Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots Part 1: Of Bonds and Caskets
Transcript only note: unfortunately, for two of the books I used for this episode, I only have digital copies that don’t include page numbers. The best I can do is give chapter numbers – sorry.
Hey all, uh, just a head’s up that there is a mention of rape in this episode. I don’t go into any detail or anything, but it’s a thing that happened and it cannot, nor should not, be ignored. That’s it. Enjoy the show.
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous texts. This week we’re in Tudor England. And you’re getting… quite a few for the price of… well, two. Because there’s just that much stuff to talk about that it can’t fit into one episode.
So let’s not waste any time, and get straight into that historical context. In this instance, it’s a lot of politics and religion. There’s going to be a lot of simplification of super complex issues in this, because politics and religion in Tudor England is a big enough topic to spawn innumerable books and could be a podcast in itself. But hopefully I don’t simplify anything to the point of being wrong. Just remember that for everything that happens, there’s a whole bunch of factors at play, and I’m only going to be talking about the ones relevant to the story.
A final note before we begin: there are a lot of players in the Tudor courts, but to save confusion, I’m going to try and keep names to a minimum. Buuuut there are still going to be three Marys in this story. Mary is just a popular name. So popular, in fact, that one of these Marys has four attendants also all called Mary. They’re literally referred to as ‘the four Marys’. So only having to deal with three is not that bad. The first Mary is Henry’s daughter Mary. This is Henry VIII, he of the six wives. This is the Mary that you may have heard called ‘Bloody Mary’, and it’s not the same Mary as Mary Queen of Scots, who is the prime Mary in this story. The third Mary Queen of Scot’s mother, Mary of Guise. Let’s get to it.
Now, as the title of this episode suggests, the main characters in this story are Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots. But we have to start with Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII because he… makes some minor tweaks to the state religion that are important.
Henry becomes king in 1509 after his father, Henry VII dies. Up until 1502 Henry had actually been second in line for the throne, behind his older brother Arthur. But in 1502 Arthur dies, making Henry first in line when Henry VII pops his clogs.
One of the many, many concerns of a monarch is the production of heirs. And to address that concern, one of the first things Henry does is marry his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon. Which was an idea initially floated by his father after Arthur’s death. They had actually been betrothed for a while, but Henry rejects the marriage at age 14, basically as soon as he’s able to. But then, Henry’s father dies, and Henry, claiming it was his father’s dying wish, suddenly changes his mind about this marriage thing, and marries her.
Over the next decade Katherine has six pregnancies. Four of them end is miscarriage. Of the other two, there’s a son who lives for just a few short days, and a daughter, Mary, who survives. Henry now has an heir, but in England at the time, the idea of a woman as sole ruler was terrifying. Because: wimmin, amirite? So Henry really wants a son. Unfortunately, Katherine is 34 when Mary is born, which itself reduces the possibility of further pregnancies. Add in the genuinely sad circumstance of the fate of her other pregnancies, and it’s looking super unlikely that Henry is going to be able to have a son with her.
So what does he do? He needs a wife who can give him a son. But he already has a wife. So his ways out are either: Katherine dies – which she didn’t seem to be in any hurry to do – or he gets an annulment, which would declare the marriage invalid and leave him free to find someone else.
Now technically, the marriage would have been invalid in the first place – you’re not supposed to marry your brother’s widow. But England was Catholic at the time, and Rome had issued a papal bull condoning the marriage when Henry’s dad had first proposed it. Which makes it just a little bit harder to backtrack if you want an annulment, since the church would have to admit that the pope had been wrong to issue the first bull. And the church doesn’t really like admitting that the pope was wrong. But Henry was also religious person, and the miscarriages were making him worry that the marriage had never been sanctioned by God in the first place. After all, Leviticus chapter 20 verse 21 says that if a man takes his brother’s wife, they’d be childless.
At this point Henry is already eying up Anne Boleyn as a second wife. Actually, first he was eying her up as a mistress, but she wasn’t down with that, so marriage it was. Despite this, it takes five and a half years for them to actually get hitched. Parts of this are due to complicated politics, but part of it was a religious issue. Or rather, two issues. First, revoking the papal bull would mean Rome accepting that the previous pope had overstepped his power, and no one wants to admit that. Second, the then pope’s really not sure Henry’s interpretation of the Bible is right. See, Leviticus is talking about having sex with a brother’s wife, not his widow. It’s about adultery, and that’s not what was happening here. And on top of that, Deuteronomy 25 actually specifies that a man should marry his brother’s widow if they had had no sons.
