Share this post

The story of Mary Stuart and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I is one that’s been told many times over. We’ve looked at the story from Elizabeth’s side when we looked at the two Elizabeth movies a little while back. Today, we’ll look at the story from a different perspective as told in the 2018 movie called Mary Queen of Scots.

KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES

Learn the true story behind Mary Queen of Scots

The movie opens with a paragraph of white text on a black background to set up the situation for us.
By reading the text, we learn that Mary Queen of Scots was born a Catholic. However, as Protestants are fighting to control Scotland, she was sent to Catholic France as an infant. Then, at age 15, she married the heir to the French throne.
Three years later, she returns to a now Protestant-dominated Scotland as a widow. Her half-brother is on the throne in Scotland.
Meanwhile, England is run by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. But Mary also has a strong claim to England’s throne, threatening Elizabeth’s power.
That’s all true, but there is a lot more to the story.
For example, and this is something we see a lot of in movies that depict this era of history, the movie never really explains why the Protestants and Catholics hated each other. All we see is that there’s Catholic France and Protestant England…but, why does that matter?
As with all things religious, the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism can be an entire podcast series by itself…and it probably is. But, that’s not this podcast.
And yet, the purposes of our story today make it very important to try to understand that question: Why does it matter? After all, Catholics and Protestants both consider themselves to be Christians. So, if you’re looking at these two different denominations of Christianity from outside the religion it can be difficult to understand why there was so much hatred for each other that they’d use God’s name to justify breaking one of God’s laws: Thou shalt not kill.
While the disagreements between Catholics and Protestants today, fortunately, aren’t on the same level as it was centuries ago, during the timeline of the movie, no one can deny the long history of disagreements, fights, and even deaths between these two religions.
And in the end, if we were to try and simplify the why behind the animosity between these two religions it’d be exactly that—a long history of disagreement between two religions. As the centuries pass, the disagreements got bigger and more brutal.
For example, there were Catholics who accused Protestants of manipulating the role of saints, priests and the canon of scripture itself. Then Protestants would accuse Catholics of preaching a gospel based on works or worshipping the Virgin Mary—that’d be Mary, the mother of Jesus, not Mary Queen of Scots.
These are just a couple small examples, but boiling it down, those issues stem from how Protestants and Catholics determine the authority of God.
Catholicism follow the scriptures, but ultimately how those scriptures are interpreted comes from the official teachings of the Vatican. On the other hand, Protestants believe one must have their own, private interpretation of the scriptures to determine their meaning. In other words, they don’t believe in the authority of the Vatican.
Something else in those opening paragraphs that is true but overly simplified is how it talks about Mary going to France. And when we dig into that a little deeper, we can get a sense for just how complex Mary’s life was bound to be from the very beginning.
The movie doesn’t show this, but Mary Stuart was born on December 8th, 1542 during a period of history when a lot of people believe the rift between Protestants and Catholics was at its greatest.
That day, December 8th, was important to Catholics because it was believed to have been the day that the Virgin Mary was conceived. And that’s one reason why Mary Stuart was given the name Mary—because she was born on the day celebrated as the day of the Virgin Mary’s conception by the Roman Catholic Church.
But that’s not the only reason. Like many children, Mary was also named after her mother.
On December 14th, just six days later, Mary’s father was killed. He was King James V of Scotland, and he died on the battlefield after the Scottish were defeated at the Battle of Solway Moss.
Although, it’s worth pointing out that he didn’t die in battle. He died soon after the battle from complications that some people think might’ve been from contaminated water.
So, technically, that made the baby Mary the Queen of Scotland at only six days old. Practically, though, a six-day-old child can’t rule a kingdom. That meant two things. First, Mary was sent off to be raised by others until she was ready to take her place on the throne. Second, it meant the throne of Scotland was simultaneously controlled by regents while also being ripe for other countries to try to take control.
In particular, both France and England wanted to take control of that throne in Scotland.
The French were much closer to gaining that control because, well, Mary Stuart’s mother was French. She was Mary of Guise, and the second wife of King James V.
So that’s why, just like the movie in that opening paragraph of text, after her father’s death, Mary was sent as an infant to France. But that didn’t stop England from trying to gain control.
King Henry VIII of England proposed a treaty that would give England power over Scotland once Mary took over. The Treaty of Greenwich was signed on July 1st, 1543 when Mary was just six months old. The treaty basically said that when Mary turned ten, she’d move to England and marry Henry VIII’s son, Edward.
That’d obviously give Mary a very England-friendly upbringing during her formative years.
But that never ended up happening.
One of the Scottish Cardinals in power at the time was named David Beaton. It was Cardinal Beaton who was trying to push a French alliance with Scotland. This was in no small part because France was a Catholic nation while King Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church in 1543.
