The life of Mary, Queen of Scots has all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller: a love triangle, treachery, rape and murder. Dr Saul David takes a closer look at the role of Mary's lover, the Earl of Bothwell, and the web of intrigue that surrounds this 16th-century murder mystery.
The petted princess
On the night of February 9 1567, a trail of gunpowder was lit in the cellar of a house in the backstreets of Edinburgh. The explosion reduced the house to rubble and Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, was murdered. Ever since, historians have debated whether Mary was involved in this outrage, and only recently has incriminating new evidence come to light. At the heart of the mystery lies treacherous politics of the Scottish Court, and love letters written by Mary to her secret paramour, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell.
'...she knew little of the affairs of state and had neither the temperament nor training for rule.'
Mary left Scotland when she was just five to be betrothed to the four year-old Dauphin, Francis. She was already Queen of Scotland because her father, James V, had died when she was just six days old, leaving her French Catholic mother, Mary of Guise, acting as Regent. She eventually married Francis when she was 15 years old. A year later, following his father's untimely death in a jousting accident, Francis became King of France and she his Queen. But a year after that, Francis died of a brain tumour and his young widow had no option but to return to Scotland.
Her ill-fated rule began in August 1561, she was just 18 and already widowed, a petted princess of the French court who knew nothing of her native country. The Scottish court was much smaller than its French counterpart, then the most sophisticated in Europe, and Scotland was generally less appealing with its wild weather, harsh landscape and tribal politics. She spoke mostly French and was fond of typical courtly pursuits like dancing, masking, music and embroidery. She was also an expert rider, courageous, spirited and headstrong - some said frivolous - and used to getting her own way. But she knew little of the affairs of state and had neither the temperament nor training for rule.
Surrounded by enemies
Mary's greatest handicap, however, was her religion: she was a Catholic in a country that was officially Protestant. The leading Protestant lord was Mary's half-brother, the Earl of Moray, who had deposed her mother in 1559. Moray was the bastard son of James V and could never be King of Scotland. Instead he became Regent and Scotland became Protestant. So when Mary arrived, she was surrounded by enemies, not least John Knox, the fiery Protestant preacher, who made regular attacks on her from the pulpit, calling her a jezebel and a heretic, and denouncing her loose French ways. Yet, for the first two years of her personal rule, things went rather well because Mary was young and inexperienced and followed the advice of Moray and the Protestant lords.
'...the recent discovery of secret reports from Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to the Scottish Court, indicates a much earlier intimacy.'
One of Mary's closest advisors at this time was the Earl of Bothwell, a tough, handsome border lord who was five years her senior. Bothwell was officially Protestant because you had to be to get on. On the other hand he had stayed loyal to Mary's mother during the rebellion of 1559 and he now served Mary with the same devotion. He was, first and foremost, a nationalist who wanted a strong and independent Scotland. His chief aim was to prevent an alliance with England - Protestant England - because he saw it as the first step to political union.
Historians have tended to assume that Bothwell did not exert any significant influence over Mary until 1565. But the recent discovery of secret reports from Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to the Scottish Court, indicates a much earlier intimacy. In October 1561, for example, he reported that Bothwell was 'near sybbe unto her grace', which means they were close friends (though not necessarily lovers). Moray resented Bothwell's influence and took advantage of his feud with the Earl of Arran to imprison him in 1562. Bothwell escaped and fled to France, at which point Moray persuaded Mary to put down a supposed rebellion by Bothwell's friend, the Earl of Huntly, in the Catholic north-west of Scotland.
Bothwell's continuing influence
Why did she do it? Because she was determined to succeed Elizabeth I as Queen of England. She was a legitimate great-granddaughter of Henry VII, which Elizabeth, as the daughter of Anne Boleyn, was not. Moray had promised her that if she crushed the Huntly rebellion Elizabeth would look favourably on her claim - and she believed him. But even with Huntly dead, Elizabeth refused to meet her. Mary had trusted her older half-brother, but he had simply used her to destroy a personal enemy and, in the process, further the Protestant cause. It was a turning point; Mary no longer trusted Moray and the Protestant lords and now turned, or returned, to the Catholic ticket.
It is generally believed that Bothwell was absent from Scotland during the crucial next two years when Mary began to take matters into her own hands. But Randolph's reports point unexpectedly to Bothwell's continuing influence. In February 1564, Randolph reported to William Cecil that Bothwell had returned secretly to Scotland 'to speak to the Queen'. The upshot of meetings such as this one was that Mary chose Henry, Lord Darnley, as her new husband. Like her, he was a great-grandchild of Henry VII with a Scottish father, the Earl of Lennox, and an English mother who was also a leading Catholic. By marrying Darnley, Mary hoped to strengthen the Catholic cause and enhance her claim to the English throne.
The wedding took place at the Chapel Royal at Holyrood on 29 July 1565, Mary wearing black, as befitted a widow. Moray and some of the Protestant lords rebelled in protest, but were eventually driven into England by royal troops led by the Earls of Lennox and Bothwell, the latter having been recalled from France for the occasion. Bothwell was now at the height of his powers, a leading member of Mary's new - and largely Catholic - council. The only fly in the ointment was Darnley. He spent little time with the Queen and even less on the affairs of state, preferring to hunt, hawk, drink and keep low company. Gradually the Queen fell out of love. But Darnley had done one thing right: Mary was pregnant.