After five and a half years of waiting, Henry splits from Rome, and becomes head of the Church of England. That’s a one sentence summary of a very complicated process that had many steps, and in which Henry did genuinely seem concerned with being able to establish whether there was religious justification for his having more authority than the pope. And splitting with Rome would have huge political consequences, putting him at odds with all the other European monarchies that were Catholic. Countries which the pope could encourage to go to war with England.
But splitting from Rome is what Henry does, founding the Protestant Church of England. He marries Anne Boleyn in January 1533. On the 23rd of May his marriage to Katherine is declared illegitimate, which is obviously the order you expect those two things to happen in. Elizabeth I was born on the 7th of September that same year.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she was not a boy, as had been predicted, and was therefore an immediate disappointment to her father. Despite this, Elizabeth’s birth shunted her much older sister Mary out of the succession line for the throne, because Mary was now considered illegitimate. So she gets demoted from ‘princess Mary’ to ‘Lady Mary’. Great thing to tell a seventeen year old. Also she had to live in the same house as Elizabeth, which went over super great. In that Mary refused to acknowledge Elizabeth as princess. Though she does seem to have softened to her over time (Collinson 2012).
When Elizabeth was two, her mother Anne miscarried a son at fourteen weeks. Later, in 1536 she miscarries again. Henry worried that God was showing disapproval of this marriage as well. But what did for Anne was the machinations of lords in Henry’s court who wanted her gone for various reasons. Gossip is gathered from the court and presented as a story to Henry of Anne having various affairs. She and he supposed lovers are rounded up, placed in the tower, and then beheaded.
Literally the next day, Henry marries his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Jane only lasts a year and a half, and then dies in childbirth, but at least has the good manners to give Henry the son he so desired. The new kid, Edward, becomes the legitimate heir to the throne, and Elizabeth is relegated to the same position as Mary.
Back to religion and international politics for a moment. England might have split from Rome, but Scotland had not. James V, king of Scotland, was firmly on the side of Rome. At this point James is married Mary of Guise, the daughter of a high-ranking member of the French court. At the same time, the pope issues a papal bull deposing Henry, and encourages the Catholic countries to invade. Henry takes various steps to mitigate the threat this poses, one of which is signing a peace treaty with Scotland. Just keep that in the back of your head.
Henry burns through two more wives, and then allows his final wife to survive him by dying in 1547. This makes Edward king, at the ripe old age of nine. Unfortunately for him, he dies in 1553, only making it to the age of 15. But before he dies he tries to cut Mary and Elizabeth out of the succession. In part because he doesn’t trust them to carry on his religious reforms, and possibly also in part because he still considered them illegitimate (Hoak 2014).
Edward wants Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. She was proclaimed queen on the 10th of July, but it doesn’t go over well with people, and her reign ends up lasting a whole nine days. On the 19th of July, Mary – that’s Bloody Mary – was proclaimed queen.
Mary goes about trying to repair things with Rome, and repeals all the religious legislation her brother had enacted. Parliament declares Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Mary’s mother, valid, confirming that Mary is super legit as queen. Only a few years later, in November 1558 Mary dies, acknowledging Elizabeth as the heir to the throne. However, in the eyes of Rome, Henry’s marriage to Anne was not legitimate, meaning that as her daughter, Elizabeth was also not legitimate. Not that that bothers those in England who don’t care about Rome. After all, Elizabeth is a protestant, and therefore makes Protestantism the official religion again.
When Elizabeth becomes queen she brings a guy called William Cecil with her, and appoints him secretary of state. I’m not going to mention all the things he does to interfere in Scotland, but bear in mind that throughout this story, he’s working behind the scenes, assuring various different people at various different times of what support they can expect, or what Elizabeth will or won’t do if they pursue a certain course of action. He has his fingers in all the pies.
So we’ve finally got one of our key players in place. Let’s stop that particular thread of the story for a moment and hop back to catch up with Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary is born in 1542, when Henry is still king, but after the papal bull deposing him. She’s the daughter of Mary of Guise, the French noble who James V of Scotland had married instead of aligning with Henry against Rome. Henry himself had actually been her suitor at one point, after his third wife died, but the king of France, a catholic, decides she should marry James, also a catholic, and not Henry, the not-catholic.
