Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 19 : Honoured Guest

Although Mary did not immediately announce her identity, it was soon known. She was made welcome at the home of Sir Henry Curwen, at Workington Hall. Within a short space of time, she had been conducted to Carlisle Castle, whilst the castle’s deputy-governor, Lowther, sent a message to Lord Scrope of Bolton, Elizabeth’s lieutenant in the West March, to request instructions.

It was no part of an underling’s job to insult a foreign monarch, so Lowther treated Mary with all the deference due to her rank, paid her expenses, and organised clothes and horses for her. This encouraged Mary to think that the English government would support her, and she wrote to the Earl of Cassilis that she anticipated a return by mid-August, with an army in tow.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and her council were faced with a quandary, to which they never found a satisfactory answer – what should be their attitude to Mary? Should they help her, or not?  In favour of assisting Mary was Elizabeth’s own inclination to support fellow monarchs, regardless of their religion. Against helping her, was the disinclination of Elizabeth’s Protestant ministers (generally more interested in Protestantism as a cause than their queen) to help a Catholic monarch, against a Protestant de facto government.

Also against Mary was the very fact of her closeness to Elizabeth’s own throne. Had Elizabeth had another heir, Mary would have been less of a threat, and Elizabeth might have wanted to help – but to aid a woman whom many still thought had a better right to the English crown than Elizabeth would be, potentially, to nurse a viper.

To let Mary pass to France, to raise an army there, was also unthinkable – the last thing Elizabeth needed was a Scotland once again in close military alliance with her Catholic enemies across the Channel.

Elizabeth did what she did best: prevaricated. She listened to the urgent messages of the Scottish government, which had now decided that painting Mary as a murderer and adulterer was an acceptable reason for deposing her – regardless of the fact that the previous year, they had not brandished Mary with the brush of murder. Mary, naturally, protested her innocence.

This gave the English government a good reason for delaying any decisions – if Mary could be proved guilty of heinous crimes, then clearly there would be no moral pressure on Elizabeth to restore her, whilst if Elizabeth accepted a deposition of Mary from political motives, Elizabeth would be giving carte blanche to her own potential rebels to unseat a monarch if she displeased them.

A commission, which might more properly be called a trial, was convened at York, and then moved to London. Mary, initially, refused to attend – rejecting the proposition that she could be called to account by a foreign government. Moray and his supporters did attend, and Mary, once she had considered the matter, agreed to send commissioners to act for her.

The most important piece of evidence was the so-called Casket Letters. As noted above, their contents had not been revealed previously, but now they were listed as eight letters from Mary to Bothwell, a love sonnet by her, and two marriage contracts between them. Whether the letters were genuine or forgeries, is yet another of the unanswered questions. The letters themselves no longer exist, having disappeared in 1584.

Elizabeth concluded the commission with the non-decision that Moray was an honourable man, who should remain regent, whilst nothing had been proved against Mary, and Elizabeth would not hand her over to the Scottish government, to certain execution.

Mary was moved to Bolton Castle, under the supervision of Sir Francis Knollys, one of Elizabeth’s most trusted councillors, husband of her cousin, Katherine Carey. Knollys, despite his Puritan religion, appeared impressed by Mary. They whiled away the hours together, by Knollys teaching Mary English (as noted above, Mary spoke Scots or French). Mary continued to protest that her captivity was illegal, and warned Knollys that she would take any steps she could to end it.

Whilst at Bolton, Mary became very friendly with Lady Scrope, sister of the Protestant Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who had headed the York commission. Soon Norfolk was being suggested as a husband for Mary, with the agreement of her party in Scotland (the Queen’s Party) and that of some of Elizabeth’s councillors, including Leicester.

This, they thought, might bolster the idea of a return to Scotland for Mary, with Protestant government guaranteed, and Moray pardoned.

Mary was willing to agree this - after all, she had been content to leave Protestantism in situ, despite her own religious views, and also to the corollary that the marriage to Bothwell be dissolved. Queen Elizabeth was not informed of the discussions about a marriage to Norfolk, but Mary, of course, was, and she and the duke entered into correspondence, and exchanged tokens. Mary’s only proviso was that Elizabeth must approve the match.

In the late 1560s, Northern England was still essentially Catholic. This posed an additional risk for the English government, which decided to move Mary further south. She was given into the care of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, a loyal, and Protestant, servant of the Queen Elizabeth, and his wife, the formidable Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Hardwick. She was to be housed at various times in the Shrewsbury castles and houses of Tutbury, Sheffield, Chartley, Chatsworth and Wingfield.

Shrewsbury treated Mary with all the respect due to a queen, and all the rigour due to a prisoner. She had her cloth of estate, but not her freedom. Initially, she was on good terms with Lady Shrewsbury and the two created magnificent embroideries together – such as the one now at Oxburgh Hall.

In July 1569. a convocation at Perth rejected the idea of Mary’s return, by forty votes to nine. This disappointment was compounded when Elizabeth found out about the proposed match to Norfolk and exploded with rage. Norfolk was clapped in the Tower and Mary became painfully aware that, far from being in England as an honoured guest, she was a prisoner. Her rooms were searched, the number of her attendants cut, and orders were given to prevent her communicating with the outside world.