Alone and defenceless
The remaining Protestant lords saw Darnley as the weak link. They told him that Mary's Italian secretary, a former musician named David Rizzio, had too much influence at court. And why? Because he was Mary's lover. The jealous and gullible Darnley believed them, and agreed to take part in Rizzio's murder. He also agreed to uphold the Protestant religion, and to the return from exile of the other Protestant lords. There has never been any evidence that Mary was having an affair with Rizzio. If she had been, Randolph would have known, yet he does not mention it in any of his reports to Cecil.
'She spent days in her chamber weeping, close to nervous collapse.'
Nevertheless, on 9 March 1566, Mary was having a small supper party in her private apartments, with Rizzio and five close friends, when Darnley and a group of Protestant nobles burst in. They dragged Rizzio from the table and into the next room - where they stabbed him 56 times. Bothwell had also been a target, but he managed to climb out of a window and descape to Dunbar. Alone and defenceless, Mary decided that her only hope was Darnley. Two nights after the murder she went to his room and convinced him that the Protestant lords were using him. Soon he was begging her forgiveness and together they escaped to Dunbar, where Bothwell was gathering an army. They returned to Edinburgh with the army and forced the murderers to flee.
But Mary never really recovered. She spent days in her chamber weeping, close to nervous collapse. 'I could wish to be dead', she repeated again and again. She could never forgive Darnley. The only person she now trusted was Bothwell. On 19 June 1566, Mary gave birth to Prince James (later King James VI of Scotland, and I of England). Darnley was now expendable and everyone wanted to see the back of him: Mary hated him, the Protestant lords had been betrayed by him and Bothwell wanted to replace him as king. To further his ends, Bothwell persuaded Mary to bring back Moray and the exiled Protestants.
'Nothing against her honour'
In November 1566, Bothwell met with nobles from all factions at Craigmillar Castle to discuss the Darnley problem. They came up with two options: divorce or assassination. But when Mary was consulted she ruled out divorce because it would make her son illegitimate. As for 'other means', she said that she wanted 'nothing against her honour'. The nobles saw this as carte blanche and, having left Mary's room, signed a bond to murder Darnley.
'Even her defenders find it hard to believe she knew nothing of the plan to abduct her.'
So was Mary in on the plot? It seems likely because, in January 1567, she joined Darnley in Glasgow and was, as he told his father, 'using herself as a most natural and loving wife'. And yet it was from Glasgow that she sent her famous love letters - known as the Casket Letters - to Bothwell while her husband was just yards away in the next room. 'Cursed be this poxy fellow that troubeleth me this much,' she wrote. 'He will not come unless I promise to be with him at bed and board and forsake him no more. And upon my word he will do whatsoever I will, and he will come.'
Mary was as good as her word. On 1 February 1567 she brought Darnley from the safety of Glasgow to the dangers of Edinburgh. He was taken to Kirk o'Field, a house near the city wall, because he was sick and, Mary said, needed somewhere quiet to convalesce. Mary promised to stay and look after him but on the night of the murder, 9 February, she was at Holyrood attending the wedding masque of a loyal servant. A coincidence? Possibly, but a convenient one. As it happened, Darnley survived the explosion but was strangled and stabbed to death as he tried to escape.
Virtually everyone was involved in the plot to murder Darnley, but only Bothwell and Mary got the blame. Within days, scurrilous placards appeared in Edinburgh, depicting Mary as a whore and accusing her and Bothwell of the crime. They had been set up by Moray and the Protestant lords. In desperation, Bothwell abducted Mary and took her captive to Dunbar Castle where, apparently, he raped her before forcing her to agree to marry him. Could she have been complicit in the whole thing? Possibly. Even her defenders find it hard to believe she knew nothing of the plan to abduct her.
On 15 May 1567, Mary and Bothwell were married at Holyrood according to the Protestant rites. Mary was either so desperate - or so madly in love with Bothwell - that she now appeared to give up even her Catholicism for him. Exactly a month later, the final showdown between Mary and the Protestant lords took place at Carberry Hill near Edinburgh. But no actual fighting took place because Mary's outnumbered troops gradually melted away.
Mary agreed to give herself up on condition that Bothwell was given safe passage into exile. In a final act of defiance they kissed in full view of both sides. Then Bothwell galloped off and spent the next month trying, in vain, to raise more troops; so maybe he loved Mary after all.
'The young queen with the golden future was just 24, and her life was effectively over.'
But it was to no avail. Two days after Carberry, Mary was imprisoned on the isle of Lochleven where she later miscarried Bothwell's twins. The young Queen with the golden future was just 24, and her life was effectively over. Her half-brother Moray became Regent. Bothwell fled, but was caught and imprisoned in Protestant Denmark. He died there ten years later, some say insane. For Mary there began 19 years of captivity, first in Scotland and then in England, ending only with her execution at Fotheringhay, for plotting against Elizabeth I, on 8 February 1587.
Find out more
The Enigma of Mary Stuart by IB Cowan (1971)
Mary, Queen of Scots by George Donaldson (1975)
Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser (2001)
In the End is My Beginning: A Life of Mary, Queen of Scots by James Mackay (1999)
Two Queens in One Isle by Alison Plowden (1984)
Mary, Queen of Scots: Politics, Passion and a Kingdom Lost by Jenny Wormald (2001)
The last letter of Mary, Queen of Scots is reproduced on the National Library of Scotland site.
The The Royal Family's site has a biography of Mary.
Places to visit