Six days after Mary is born, her father, James, dies. She’s crowned queen of Scotland in 1543, on the 9th of September, at 11 months old. Obviously, no one is expecting an 11 month old baby to actually rule – her mother rules as regent in her place. Henry pretty much immediately tries to set up a match between Mary and his son Edward, which would end aggressions between the two countries, and basically give him Scotland, once Edward and Mary were married and come of age to rule. It almost happens, but her mother manages to get enough support to prevent it. Henry responds by invading. This period, in which there were several invasions by Henry, is known by the highly exaggerated title of ‘the rough wooing’. Henry starts his invasion in 1545, and the invasions are still going on when he dies in 1547. But the invasions continue, and the Scottish turn to the French for help. The French King, Henri, offers to send military aid in return for the baby Mary marrying Henri’s son. Mary of Guise agrees.
So in 1548 Mary is sent to live with her relatives in France, after being betrothed – at not quite six years old – to Henri’s son, Francis. Who, being born in 1544, was four. ‘Cause that’s what happens when marriages are governed by international politics.
They were married in April 1558, when she was 15 and he was 14. In November of 1558, Bloody Mary, Queen of England, dies. Remember, Bloody Mary was Catholic, and so all the other Roman Catholic countries had been fine with her on the throne. But with Bloody Mary’s death, Elizabeth is queen, and she’s a protestant. Suddenly, Mary queen of Scots, as a Catholic, becomes more important politically, for anyone who wants to see England become Catholic again. Bloody Mary’s death also means that once again, England has a protestant ruler on the throne, which is a big boost for a growing protestant movement in Scotland, who want freedom to worship as proddies. This embroils Mary of Guise is a series of battles with the protestant reformers, which ends when she dies on the 11th June, 1560. By August, Scotland’s parliament passed laws making the country officially protestant.
Meanwhile, back in France, Francis’ father dies, just a month after Mary lost her mother. Francis is crowned king in September that year. And in December of the same year, Francis dies, three days before Mary’s seventeenth birthday. In one year Mary gains a throne in France, and loses it again, along with losing her mother, father-in-law, and her husband. Fun times.
Mary is now an orphan and a widow, and no longer queen of France. She’s now the dowager queen, and no one in the French court really wants her around anymore. And with her mother dead, Scotland wants her back. So, in 1561 back she goes, age eighteen, to rule a country she hasn’t lived in since she was five. And she was a Catholic returning to a newly protestant country. As is standard, she had a whole host of plotting advisors and lords around her. The ones whose names you need to remember are James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell; her half-brother, James Stewart, who she makes Earl of Moray; and Maitland, her secretary.
Now, I know, you’ve all immediately gone ‘wait, a Scottish man with the surname Maitland?? Is this an ancestor of Charles Maitland, of the smallpox saga? Well, I tried to look into it, which I’m sure you’ll agree was a good use of my time, but there’s not even a source for who Charles’ parents were, and Tudor Maitland’s line disappears from records after a few generations too. So who knows.
I’m just gonna take a moment here to underline that throughout this whole period once Mary is in Scotland everyone is sending letters. Which is not surprising, because, y’know, no phones. No internet. But it’s important to just bear in mind that these letters are conduits for so much political machination. I’m primarily giving you surface detail of what’s going on, but people are letting each other know all the time how they, or a faction, or a country, will react if someone does X, Y, or Z. And frequently, other people (looking at you, Cecil) are writing more letters to other people that kind of contradict what the first person said the reaction would be. Person A (still looking at you, Cecil) might write a letter to person B to let them know that person C has written a letter to person D about topic N. Interpersonal alliances are being made, changed, and broken on a regular basis. So just bear in mind throughout this that there’s a very strong undercurrent of correspondence churning the waters and that you basically shouldn’t trust anyone.
One of the very first things Mary does, days after arriving in Scotland, is to try and get a statement from Elizabeth that Mary would be heir to the English throne. This would be great for Mary, but not so great for Elizabeth. She worried that it would cause rebellious Catholics to rally around Mary. If you’re Catholic, and you want a Catholic queen, and you know that the next in line to the throne is Catholic, well, then, you might just be said to have a motivation to make the Protestant queen be conveniently dead. But Elizabeth refuses to even talk about appointing a successor.
