Elizabeth I’s Deadly feud with Mary, Queen of Scots

The roots of the 20-year feud between Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots began long before both monarchs were born. Aside from it being a typical political fight, a large part of it was deeply entrenched in religion. In the end, as we all know, Mary came out the bigger loser.  Ever wonder how the feud between Elizabeth I, Queen of England and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots started in the first place? In this article, we explore the root cause of this deadly altercation that culminated in the beheading of  Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary’s grandmother, Margaret, was the older sister of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father. After Henry VIII severed relationship with the Catholic Church (as a result of his divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon), the Catholics considered all offsprings of the king illegitimate. One of such offspring was Elizabeth herself. The predominantly Catholic nobles and lords in Scotland claimed that the rightful heiress to the throne of England, after the death of Mary I (Bloody Mary), was Mary, the Queen of Scots. Mary’s claim to the English throne received support from Catholics in England as well.


At some point, the French even supported Mary’s claim. Mary’s father in-law from her first marriage, King Henri II of France, campaigned vigorously to place Mary in line to the English throne. However, none of those moves materialized. After a series of alleged marital scandals and miscalculations, the nobles and lords in Scotland forced Mary to abdicate her throne in 1567. Leaving everything behind, including her one-year-old son- James (later King James VI), Mary then fled to England where she was eventually beheaded on charges of treason. Before Mary’s death in 1587, Elizabeth had placed Mary under house arrest for close to two decades.

Historians believe that putting Mary to death was one of the most difficult things Queen Elizabeth I had to do during her 44-year reign on the English throne. Elizabeth’s counselors believed that as long as there was breath in Mary’s lungs, Mary was bound to pose a significant challenge to Elizabeth’s reign.

Mary’s death sparked a direct confrontation between England and the rest of Europe. The predominantly Catholic dominated France and Spain were outraged by the actions of Elizabeth. Several plans were made to attack England and vanquish all traces of Protestantism from England. However, all of this anger died down. Elizabeth I delicately managed the fallout with those European powers. She did this by not oppressing Catholics in England. And because she bore no heir, her cousin, James VI of Scotland (Mary’s son), successfully inherited the English crown after her death. James VI became king of both Scotland and England.

In a very remorseful letter sent by Elizabeth to Mary’s son (now King James VI), Elizabeth I made peace with herself by apologizing for not halting the execution of Mary. She laid the blame at the door step of William Davison, her Secretary.

FAQs about the feud between Elizabeth I and Mary

These frequently asked questions provide a summary of the contentious relationship that existed between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary:

Who were Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots?

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and she ruled England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) was the daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise. She became queen of Scotland when she was just six days old, following her father’s death.

Why was there tension between the two queens?

Religion: Elizabeth was Protestant, and Mary was Catholic. The religious divide was a significant cause of tension during this period, both within individual countries and internationally.

Dynastic claims: Mary had a claim to the English throne, being the great-niece of Henry VIII. Some Catholics believed Mary to be the rightful queen of England, seeing Elizabeth as illegitimate due to her mother’s marriage to Henry VIII being declared null and void.

Did they ever meet in person

No, despite their interconnected lives and the political machinations that surrounded them, Elizabeth and Mary never met in person.

Why was Mary imprisoned in England?

Mary fled Scotland in 1568 after facing a revolt from Scottish nobles and hoped for Elizabeth’s protection. However, given the potential threat she posed (both due to her claim on the English throne and her Catholicism), Elizabeth placed her under house arrest, where she remained for the next 19 years.

What was the Babington Plot?

The Babington Plot (1586) was a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. While there’s debate about the extent of Mary’s involvement, letters smuggled in beer barrels implicated her in the plot.

Why was Mary executed?

Following the exposure of the Babington Plot, Mary was put on trial and found guilty of treason. Despite hesitations and delays, Elizabeth eventually signed Mary’s death warrant, and she was executed in 1587.

How did Elizabeth feel about Mary’s execution?

It’s reported that Elizabeth was deeply conflicted about the decision to execute another anointed monarch, especially her cousin. After the execution, she claimed that she had not intended for the warrant to be carried out and blamed her advisors for a misunderstanding.

How did their feud affect England and Scotland’s relationship?

The animosity between Elizabeth and Mary mirrored the broader political and religious tensions of the time. However, after both queens died, James VI of Scotland (Mary’s son) ascended to the English throne as James I in 1603, uniting the crowns of England and Scotland and laying the foundation for the future United Kingdom.

Click here to find out why Queen Elizabeth I refused to get married all her life.

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