If you want to learn more about that story from a different perspective, check out the episode of Based on a True Story covering the movie The Other Boleyn Girl.
So, King Henry VIII wasn’t a fan of Cardinal Beaton’s plan to boost Scottish and French relations. Included in those plans was Mary’s coronation, which took place on September 9th, 1543 at the castle in Stirling, Scotland. Henry tried to stop Beaton’s plan, and as part of that some of Henry’s men arrested some Scottish merchants bound for France.
That arrest, and I’m sure plenty of persuasion from Cardinal Beaton, was enough for the Scottish Regent at the time, James Hamilton, the 2nd Earl of Arran, to side with Beaton and convert to Catholicism. Soon after, in December of 1543, the Scottish Parliament rejected the Treaty of Greenwich.
Mary’s fate was changed yet again…and she wasn’t even one year old yet. This gives you an idea of just how chaotic Mary’s life would end up being.
A few years later, and with the treaty between Scotland and England out of the picture, King Henry II of France took advantage of the opportunity and made a proposal of his own. That’s how Mary, now five years old, was sent back to France as she was promised to the heir to the throne in France, a three-year-old boy named Francis.
On April 4th, 1558, Mary signed an agreement that, as Queen of Scots, Scotland would become a part of France if she died without any heirs. That agreement also included a clause that would hand over her claim to the throne of England to the French under the same conditions—that Mary herself didn’t have a legitimate heir to hand it off to.
Then, a few weeks later, on April 24th, Mary was married to Francis.
The following year, in 1559, King Henry II of France died unexpectedly. That made Mary’s husband King Francis II of France. Just like the movie says, though, that marriage didn’t last long. Francis wasn’t in good health, and died on December 5th, 1560.
Meanwhile, over in England, something else happened that only added to the complications of an already-complex landscape of royalty in Europe.
Just a few months after Mary signed the agreement to bequeath Scotland and her claim to the English crown to France if she didn’t have any heirs, that came into play. You see, King Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Queen Mary I of England, died in November of 1558 and the crown passed to her sister, Queen Elizabeth I of England.
If you want to learn more about that happening in England, we covered that in more depth on the two-parter about the two movies, Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
That complicated matters because, you see, Mary Stuart was also related to King Henry VIII of England. Her father’s grandmother was Margaret Tudor, who was King Henry VIII’s sister. That made Mary Stuart the grand-niece of King Henry VIII of England.
In 1543, when King Henry VIII died, the Parliament of England passed the Third Succession Act that placed Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, in the line of succession.
By the way, that’s a different Mary…not Mary Stuart. So many Mary’s back then. Hah!
After Queen Mary I of England died in November of 1558, the question of who would sit on the throne of England wasn’t something everyone agreed on.
A big reason for this was because of their parents. Even though both of Henry VIII’s daughters were, well, his daughters, they didn’t have the same mother. Queen Mary I was the daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
And if you listened to the Based on a True Story episode about The Other Boleyn Girl movie then you’ll know all about how King Henry VIII tried to get the Catholic Church to annul his marriage to Catherine in a series of events that would eventually cause the Church of England to split from the Catholic Church.
As such, a lot of Catholics didn’t believe that Elizabeth was a legitimate child and should not be an heir to the throne of England.
So, if Elizabeth wasn’t the legitimate heir to the throne, that would mean it’d fall to the next-oldest relative of King Henry VIII…and you guessed it, that was Mary Stuart.
None of this was helped by the fact that King Henry VIII had specifically put something in his last will and testament to say that no member of the Stuart household shall take the throne of England.
In the end, you’re left with essentially two sides: People who believed Elizabeth had a legitimate right to the throne of England and people who believed Mary Stuart had a legitimate right to the throne of England.
And, of course, we might as well throw in some even more complexity because it wasn’t just politics that people disagreed with each other on, but also religion. Elizabeth was Protestant and Mary was Catholic.
Whew! I know that’s a ton to sift through…although to be fair, I did say it was complicated. Feel free to jump back to the beginning of the episode to listen again and unravel everything. Haha!
But for now, let’s head back to the movie’s timeline because it’s right around this point where we see Mary for the first time in the film.
Although, technically, the movie starts off with a brief scene in England in 1587. This is giving us a peek into what’s going to happen as we see Mary walk to the room where she’s to be executed.
But we don’t see a lot of details in this scene. In fact, the camera stays behind Mary’s head so we never even see her face. So, let’s leave that for later.
Which means, for now, the next scene is set in 1561 just as Mary Stuart, who is played by Saoirse Ronan, returns to Scotland from France after the death of her husband, King Francis II.
In Scotland, she’s greeted by a man who we find out is her half-brother, James. He’s played by…well, another James: James McArdle.
Then there’s a brief scene where we see Mary talking to the court after she arrives in Scotland for the first time. When she does, she says that her subjects will be free to worship however they prefer, Catholics and Protestants alike.