Apart from trying to get herself named heir to England’s throne, Mary is keen to fulfil her duty of marrying and producing her own heir. This is another thing that Elizabeth does not want to happen, because that’s just what the Tudors preferred to happen to their potential dynastic rivals (Goodare 2007).
Elizabeth tells Mary that she’s allowed to marry an Englishman, though a foreigner might do providing they weren’t Spanish, French, or Austrian. Which is basically ruling out all the marriages that would have been really useful to Mary in terms of political alliances (Williams 2018: ch. 15).
Elizabeth even goes so far as to suggest Robert Dudley as a husband for Mary. And pretty much everyone in Europe at the time think’s Dudley is Elizabeth’s lover, so there’s no way that one’s going to happen. In fact, the plan kinda backfires for Elizabeth, because it angers Mary, and makes her less inclined to listen to Elizabeth’s opinions and preferences in the potential husband discourse (Williams 2018: ch 15).
Mainly to irritate Mary, Elizabeth asks her to allow an exiled, trouble causing lord, the 4th Earl of Lennox to return to Scotland from exile in England. Mary agrees. The unintended consequence of this was that Lennox’s return introduced his son, Lord Darnley, as a potential husband for Mary. She’d met him before when she was back in France, and he seemed like a nice guy. He also happened to be Catholic, and English, aaand he also happened to be, on his mother’s side, the grandson of Henry VII – Elizabeth’s own maternal grandfather. So he’s even got some royal blood. And that would seriously help strengthen Mary’s claim as heir to the English throne. Elizabeth suddenly realises that this marriage would be a problem for her, and tries to stop it, but it’s too late.
Four years into her reign, in 1565, Mary marries Darnley. Elizabeth is not impressed. Her privy council actually want her to declare war over it, but she doesn’t think that’s a good idea, so she doesn’t (Williams 2018: ch 16).
Despite initially appearing charming to Mary, Darnley was actually a pretty unpleasant guy. He was arrogant, and an angry drunk, and hadn’t been a popular choice among the Scottish elite to start with. Partly because he was an ass, and partly because they didn’t like the idea of him having power over them. Some of them had actually tried to raise a rebellion, but it didn’t pan out and they fled to England.
To give you an idea of how unpleasant he was, in March 1566 he and some co-conspirators, decided that Mary’s private secretary and musician had too much influence, and murdered him. They burst into her private chambers, and violently dragged him out, despite Mary’s attempt to save him. They stabbed him 56 times whist all Mary could do was listen to him die. So that’s cool.
After the murder, Darnley and his men essentially make Mary a prisoner. She’s guarded, isolated, and stuck, and she’s also pregnant. Eventually, despite him kind of being the ring-leader of the whole thing, she convinces Darnley to help her escape, and she flees to Dunbar. Some of the lords who were still her supporters rallied an army and she returned to Edinburgh successfully.
In 1566 Mary and Darnley’s son, James, is born. This is the James that is associated with the Scottish witch trials and who will go on to write a Demonology. There will be an episode about him in future. Relatedly, the birth of James prompted a guy called Patrick Adamson to write a poem in Latin about the baby, declaring him prince of Scotland, England, France, and Ireland. The poem, at the request of England, earns him six months in jail in France.
By the end of that year, pretty much everyone is Mary’s court is of the firm opinion that something needs to be done about Darnley. The question is: what? Her closest advisors, including Maitland and Bothwell, who was at the time Sheriff of Edinburgh, discussed the issue with her. None of the options were great. Divorce was one possibility, but Mary wasn’t keen on it because she worried it might weaken the position of her son. It would also require papal dispensation, which they couldn’t be sure of getting. And it would require some degree of cooperation from Darnley. Arrest was another possibility. He had, after all, been involved in Mary’s imprisonment after the murder of her secretary, and that was treason. But so had a bunch of other lords, and a trial would drag too many of them into it. The third option was more murder. Mary refused to hear of it (Williams 2018: Ch. 18).
But just because Mary refused to hear of it, didn’t mean the lords stopped discussing it. When she wasn’t there, they signed a bond agreeing that Darnley needed to be taken care of. This document is known as the Craigmillar bond. This kind of bond is a useful and dangerous tool. It’s damning evidence against anyone who signed it should it be found. It could be used by the one who held in to blackmail the signatories and hold them in check, but it also bound them together – should any one of them allow the document to be found, they would all suffer. Should one of them turn on the others, that bond could condemn them all.
