How the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots led to her downfall

The young Catholic monarch marries the Earl of Bothwell, a tempestuous match that leads to her violent end

Mary Queen of Scots

Aged just 24, Mary, Queen of Scots was already on her third husband. In an event lacking the usual cheer of a royal wedding, she married the Earl of Bothwell in May 1567. It was a sombre start to a relationship that, like the ones before, was doomed to fail.

Elizabeth I c1588 © Getty

The Queen of Scots was Queen Elizabeth I’s cousin, and a potential rival for the English crown. She had married the future King of France at 15, but was widowed just two years later. Her second marriage to Lord Darnley (Henry Stewart) had started off well, but his lust for power soon grew.

In an attempt to claim the crown matrimonial, he stabbed Mary’s friend Riccio during a dinner party while his six-months-pregnant wife was held at gunpoint.

Naturally, this broke their marriage irretrievably. Since divorce was not an option for the Catholic queen, it was decided that Stewart be removed by any means necessary.

Unfortunately for him, this meant a violent death. Two barrels of gunpowder were placed beneath his bedroom and an explosion was triggered. The blame for the murder was laid upon the Earl of Bothwell, an advisor of the Queen, although he was later acquitted.

Bothwell and Mary soon married, under a cloud of suspicion. Nobody would believe that the Queen would marry the man (who was widely believed to have killed her previous husband) out of love alone. The marriage remains controversial today, as it is often alleged that Bothwell raped Mary to ensure their legal union.

Many of Mary’s old friends turned against her, and she was forced to abdicate after putting up a small fight in June 1567. As she was led away, the crowds screamed that she was both an adulteress and murderer.

The prisoner

With Elizabeth I still feeling threatened by Mary’s Catholic claims to the throne, the Queen of Scotland was placed under house arrest in England, so that she could be kept under close surveillance.

For almost 20 years, the disgraced queen moved from castle to castle, but was never allowed her freedom.

The final straw came in 1586, when she was implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, and tried for treason.

Though her spirited defence – arguing that she could not be charged for treason on the grounds that she was a foreign subject – was strong, Mary’s tumultuous life came abruptly to an end on the chopping block in February 1587.


This content was first published in May 2017 in History Revealed.