Who was Mary, Queen of Scots? Why was she imprisoned?

Mary Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots was tried for treason. Credit: Lifestyle pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Mary Stuart became queen of the Scots when she was six days old, was widowed at 18 and was executed aged 44. She ruled from 1542 to 1567 

Mary Queen of Scots was born in 1542, the only child of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. Born to rule during a tumultuous century engulfed by the Renaissance and Reformation, she became queen of the Scots at just six days old when her father died. Dynastically important, Mary was first betrothed to King Henry VIII’s son, Edward, but her Catholic guardians disapproved and broke the agreement, leading to Henry VIII’s unsuccessful Scottish raids, known as the ‘Rough Wooing’. 

Still a young girl, Mary was sent to the French court of Henry II, where she would later marry the Dauphin Francis, briefly becoming the Queen of France in 1559, uniting the French and Scottish crowns, only to be widowed at 18 when Francis died of an ear infection. 

Murder at the palace

Catholic Mary returned to rule the officially Protestant Scotland where she was regarded with suspicion. In 1565, she married her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. The union quickly floundered and Darnley had Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, murdered in her presence at Holyrood Palace. 

She gave birth to a son, James, in Edinburgh Castle in 1566, but the royal couple’s relationship disintegrated and the queen befriended James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. The following year, when Darnley was murdered during an explosion, suspicion fell on Mary and Bothwell, who she would marry soon after. 

Outraged, the Scottish nobility forced her abdication in favour of her baby son, but she escaped imprisonment and fled south of the border to seek the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. 

Claim to the throne

Mary’s strong claim to the English throne, however, made her too much of a threat. Indeed, many English Catholics considered her the legitimate sovereign of England. They believed Elizabeth was illegitimate and Mary, as the descendant of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, was the rightful heir. 

Elizabeth was reluctant to have her killed, so she imprisoned her instead for 19 years. Yet Mary still remained the focus of Catholic plots to put her on the throne. When correspondence linked Mary directly to a plot, she was tried for treason and condemned to death. The proud Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587. 

Key dates

  • 1553 – Lady Jane Grey becomes Queen of England for nine days, the shortest reign in British history
  • 1558 – Reformation leader John Knox publishes The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a pamphlet denouncing female rulers