Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 17 : Plots

During the autumn of 1566, when Mary and her husband’s relationship had completely broken down, government in Scotland seemed calmer. Whilst maintaining her private faith, Mary continued to support the establishment of Protestantism in her kingdom, agreeing legislation for the provision of benefices to Protestant ministers, and even giving a personal grant to the kirk. Simultaneously, although she accepted a papal grant, she was very reluctant to receive a papal nuncio, fearing it would lead to ‘tumults’.

During October, she took one of the customary journeys of the Stewart monarchs, a ‘hustice-ayre’ which was a peregrination around major towns to fulfil the ancient monarchical role of law- and justice-giver. One of her ports of call was Jedburgh, where she stayed in one of the fortified houses, or ‘bastels’ in the town, which still exists. King Henry did not accompany her.

Whilst she and the senior members of her court and council were there, including Moray, the queen received news that the Earl of Bothwell, had been seriously wounded in a raid. After a few days, Mary, Moray and others, together with an entourage of soldiers, rode to Hermitage Castle to visit the wounded man. Despite later representations of a mad dash to see her lover, there was no contemporary question about her motives – Bothwell was one of her councillors, and the queen was attended by her court. The distance was a bit less than 25 miles in each direction, so a good day’s ride, to go there and back, but not exceptional, bearing in mind that the Stewart court was always on the move, and they were accustomed to spending long days in the saddle hunting and hawking.

Nevertheless, on her return, Mary became extremely ill, complaining of severe pains in her side. Maitland thought her illness entirely attributable to her husband who ‘misuse(d) himself so far towards her that is an heartbreak for her to think that he should be her husband…’  Her symptoms included copious vomiting, convulsions and stiffness in her limbs. It seemed likely she would die, and prayers were offered for her in Edinburgh.

Mary herself thought the end had come, and sent for Moray and her other councillors to make provision for her son, and keep her husband far away from the crown.  She asked that Catholics be treated with the same tolerance she had shown for Protestants. Happily – or not, as the case turned out, Mary recovered. But her main problem, shared with her nobles, was her husband.

The events of the next few months are necessarily disputed. There was a meeting between Mary and her councillors at Craigmillar Castle on 20th November 1566. They discussed the problem of the king, who was suggesting that he might go abroad, which was considered a risk to the honour of Mary and of Scotland. Technically, there might have been an annulment – the marriage had taken place before the papal dispensation had been issued, but this would render the legitimacy of Prince James suspect.

Maitland suggested that her councillors would find a way of dealing with the problem. Mary responded that her honour must not be compromised, and was assured that she would see nothing but ‘good and approved by Parliament’.  Why she did not go down the route her great-uncle, Henry VIII, had paved, by having her husband arrested on a trumped-up charge of treason and legally murdered is a mystery.

It is possible that a bond was drawn up at Craigmillar, binding the lords, perhaps including Bothwell, to the permanent removal of King Henry, although Moray later denied any knowledge of such a document. Mary, in her determination to have her lords’ support in removing her husband in some way, officially pardoned the assassins of Riccio.

In January 1567, Mary appeared to effect a reconciliation with her husband, who had been ill. He agreed to return to Edinburgh with his wife, and took up residence in a house at Kirk o’Fields, with Mary visiting him to supervise his convalescence. On 10th February, Mary and other members of the court visited him, playing cards, and listening to music. Mary then returned to Holyrood, having promised to attend a wedding party.

Later that night, King Henry, disturbed by some noise, climbed out of his bedroom window in his nightshirt, and attempted to leave the environs of the house. He was too late, an explosion rocked the house to its foundations, and he himself was found and probably suffocated.

The enduring question for many, is whether Mary herself was actively involved in the murder, whether she was aware of something plotted, but chose not to know, or whether she was completely innocent of the act. Historians have argued over the extent of her culpability for nearly five centuries, and it is beyond human knowledge now, unless additional evidence appears, to prove anything.

It is certainly possible that her lords cooked the whole scheme up to leave Bothwell as the fall-guy, and that Mary, by refusing to take the easy option and have Bothwell blamed and hanged became an unintended victim herself – with her enemies seizing on her weakness to get rid of her, as well.

The point, however, as Dr Wormald points out, is not whether Mary was more or less guilty, but how badly she handled the situation.