Eleven months later, Darnley is in Glasgow, recuperating from an illness that, at the time, was thought to be smallpox, but which historians now think was syphilis. Because we all know how hard those two are to tell apart. And despite the fact that he’s a jerk, Mary goes to care for him like a good wife should. It seems at this time they became reconciled. Possibly in part because Mary feared that Darnley and his father were plotting against her – to the extent that in January she had ordered some investigations into rumours that he was planning to usurp her.
As he recovers, Mary wants to move him closer to Edinburgh, and suggests Craigmillar castle. Darnley doesn’t like that location, so instead they go for a lodge in Edinburgh.
On the night of the 9th of February, 1567, the lodge blows up.
Dying in an explosion caused by improper storage of a couple of powder kegs of gunpowder might have been dismissible as a sad accident. Unfortunately for his assassins, Darnley had somehow become aware of the danger he was in, and had escaped through a window before the explosion. He was, instead, found dead in the garden, unburned, and smothered to death.
Mary is now a widow twice over, and it was undeniable that her second husband had been murdered. That’s the kind of thing that makes people expect you to take swift and strong action. Someone needed to be caught and put on trial, and found guilty. But Mary kinda’ flounders. Initially, she assumed that she had been the intended target, and feared for her life and for that of her son. She’s literally scared for her life, and in shock. She immediately makes two mistakes. The first is that, having been up all night freaking out, Mary had the audacity to sleep until midday the day after the murder. And as we all know, only a guilty person would sleep that well. Exhaustion just don’t come into it (Williams 2018: ch 19).
The second mistake is that, despite ordering the whole court into grief, and beginning the mandatory 40-day mourning period, Mary breaks that in less than twenty-four hours to go to a wedding that she had promised to attend (Williams 2018 ch. 19). Neither of these things makes her look innocent, and the rumours start to spread. And just in case Mary was starting to think that only Darnley had been the target, on the 27th of January she receives a letter from an Archbishop telling her that he had heard rumours that she was the target of a dangerous conspiracy.
Two weeks’ later and still no one has been caught and put on trial. The council had declared that they would pursue the matter, and offered a reward for the capture of the guilty party. But shockingly, a declaration to find some criminals by a group of people that contains those criminals doesn’t actually lead to a compelling effort to find the guilty parties. Especially not when one of them is the sheriff of Edinburgh. International royalty, including Elizabeth, are writing to Mary urging her to find whoever it was and hold a trial.
My ears have been so shocked, my understanding so broken and my heart so frightened to hear the awful news of the abominable murder of your husband and my slaughtered cousin, that I can barely write. And although I would take his death hard, with him being kin, I must tell you honestly, I cannot pretend that I mourn more for him than for you. O, Madame, I would not be doing as a faithful cousin should, or a loving friend, if I did not speak openly and beg you to preserve your reputation. I must and I will tell you what people are saying. They say that instead of taking measures to arrest those responsible, you are looking through your fingers while they escape, that you will not seek revenge on those who have done what is what you wished, as if the deed had been trusted to be forgiven, so the murderers felt assured to do it. I do not think this way. I would never hold such a miserable opinion of a prince. And even less of you, to whom I wish every good my heart can imagine and you could wish for. For this every reason, I exhort, I counsel, I beg you deeply to take this to heart and even if the guilty is the nearest friend you have, to lay your hands upon him, show to the world that you are a noble princess and a loyal wife. I write thus vehemently not out of doubt, but through the true love I have for you. I know you have other wise counsellors around you. But I remember that even our Lord had a Judas among the twelve. I assure myself that you have no one more loyal than I and you can rely on my affection.
Elizabeth is being pretty frank here: Mary, you need to do something here. Elizabeth has heard about the rumours – that Mary is ‘looking through her fingers’ – i.e. not making much effort to find Darnley’s killer, and Elizabeth also suggests that perhaps some of Mary’s advisors don’t have Mary’s best interests at heart. This was completely true.
