Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). If she had lived in our time, she would have been a regular in the tabloid press, constantly hounded by the paparazzi. This enigmatic woman fascinated people back then and her story still enthralls today. Queen of Scotland from her infancy and raised to become Queen of France, she also yearned to be Queen of England if Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), her cousin, were to die before her.
It was an extraordinary chapter in history to have two reigning queens in neighboring countries and if you count the dowager Queen Catherine de Medici of France across the channel, three powerful women shaping destinies in an overwhelming male dominated world. It was also a dangerous time for both Catholics and Protestants - their lives depended on who was on the throne at the time.
Mary's story is closely entwined with that of Elizabeth's. Their temperaments and ambitions were so very different and in the end, one would determine the fate of the other. Mary was impulsive, putting herself first in pursuit of marriage whereas Elizabeth set out to prove a woman could rule by putting her nation first. The seeds of who they were to become were sown in their childhood.
Mary Stuart was only a newborn when her father King James V of Scotland died. She was raised by a loving and capable mother, Mary of Guise who was from a powerful French aristocratic family. James V married Mary of Guise to cement ties with France, an alliance he needed to protect Scotland against a more powerful England.
Mary was a much loved, intelligent and pretty child who had a happy childhood, her every whim indulged. As she was too young to rule Scotland, regents including her mother kept her throne safe for her. She grew up to be a charming and attractive woman with a devastating effect on men. On the minus side, she lacked political acumen and was a poor judge of character.
Elizabeth, in contrast grew up in an insecure environment where she rightfully feared for her life on a number of occasions. Her father Henry VIII had her mother, wife no.2, Anne Boleyn, executed. Precocious even as a toddler, she noted a change in her own circumstances, asking the governor of her household, "How haps it, Governor, yesterday my Lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?" Elizabeth was declared illegitimate which added to her lifelong sense of insecurity.
When her predecessor, her older half-sister Queen Mary I ascended the English throne, Elizabeth, a Protestant, had to tread very carefully. Catholic Queen Mary I was known as Bloody Mary for good reason. So Elizabeth learned the value of patience, to be watchful, to back away from confrontation and never took anything for granted. These were some of the qualities which helped her become a great queen.
On her first wedding day, Mary was bedecked with a heavily bejeweled crown and the Great Harry, a necklace and pendant which included a large diamond. This diamond is now known as the Mirror of Great Britain. It was a gift from her father-in-law Henry II. Her new mother-in-law gave her exceptionally fine pearls - seven of them are now part of the crown jewels of Great Britain. She also defied tradition and wore white - the mourning color of royal queens. It was her favorite "color" because she thought it suited her red hair.
A short while later, Francis became King when his father died after a terrible jousting accident. She really relished being Queen of France but it wasn't for long. Mary was widowed when she was only 17 after Francis succumbed to an infection. Having being raised with the expectation of being Queen of France, she was suddenly cast adrift.
Eventually she left for Scotland, taking her magnificent jewels with her. These were not just symbols of power but also her personal banking system because she used jewels to give as presents, as collateral and to pay her servants and troops. During her early years back as Queen of Scotland and before she remarried, she was seen as a more approachable and tractable monarch when compared to Elizabeth's first decade on the throne.
Elizabeth had her favorites but perhaps given her own family history - her father had 6 wives in all - marriage was not her ambition. Elizabeth consistently told her people she was married to her country. She also knew she had to remain unmarried if she were to keep control of the throne. She stood firm on this despite intense begging from her advisers. Although she wasn't adverse to cleverly dangling marital possibilities with other foreign royals for political reasons.
Mary though wanted, no, needed to marry. Some said she married her second husband, Lord Darnley (below with Mary), because he was one of the few men who was taller than her 5' 11". She fell for this good-looking guy who in theory, could help her control her often rebellious Scottish nobles. But it was to be a lousy choice.
Elizabeth tried to veto the union. Lord Darnley also had Tudor blood and a claim to the English throne. She was suspicious Mary and Darnley together would be a threat to her own position as Queen of England. She needn't have worried.
