Conspiracy, Betrayal and Beheadings: The Bloody Truth About the Epic Royal Rivalry in Mary Queen of Scots

No matter how much a royal relationship frays these days, at least no one is going to lose her head over it

By Natalie Finn Dec 15, 2018 11:00 AMTags
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Royal intrigue can be mined for every sin in the book—and it is, often, whether the story hearkens back to days of yore or just last week.

A lot has been speculated lately about the state of relations between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, the newest female member of Britain's royal family who, depending on what day of the week it is, is either an extra helping of too much or just the American spark the whole stodgy operation needed in the age of Brexit and more pressing world affairs.

Having no choice but to suffer in silence 95 percent of the time or else risk doing nothing but mop up after rumors, earlier this month Kensington Palace took the rare step of flatly denying that a confrontation occurred between the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex, namely that Kate had chewed out Meghan for supposedly not treating members of Kate's staff properly.

Palace spokespeople will demur but not outright lie, so that, theoretically, should be the end of it. Then again, maybe one's "explosive row" (as it was conveyed to The Sun) is another's "minor exchange"...

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The overall consensus is that Kate and Meghan aren't particularly sisterly with each other but get along just fine—and will likely carry along in exactly the same vein forever, barring a shocking turn of events. Yet no matter how much the relationship devolves between Prince William and Prince Harry's wives, should that be the case, at least we know for sure that no one will be literally losing her head over it.

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When it comes to truth being stranger than fiction, nothing beats the centuries' worth of romance and heartbreak, war and conquest, rivalries and feuds, and scheming and skulduggery that make up the real-life history of European royalty.

Happily there's far less bloodshed, incest and untreated disease the closer you get to the 20th century, but rest assured, be it Tudor or Windsor, Borgia or Plantagenet, Habsburg or Stuart, Victorian, Elizabethan or Catherinian—if it happened in the name of a Crown, chances are it's bonkers. It's amazing that anyone slept soundly, ever, considering the myriad plots cooking at any given time to dispose of a ruler or overtake a country. And when it comes to figuring out who was after whom, and why, the fact that approximately 200 people share the same 10 first names does not help matters.

Just the slightest background info about the main characters in Mary Queen of Scots, which is in theaters now, reads like a movie's worth of melodrama in itself.

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For starters, Saoirse Ronan plays the enigmatic titular queen, whose reign technically began when she was 6 days old after her father, King James V of Scotland, dropped dead at 30.

Margot Robbie plays Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Anne was executed by her ruthlessly never-satisfied husband when Elizabeth was 2 1/2 years old.

Both royals' reputation precede them, due to countless treatments on the page, stage and screen, but the mystique lives on as we try to get at the essence of their relationship to each other with the help of modern hindsight. Final verdict: we're more civilized now, but some things have not changed.

Henry VIII's sister Margaret Tudor married King James IV of Scotland, and their son James V was Mary's father, making Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots (heretofore called Mary) cousins once removed. 

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So, one was queen of England, the other the queen of Scotland—why couldn't everyone just get along? They never even met each other in person. What contact they did have in life came only through letters exchanged over the years, congenial and at times warm (Elizabeth called Mary "sister"), but also fully aware of the oddity of the situation they found themselves in as accidental rivals, pitted against each other by the hand of fate and hundreds of years of precedent.

Aside from their personal communications, what Elizabeth and Mary knew of each other was conveyed to them by other people, most of whom had their own agendas. The endlessly charming Mary was no innocent, but it was the people—most of whom were men—advising Elizabeth who helped fan the flames of animosity, paranoia and urgency when it came to real and perceived threats to the Crown. 

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Despite having ultimate power as monarchs, even queens were subject to mass meddling in their personal affairs—they were still women, after all, in a man's world. One of the reasons Elizabeth didn't want to get married—her single status being the subject of great concern to heads of state across England and continental Europe—was her reluctance to lose her independence.

"In the end this shall be for me sufficient: that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin," Elizabeth, whose "Virgin Queen" myth was self-perpetuated, stated to the House of Commons in 1559, per Philippa Jones' Elizabeth: Virgin Queen? 

She certainly had close relationships with men over the years, including Sir William Pickering, a dear friend with whom she spent "many hours together alone"; her closest advisor Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, whose last letter to her she kept in a bedside treasure box (Joe Alwyn in Mary Queen of Scots); and Francis, Duke of Anjou, whose death at 29 of syphilis she mourned for six months. Despite her declared fealty to England, there were rumors of an illegitimate child or two floating around the kingdom, with Dudley considered the likeliest father.