At this point it doesn’t actually matter who actually is guilty, but someone needs to take the fall for it. It’s the public perception that matters, not actual justice. But there are some things that Elizabeth and her international counterparts don’t understand. Traditionally in Scotland at the time, the impetus for pursuing a trial usually came from the paternal relatives of the victim (Warnicke 2006: 148). So in normal circumstances, you’d expect it to be Darnley’s father, Lennox, leading the drive for justice. Obviously, the situation is slightly more complicated when the person who’s been murdered is the Queen’s husband.
Another potential reason for the delay might have been that Mary was worried that anyone put on trial would implicate her in the plot, and claim that she had known what was being discussed, and that she assented to it (Williams 2018: ch. 19).
In the first week after Darnley’s death a placard had appeared in Edinburgh blaming Bothwell for his death. It claims Mary knew of the plan. Over the following weeks more placards start to appear, blaming more people, though Bothwell remains a key target. They’re taken down quickly, but more appear each morning (Williams 2018: ch. 19). One of the ones most offensive to Mary contained a drawing depicting her as a seductive Siren, with a hare, representing Bothwell, underneath, and some definite indications of a sexual relationship between the two, and labelling them both as ‘wicked’ (Williams 2018: ch. 19).
On the 20th of February, Mary receives a request from Lennox for a parliamentary trial of his son’s murderers. Mary agrees to this, and summons parliament, which requires 40 days’ notice. Only five days after Mary grants this request, Lennox changes his mind. His cited reasons were the 40 day delay for parliament, and the fact that he had decided it was not a matter proper for parliament. Instead, he changes his request to Mary to having those named in the placards imprisoned and subjected to a private trial, rather than parliament. Mary tells him that she can authorise this private prosecution if he can be more specific about who he wants arrested – a lot of people have been named by the placards – including Mary herself, after all. Lennox replies, listing those he thinks are guilty. The list includes Bothwell. On the 22nd of March Mary promises him a trial. Just a day earlier, Bothwell’s wife had begun divorce proceedings. Probably due to a mixture of him being a nasty piece of work, and because of his pretty obvious involvement in the plot. This doesn’t do anything for the growing speculation that there was something going on between Mary and Bothwell.
Mary meets with her privy council and they agree to the trial of Bothwell and seven other suspects that they didn’t bother to name, essentially making it a trial of Bothwell alone. This type of trial still required 15 days’ notice, so it’s scheduled to be held on the 12th of April. Ironically, this is actually only two days before parliament would meet.
To prepare for the trial, Lennox does exactly what you’d expect – he amasses 3,000 armed retainers. This is another quirk of Scottish law at the time. The accused and the accuser both summon forces, to surround the court whilst the trial happened. Usually, whoever had fewer troops would withdraw from the conflict (Warnike 2006: 149), and such was the nature of the law and the limits of the crown in these matters, that even if Bothwell were found guilty, Mary would be unable to actually do anything to him unless Lennox had more troops than Bothwell (Warnicke 2006: 151).
He does not. He also does not have any actual solid evidence against Bothwell. Realising this, he applies for a postponement of the trial. His request doesn’t reach Mary in time, and Lennox promptly leaves the country. So the trial goes ahead, with no one to actually accuse Bothwell or present evidence against him. Shockingly, he’s found innocent.
Around two weeks after his acquittal in court, Bothwell get a bunch of Lords together and pushes them into signing another bond declaring that he is innocent, that they totally support him, and that now the queen is single again she needs to remarry, and preferably to a Scottish lord. This one is called the Ainslie bond. Bond in hand, as proof that the lords support him and want this marriage, Bothwell proposes to Mary. Mary refuses. A few days later, Bothwell ambushes her on her way back from visiting her son. She has thirty people with her, including Maitland. He has 800 armed men. He tells her that there’s danger in Edinburgh and asks her to allow him to escort her to Dunbar. Not having any choice, she agrees. He takes her to Dunbar, essentially imprisoning her there, and rapes her.
Chapter 21 in Kate William’s book, Rival Queens has a very good discussion of the attitudes surrounding rape at the time, and the attitudes of the historians who have written about it since. This was the sixteenth century, and rape was largely seen as the woman’s fault. Probably feeling like she had about as much choice in the matter as she had in being taken to Dunbar in the first place, Mary agrees to marry Bothwell. Despite the misogyny of the time, when the word got out, there was outrage that a queen had been raped. Peasants and royalty just aren’t the same, y’see. Bothwell was incredibly unpopular among everyone, and had Mary managed to find a way to declare that she did not want to marry him, she would probably have had support. But she was an isolated woman, none of her lords were particularly loyal. She had no one she could trust.
