Biography of Mary, Queen of Scots

A Tragic Story of British Royalty

Mary, Queen of Scots

Imagno/Getty Images

Mary, Queen of Scots (December 8, 1542–February 8, 1587), was the ruler of Scotland as well as a potential claimant to the throne of England. Her tragic life included two disastrous marriages, imprisonment, and eventual execution by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Fast Facts: Mary, Queen of Scots

  • Known For: Queen of Scotland and cousin to Queen Elizabeth I who eventually had Mary executed
  • Also Known As: Mary Stuart or Mary Stewart
  • Born: December 8, 1542 in Linlithgow Palace, Scotland
  • Parents: King James V and his French second wife, Mary of Guise
  • Died: February 8, 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle, England
  • Education: Extensive private education including instruction in Latin, Greek, poetry and prose, horsemanship, needlework falconry, Spanish, Greek, and French
  • Spouse(s): Francis II, Dauphin of France, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney and 4th Earl of Bothwell
  • Children: James VI of England (also James I of Scotland)
  • Notable Quote: Mary's last words are recorded as: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”)

Early Life

The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, was Mary of Guise (Mary of Lorraine) and her father was James V of Scotland, each in their second marriage. Mary was born on December 8, 1542, and her father James died on December 14, so the infant Mary became queen of Scotland when she was just a week old.

James Hamilton, Duke of Arran, was made regent for Mary, Queen of Scots, and he arranged a betrothal with Prince Edward, the son of Henry VIII of England. But Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, was in favor of an alliance with France instead of England, and she worked to overturn this betrothal and instead arranged for Mary to be promised in marriage to France's dauphin, Francis.

The young Mary, Queen of Scots, only 5 years old, was sent to France in 1548 to be raised as the future queen of France. She married Francis in 1558, and in July 1559, when his father Henry II died, Francis II became king and Mary became queen consort of France.

Mary's Claim to the English Throne

Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart (she took the French spelling rather than the Scottish Stewart), was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor; Margaret was the older sister of Henry VIII of England. In the view of many Catholics, the divorce of Henry VIII from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn were invalid, and the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, was therefore illegitimate. Mary, Queen of Scots, in their eyes, was the rightful heir of Mary I of England, Henry VIII's daughter by his first wife.

When Mary I died in 1558, Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband Francis asserted their right to the English crown, but the English recognized Elizabeth as the heir. Elizabeth, a Protestant, supported the Protestant Reformation in Scotland as well as in England.

Mary Stuart's time as queen of France was very short. When Francis died, his mother Catherine de Medici assumed the role of regent for his brother, Charles IX. Mary's mother's family, the Guise relatives, had lost their power and influence, and so Mary Stuart returned to Scotland, where she could rule in her own right as queen.

Mary in Scotland

In 1560, Mary's mother died, in the middle of a civil war she stirred up by attempting to suppress the Protestants, including John Knox. After the death of Mary of Guise, the Catholic and Protestant nobles of Scotland signed a treaty recognizing Elizabeth's right to rule in England. But Mary Stuart, returning to Scotland, managed to avoid signing or endorsing either the treaty or recognition of her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was herself a Catholic and insisted on her freedom to practice her religion. But she did not interfere with Protestantism's role in Scottish life. John Knox, a powerful Presbyterian during Mary's rule, nevertheless denounced her power and influence.

Marriage to Darnley

Mary, Queen of Scots, held on to hopes of claiming the English throne which she considered hers by right. She turned down Elizabeth's suggestion that she marry Lord Robert Dudley, Elizabeth's favorite, and be recognized as Elizabeth's heir. Instead, in 1565 she married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in a Roman Catholic ceremony.

Darnley, another grandson of Margaret Tudor and heir of another family with a claim to the Scottish throne, was in the Catholic perspective the next in line to Elizabeth's throne after Mary Stuart herself.

Many believed that Mary's match with Darnley was impetuous and unwise. Lord James Stuart, the Earl of Moray, who was Mary's half-brother (his mother was King James' mistress), opposed Mary's marriage to Darnley. Mary personally led troops in the "chase-about raid," chasing Moray and his supporters to England, outlawing them and seizing their estates.

