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The Abdication of a Queen

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On July 24, 1567, an imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots was forced to sign the instrument of her own abdication, thereby handing over the throne of Scotland to her 13-month-old son, James, and his regents. She was only 24 years old and had been queen of Scotland since the first week of her life. She was forced to abdicate as a consequence of having taken as her third husband the man who allegedly murdered her second husband.

Mary’s life had already been eventful. When she was a toddler, Henry VIII of England had sought her as a bride for his son, Edward VI. However, the Scots were unenthusiastic about this match. Instead, when Mary was five, she had been sent to France and raised at the French court as the intended wife of the French dauphin, Francois . She was 17 when Henri II, her father-in-law, died. She and her husband reigned as king and queen of France for a brief 18 months until Francois died in December 1560.

Mary Queen of Scots. Currier & Ives. New York : Published by Currier & Ives, c1870. Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division.

Mary had returned to Scotland the following year at the age of 18.  She had been on the market for a second husband since returning to Scotland, and, in 1565, married Henry, Lord Darnley, who was related to Mary through their common grandmother, Margaret Tudor. Though initially happy, the marriage quickly deteriorated. Less than a year after their wedding, Darnley participated in a plot to murder the queen’s secretary, David Riccio, and gain control of the government by seizing and imprisoning the queen. Mary had managed a bold escape while six months pregnant and convinced Darnley to abandon his co-conspirators, who included James Douglas, the Earl of Morton. Over 70 people were exiled as part of this conspiracy, with their goods and estates forfeited. The co-conspirators despised Darnley for his sellout and looked for revenge.

By January 1567, Mary had pardoned many of those involved in the Riccio murder. In early January, the Earl of Morton returned to Scotland and met with William Maitland, Mary’s secretary of state, and the Earl of Bothwell. According to Morton, it was Bothwell who proposed killing Darnley, but information from English sources of the time indicate that both Morton and Bothwell were ringleaders in the plot, with help from several of Morton’s (and Darnley’s) family members.

In the meantime, Darnley had fled to Glasgow. He had become ill while there but Mary followed him in order to persuade him back to Edinburgh. She was successful and by the end of January she and Darnley were back in Edinburgh. Since he had been sick with smallpox, Darnley was temporarily living outside the royal palace of Holyrood in Kirk O’Field. On the evening of February 9, 1567, conspirators filled the cellar of Kirk O’Field with gunpowder and a little after 2am the building exploded with a volley compared to that of multiple cannons firing simultaneously. Darnley managed to escape the explosion but was strangled to death outside the building. Although he was not well liked in Scotland, or well-known in Europe, his murder caused an enormous scandal. Mary’s actions both before and after his murder helped add fuel to the fire of suspicion surrounding her, although she had first characterized the event by saying “this matter is horrible and so strange as we believe the like was never heard of in any country.” (Quoted in Guy p. 288.)

Despite her seeming horror, many of Mary’s contemporaries thought her complicit in her husband’s murder. A survey of several modern historians argues that this was unlikely. Antonia Fraser points out that the queen had refused to sanction the murder when it had been proposed to her in 1566:

The queen’s dissent, combined with her known merciful character and clemency, which made her ever ready to pardon those who were sometimes best left unpardoned, gave the conspirators a strong motive for the future in not involving her in their plans. (p. 286)

Alison Weir concludes that there is no contemporary evidence of Mary’s involvement in the plot. John Guy argues that Mary was on the verge of negotiating a settlement with Elizabeth I that would recognize her right to the English throne and the murder wrecked this initiative. Fraser and Guy also suggest that Mary may have believed she herself was a target of the murderers, and the actions she took in the wake of Darnley’s death were focused on protecting herself and her son. Equally interesting is Retha Warnicke’s argument about the isolation of royalty. She points out that although almost as many people had been aware of the plot against Riccio, no one has ever suggested Mary had been aware of that conspiracy. Under these circumstances, believing Mary had not known about the plot against Darnley is also possible.

However, at the time, public opinion both in Scotland and abroad believed her as complicit in this regicide, and her actions in persuading Darnley to leave Glasgow for Edinburgh were seen as proof of her participation in the conspiracy.  Ironically, many of those charged with investigating the murder were also implicated in it. Lord Bothwell, for example, was the sheriff of Edinburgh and responsible for moving Darnley’s body from the scene of the crime. Although bewailing the situation, Mary took no actions to investigate, charge, and try any culprits. It was not until March 24, 1567 that Mary granted Darnley’s father, the Earl of Lennox, permission to bring a private cause of action before Parliament against Bothwell. The trial was scheduled for April 12, 1567. But Lennox did not appear, afraid of Bothwell’s many followers present in Edinburgh, and Bothwell was acquitted by evening. Seven days after his acquittal, Bothwell entertained the Scottish nobles to a banquet at which they signed the Ainslie Tavern bond which reiterated Bothwell’s innocence and counseled the queen to marry the Earl. A month later Bothwell forced Mary into marriage, but, despite the bond, Bothwell’s fellow nobles and co-conspirators turned against him. A rebellion broke out and in June 1567 Mary was forced to surrender to the rebels while Bothwell fled.

Mary had believed she would be recognized as royalty and treated as such, but to her shock she was imprisoned first in Edinburgh and then transferred to Lochleven Castle. While there, she suffered a miscarriage. During her recovery she was confronted by Lord Lindsay and told she must sign certain letters in which she resigned her crown, recognized her son as king, and appointed her half-brother, Moray, as regent. Mary was initially outraged but she was also frightened and ill, and believed she would be killed if she did not sign. Five days later, her infant son was crowned King James VI of Scotland.

Mary of Scotland mourning over the dying Douglas at the Battle of Langside, 1568 / painted by F. Hartwich. Berlin : Published by F. Silber, [186-]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Mary eventually escaped and after a failed attempt to regain her crown, culminating at the Battle of Langside, fled to England in 1568. In 1569, an English inquiry was held to examine her involvement in Darnley’s murder. Although the commission reached no final conclusion, the Scottish lords produced the Casket letters as evidence of her guilt. These letters purported to trace an adulterous love affair between Mary and Bothwell that provided them with a motive for killing Darnley. Mary denied she had written these letters and indeed was never allowed to examine them; the originals disappeared in the 1580s so only copies are available to historians. However, the letters did their intended work of labeling her an adulteress and murderer, and justified her abdication. After spending 19 years in English captivity, Mary was accused of being involved in the Babington plot, which aimed to assassinate Elizabeth I and place Mary on the English throne. She was sentenced to death and, in an ironic twist, was executed on February 8, 1587, just two days shy of the twentieth anniversary of her husband’s murder.

Select Bibliography:

Fraser, Antonia. Mary, Queen of Scots. [1969].

Guy, J.A. Queen of Scots: the True Life of Mary Stuart. 2004.

Warnicke, Retha M. Mary Queen of Scots. 2006.

Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. 2003.

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