They ride back to Edinburgh on the 6th of May. On the 7th, the same day Bothwell’s divorce from his wife comes through, the minister was asked to pronounce the banns of marriage. He refused. Which gives you an idea of how scandalous this marriage was, and how it very much did not do anything to help Mary’s public image, given everyone still thought that Bothwell had murdered Darnley. The next day the minister was given a writ by Mary declaring that she had neither been raped nor held hostage by Bothwell. He was ordered to read the banns, but he made clear in doing so that he still thought this was outrageous. They were married on the 15th of May, only a few months after Darnley’s murder. Few attended the wedding. A new placard appeared declaring that ‘only harlots marry in the month of May’ (Williams 2018 ch. 21). Mary was miserable. And… she was pregnant.
The lords were also less than happy – Bothwell was not sharing his new powers with them, and he was becoming about as popular as Darnley had been. Even the lords who had at first accepted the marriage now turned against him. They assemble against Mary and Bothwell at Stirling, planning to march on Edinburgh, claiming that their cause was avenging the death of Darnley, and freeing the queen from Bothwell’s clutches. Bothwell fled to Borthwick Castle, dragging Mary with him. Later they retreat again to Dunbar. On the 15th of June, the armies each side had managed to rally met at Carberry Hill. Over the course of the day there were fruitless negotiation attempts, several unfulfilled offers of settling the matter by single combat, and Mary and Bothwell’s army began to dwindle as men deserted. In the end, she surrendered, on the condition that she would be treated well, and the lords agree to let Bothwell go. He flees back to Dunbar. She is not treated well. As a final parting gift, Bothwell showed Mary the Craigmillar bond, revealing that the lords – even those now opposing Bothwell on the pretext of revenge for Darnley’s death – had signed a bond planning his death. (Williams 2018 Ch. 22).
Mary was taken back to Edinburgh, as the men in the army, and later people in the streets of Edinburgh hurled abuse at her. She is imprisoned in the Provost’s house. Here, Mary makes the mistake of revealing to several of the lords who had signed the Craigmillar bond – including Maitland – that she knew what they had done. By suggesting that pursuing the issue would be putting her own live in further danger, Maitland blackmails Mary to stay quiet about what she knew (Williams 2018: ch. 23). He then immediately tells the other lords that Mary knows who signed the Craigmillar bond. This makes Mary a threat to them.
The lords now had to decide what to do with her. They could restore her as queen, but only as a figurehead for their own intentions; they could force her to abdicate and exile her; they could force her to abdicate and then put her on trial for the murder of Darnley, and then imprison her for life; or they could force her to abdicate, put her on trial, and then execute her (Goodare 2004). The problem with a trial for murder was that it would give Mary a chance to expose them all as being the plotters in Darnley’s death. There were some negotiations around the possibility of restoring her, but it was never serious. In June Mary is shifted from the Provost’s house in Edinburgh to Lochleven.
On the 20th of July, Mary suffered a miscarriage. Four days later, still recovering, weak, and in pain, Mary has visitors. a group of lords arrived and presented her, on pain of death at her refusal, with deeds to sign to the effect that she was abdicating the throne. Her infant son James VI would be crowned instead, and one of the lords, Moray – Mary’s half brother – would rule as regent until he came of age.
When Elizabeth hears of all this she is not happy. For all her poor decisions, Mary is still her cousin, and of course, Mary’s treatment sets a dangerous precedent for how a queen might be treated. And Mary’s failure to rule as queen might be used by Elizabeth’s opponents as proof that a woman just couldn’t do the job. Elizabeth wanted to go to war. Her Privy council convinced her this was a bad idea, and that she should negotiate with Scotland and the lords instead. She refuses to do this so long as Mary is imprisoned, and threatened war should she be killed. She also refuses to recognise Moray as regent and officially ends diplomatic relations with Scotland (Williams 2018 Ch. 24).
The Scottish Lords still need to figure out what to do with Mary, and they probably felt pressured to do something quickish, since the murder of Darnley was still unsolved and hung over their heads. Copies of the Craigmillar bond were somehow in circulation, and its contents were being widely discussed. On the 4th of December that year, four days before Mary’s 25th birthday, the lords produced an Act of Council accusing Mary not only of Darnley’s murder, but also of wanting to kill her son.
