Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 8 : The Queen's Return

Mary wrote to her Scots nobles, informing them of the death of her husband, indicating that she was considering returning home, and requesting their advice on filling various public roles in Scotland, whilst also asking for the royal accounts to be sent to her.

Returning to Scotland was one possibility, but Mary’s preferred option was a marriage to Don Carlos. Queen Catherine was secretly opposed to this, and wrote to her daughter, Elisabeth, that she should discourage such a match. One wonders how Elisabeth felt – she and Mary had been very attached to each other, and at a personal level, she might have liked her former sister-in-law to join her in Spain. Catherine, however, warned her to be wary of Mary – if she became Carlos’ wife, Elisabeth might be side-lined.

Quite why Catherine thought this would happen is unclear – any wife of Carlos would be the same threat to Elisabeth, so having her friend as her step-daughter-in-law should have been preferable. Perhaps Catherine’s real motive was her desire for Carlos to marry her younger daughter, Marguerite. In any event, Philip was keen to maintain good relations with his own sister-in-law, Elizabeth - he still hoped to influence her back into a Spanish alliance, and a marriage with one of his relatives.

Mary was trying to build bridges with Elizabeth, without ratifying the Treaty of Edinburgh. She told Elizabeth’s envoy, Sir Thomas Randolph, that, now she was a widow, she needed to consult with her Scottish Council before she could commit herself. In the meantime, she expressed her warm wishes towards her cousin, and hoped that they might meet in person to resolve any disputes between them. So far as Mary was concerned, she could not accept Elizabeth formally as queen of England, until Elizabeth accepted her as the legitimate heir.

Another envoy came from England to tender condolences to Mary, her young cousin, Lord Darnley. He was a couple of years younger than she, and, at this time, she paid no attention to him in the guise of a suitor. Although he had a good claim to the English throne, a match with him would in no way be the equal of a marriage to Don Carlos or Archduke Charles.

Whilst contemplating her future, Mary visited her Guise relatives – possibly because Queen Catherine had made it clear that the young widow was not welcome at court. Whether Catherine had always secretly disliked Mary, or whether she did not want any possibility of Charles IX forming a plan to marry her and wanted to keep her away, is unknown, but Sir James Melville, later Mary’s ambassador to England, described Catherine as ‘rigorous and vengeable’ towards her former daughter-in-law.

During this trip, two embassies arrived from Scotland – one under the leadership of John Leslie, the still-Catholic Bishop of Ross, and the other from her half-brother, Lord James. Leslie had the direst suspicions of Lord James – certain that he coveted his sister’s throne. He recommended that Mary have him detained, and that she should embark for Scotland, and raise an army in the Catholic territories, to impose her will.

Mary rejected Leslie’s advice and listened carefully to Lord James’ suggestion that she return home, under strict conditions – particularly that she accept Protestantism as Scotland’s religion. Mary signified her willingness to accept this, provided she could continue to maintain her own Catholic religion in private. It may be that she thought Lord James would take the role of supportive advisor and loving sibling that she had seen exemplified amongst her Guise relatives.

Lord James returned to Scotland (via England, where he told the English government about every detail of his conversation with his queen).  On 10th June 1561, Lord James and the other Scottish nobles wrote a formal letter to Mary, inviting her to return on the terms previously discussed.  She agreed, and having requested a passport (which was refused) from Elizabeth, because the Treaty of Edinburgh had not been ratified, set sail on 14th August, landing at Leith on a day of miserable weather, on 19th August, before her arrival was anticipated.  There was a mad dash to Leith by the Earl of Argyll, Lord Erskine and Lord James, and after having a light meal, Mary was conveyed to her palace at Holyrood.

The populace was delighted at the sight of their beautiful young queen. Even the inveterate critic of Mary, John Knox, admitted that bonfires were lit to express public satisfaction in her arrival. In honour of her arrival, music was played outside her palace chamber. The snooty French envoy, M. de Brantome, complained about the appalling noise, but Mary was probably thrilled that her people were so welcoming, and requested a repeat performance the next day.