Mary vs. Darnley

While Mary, Queen of Scots, was at first charmed by Darnley, their relationship soon became strained. Already pregnant by Darnley, Mary, Queen of Scots, began to place trust and friendship in her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, who in turn treated Darnley and the other Scottish nobles with contempt. On March 9, 1566, Darnley and the nobles murdered Rizzio, planning that Darnley would put Mary Stuart in prison and rule in her place.

But Mary outwitted the plotters: she convinced Darnley of her commitment to him, and together they escaped. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who had supported her mother in her battles with the Scottish nobles, provided 2,000 soldiers, and Mary took Edinburgh from the rebels. Darnley tried to deny his role in the rebellion, but the others produced a paper that he had signed promising to restore Moray and his fellow exiles to their lands when the murder was complete.

Three months after Rizzio's murder, James, the son of Darnley and Mary Stuart, was born. Mary pardoned the exiles and allowed them to return to Scotland. Darnley, motivated by Mary's split from him and by his expectations that the exiled nobles would hold his denial against him, threatened to create a scandal and leave Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, was apparently by this time in love with Bothwell.

The Death of Darnley—and Another Marriage

Mary Stuart explored ways to escape from her marriage. Bothwell and the nobles assured her that they would find a way for her to do so. Months later, on February 10, 1567, Darnley was staying at a house in Edinburgh, possibly recovering from smallpox. He awakened to an explosion and fire. The bodies of Darnley and his page were found in the garden of the house, strangled.

The public blamed Bothwell for the death of Darnley. Bothwell faced charges at a private trial where no witnesses were called. He told others that Mary had agreed to marry him, and he got the other nobles to sign a paper asking her to do so. Immediate marriage, however, would violate any number of etiquette and legal rules. Bothwell was already married, and Mary would be expected to formally mourn her late husband Darnley for a few months at least.

Before the official period of mourning was complete, Bothwell kidnapped Mary; many suspected that the event occurred with her cooperation. His wife divorced him for infidelity. Mary Stuart announced that, despite her kidnapping, she trusted Bothwell's loyalty and would agree with the nobles who urged her to marry him. Under threat of being hanged, a minister published the banns, and Bothwell and Mary were married on Mary 15, 1567.

Mary, Queen of Scots, subsequently attempted to give Bothwell more authority, but this was met with outrage. Letters (whose authenticity is questioned by some historians) were found tying Mary and Bothwell to Darnley's murder.

Fleeing to England

Mary abdicated the throne of Scotland, making her year-old son James VI, King of Scotland. Moray was appointed regent. Mary Stuart later repudiated the abdication and attempted to regain her power by force, but in May 1568, her forces were defeated. She was forced to flee to England, where she asked her cousin Elizabeth for vindication.

Elizabeth deftly dealt with the charges against Mary and Moray: she found Mary not guilty of murder and Moray not guilty of treason. She recognized Moray's regency, and she did not allow Mary Stuart to leave England.

For nearly 20 years, Mary, Queen of Scots, remained in England, plotting to free herself, to assassinate Elizabeth, and to gain the crown with the help of an invading Spanish army. Three separate conspiracies were launched, discovered, and squelched.


In 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, was brought to trial on charges of treason in Fotheringay castle. She was found guilty and, three months later, Elizabeth signed the death warrant. Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed by beheading on February 8, 1587.


The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is still well known more than 400 years after her death. But while her life story is fascinating, her most significant legacy resulted from the birth of her son, James VI. James made it possible for the Stuart line to continue, and for Scotland, Ireland, and England to unite through the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

Famous Quotes

The best-known quotations from Mary, Queen of Scots, relate to her trial and execution.

  • To those who stood in judgment of her relative to accusations of plotting against Elizabeth: "Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England."
  • To those executing her: "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles."
  • Last words, prior to beheading: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum ("Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit").


  • Castelow, Ellen. "Biography of Mary, Queen of Scots." Historic UK.
  • Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Houghton Mifflin: New York. April 2004.
  • “Queens Regnant: Mary, Queen of Scots - In My End Is My Beginning.” History of Royal Women, 19 Mar. 2017
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Mary, Queen of Scots." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Mary, Queen of Scots." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).