And here we’re finally introduced to one of the star dangerous texts for this story. A man who had been a tailor and servant of Bothwell had been arrested earlier that year, and had supposedly been attempting to retrieve some incriminating letters that Bothwell had left behind in Edinburgh in a silver casket under a bed. It was these letters that formed the basis of the lords’ accusation of Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s death.
Meanwhile, Mary receives secrets letters from those that still supported her and she starts to plan her escape from Lochleven. Around 11 months after first being imprisoned at Lochleven, Mary succeeds in that escape on the 2nd of May, 1558, and flees to her supporters at Cadzow Castle. Mary started rallying troops around her, and declared that she had been forced to abdicate, invalidating Moray’s position as regent. On the 13th of May her forces meet those of her half-brother in battle, and she is defeated. She flees toward Dumbarton, stopping at Dumfries. There, she decided not to head on to Dumbarton, but to request assistance from Elizabeth, and, despite the protestations of her supporters, decides to head to England herself. This is universally agreed to have been A Mistake.
Mary makes it first to Wokington in Cumberland, and is then escorted to Carlisle Castle. Up until this point, despite her best efforts, Mary had never met Elizabeth. Now that she was in England, she expected this to finally happen, and she was expecting Elizabeth’s support in retaking her throne. Elizabeth was startled when she heard that Mary had made it to England. She had not been expecting this. Despite Elizabeth’s sympathy for Mary as a queen and relative, her arrival in England caused all sorts of problems. Mary requested a private meeting with Elizabeth and aid from her to retake the Scottish throne, or failing that, passage to France for one of Mary’s advisors, so that he could seek aid there.
Elizabeth did want to meet Mary, but her advisers didn’t want her to. Especially not Cecil. For Cecil, Mary presents a huge problem. There was a possibility that Catholics might want to put Mary on Elizabeth’s throne, and Cecil was particularly concerned about this threat, given that on the international stage there were several wars going on between Catholic and Protestant factions. If the Catholics did well, they might decide to invade England, and in Mary they had a woman who had a claim to that throne that they could rally around and make ruler. (Williams 2018 Ch. 26).
He convinced Elizabeth that there needed to be some sort of trial over Mary’s possible involvement in Darnley’s death, and that Elizabeth could not meet with her until after her innocence was proven. If it were proven. However, putting a monarch on trial would be very bad form, and set a dangerous precedent. It’s not particularly wise for a queen to show that a queen can be put on trial just like anyone else. It would cause international outrage, and seriously damage diplomatic relationships – other monarchs aren’t going to want to deal with a country that puts monarchs on trial. Instead, Cecil pushes for some sort of inquiry.
So on the 28th May, Elizabeth responds to Mary by denying the request for passage for Mary’s advisor, and states that she will not meet Mary until after a hearing had been held to settle the charges against her in Scotland. Even before Elizabeth has informed Mary of this, Cecil has already started corresponding with Moray about this potential inquiry, seeking evidence that would prove Mary’s guilt. He also asks Lennox, Darnley’s father, to submit a petition demanding justice against Mary. A few days later, Moray asks a former friend of Mary’s to write a deposition against Mary. This deposition claims that Mary was the driving force behind Darnley’s death, and that she was lying about being abducted by Bothwell. But these alone wouldn’t be enough to secure Mary’s guilt. Cecil needed something concrete – where were those damn casket letters when you needed them?
Where indeed? Tune in next time to find out!
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- The voice of Elizabeth I was: Joy Demorra.
- The voice in your ears has been: against all statistical odds, not called Mary.
Collinson, P. (2012) ‘Elizabeth I’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
Davies, C. S. L., & Edwards, J. ‘(2011) ‘Katherine of Aragon’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Online.
Goodare, J. (2007) ‘Mary (Mary Stewart)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography*, Oxford Online.
Hoak, D. (2014) ‘Edward VI’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
Ives, E. W. (2009) ‘Henry VIII’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
— (2004) ‘Anne Boleyn’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Online.
Warnicke, R. (2006) Mary Queen of Scots, Routledge.
Williams, K. (2018) Rival Queens, Random House.
Weir, A. (2003) Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, Vintage Books.