While those specific scenes are made up for the movie, of course, it was on August 19th, 1561 when Mary made her way back to Scotland. That was about nine months after her husband’s death in France.
When she arrived in Scotland, she had no idea what she was walking into. After all, she’d been in France for most of her life up until this point.
Although Mary was a Catholic, her half-brother, Lord Moray, was Protestant. And she kept him on as her chief adviser after she returned to Scotland.
To add to that, some historians have suggested perhaps Mary’s choice in advisers—being mostly Protestant instead—might’ve indicated perhaps she had an eye on the throne of England all along. After all, if she were satisfied with her throne in Scotland and wanted to focus on bettering the Scottish relationship with the French, then shouldn’t she have mostly Catholic advisers? But, she didn’t.
She had 16 advisers and only four were Catholic.
Back in the movie, over in England, Margot Robbie’s version of Queen Elizabeth finds out about her cousin’s arrival to the island. While she doesn’t know exactly what Mary’s intentions are, she’s well aware of the threat that Mary poses to her own claim to the throne of England.
Afraid that Mary will end up marrying a Catholic who will be anti-English, Elizabeth decides that the man she loves—Robert Dudley—should go to Scotland to wed Mary. The idea there being that if Mary is wed to the English, and Protestant, Robert, then Elizabeth can control her…because Elizabeth can control Robert.
But, according to the movie, this is something Elizabeth quickly regrets because she loves Robert Dudley. Mary agrees to marry Robert only if she’s named successor to the throne of England. But instead it’s Lord Henry Darnley who ends up wooing Mary. She’s quite taken by Henry—quite literally at one point in the movie.
Robert Dudley is played by Joe Alwyn while Henry Darnley is played by Jack Lowden.
While there’s a fair amount of creative license with the specifics of how this is portrayed, but of course that’s to be expected. After all, it’s not like we have recordings to know exactly what was said. However, the plot point that Queen Elizabeth suggested Robert Dudley marry Queen Mary is true.
If you listened to the episodes where we covered the two Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies, you’ll know who Robert Dudley was…but, in a nutshell, he was Earl of Leicester in England. There were rumors circling that he killed his own wife so he might marry the woman he really loved, Queen Elizabeth.
But, in an ironic twist, those rumors themselves helped fuel the politics that basically kept Elizabeth from marrying him. After all, the Queen of England can’t be wed to an alleged murderer.
So, instead, just like the movie implies, Elizabeth tried to control Mary by getting her to marry Robert. This was in the spring of 1563, and Elizabeth sent the Ambassador to Scotland, a man named Thomas Randolph, to tell Mary about her idea.
At first, Mary agreed to the idea. But, when Thomas tried to convince Robert Dudley about the arranged marriage, he wasn’t interested. After all, as we learned earlier, Elizabeth was the woman he loved—not Mary.
In an attempt to get Robert to agree to the marriage, that’s when Elizabeth gave Robert Dudley the title Earl of Leicester, making Kenilworth Castle his home.
But, before anything came out of that, just like the movie shows, Mary Stuart met Lord Henry Darnley. According to records, the two met on a Saturday. The 17th of February in the year 1565. So, a couple years after Robert was given the title Earl of Leicester.
Mary and Henry hit it off right away, and before long the two planned to marry.
This didn’t make Elizabeth happy. Not only because it’d mean she’d have less control over Mary, but also because Henry himself had a claim to the throne of England. It wasn’t as strong as Mary’s, of course, but just like Mary Stuart, Henry Darnley was a grandchild of King Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor.
So, that meant Mary and Henry were first cousins. It also meant if they were married, that’d combine two claims to the throne of England. In other words, it’d only strengthen Mary’s already strong claim to the throne in England.
Going back to the movie, there’s a civil war going on between two factions of Scots. On one side are Mary’s followers while on the other side, well, is her half-brother: Lord Moray. He was upset because Mary decided to marry Lord Darnley, despite Elizabeth’s demand that Darnley return to England. So, in an attempt to stir up even more dissent among the Scots, England supports a rebellion against Mary led by Lord Moray.
As the fighting ensues, Mary’s forces get the better of Moray’s troops. Mary is watching from afar and calls off the fight just before Moray is killed.
That rebellion really happened.
It took place soon after Queen Mary and Lord Darnley were married. As we learned earlier, Mary’s half-brother was James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. And if you recall, he’s played by James McArdle in the movie.
Even though he was Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray was also Protestant. He didn’t like the idea of his Catholic half-sister marrying a Catholic and solidifying, well, two Catholics taking control in Scotland.
So, after Mary and Henry were married in July of 1565, James led a rebellion against his half-sister. There’s nothing I could find in my research to indicate that James came within a few feet of being killed like we see in the movie, but all we know from history is that Mary’s forced far outnumbered her half-brother’s.
