In 1509, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon (yeah, That Ferdinand and Isabella), married the newly ascended King of England, Henry VIII. Six times over the next nine years, Catherine of Aragon became pregnant. Three boys, three girls.
Only one lived through the second month, Mary Tudor, destined to become Mary I, Queen of England and hated by her Protestant opponents as “Bloody Mary”.
With no surviving male heir, Henry began an affair with the daughter of the 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Mary Boleyn. Mary bore two children around this time but Henry acknowledged paternity, of neither. Instead, the King became obsessed with Mary’s sister, Anne.
Henry wanted this woman but he was caught in a pickle, between a Pope who refused to grant an annulment and a love interest who refused to become a mistress, as her sister had done. Anne Boleyn was going to be the King’s wife, or nothing.
Thus began a series of events which would culminate in schism with the Catholic church with Henry ascending to the head, of the Church of England. This was no small thing. What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict in history, prior to the French Revolution.
While court and public alike adored Catherine, Anne was reviled. “The King’s concubine”. The woman who had bewitched a Monarch and usurped a beloved Queen consort was held personally responsible, for Henry’s break with the Church. The union produced one surviving child, Elizabeth Tudor, derided by many as the “bastard child of a whore.”
Whip smart even at the age of three, Elizabeth noticed her own change of station following the death of her mother. Anne was executed by decapitation in 1536 and replaced by Jane Seymour, 11 days later. “How haps it Governor,” she asked a year later, “yesterday my Lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?”
Seymour gave birth to the long awaited male heir who took the throne at age 9, following the death of his father. He was Edward VI, the first English monarch brought up, as a Protestant. Jane herself died shortly after giving birth.
Wife #4, a German princess called Anne of Cleaves, was displeasing to the King. The pair was divorced, in 6 months.
Elizabeth, now nine, was given the best of education while her father remained cold. Distant. The girl would occasionally appear in court and impressed all with her intelligence but it was her teenage stepmother, Catherine Howard, with whom Elizabeth developed any kind of relationship. That all changed when the headsman’s axe came down yet again on February 13, 1542. Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII, was dead. Then and there the future Queen is said to have vowed, not to marry.
That same year a ginger-haired princess was born in Scotland, Mary Stuart, the only surviving child of King James V of Scotland and his imposing second wife the French noblewoman, Mary of Guise.
The childhood of those two girls, cousins who would never meet, could not have been more different. Mary became Queen of Scots as an infant, following the death of her father. Her mother ruled as Regent for the rest of her life, trying in vain to keep the Protestant reformation, out of Scotland.
The brilliant Elizabeth must have feared at times, for her own survival. With her future anything but certain, her very legitimacy an open question, Elizabeth learned to hold her cards close and to hold others, in suspicion.
Even with her title of “Princess” restored Elizabeth was still mostly alone, outside of court life with her books, her thoughts and the occasional visitor. Mary’s life “…from the age of six was lived at the very center of the most glamorous court in Christendom”, surrounded by pets, tutors, and adoring cousins and occupied by singing lessons, dancing and horseback riding.
Biographer Jane Dunn writes in Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rival, Queens: “Mary’s sense of herself as queen had been with her from the dawning of her consciousness. It was never disputed or tested, as was Elizabeth’s. This awareness of her pre-eminence was her companion through life, something taken for granted, the responsibilities to which she did not apply much profound thought nor, in the end, much value.“
Henry died in 1547 leaving Katherine Parr a widow, and the “Child King” Edward VI King of England, at the age of nine.
Henry’s long-awaited heir died at the age of fifteen to be replaced by his half sister, Mary Tudor.
Best remembered for her attempts to reassert Catholicism in England, “Bloody Mary” ruled for not-quite three years, her “Marian persecutions” responsible for hundreds of Protestant martyrs and “heretics” being burned, at the stake.
At first moved about to avoid the danger of warring clans, Mary was sent to her mother’s native France at age 5 where she was worshipped by the royal family. “The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child that I have ever seen” gushed the French King Henry II.
As a child Queen, Mary literally walked before the King’s on children.
Royal marriages were often arranged at this time, to cement political alliances. Mary, age 5, was betrothed to Henry’s son and heir Francis, the Dauphin of France. The two could not have been more different: She, pretty and vivacious, dedicated to her studies and exceptionally tall as an adult reaching 5’11”. He was short and sickly, prone to stutter and more interested in falconry, than studying.
The couple was wed, in 1559. Francis II became the teenage King of France and after his father was killed in a joust, but the marriage didn’t last long. An ear infection turned into a brain abscess the following year.
Mary Tudor detested her half sister and, in 1554, threw her in the Tower of London where her mother Anne Boleyn, had died. “Oh Lorde!” she said. “I never thought to have come in here as prisoner!” There followed a year in exile and then a Royal Pardon. Mary I, suffering from abdominal pain which may have been uterine cancer, recognized Elizabeth on November 6, 1555. Mary Tudor, the first Queen to rule over Britain in her own right, died on November 17. Elizabeth I became Queen the same day.
