How did Mary Queen of Scots lose one crown but gain another?

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1. The Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots, is a name from history that we still find intriguing. She was part of the House of Stuart (Stewart), which had ruled Scotland since 1371. But Mary also had ambitions towards the English throne.

She never gained the English throne, struggled to govern Scotland and was forced off the Scottish throne at just 24 years old. When Queen Elizabeth I died it was not Mary but her son, James VI, who became king of England and Scotland, uniting the crowns of the two countries for the first time. In becoming James I of England he expanded the Stuart dynasty into England. Stuart monarchs would go on to rule until 1714.

How did Mary, who was unsuccessful as a queen, achieve in death what she could not in her lifetime?

2. Ruling Scotland

Mary Stuart moved to France when she was a young child, where she grew up as a Catholic. She married the heir to the French throne and was briefly queen of France until her husband died in 1560.

No longer a queen of France, she returned to rule Scotland in person.

However it was a time of religious upheaval. A movement known as the Reformation was sweeping through Europe trying to return Christianity to its biblical origins. This led to new branches of Christianity forming which would later be known as Protestantism.

Many Protestant nobles in Scotland also wanted Scotland to be Protestant. But Catholic nobles urged Mary to crush Protestantism.

Mary attempted to strike a balance. She appointed a number of Protestant nobles to serve as her advisors, but refused to ratify the laws they passed in 1560. She also continued to practise Catholicism, although only in private.

Abandoning Catholicism would have lost her the support of France – an important international ally.

However if Mary had abandoned Catholicism it would have had benefits. It would have helped her to win the support of Protestant nobles in Scotland and encouraged Queen Elizabeth to recognise her place in the English succession.

The result was to leave both Protestants and Catholics dissatisfied. Ultimately it proved impossible for Mary to rule a country so divided by religious factions.

3. A husband fit for a queen

Meanwhile, in England, Elizabeth I was nervous of her Scottish relative. As a Stuart, Mary had a strong claim to the English throne dating back to the Treaty of Perpetual Peace in 1502.

This agreement saw Margaret Tudor, daughter of the English king Henry VII, marry Scottish king James IV. As a result, Mary was a direct descendant of the Tudors.

Elizabeth did not have the same claim to the English throne. Many Catholics believed her to be illegitimate as they thought Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother, was illegal.

While Elizabeth remained childless, there was always the possibility Mary would remarry and have a child. So Elizabeth wanted to advise Mary on who to marry and in return she would recognise her claim to the throne.

But Mary chose to ignore the potential husbands suggested by Elizabeth and married her cousin, Lord Darnley. Like Mary, he was a grandchild of Margaret Tudor.

Any child of this marriage would be descended from the Tudors on both sides and have a strong claim to the English throne.

The threat became a reality with the birth of Mary and Darnley's son, James, in 1565.

4. Mary's undoing

But it was Mary's husbands who led to her undoing. Darnley was greedy for power, drank too much and alienated some nobles which weakened Mary's support. Her third husband, Bothwell, was very controlling and stopped her from ruling effectively.

5. A fatal mistake

Defeated in Scotland, she made the fatal mistake of fleeing to England. She had expected Queen Elizabeth to have mercy on her. While Elizabeth had some sympathy for Mary, key advisors like William Cecil did not trust her.

She was still a Catholic with a strong claim to the English throne.

Mary was placed under house arrest when she arrived in England and remained a prisoner in various English castles for nearly 20 years.

Elizabeth’s Protestant advisors, like Cecil and her spymaster Francis Walsingham, were desperate to find evidence that could be used to eliminate the threat of Mary once and for all.

But it was not until 1586 that the perfect ammunition would arrive – the Babington Plot.

Walsingham got his hands on letters Mary had written which seemed to implicate her in a plot to murder Elizabeth.

For this she was put on trial and found guilty. Elizabeth reluctantly agreed to Mary’s death, and she was beheaded in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle on the 8th of February 1587.  

6. The next generation

Although Mary's life ended in her gruesome death by the executioner’s sword, her legacy was secured though her son by Lord Darnley, James VI.

James VI was brought up by the Earl and Countess of Mar in Stirling Castle. His education was designed to raise James as a God-fearing, Protestant King.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth had no heir who would follow her on to the throne. Despite this she refused to name a successor.

But her chief adviser Robert Cecil secretly wrote to James and they plotted for him to become king after Elizabeth's death. In 1603 James VI of Scotland achieved what Mary failed to do – he was crowned James I of England.

However the Stuart dynasty would last for little over 100 years after gaining the English crown. In 1714 the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, died. She was Mary’s great granddaughter.

While the man who succeeded her, George I, was from another Royal family – the House of Hanover – he too was a descendant of Mary.

Even today, Mary’s blood runs in the veins of the British royal family.

7. Was Mary destined to fail?

Mary’s downfall wasn’t inevitable. How could her story have turned out differently?

A child with Francis

What if she had a child with her first husband...

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A child with Francis

...then she might never have returned to Scotland – but if she had, the French would have given her much more support in 1567.

Elizabeth illness

If Elizabeth had died of smallpox in 1562…

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Elizabeth illness

…then Mary might have inherited the throne of England – with or without a fight.

Darnley illness

If Darnley had died naturally of the illness in 1566-1567…

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Darnley illness

...then she would have been free to take another husband without the scandal.

Mary remained in Scotland

If she had held her nerve in 1568 and not fled to England after the Battle of Langside…

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Mary remained in Scotland

…then she might have been able to win back the Scottish throne.