In 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots, upset the applecart of the Protestant Reformation. Her husband, Francois II, King of France had died unexpectedly, and the Scots were more than a little surprised by the sudden appearance of Mary's ship at Leith's port.
Since 1542, Scotland had been ruled by a series of regents acting in Mary's name. By 1560, The Lords of the Congregation had overthrown the power of Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, and created a provisional government, but now she returned, bringing with her the glamour and authority of Scotland's royal court, and drawing nobles, both Catholic and Protestant, to its intrigues.
The Protestant Kirk which had been established in defiance of royal authority, found itself in limbo and subject to a Catholic monarch. For ministers like John Knox, Mary represented a serious threat to the whole Protestant cause. To his even greater annoyance, Mary interfered but little in matters of religion: tolerating the Kirk and even granting it revenues. However, Mary did refuse to give her assent to the Scottish Parliament's acts which abolished the mass.
In the 16th century there was a wide spectrum of opinion on Church reform, although most desired reform of some sort. In 1560, neither Catholicism nor Protestantism had been systematically defined (it wasn't until the 1570s that the Council of Trent defined Catholicism), and pressing questions were begging to be answered within the new Protestant Church in Scotland.
Which form of Protestantism did God want: Lutheranism or Calvinism? How was a church created in defiance of royal authority to be governed? Were there to be bishops or not? Was the church to be known as Episcopalian or Presbyterian? Was it to be under the control of a "godly" prince or "godly" ministers?
These tensions are well represented in the two key figures – James Stewart and John Knox. James Stewart, Earl of Moray, was the half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. An Augustinian Canon, he was well educated and as well cultured as any privileged landowner. A sincere Protestant, he had led the Lords of the Congregation in rebellion in 1559.
However, with Mary's return he was drawn to court and advised Mary on many matters of religion. It was Moray who carved out the compromise deal which allowed Mary to have her own private mass once the mass had been publicly banned, thus allowing her to remain Catholic and continue her claim to the throne of England, but without interfering with the Reformation settlement.
John Knox on the other hand was born into a relatively poor East Lothian background. For Knox "In religion there is nae middes (middle): one is either of God, or the Devil". He was a man with a will to break up society: a militant Protestant who wanted no dealings with Catholicism at all.
In practice this meant throwing your wife or family out onto the street for receiving the sacraments, or ceasing all trade and business with Catholics. Most Scots, however, found this more than a little impractical and formed a vast army of compromisers – holding society together through tolerance.
Moray and Knox came into confrontation over the issue of Mary's private mass. To Knox it was more dangerous than ten thousand armed Frenchmen, and he fuelled the anti-Catholic fire by leading a Protestant mob to Holyrood Abbey to disrupt the Queen's mass.
However, when he arrived there he found the door barred against him by Moray. Holyrood was his brother's monastic precinct and he was determined no mob should disrupt the political deal he had negotiated. Knox was forced to withdraw and was henceforth regarded as a political liability. The Reformation was ruled by the Lords of the Congregation, not by the rule of Knox and the mob.
Mary was attempting was to ride out the Reformation crisis, hoping to bring the Kirk under royal control in a moderate Protestant form and, for a while, it seemed she would succeed. Then matters became very complicated for Mary. Her second husband, and father to King James VI, Lord Darnley, was murdered.
Mary then married one of the suspected assassins James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell – a man with more than a few enemies in the kingdom. It was then that Scottish nobility rose against her – claiming that their actions were motivated by a desire to protect Mary from Bothwell's malign influence.
In 1567 Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle after a coup d'etat to separate her from Bothwell's influence. This is all that most of the Scots nobility wanted; however, six weeks later Protestant radicals seized their chance and mounted a second coup d'etat which forced Mary's abdication in favour of her infant son, James VI.
Scotland spiralled into six years of civil war. Of the two rival factions, Mary commanded the most support (she was after all the legitimate queen), but after defeat at the Battle of Langside she fled into exile in England. Here she sought protection from her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, who, suspicious of any provocation to a Catholic uprising in her own realm, had Mary imprisoned on grounds of her involvement in the death of Darnley.
During her 18 years of imprisonment Mary became the focus of several plots to kill Elizabeth and place her on the English thone as the figurehead of a Catholic counter-reformation. These plots, such as the 1582 Northern Uprising that saw Catholic lords in the north of England rebel, all failed and Mary displayed enough sense to refuse involvement in them.
While the likely success of these plots could be called into doubt the threat they posed to Elizabeth was very real. It became clear that while Mary lived Elizabeth would not be safe. Accordingly in 1585 the Bond of Association was made law. The Bond stated that anyone in a position to benefit from the death of the monarch (Elizabeth) could be put to death. With this Bond in place all that was needed to rid England of Mary was a plausible plot.
By 1586 the long years of imprisonment, constant threat of execution and dwindling hope of release led Mary to take her greatest risk. Sir Anthony Babington, a Catholic nobleman, was convinced to join a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne of England. Babington had corresponded with Mary in secret before the plot and so, from Mary's perspective, was probably seen as a reliable confidante. Uneasy at the idea of the murder of a monarch, Babington again entered into secret correspondence with Mary to seek her authorization for the act. Mary responded. While refusing to actively sanction the murder of Elizabeth Mary had done enough to place herself in grave danger.
Unwittingly Babington had sealed Mary's fate. The conspirators who had recuited Babington (John savage and John Ballard) were known to Walsingham, Elizabeth's Secretary of State and spymaster. After intercepting, deciphering and copying each message Walsingham allowed the covert correspondence to continue. Walsingham's forgers doctored Mary's letters to elicit further information about the plot details and the other parties involved in it. The trap had been sprung and Mary had been caught.
Mary was put on trial charged with treason for her complicity in the plot. Mary put up a spirited defence, answering the charges put against her with claims that as she was not an English subject she could not be guilty of treason. Mary also complained that she was not allowed to see the evidence brought against her and was also denied legal council. The trial was a formality and Mary was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading.
Any lingering hopes that her son, King James VI of Scotland, would provide the means of her rescue proved fruitless. Although Elizabeth feared James entering into an alliance with a major Catholic power and leading an invasion, James had his sights set on a different prize – one that his mother had once coveted and that he knew was within his grasp. James stood in line to be the heir to childless Elizabeth's throne. The mother he had barely known and who he had been raised to hate for her "treachery" during her reign in Scotland would not compromise his chance to be King of England. Upon hearing news of his mother's death sentence James sent his appeal to Elizabeth. The bearers of the message were to complain at the injustice, to petition for Mary to be exiled, to appeal to Elizabeth's better nature. They were not to rock the boat.
Duly on the 8th of February 1587 Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northanptonshire. At her execution Mary wore a scarlet undergown – red being symbolic of martyrdom in the Catholic faith. Several apocyrphal accounts surround her death. Once account has the executioner holding up her severed head to the assembled attendees only to discover that Mary's auburn hair was merely a wig. The head then fell to the floor in a sickeningly macabre moment. Another account features a small dog that was said to have hidden under Mary's dress as she was beheaded. The dog was recovered after the execution, terrified and blood-covered. What several accounts do agree on is that it took two strikes of the axe to decapitate Mary – the first blow striking her in the base of the head.
The sad and dramatic end to Mary's tragic life cemented her enduring appeal to future generations. The legend to sums up her story was provided by Mary herself. During her years as Elizabeth's prisoner Mary occupied her time with embroidery. One such embroidered work featured Mary's motto – "In my end is my beginning".