone in the foreign land of her birth; it behooved her to make allies.

It was working too. When her Lord Chancellor, the very Catholic Lord Huntly, turned against her in 1562 and led a rebellion against the crown from the Highlands, it was Lord Moray who kept his younger half-sister safe on her throne. Lord Moray was also the one to rush to Mary’s aid when the French poet Pierre de Boscosel de Chastelard forced his way into the queen’s room in 1563, either to force his ‘love’ on her or to discredit her by raping her.

Mary was very intelligent, but she was also a descendant of King Edward IV, and as such her heart frequently overruled her brains, just as it had done for her grandmother Margaret, Queen of Scots, and the Tudor siblings, Mary, Queen of France, and King Henry VIII.  On 17 February 1565 Mary was once more introduced to her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, at Wemyss Castle in Scotland and tragically fell in love with the tall, handsome, spoilt, selfish, idiot.

Mary wed Darnley at Holyrood Palace on 29 July 1565, “even though both were Catholic and a papal dispensation for the marriage of first cousins had not been obtained” and over the objections of Queen Elizabeth I. Nicholas Throckmorton, the ambassador for England, told Queen Elizabeth that Mary was “bewitched” by love for Darnley, and that the only way to stop the union was “by violence” to separate the couple.

Mary queen of scots with Darnley

Her marriage vexed everyone, even her best allies. Lord Moray joined Lords Argyll, Glencairn, and several other high-ranking Protestants in rebellion against the queen in response to her taking a Catholic spouse. Mary used the rebellion as an opportunity to rally Catholic support, releasing Lord Huntly’s son from imprisonment and allowing Catholic supporter James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, to return from his exile in France. By the autumn of 1565 Moray was defeated, and had sought asylum in England.

Mary then tried to put her fractured country back together again, while also expanding her privy council with both Catholic and the Protestant loyalists. Her good work was nonetheless undermined by her own husband, who didn’t have enough brains to fill a thimble. Darnley took advantage of the peace Mary had fought for by trying to wrangle the Crown Matrimonial, “which would have made him a co-sovereign of Scotland with the right to keep the Scottish throne for himself if he outlived his wife.” When Mary refused, Darnley began to conspire with her Protestant enemies against his pregnant wife.

On 9 March 1565 Darnley showed his hand when he and and his conspirators murdered Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, in front of her during a dinner party in her apartments. Darnley was stupidly jealous of Rizzio, who the queen’s enemies claimed to be the father of her baby. After the bloodshed, Darnley turned coat yet again helped his wife escape from Holyrood Palace two days later, although Mary would never really trust or like Darnley again. They briefly hid at Dunbar Castle before fleeing to the further safety of Edinburgh Castle.

Mary’s only child, James, was born at Edinburgh Castle on on 19 June 1566.

After recovering from the birth, Mary and her son moved to Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders. While there, Mary went to see the Earl of Bothwell at Hermitage Castle after he was injured in a fight with border reivers. This visit “was later used as evidence by Mary’s enemies that the two were lovers, though no suspicions were voiced at the time and Mary had been accompanied by her councillors and guards.”


Mary also began plans to divorce Lord Darnley, for myriad reasons. Before she could end the marriage, however, on the night of 9–10 February 1567 there was an explosion at Kirk o’ Field, where Darnley was staying, and Mary’s husband was found dead in the garden. It was assumed the queen had conspired with Earl of Bothwell to murder her annoyance of a spouse.

Bothwell be tried before the Estates of Parliament, but was found not guilty of Darnley’s assassination. Bothwell also got several lords and bishops to agree to the Ainslie Tavern Bond, in which Bothwell plotted to marry the queen as soon as he divorced his first wife, Jean Gordon. There is no evidence that Mary was aware of this.

On 24 April 1567 Mary was on her way back from visiting her baby boy at Stirling when she was kidnapped by Bothwell and a group of his men. The queen was taken to Dunbar Castle, where it is suspected Bothwell may have raped her to force her consent to marriage.  On 6 May, Bothwell brought his captive back to to Edinburgh and they were married in a Protestant ceremony on 15th.

Mary was miserable, and accused of working with Bothwell to murder Darnley so she could marry her new husband. The Scots turned against her, and she had no one to support her.  Bothwell was sent into exile, eventually running away to Demark where he would die as an insane prisoner in 1578.  The rebel lords took the queen by force to Edinburgh, “where crowds of spectators denounced her as an adulteress and murderer … [and] she was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, on an island in the middle of Loch Leven.” There the unfortunate queen and probable rape victim miscarried twins, and was On 24 July, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son James on 24 July 1567, with her half-brother Lord Moray as the baby king’s regent.


Mary would escape a little less than a year later, thanks to the help of George Douglas, who brother, Sir William Douglas, owned Loch Leven Castle. She raised an army, but was defeated at the Battle of Langside on 13 May 1568. She was advised to try to escape to France, but she turned southward instead, hoping for help from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

The deposed Queen of Scots found no ally in the English monarch, and was imprisoned in luxury (but a captive nonetheless) until she was executed for her role in the Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth on 8 February 1587. Although Queen Elizabeth had signed the death warrant a week prior, Mary was beheaded without the queen’s express permission … but certainly at the queen’s wishes.

The last laugh may belong to the Queen of Scots. When Queen Elizabeth passed away, Mary’s son James became King James VI and I of both Scotland and England. He had his mother’s body moved from Peterborough Cathedral to Westminster Abbey, and reburied in a chapel opposite the tomb of her cousins Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary I in 1612. The bodies of the three queens, all granddaughters of Henry VII, still lie there, joined together amicably in death as they were not in life. 

All subsequent monarchs to have sat upon the throne of England are the direct descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots.

4 thoughts on “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

  1. As a guest/prisoner of Elizabeth I, Mary had no business meddling in her cousin’s affairs. She should have a better behavior as a guest/prisoner.

      1. She could always go back to Scotland or to France. Elizabeth treated her as royalty and afforded her all the comforts of royalty. After all, if she was a prisoner, she was in a golden cage.

        Elizabeth was not stupid and would probably be more than happy to see Mary go in peace somewhere else other than England.

        Elizabeth had all the reasons not to be happy with another queen in her backyard and was more than right to impose conditions to having Mary as a guest/prisoner.

        Mary wanted all the royal benefits and comfort afforded by Elizabeth, but not the conditions imposed by her. She should have kept quiet and be thankful to her cousin, if in a guilded cage.

        Don’t know who was right or wrong in this case.

        1. The thing is …she couldn’t. She was a prisoner. A well-treated prisoner, but a captive nonetheless.

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