Historian’s debate the new Elizabeth’s religious convictions but doubts about her own legitimacy left little doubt, she would rule as a Protestant. One day, Protestant England would go to war with itself over issues of Religious expression but, for now, Protestant England agreed. Current arrangements were better than “Popery”.
To English Catholics, the Scottish queen was the rightful heir to English throne. The 3rd succession act of 1543 said otherwise and Henry VIII’s own last will & testament precluded a Stuart from becoming sovereign, but still. Mary was the senior surviving legitimate descendant of Henry VII through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor and therefore, according to English Catholics, the rightful Queen of England.
Mary returned to Scotland in 1561. Having grown up in France she was ill prepared for the political situation in Scotland, or the Protestant reformation her mother had failed to hold off, as regent.
There followed a series of bad decisions, on Mary’s part. First her own political isolation resulting from the appointment of mostly Protestant ministers. Perhaps she had an eye toward the English throne. Next came a catastrophic error in judgement in the six-foot + form of her English-born half-cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary fell hard for the man.
The marriage hardened differences in internal Scottish politics and infuriated Elizabeth. How could she marry an English subject without Her permission? Darnley became arrogant, demanding. King consort wasn’t good enough. He wanted the Crown Matrimonial, the full right of co-rule. Mary became pregnant at this time, a fact Darnley blamed on Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio.
Months later, Mary would present her newborn baby boy, the future King of Scotland, to her husband. “My Lord, here I protest to God”, she said, “and as I shall answer to Him at the great day of judgment, this is your son, and no other man’s son…”
It didn’t matter. Darnley and a group of Protestant Lords stabbed Rizzio to death in front of Mary, that March. Darnley himself was murdered in 1567 and Mary married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, believed by many to be responsible for her husband’s murder.
Pushback was immediate, and vehement. 26 Scottish peers known as the confederate lords raised an army. Mary and Bothwell raised their own and met the lords at Carberry Hill, that June. No fighting took place but Mary’s forces dwindled through desertion, as negotiations dragged on. Bothwell himself was granted safe passage from the field while Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, denounced as an adulteress, and murderer.
Mary escaped and this time there Was a battle. Her side lost and the Queen, now deposed, fled south to England. Mary seems to have thought Elizabeth would help regain her crown but instead, she ordered an inquiry.
Unsigned letters purported to be written by Mary were “found” in a small silver casket, seeming to establish Mary’s guilt. Three biographers later declared these “casket letters” to be outright forgeries but, no matter. The majority of commissioners accepted the letters, as valid.
Biographer Antonia Fraser describes the proceeding as one of the strangest “trials” in legal history. In the end there was no finding of guilt or innocence of either side. Perhaps that’s what Elizabeth wanted, all along. Moray was allowed to return home to Scotland. Mary remained in custody. For nineteen years.
Hers was a gilded cage to be sure with with servants, bedlinens changed daily and chefs to prepare her meals but a cage it was.
Lack of exercise and close confinement led to a host of medical problems including porphyria, and rheumatism so severe as to render her lame.
Elizabeth attempted at one point to mediate her cousin’s return to the throne but an uprising of Catholic earls convinced the Queen that Mary was where she belonged.
In 1586 there was a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary, on the English throne. Mary, betrayed by her own son in favor of Elizabeth, appears to have corresponded with the plotters. The names of so-called “Babington plot” co-conspirators were extracted by torture, participants convicted of treason, hanged, drawn and quartered. Mary herself was tried without benefit of legal counsel, evidence or witnesses, on her behalf. The Queen of Scotland was convicted of treason. Her cousin Elizabeth signed the death warrant.
100 years later, executioner James Ketch would so butcher the execution of Lord Russell (pun unintended), the axeman wrote a public letter of apology. James Scott, on ascending the scaffold for his own execution “bid the fellow to do his office better than to the late Lord Russell, and gave him gold; but the wretch made five chops before he had his head off; which so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces“.
You’d have to be some kind of screwup, to so incense a crowd come to gawk at a 17th century execution. On this day in 1587 Mary’s killer, wasn’t much better.
The slender neck was placed on the chopping block as Mary prayed. Seven words, over and over. “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit)…A man who comes down to us only by the name of “Bull”, hacked down with the axe.
He missed, the blade glancing off the back of her skull as Mary, continued to pray. In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. A second swing came down and hit the mark, sort of, but the headsman’s axe yet had work to do. Now as a meat cleaver, to separate thee last bits of flesh and sinew. As Bull lifted the severed head with the words “God save the Queen”, the auburn locks by which he grasped it turned out to be a wig. The head tumbled to the floor revealing close cropped gray hair and rolled off the stage, “like a football”.
To make matters worse, Mary’s small dog, a terrier who had sneaked onto the scaffold and hidden in her petticoats now came forth, running about and wailing pitifully until lying down in the spreading pool of blood, where her head used to be.
In the end, there there is no proof of Mary’s complicity in Darnley’s murder nor of any conspiracy, involving Bothwell. Such accusations rest on nothing more than assumptions. To her detractors, Mary Queen of Scots was an adulteress if not a murderess. To her supporters she was a romantic figure not given to evil but the tragic victim, of evil times. To her rival, the cousin she would never meet, the Queen who signed her death warrant she was simply, “The daughter of debate”.