But... no one will ever really know. (However, the trumped up importance of virginity would go on to haunt the monarchy for another 400 years, when much was made of whether Princess Diana was virginal enough to marry Prince Charles in 1981.)

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Mary and Elizabeth were compared mercilessly—both savvy women, Mary was considered the charmer and Elizabeth the clear-eyed pragmatist—and were compelled to act ruthlessly to maintain their holds on their respective kingdoms. 

Unlike Elizabeth, however, Mary never doubted her claim to her own throne—and once Elizabeth became queen, Mary shared the belief with many people, including most Catholics, that she was the rightful heir to that throne as well.

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Elizabeth's half-brother Edward VI (son of Henry VIII and third wife Jane Seymour) ascended to the throne in 1547 and died in 1553. In the throes of illness, he skipped over his two half-sisters and named his great-niece Lady Jane Grey (granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor) his successor.

Jane was queen for nine days. While she awaited coronation, the political pendulum swung her aunt Mary's way, and so the reign of Queen Mary I (Henry VIII's only surviving child with first wife Catherine of Aragon) began in July 1553.

"Bloody Mary," as the Catholic queen came to be known for having at least 280 so-called heretics and traitors burned at the stake (she had Lady Jane beheaded, not for usurping but because Jane's father joined a rebellion opposing Mary's plan to marry King Philip II of Spain), died at 42 in 1558. She had reproductive health issues, possibly uterine cancer or ovarian cysts, and there was an influenza epidemic raging.

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Queen Mary I had no heirs and the government had refused to make Philip her regent, to rule should she die. She also, incidentally, was a conspiracy theorist and up until 11 days before she died she refused to name Elizabeth as her successor, insisting that Henry VIII wasn't Elizabeth's father. She was pretty much the only one who believed that, though.

Philip took pains to preserve Elizabeth's place in line—as king of Spain, he didn't want France (where Mary had just married the future king) getting too powerful, either. In 1555 Philip even floated the idea of a 23-year-old Elizabeth marrying his then-10-year-old son from his first marriage, to further consolidate power. Later on, he offered the hand of his nephew—and once his second wife died he himself offered to marry her. King Gustav I of Sweden also proposed that Elizabeth marry his son and heir Prince Eric. There are lots of attempts to marry the queen off in this saga...

But sure enough, when Mary I died, King Henri II of France declared that his daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, was the rightful heir to the English throne. (Philip ended up marrying Henri II's 14-year-old daughter, Princess Elisabeth de Volois—but still kept trying to hook Elizabeth up with his family, suggesting his cousins Ferdinand and Charles as suitable husbands.)

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When Mary became the technical (if not yet decision-making) queen of Scotland within a week of her birth in 1542, Henry VIII—thinking, as always, about empire building—actually fancied her as a match for his then 5-year-old son, Edward VI. He suggested that the son of Mary's regent James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran—also named James—could marry Elizabeth as well, so that even if Mary died, Scotland and England could still be joined in holy matrimony. Hamilton actually wanted Mary to marry his son.

Instead, a few years later Mary's French mother, Mary of Guise, promised her 5-year-old daughter's hand to the 3-year-old dauphin, François.

When Mary finally became a member of the French royal family in 1558, the French had just trounced England in battle at Calais, with members of the de Guise family leading the way. In turn, England was nursing its wounded pride not only because of military losses, but also due to the massive royal wedding taking place in France, joining 15-year-old Mary Stuart of Scotland and the 14-year-old François (whose mother was Catherine de' Medici of Italy). King François II, 15, ascended to the throne in 1559 and Mary, 16, became queen consort of France after King Henri II died of a horrific jousting injury.

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François died in 1560 at 16. He potentially had meningitis or other inflammation of the brain, but there was a conspiracy among Catholics that he was poisoned by Protestants, as relations between the two sects had been steadily deteriorating.

The 18-year-old widow Mary returned a heroic, sympathetic figure to Scotland. She was supposed to meet Elizabeth in person for the first time in 1562, but Elizabeth's chief advisor canceled the summit after a group of Huguenots, or French Protestants, were massacred in de Guise (aka Mary's mom's relatives) territory.

Anxious to remarry, Mary married her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley—also a grandchild of Margaret Tudor—in 1565.

