Death of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots, born in 1542, was the queen of Scotland from 1542 to 1567. After a plethora of controversies and political intrigues during her reign in Scotland, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, James VI, in July 1567.

Born to James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise, Mary inherited the Scottish throne in December 1542. At the time of her ascension, she was just 6 days old.

This queen of Scotland would go on to have a very turbulent life, with her reign (from 1542 to 1567) plagued by political intrigue that ultimately culminated in her abdicating, fleeing Scotland, and then being imprisoned by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England.

READ MORE: Most Famous Monarchs of Scotland

Mary, Queen of Scots, was the daughter of James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise. She became queen of Scotland when she was just six days old, following the death of her father in December 1542. Image: Linlithgow Palace in West Lothian, Scotland is the birthplace of Mary and her father King James V.

Elizabeth, wary of Mary’s claim to the English throne and the potential threat she posed, kept Mary under house arrest. The numerous Catholic plots against Elizabeth seemed to place Mary as the Catholic alternative to the Protestant English throne.

For almost 19 years, Mary was kept in custody in various castles and manor houses across England. What further made Mary’s story a tragic one is the unusual manner in which her death came.

She was sent to France at age five to be raised alongside her future husband, Francis, the Dauphin of France. They married in 1558, and she became queen consort of France when he ascended the throne in 1559. However, he died in 1560, making her a widow at 18. Image: Mary and Francis in Catherine de’ Medici’s book of hours, c. 1558. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Conspiracy and Capture

Elizabeth I versus Mary, Queen of Scots

Image: Elizabeth I of England (left) and Mary, Queen of Scots

While held prisoner in England, Mary became the focus of various Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne.

The most notable of these plots was the Babington Plot. In 1586, secret correspondence between Mary and the conspirators, notably Sir Anthony Babington, was intercepted by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. The letters provided evidence of Mary’s complicity in the plot to assassinate Elizabeth.

Trial and Sentencing

Mary was put on trial for treason. She defended herself ably, denying the charges and stating that, as a sovereign queen herself, she wasn’t subject to English laws. Nevertheless, she was found guilty. The court sentenced her to death, but Elizabeth hesitated to sign the death warrant, understanding the implications of executing a fellow monarch.

However, given the evidence of Mary’s involvement in plots against her and the persistent threat she posed as a Catholic icon in Protestant England, Elizabeth eventually signed the warrant.


On February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, England. She was 44 years old.

She went to the scaffold wearing a red petticoat – red being the Catholic color of martyrdom. It took three blows from the executioner named Bull to complete the beheading.

Reports from witnesses indicate that she faced her execution with dignity and courage.

After her beheading, it’s said that her small dog, which had been hiding under her skirts, emerged and lay down between her shoulders and her head, stained with her blood. This poignant detail, whether legend or fact, highlights the tragic aura that surrounded Mary’s life and death.


Mary’s death strained relations between England and Catholic Europe, particularly with Spain. Elizabeth claimed that she did not intend for the warrant to be carried out immediately and laid the blame on her advisors.

Mary’s body was initially buried at Peterborough Cathedral but was later moved by her son, James I of England (James VI of Scotland), to Westminster Abbey in 1612, where she was interred in a chapel opposite the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I.

Her only surviving child with Darnley, James, would later become James VI of Scotland and James I of England. This union of crowns paved the way for the eventual political union of the two nations.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, her tumultuous reign, and her tragic end has been the subject of numerous books, plays, and films, attesting to her enduring fascination in history and popular culture.

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