Let’s take a step back for a moment here to consider how this must’ve impacted Mary. James was her half-brother. He was her chief adviser when she returned to Scotland from France a few years earlier. In fact, just three years before Mary and Henry were married, James himself led Mary’s soldiers into battle to squash a rebellion by the 4th Earl of Huntly.
But he was so opposed to Mary and Henry’s wedding that he turned on his half-sister. They were married at Holyrood Palace on July 29th, 1565. Less than a month later, on August 26th, Mary led an army bolstered by troops from James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, who had returned from exile in France and gave Mary enough troops to put down the rebellion of her half-brother.
In the movie, James Hepburn is cast simply as Lord Bothwell and played by Martin Compston.
After being defeated, James Stewart was forced to flee Scotland and went to England seeking protection from Queen Elizabeth.
Let’s head back into the movie’s timeline now, where the next pivotal plot point happens right after Mary and Darnley are wed. Speaking of which, after they’re married that’d make him Henry Stuart, so that’s yet another name for the man also known as Lord Darnley.
Before the rebellion, Mary had walked in on Henry sleeping with someone else named David Rizzio. He’s played by Ismael Cruz Cordova. He begs for forgiveness, which Mary provides. She was obviously upset by this, but at the time she was dealing with the rebellion. After that’s quelled, Mary tries to conceive with Henry. It’s a success, and she’s pregnant with someone she claims to be the heir to both Scotland and England.
That doesn’t make the English too happy.
Then, things get even worse in one of the more disturbing scenes in the movie.
This happens when Mary, David Rizzio, and a couple of her maids are playing cards around the table in Mary’s chamber. All of a sudden, a bunch of men barge in. The movie makes it hard to tell exactly how many there are at any one time, but I counted well over a dozen in one frame.
However, it is clear that one of them is Mary’s husband because when Mary tries to stop them, one of the men assures her that everything that’s being done is done in Henry’s name.
Mary tries to guard David by placing herself in front of him. But, one of the men behind him stabs David in the back. Mary is forced to stand aside, leaving the men free to stab David over and over.
That murder happened.
After Mary’s half-brother fled to England, he started plotting a coup against his sister and her new husband. Part of that involved getting rid of the man by his sister’s side who was now acting as her closest political adviser.
And I’m not talking about Mary’s husband.
Of course, being further away from Mary’s side, it’s not likely that James knew Mary’s new marriage was…well, not going so well. Henry and Mary were married in July of 1565, but Mary was so disillusioned by Henry’s drinking and sleeping around with others that she effectively distanced herself from him by the end of that same year.
According to the movie, one of those we see Henry sleeping with is David Rizzio. While I couldn’t find anything in my research to suggest that happened, many historians believe that Henry suspected David was sleeping with Mary.
A big part of that was because, well, Mary distanced herself from Henry, but also because David was Mary’s private secretary. Even though that’s a position he rose to in 1564, before Mary and Henry were wed, as Mary distanced herself from Henry, it’d make sense that Henry would be jealous of the man who had a closer relationship with his wife than he did.
It probably didn’t help that there were tons of rumors floating around that David was having an affair with Mary. Oh, and by this time Mary was pregnant with a child—and some of those rumors suggested the child was not Henry’s but David’s.
Of course, some historians suggest that many of those rumors were actually spread by Henry in an attempt to justify killing David.
Regardless of who spread the rumors, though, just like the movie depicts, Henry joined a plot to kill David. Although he was still in England at this point, the Earl of Moray was also involved in this plot.
The movie’s depiction of David’s murder was horrifying…but, sadly, probably pretty accurate.
David was having dinner with Mary and a few of her maids when Henry walked into the room. As the story goes, he sat down next to Mary and put an arm around her waist. That wasn’t normal. Then, more men burst into the room wearing full suits of armor. Mary jumped to her feet.
“What’s the meaning of this!?” We can only imagine what she must’ve said.
David ducked behind Mary, clinging to her garments.
The attendants there with Mary tried to resist, but the men pulled out pistols and waved them back. More men filed into the room. Then, Henry’s uncle, a man named George Douglas, pulled a dagger from Henry’s belt stabbed David.
While it’s tough to verify events from such a chaotic scene as this, some believe Mary recalled the events herself later on and said the first attack on David was done over her shoulder.
Mary was soon forced aside and David was stabbed to death. Most historians believe he was stabbed 56 times.
But, we don’t know the exact number for sure because after he was stabbed to death, his body was disposed of quickly by his killers. What we do know is that after he was murdered, Henry ordered David’s body to be thrown down the stone staircase where it was then stripped of his fine clothing and jewelry. Within two hours of his murder, David’s body had been buried at Holyrood.