They had a son, James, in 1566—but first, when Mary was seven months pregnant, Henry, who was a drunk, and several cohorts stabbed Mary's private secretary and confidante, David Riccio, to death. They were so close, Riccio was rumored to be the father of Mary's baby and Henry was humiliated a dozen times over, by that rumor and by not having the ear of his own wife.

In fact, quite a few people had it out for Riccio, who was stabbed 56 times, including Mary's half-brother. All the other men in her life resented how much influence Riccio had over the monarch, but she never altered her behavior in the slightest to appease public concerns. People had it out for Henry, too, for that matter, not trusting that he wasn't plotting to overthrow the queen himself.

Suffice it to say, Mary didn't much trust Henry after that. He had claimed innocence and fingered his collaborators for the plot; Mary had sworn to avenge Riccio's death, but ended up pardoning the killers, meaning they could return from exile in England—with the full knowledge that Henry had turned on them.

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Henry Stuart was 21 when he was killed in 1567 at Kirk o' Field in Edinburgh—the house he was staying in while recovering from a bout of smallpox was blown up, killing a servant. But his body and that of another servant were found dead in a nearby orchard, neither death seemingly affected by the explosion.

Another close confidante of Mary's, a Protestant but pro-Scottish and virulently anti-English nobleman James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was suspected of conspiring to kill Henry, and he was put on trial as lead conspirator. Mary was shocked and saddened by her husband's violent death, but there was speculation that she knew that a plot against his life was being formulated, and was disinclined to find out too much.

Bothwell was cleared due to lack of evidence, after which he became Mary's third husband, a shocking turn of events that Elizabeth could only watch transpire with disdain. She had written to Mary during the trial, pleading with her to not act so obviously on the side of the guilty party, but the letter wasn't delivered till the proceedings were over. (Four of Bothwell's servants were tried, found guilty, and drawn and quartered.)

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Bothwell eventually fled to Scandinavia, where he was arrested at the behest of the English, who knew he'd never be punished otherwise. He died in 1578 in a Danish prison, spending the last 10 years of his life locked up and steadily going insane.

Outraged by her seeming disregard for her station in life and her subjects, the Scottish confederate lords deemed Mary an adulteress and a murderer. She was locked up in Loch Leven castle, where she miscarried twins. Upon threat of death, she was forced to abdicate her throne to her then 1-year-old son, and her father's illegitimate son, her half-brother James Stuart, 1st Earl of Moray, was named regent to rule (as he'd always wanted).

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Mary escaped from Loch Leven in 1568, but unsuccessful in regaining her throne (a small army of 6,000 fought Moray's troops on her behalf), Mary fled to England, seeking Queen Elizabeth's protection. 

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Most Catholics had viewed Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn as invalid because he had rejected Catholic tenets, which forbade divorce, and appointed himself head of the Church of England in order to get out of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was excommunicated by the Catholic church and Elizabeth was forever haunted by the idea that the tide could shift in favor of nullifying her parents' brief marriage, rendering her birth illegitimate.

Mary I obviously was a militant Catholic, but Elizabeth ruled as a Protestant, much to her fellow Protestants' satisfaction. Mary, Queen of Scots was a Catholic, much to the Catholics' satisfaction. When it came to who should rule England, Elizabeth did have her pure English blood lines going for her, while Mary was born to a French mother and Scottish father, but there was a sizable pro-Mary faction in England.

Heads of state kept a close watch on the line of succession, knowing when Mary I was queen that if anything happened to Elizabeth or she was otherwise removed from the line, Mary, Queen of Scots, would legally be the next rightful heir, which even Elizabeth herself didn't disagree with. Even after her reign imploded, Scotland's thrice-married queen kept them up at night. 

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Meanwhile, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you aren't being watched: Mary did consider herself the rightful heir to the English throne and though she had always desired a personal relationship with her cousin, was implicated in numerous plots against Elizabeth. She had the time.

Upon arrival in England, Mary was immediately taken into custody, albeit genteelly. For instance, the English court was still intent on investigating Mary's possible role in her husband's murder, but as an anointed queen she refused to attend any hearing—and Elizabeth agreed that her fellow royal shouldn't have to stoop to such levels.

But despite that bit of kindred spiritedness, the former queen of Scotland spent the next 18 years basically under house arrest in a series of castles and country homes, with her household expenses paid by the Crown and plenty of room to rattle around, write letters and conspire for the duration of her thirties to overthrow the queen of England.

