Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 20 : The Rising of the North

The very presence of Mary, a Catholic queen, was disturbing the peace in England. In November 1569, the Earls of Westmorland (brother-in-law of Norfolk) and Northumberland rose up in an attempt to restore the old faith. Their initial success – a full Catholic Mass was celebrated in Durham Cathedral for the last time – soon fell away. Mary herself was not directly involved – she had condemned the enterprise as unlikely to be of benefit to herself, as well as unlikely to succeed.

She was right on both counts. The rising was put down with remarkable savagery – over 600 Catholics were hanged in the following two years. It was this rebellion that led to the excommunication of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V in his bull ‘Regnans in Exclesis’. From an uneasy truce with her Catholic subjects, whereby no questions were asked of those who conformed to the law, Elizabeth now felt herself obliged to take a more punitive line.

In February 1570, the outlook in Scotland changed again with the assassination of Moray. But this did not leave any room for compromise with the Queen’s Party. Mary’s father-in-law, Lennox, was installed as Regent, with Elizabeth’s backing. The only slight upside was Lennox’s personal attachment to his grandson, the four-year-old King James. Mary’s gifts and letters to her son were not passed on to him.

Over the following years, there were endless conspiracies to free Mary – few had any prospect of succeeding, and Mary herself gave no encouragement to anything that seemed to her to have little likelihood of success. She continued to hope that Elizabeth, either from her own policy, or coerced by France or Spain, would relent and restore her to queenship.

One of the more serious plots was got up by an Italian banker, named Ridolfi. It involved invasion by the Duke of Alva (Philip II’s Lieutenant in the Netherlands) to meet a Catholic uprising, which would then place Mary and Norfolk on the English throne. Philip was doubtful – refusing to commit himself until he had more evidence of English Catholic enthusiasm.

Mary’s representative, Bishop Leslie, who was at best, incompetent, was certainly involved in the rather hare-brained scheme, although it is less clear that Mary gave anything other than a general approval to any scheme that might free her from captivity. The plot, unsurprisingly, was uncovered and Norfolk was arrested and executed.

Since a number of Elizabeth’s councillors had previously thought a match between Mary and Norfolk might be a good solution, they reacted as might be expected, by distancing themselves immediately from Mary, and now blaming her for conspiracies. The English Parliament wanted her tried or else executed under an Act of Attainder, but Elizabeth rejected any such idea, merely permitting a law to be passed barring Mary from the English succession and subjecting her to English trial, in the event of a discovery of any further plots.

In Scotland, Lennox had also fallen victim to the assassin’s weapon, to be replaced for a short while by James’ guardian, Mar, and then by Mary’s nemesis, the Earl of Morton. It was during Morton’s tenure that the remnants of the Queen’s Party, under Kirkcaldy of Grange, and Maitland of Lethington, collapsed with the surrender of Edinburgh Castle in 1573. Thenceforward, there was no prospect of Mary returning to her throne.

On one level, Mary’s captivity was not arduous. She had a suite of thirty, including the faithful Mary Seton, Lord and Lady Livingston (he was the brother of Mary Livingston, one of the Four Marys, and she was Mary’s cousin, and sister of Mary Fleming). Shrewsbury, whilst he found the position of gaoler distasteful, and never wavered in his loyalty to Elizabeth, was yet conscious that Mary might one day be his queen. To treat her respectfully made sense as well as being consistent with the exalted view that the sixteenth century held of royal blood.  

Mary was also permitted, after relentless importuning, to visit Buxton to take the waters on several occasions. Whilst there, she met both Leicester and Cecil. When there were no heightened security alerts she was allowed to ride, to hunt and to hawk, although always surrounded by Shrewsbury’s men. Despite this access to moderate exercise, Mary suffered persistent ill-health, which has been potentially identified as porphyria, a condition that has symptoms ranging from copious vomiting, to pain and complete debility in the limbs. In the acute form, a severe attack can be extremely serious, but recovery is quick. Depression and neurological side-effects are also symptomatic.

Throughout the 1570s and early 1580s, there were proposals and counter-proposals to Mary about marriages to this or that European princeling – Don Juan of Austria, Philip II’s illegitimate half-brother being one. The difficulty was, of course, getting hold of Mary’s person.

The battle-lines between Catholic and Protestant were becoming more fiercely drawn, and the deterioration of Anglo-Spanish relations, as England, despite Elizabeth’s misgivings, was drawn into the war in the Netherlands, meant that Philip II, initially preferring Elizabeth as queen of England, to Mary, as a representative of the French house of Guise, took more interest in Mary as a way to reintroduce Catholicism in England – despite Mary’s own previous lack-lustre performance so far as the Catholic Church was concerned, in Scotland.

Mary herself began to rely more on her religion for comfort, although for her to practice it required some ingenuity in disguising priests within her little household.