We don’t really know where he was buried. It’s been said that his body was moved elsewhere by order of Queen Mary. However, today, there’s a plaque that marks what we believe to be David Rizzio’s grave. I’ll include a link to where you can see a photo of the grave over on the page for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
Going back to the movie now, after David is murdered, Mary decides it’s best for her, Henry and their unborn child to leave. So, they do. We don’t ever see where they’re going, just the caravan leaving one castle and arriving at another.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of other plots going on. On one hand, those involved in David’s murder are seeking a pardon from Mary. She agrees to pardon them if they’ll provide her with the bond that proves her husband was involved in the killing. They agree to this deal and show up with the paper that Henry and the other conspirators signed condemning David to death.
Before he’s confronted by this, though, we see Mary giving birth to a baby boy. After this, she confronts Henry with the bond that he signed to kill David and ends up banishing him. But, that’s not enough for some of her advisers, who plot to have Henry killed.
Of course, as I mentioned before, there’s going to be some creative liberties with dialog and specifics, but it is true that Mary sought to get to the bottom of the plot that saw David murdered. Some historians even suggest as soon as Mary was told that David was dead, she dried her eyes and stated that she would cry no more tears. Now, I will think upon revenge.
As part of that revenge, Mary teamed up with someone we mentioned briefly earlier. That’d be James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell. Or, as the movie calls him, Lord Bothwell. But that’s getting a little ahead of our story.
For now, at this point, as the movie shows, she was still pregnant. So, revenge had to wait. In April of 1566, Mary moved to Edinburgh Castle while she was in the later months of her pregnancy. On June 19th, 1566, a baby boy was born. James.
Oh, and earlier I mentioned a brief line in the movie where we see Mary declare James as being the heir to the throne of Scotland and England. While I couldn’t find anywhere to suggest she said that herself, it is true that a French poet drew the fury of Queen Elizabeth when they described the young Prince James as the prince of Scotland, England, France and Ireland.
The plot point where we see Mary confronting Henry’s involvement in the plan to murder David is pretty accurate, too. By that, what I mean is that it is true that Mary used Henry’s involvement in the plot to get him to turn on some of the others. Some of them fled to England, but Mary pardoned her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, and some of the others involved in the plot.
That included Henry.
But that didn’t make their marriage any better. Living apart from Henry as she gave birth to Prince James, Mary continued to live separately from her husband after James’s birth.
Back in the movie, we see Henry going back to what he does—drinking and sleeping around—when an explosion rocks the house he’s in one night. In her bed, we see Mary wake up to the sound of dogs barking, presumably from the explosion.
As Henry escapes from the burning home, cloaked figures run to his aid. Except they’re not there to help Henry. They wrap a rope around his neck, choking the life out of him.
That basic idea is true, but there’s so much more to the story that we don’t see in the movie. It’s also not likely he was strangled like we see in the movie, either.
What the movie doesn’t show is that soon after James’s birth, Mary got word that Henry had fallen horribly ill.
That’s why Mary would’ve been closer to Henry because even though they lived apart from each other, she visited him on a daily basis as he fought the illness. Most historians believe that illness was probably syphilis, although official records list it as being smallpox.
But then, in the early morning hours of February 10th, 1567, an explosion destroyed the home that Henry was in. According to the great book called Lord Darnley: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Elaine Finnie Greig, after the explosion, Henry’s body was found alongside a servant’s body under a tree in the garden. There was a chair, a dagger, a coat and a cloak. Although there had been an explosion, neither of their bodies seemed to have been harmed by the blast. They also hadn’t been shot. They hadn’t been beaten, and they hadn’t been strangled like we see in the movie. Most historians believe they had been suffocated to death.
But, the true story…well, that’s one of those historical mysteries that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Lord Darnley.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t rumors, though. And most of those centered around Mary herself being involved in the killing. Another person said to have been involved was the 4th Earl of Bothwell, James Hepburn. He was the man Mary turned to help squash the rebellion of her half-brother years earlier.
For her part, Mary also didn’t seem too down on her husband’s unexplained death. Some historians point to letters from Henry’s father to Mary, asking her to investigate his son’s death. She refused, instead telling him that Parliament would investigate it when they were scheduled to meet again in the spring.
When the investigation did happen, though, the finger pointed to Bothwell pretty quickly. Some people deposed after the explosion explained that Bothwell had been the one who put gunpowder in Lord Darnley’s home.
On April 12th, 1567, Bothwell stood trial for the death of Lord Darnley. But, no witnesses showed up. All of a sudden, no one could speak against him.
Of course, it probably helped that some 4,000 of Bothwell’s soldiers were in the streets just outside the courthouse. So, was it that no one could speak against him or that no one wanted to speak against him?
The trial lasted for seven hours that day. In the end, Lord Bothwell was declared, “Not guilty.”