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Numerous plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth were thwarted over the years, and many people were executed in the process, some just for saying the wrong thing, or even thinking the wrong thing. Once such rebellion, the Northern Rising, began in 1570 but its leaders, Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland, and Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, were respectively exiled and beheaded.

Neville's brother-in-law Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (also Elizabeth's first cousin once removed), was imprisoned after the Northern Rising, but pardoned. However, in 1571 he was part of what's known as the Ridolfi plot, a plan to assassinate Elizabeth dreamed up by Italian banker Roberto Ridolfi. The devout Catholic envisioned Howard marrying Mary, after which the Spanish army would invade, depose Elizabeth, and Mary would assume her rightful throne. Then, she and Howard would rule the British isles as king and queen.

Despite the security around Mary, presided over by one of the few people Elizabeth really trusted, the Earl of Shrewsbury, connected people such as Howard and Ridolfi were able to get messages to the Scot.

The Ridolfi plot was sussed out by Elizabeth's right-hand men, and Howard was arrested, found guilty of high treason and eventually beheaded. Incidentally, King Philip II, Elizabeth's old ally(ish), wasn't particularly onboard with the plan, knowing firsthand how mighty the English army was and just what a to-do sending troops to overthrow the queen would be for Spain.

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Meanwhile, Elizabeth's closest advisors insisted that she vanquish her rival Mary once and for all—but Elizabeth was not yet convinced that a Scot could actually commit treason against a Brit, as her council insisted. Nor did she particularly want to set a precedent for regicide—one royal executing another—that could be used against fellow monarchs, or perhaps herself, down the road. She didn't really want to execute Howard, either, but gave the order to placate her advisors, headed up by her chief minister, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (played by Guy Pearce in Mary Queen of Scots).

It was Burghley who was really banging the drum for Mary's execution, and he orchestrated an extensive public smear campaign against the Scot, whom he felt was an ever-present threat to Elizabeth's throne not just because of the pro-Catholic sentiment in the land but because Mary, unlike the Virgin Queen, had produced a male heir. As a Protestant ideologue who felt it was his religion that had a predestined role in British history, and having survived the reign of "Blood Mary," Burghley was obsessed with ensuring that another Protestant succeed Elizabeth.

At the time, Elizabeth, who had originally wanted to take a more secular approach to ruling, still looked upon succession as more about blood lines than religion.

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The ambiguous and immediate threats to Elizabeth's rein started to compound in 1583, when a young Catholic named John Somerville grabbed a gun and set off to shoot the queen while she was out riding—a plan he readily shared with others. He was arrested en route and convicted of high treason along with three accomplices, but he hanged himself before he could be executed.

Meanwhile, Mary's first cousin Henry, Duke of Guise, in France had taken over a plot, first masterminded by a Scottish Jesuit, to get rid of Elizabeth. They were being fed information by the Catholic nephew of a Protestant (tried for treason but acquitted during Mary I's days) who had warned Elizabeth when she first became queen to "beware of womanish levity, for where the king governeth not in severity and prudence, there doth emulation and ambition sow their seeds."

Basically, watch your back, even more so because you're a woman.

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Tortured on the rack, the young Catholic, Francis Throckmorton, spilled all the details, according to John Guy's Elizabeth: The Later Years. This time the plot included Throckmorton passing maps to Don Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador to London, to give to de Guise showing where French troops could land along the English coast, as well as the names of local Catholics willing to join the rebellion. 

Accused of colluding with Mary and various other traitors, Mendoza was given 15 days to get the heck out of England. Throckmorton was eventually hanged.

Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham, sighed with relief that he'd gotten the tip that led him to Throckmorton in the first place.

Among the uprisings and assassinations roiling continental Europe, William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Calvinist rebellion against Spanish Catholic rule in the Netherlands, was killed, leaving England open to attack from a united Spain, France and the Pope, all of whom wanted to make England Catholic again.

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In 1584, much to Elizabeth's horror and without her consent, her chief advisor Burghley and his fellow councilors signed a pact known as the "Bond of Association" on which they swore to "take the utmost revenge" on anyone, including royalty and any "pretended successor," who conspired or colluded in any attempt on the queen's life, and to prosecute them with the ultimate aim being punishment by death.

So, even if someone didn't actually know about the plot, but would benefit by it—off with his or her head. And this took the queen out of the legal equation, leaving the matter to agents of the state.