Darnley turned vicious when Mary would not make him a co-ruler. He was one of the conspirators in the murder of her Italian secretary and confidante, David Riccio. Riccio could have been killed anywhere but the murderers chose to do the deed in front of a six-month pregnant Mary. She developed a hatred for her second husband, convinced he was out to kill her and their child (the future James VI of Scotland). She was conveniently widowed the next year when Darnley was found strangled or asphixiated to death after a house explosion.
No one knows if Mary knew about the plot to kill Darnley. Even if she didn't, what happened next was highly suspicious. She held a mock trial for one of the chief suspects, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (right) whom she knew and who was acquitted. Just two months after Darnley's demise, Mary was kidnapped by Bothwell and allegedly raped. He quickly divorced his wife and married Mary soon after. That was the last straw for the Scottish nobles. They rose up as one against the couple.
Mary lost the confrontation and willingly went into their custody on condition they let Bothwell go. (He was later imprisoned in Denmark and died insane). While imprisoned herself, she miscarried twins and was forced to abdicate in favor of her one year old son.
During this time she entrusted her diamonds and pearls to the Earl of Moray, her son's regent. She shouldn't have because many of the gems were subsequently sold off, some in London. Amongst these were a collection of magnificent black pearls. Elizabeth, another fashion maven herself, bought them for 12,000 crowns - a third of their value! She is shown wearing them in the 1585 Ermine portrait below.
When Mary eventually escaped from her imprisonment, she raised a small army to try and regain her crown but lost the battle. Of all places to flee to, she stupidly chose England and her fate was sealed. Mary spend years pleading with both Elizabeth and the King of France for help to get back Scotland. She also wanted to be the unwed Elizabeth's heir. Elizabeth was rightfully cautious with Mary and had her in genteel confinement in a series of English castles and constantly watched.
Later on, Mary got involved with a plot to dethrone Elizabeth. Elizabeth eventually was forced to put Mary on trial for treason after another plot to assassinate Elizabeth was discovered. Although found guilty and sentenced to a beheading, Elizabeth was still reluctant to sign the execution order because she feared the consequences - what if Mary's son took revenge by getting the French and Spanish on his side and invaded England? When she finally signed it, she gave it to a privy councilor only for safekeeping, or so she angrily said afterward. The Privy Council convened without her knowledge and quickly carried out the order before Elizabeth could change her mind.
Mary was told of her execution just the night before. She was calm and unemotional when she thanked the messengers for the news, "You will do me great good in withdrawing me from this world out of which I am very glad to go. All my life, I have had only sorrow." She was 44 - the last 19 years, nearly half her life, in English captivity. She had had enough.
After she was beheaded, something weird happened. The executioner held her head up only to be left grasping just her red wig whilst her head rolled on the floor. Mary's hair had turned grey during her imprisonment and she wore a wig to hide her short grey hair. Her devoted little pet dog, a Skye terrier, crept out from under her petticoat where he was hiding and initially refused to leave his fallen mistress. Later it was washed repeatedly to remove the blood from its coat. The poor little thing refused to eat and pined away.
Mary not only lost Scotland, she also lost her son. She last saw him when he was about a year old - the portrait of them together above is just fanciful artwork. She tried to keep up a long distance relationship, sending him affectionate letters and gifts. Alas, her son's senior tutor considered her a jezebel - an adulteress and murderer of the worst sort - and made sure his charge knew it.
When her Protestant son was older, he carefully cemented his future as Elizabeth's heir and ignored his mother's machinations. Clueless Mary actually thought she could be co-heir. After Elizabeth's death, he became not just King James VI of Scotland but King James I of England thus uniting the two nations.
Search for more bejeweled biographies here.
Jane Dunn, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens - highly recommended
About Mary Queen of Scots and her lavish display of jewels
Herbert Norton (1997). Tudor Costume and Fashion
Antonia Fraser (1969) Mary Queen of Scots
Antonia Fraser, VI of Scotland: King James I of England
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