But, Lord Bothwell was just getting started. Eight days later, on April 20th, he hosted a dinner with a number of Scottish leaders. At the dinner, he convinced eight bishops, nine earls and seven lords to sign a document that today is called the Ainslie Tavern Bond, because it was signed at the Ainslie Tavern in Edinburgh.
One of those earls was the Earl of Moray, Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart.
That bond not only backed up Lord Bothwell’s recent acquittal of any involvement in Lord Darnley’s death, but it also officially gave Lord Bothwell their backing as a replacement husband to Mary Stuart.
Historians have debated back and forth exactly how much Mary consented to what happened next, but what we know is that four days later, on April 24th, Lord Bothwell stopped Mary as she was traveling on the road coming back from Stirling, where James was being raised. Bothwell took her to Dunbar Castle where it’s documented that he, “ravished her.”
What we don’t know is if she consented to that or if it was rape. For that matter, we also don’t know if Mary went to Dunbar Castle willingly.
What we do know is that while Mary had just lost her husband a few months before, Lord Bothwell…well, he was still married. His wife was named Lady Jean Gordon, and they had been married for just over a year at this point—they were married on February 24th, 1566.
But, it’s clear Lord Bothwell had his sights set on marrying Queen Mary. So, he had his marriage to Lady Jean annulled on May 7th, 1567 and eight days later, on May 15th, Lord Bothwell and Mary Stuart were married at Holyrood Palace.
Although some sources say that Lord Bothwell’s divorce was more like 12 days before he married Mary. Still, you get the idea.
Back in the movie, we see Mary reach out to her cousin on the throne of England. To the dismay of Queen Elizabeth’s advisers, the two cousins agree that if Elizabeth has a child it will be the heir to the throne in England. If she doesn’t, Mary’s child will be heir.
But Mary has another rebellion to deal with. After Henry is killed, Mary’s own advisers tell her that the Scottish people don’t trust her. So, they convince her to marry a Scottish man next. But this only adds fuel to the fire for David Tennant’s character, the preacher John Knox. He continues to spread the word that Mary is a harlot, moving from one man to another in quick succession.
Although I couldn’t find anything in my research to indicate Mary convinced Elizabeth to let her son take over the throne of England if Elizabeth didn’t have any children of her own, the line of succession would suggest that would be the case anyway. After all, we already learned that Mary had a claim to the throne of England as well. If Elizabeth’s claim ended with her, the natural heir would be Mary’s son.
The movie also seems to skip over all of the Lord Bothwell complexity that we already learned about. He’s who the movie is referring to when they’re recommending to Mary that she marry a Scottish man. While she may have been counseled in this way, if she were, that was really bad counsel.
Yes, John Knox was a real person. And yes, he did preach against the Catholic Mary Stuart. But, the movie seems to imply he was the primary person behind the coup to oust Mary from the throne.
However, most historians agree that Mary’s marriage to Lord Bothwell played a huge part in her downfall, too. After Mary was married to Bothwell, the Scottish people were torn.
On one hand, Mary was their queen. On the other, her husband had just died a very suspicious death. The chief suspect in the killing had turned out to be Lord Bothwell and now Mary is marrying him?
Sure, he had been officially declared not guilty, but even back then there were a lot of people who didn’t buy that. I mean, the guy basically laid siege to the courthouse with his men to try to scare witnesses who might speak against him.
All of this turmoil split the Scots into two sides: Those still supporting Mary and those who demanded she give up the throne. All of those Scottish nobles who Mary thought were supporting her marriage to Lord Bothwell now had soured on the idea.
Or, maybe it’s that they were forced into a fake support of the marriage. I guess we’ll never know that part for sure.
What we do know is that many of those Scottish lords turned on Mary. She’d dealt with rebellions before, but this one was different. This one she lost. The battle took place at Carberry Hill on June 15th, 1567—exactly one month after Mary and Bothwell were married.
Although, I guess calling it a “battle” isn’t quite right. There wasn’t even really a fight. As Mary tried to negotiate with the lords, most of Mary’s soldiers deserted her. Lord Bothwell escaped the battlefield while Mary was arrested and taken captive at Loch Leven Castle.
Oh, and although the movie never shows this, although Lord Bothwell escaped capture that day at Carberry Hill, he was forced into exile. He would end up dying in Denmark in the year 1578 after being imprisoned and driven to insanity.
As the movie comes to an end, Mary meets in secret with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. She tells Elizabeth about what’s going on in her country, and Elizabeth explains that she can’t help Mary get her throne back because she’s a Catholic—she can’t go to war for a Catholic.
Taking off her hairpiece, Elizabeth tells Mary how she had it made because she was jealous of Mary’s beauty, of her bravery, and of her motherhood. But, now she realizes she has nothing to envy because those things only contributed to Mary’s downfall.