Elizabeth countered with The Act for the Queen's Surety in 1585, which stated that alleged bad actors as the ones described in the Bond would be tried by a special commission consisting of members of the House of Lords and judges of her choosing. And then, once a verdict had been rendered, it was still up to her to impose the sentence by decree.

Meanwhile, Mary had been living her cloistered life in the country, continuing to insist to the queen that surely they would be able to put their differences aside if they could finally meet in person. For the longest time, Mary had wanted Elizabeth's help in reinstalling her on the throne in Scotland more than she wanted the usurp Elizabeth.

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But by 1584, Elizabeth had finally become convinced that the threat from her Scottish "sister" was real. Mary was moved from her longtime "home" under the Earl of Shrewsbury's watch, and then was moved several more times over the next two years.

And then in 1586, Walsingham uncovered yet another plot, this one formulated by Anthony Babington, who literally informed Mary in a letter, per John Guy, that six men, "all my private friends," would head on over to the queen's court to kill her. The mailman was one of Walsingham's spies, and all the correspondence was promptly shared with the queen's man, who enlisted his own agents to both trap Babington and Mary and keep the plot going when Babington seemed to lose his resolve.

"By what means do the six gentlemen deliberate to proceed?" Mary wrote to Babington in code that was deciphered by Walsingham's cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes, who dubbed Mary's damning missive "the bloody letter."

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That was the beginning of the end for Mary, Queen of Scots—though Elizabeth, still hoping to avoid the increasingly inevitable outcome, expressed concern that they still didn't have enough evidence to convict her royal relation.

In fact, they no longer had the "bloody letter" because Phelippes had forged a postscript in an attempt to get Babington to disclose the names of his accomplices, and Babington, suspecting the letter had been tampered with, burned it.

Babington authenticated the letter before he was hanged in September 1586. Then it was time for Elizabeth to choose the commission that would sit in judgment of Mary.

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Mary took part in the three-day trial that October under protest, even arguing—without knowing about the cryptographer's forgery—that it was not difficult to falsify communications that could be used to frame her. She was found guilty.

As per the queen's surety act, the verdict wasn't made public until the queen herself signed off on it on Dec. 4, 1586. Also because of the surety, which she was starting to regret, Elizabeth next needed to sign off on the punishment. To be sure, she wanted Mary dead—she just didn't want to be the one to sign her death warrant. After all that had transpired, she still respected the sanctity of the crown, and not just her own.

Growing impatient, Burghley and Walsingham concocted rumors about immediate threats from Scottish troops and a new assassination plot, hoping to force the queen's hand.


Finally, on Feb. 1, 1587, Queen Elizabeth I signed Mary, Queen of Scots' death warrant—but she told her secretary not to show it to anybody until it had been sealed by the Lord Chancellor. She also darkly joked that Walsingham, who was ill at the time, might very well die of "grief" when he found out. Gallows humor, if you will.

However, still trying to not be the one to pull the trigger, she also instructed that Walsingham try to get Amyas Paulet, who had been in charge of Mary's security for the past year, to dispatch her himself. Paulet refused.

Meanwhile, the secretary did show the signed death warrant to Dudley and Burghley, who insisted he go get it sealed that very day—which he did. The next morning, in a twist ripped right out of Shakespeare, the queen asked him to hold off if he hadn't yet visited the Lord Chancellor.

Told it was done, Elizabeth said she wanted to be "no more troubled with the matter."

Now out of the queen's hands, arrangements were swiftly made. Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed shortly after 9 a.m. on Feb. 8, 1587. It was a horrid sight, the executioner having to take several swipes with the axe to get the job done after mis-aiming and striking the back of her head with the first blow.

Burghley didn't tell Elizabeth that Mary was dead until that night, and, John Guy writes, the queen "'gave a great sigh'" but otherwise didn't display outward emotion.

She was distraught, however, over how it played out and sought to distance herself and lay the blame as much on others as possible. Ultimately Burghley, a purveyor of fake news if there ever was one, was banished from her presence for being a lying, scheming scoundrel. In a letter to James VI, Mary's son, Elizabeth called what happened to his mother "a miserable accident."

Ironically, upon Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603 at the ripe old age of 69, King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England, uniting the Scottish and English crowns until his death in 1625.

He had his mother, who was originally buried at Peterborough Cathedral, re-interned at Westminster Abbey among the remains of her fellow royals—and right across from Elizabeth.