Still, Elizabeth promises her that she’ll be safe in England for as long as she doesn’t provoke Elizabeth’s enemies. Mary, in turn, tells Elizabeth that if she does it’ll mean Elizabeth pushed her into their arms.
“And if you murder me, you remember you murdered your sister.”
After this meeting is when we’re taken to the scene we saw in the very beginning of the movie where Mary is imprisoned. Elizabeth’s voiceover explains that she’s been confronted with evidence that Mary conspired with Catholics to take the throne of England. They’re supposedly in Mary’s own handwriting, but none of that can be proven.
It doesn’t matter, though.
We saw how this turns out in the beginning of the movie.
Queen Elizabeth signs the paper that condemns her cousin, Queen Mary, to death. She cries for her cousin, but she’s not present in the room when the deed is done. Instead, Mary arrives in a black dress to a room full of men. According to the man sentencing Mary, “By order of our sovereign Elizabeth,” the date is February the 8th in the year 1587.
Before kneeling, Mary’s maids strip off her black dress to reveal a bright red one underneath. The crowd murmurs as she kneels on the wooden platform. She speaks of her only son, James, and offers a prayer that he’s able to unite two kingdoms in a way she could not.
Then, with a hand from the executioner on her back, her head is placed on the chopping block. The ax is in frame, and the screen goes black.
After the movie is over, there’s a few lines of final text that lets us know how Mary’s life continued to influence the world even after her death. According to these lines, even though Mary’s plot to kill Elizabeth could never be proven, after Mary’s death the Scottish claim to the throne was put to rest.
However, Elizabeth never married. She never had children. So, after her reign of 45 years came to an end with her own death, Mary’s son, James, became the first person to ever rule as monarch of both England and Scotland together.
While the basic gist of all that is true, the movie skips over quite a few important plot points in an attempt to simplify the story.
As we learned earlier, Mary was captured at Carberry Hill after trying to confront some rebelling Scottish lords. That was on June 15th, 1567.
About a month later, on July 24th, 1567, Mary was forced to sign letters announcing her willingness to abdicate the throne of Scotland. According to the letters, she said the two reasons for her abdicating the throne were “vexation” and “weariness.” In her place, her son would take the throne. James’s coronation was five days later, on July 29th.
But, at this point, James was only one year old. So, he couldn’t rule. That’s why, on August 22nd, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray and Mary’s half-brother was appointed as the Regent of Scotland until James was of age to take the throne himself.
On December 12th, 1567, the Scottish Parliament passed the Act Anent the demission of the Crown in favour of our Sovereign Lord, and his Majesty’s Coronation.
That officially accepted the abdication of Mary Stuart, confirming her son as King James VI of Scotland as well as the Earl of Moray’s Regency.
As for Mary, she managed to escape her imprisonment at Loch Leven Castle. Although, some historians have pointed out that with her half-brother now running Scotland, it’s possible that her escape wasn’t something she orchestrated as much as it was him letting her go.
Regardless, though, one of the men who helped Mary escape her imprisonment was none other than George Douglas.
If that name rings a bell, it’s because he was the one who was some believe was the first to stab David Rizzio. As we learned earlier, he was Lord Darnley’s uncle, but he was also the brother of Sir William Douglas—who happened to be the guy who owned Loch Leven Castle where Mary was imprisoned.
However she managed to get out, Mary left Loch Leven on May 2nd, 1568 after being there for almost a year. But, she didn’t leave Scotland. She raised an army of her supporters and tried to have a rebellion of her own.
This time, though, it was Mary who was rebelling against her half-brother, the Earl of Moray. Although some have estimated Mary’s soldiers to be a sizable force of about 6,000 men, they weren’t enough.
Called the Battle of Langside, Mary’s forces were defeated on May 13th, 1568. This time, she didn’t stay in Scotland. Instead, she fled south and a few days later, on May 16th, she made her way to England. Two days later, on May 18th, she was taken into custody by the local authorities and taken to nearby Carlisle Castle.
While the movie never shows this, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray was assassinated less than two years later on January 23rd, 1570 by a supporter of Mary’s.
As for Mary, some people believe she thought Elizabeth would help her get the throne back in Scotland. But, Elizabeth was more cautious. She didn’t know if Mary was involved in Lord Darnley’s murder. So, she had Mary moved from Carlisle Castle to Bolton Castle. That’s further south and farther away from Scots who might try to either rescue her or kill her—who knows which they might try. Basically, Elizabeth was buying time while she tried to figure out what to do with her cousin.
During all of this, an investigation into Mary’s involvement in Lord Darnley’s death continued. One of the key pieces of evidence was something called the casket letters. They were letters written by Mary to Lord Bothwell. Or, at least, that was the claim. Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, presented them to Parliament in a silver casket bearing Francis II’s monogram on it.
If you recall, Francis was Mary’s first husband many years earlier.
These letters were used as evidence against Mary and as proof that she was involved in Lord Darnley’s murder.
For her part, Mary refused to attend court to defend herself—she was a queen and didn’t believe queens should bow to the power of the court in such ways. But she did send representatives and through them, she denied the authenticity of the casket letters.
She said someone forged her handwriting, and to be honest the casket letters are something that a lot of historians have debated over the centuries and continue to debate even today.
Some believe they might’ve been written by Mary but someone inserted the more damning of the passages into them to make it seem like Mary had written them. Still others believe them to be authentic while there’s plenty who believe they were forged as a way to frame Mary.
It’s a mystery we won’t know the answer to anytime soon, if at all.
For the next 18 and a half years, Mary was bounced around from one castle to another in England. She was never released, although it’s not like she was kept in a dark cell under the castle.
Most historians believe she was allowed to decorate her quarters and move about somewhat freely on castle grounds. We know she passed time with things you wouldn’t expect a normal prisoner to be able to do, like embroidery.
During that time, Elizabeth did try to help her cousin get the Scottish throne back. Of course, it’d be under the condition of guarantees for Protestants…so, that was rejected.
In the end, the movie’s depiction of Mary’s final demise is also true. We talked a lot about the different plots against Queen Elizabeth in the Elizabeth movie episodes, but basically there were three key plots.
One was called the Ridolfi Plot after its mastermind, Roberto Ridolfi. His plan was, basically, to kill Queen Elizabeth and establish Mary as the new Queen of England.
That plot was foiled in 1571 by Elizabeth’s right-hand spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.
Then there was the Throckmorton Plot, named after its mastermind Sir Francis Throckmorton. Although the names involved were different, the basic idea was the same: Kill Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary.
That plot was thwarted by Walsingham in 1583.
The final plot was known as the Babington Plot, named after Anthony Babington. After the previous two plots, Walsingham tried to prove that Mary had approved of these attempts on Elizabeth’s life. So, he had Mary’s letters smuggled out of where she was being held and decrypted without her knowledge.
When he did this, he found the evidence he needed to prove that Mary was indeed behind the plot to overthrow Elizabeth. On August 11th, 1586, Mary was out riding her horse when she was approached by armed soldiers. She was arrested and charged with the conspiracy in the plots against Queen Elizabeth.
She was sent to Fotheringay Castle where she awaited trial. That took place in October and, on the 25th of that month, she was found guilty and sentenced to death.
But, it didn’t happen right away. Even despite overwhelming evidence against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth didn’t condemn Mary to death immediately. For one, the evidence may have been damning, but nothing was entirely certain. Mary had continued to deny all the charges against her.
On top of that, Elizabeth wasn’t sure she liked the idea of executing a queen. If she did that, would Mary’s son, James, turn on Elizabeth and try to do the same to her? That might not be a good precedent to set. At first, she tried to convince the man watching over Mary to…well, to take care of it for her. He refused.
So, on February 1st, 1587, Queen Elizabeth signed the order to execute Mary Stuart. It was to be carried out immediately.
Of course, immediately doesn’t necessarily mean that day.
It was on the morning of February 8th, 1587 that Mary’s sentence was carried out. Just like we see in the movie, it happened inside. It was the great hall at Fotheringay Castle where they built a small platform, just a step or two high.
In the movie, we see Mary’s attendants strip off her black dress to reveal a bright red one underneath. While that’s sort of true, I don’t know that it would’ve been as bright as we see in the movie. Accounts of that day mention that when Mary’s black dress was removed, underneath she wore velvet with crimson brown sleeves.
The symbolism was there, though. That was the color to represent martyrdom in the Catholic Church.
There were other differences, too, between the movie and what really happened. For example, in the movie we don’t see the blindfold of white with gold embroidering that was placed over her eyes. But we do see Mary speaking Latin in the movie.
Mary’s final words were, In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.
And since my Latin is horrible, the English translation of that is: “Into thy hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit.”
We don’t see the actual act in the movie either. It wasn’t a quick death that you might expect. The first blow of the ax hit the back of her head. It took another to do most of the damage, with another to finally remove her head.
Probably the biggest difference, though, has to do with something the movie doesn’t even show. In the movie, there’s a scene just before Mary is taken into custody where she’s talking with Elizabeth. In that scene, we see Elizabeth take off her wig to reveal much shorter hair underneath. Margot Robbie’s version of Elizabeth tears up as she explains that she had the wig made in an attempt to look pretty, like Mary.
It’s also clear that Saoirse Ronan’s version of Mary isn’t wearing a wig.
But, that’s not true. After Mary was beheaded, the executioner held up her head and declared, “God save the Queen!”
When he did this, Mary’s auburn wig fell off, revealing the short, gray hair underneath. She was 44 years old.