Why Mary Queen of Scots was a thorn in the side of Elizabeth I

Cousins and rivals, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots had a tricky relationship

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary was the daughter of James V of Scotland and the French Mary of Guise. In 1542, she became Queen of Scotland at just six days old.


After a failed betrothal to Elizabeth’s half-brother Edward, Mary married Francis, heir to the French throne, returning to Scotland in 1561 after his death.

Elizabeth, a new monarch herself, was alarmed at Mary’s return, fearing she would use her French connections to claim the throne of England. As the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, Mary was seen by many as a prime Catholic queen for the English throne.

Scotland was predominately Protestant, and its new ruler was regarded with suspicion by some of her subjects. Elizabeth herself had stirred up trouble when, in February 1560, she made a treaty with Scottish nobles opposed to Scotland’s French government – still under the regency of Mary of Guise – and sent troops to aid them.

Although an uneasy truce had been achieved, the Queen of Scots never relinquished her claim to the English throne. Indeed, Mary’s marriage in 1565 to her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, only strengthened her claim.

Mary’s threat continued to hang over Elizabeth although, as queens and cousins, they kept up a pretence of friendliness. Many English Catholics, however, refused to recognise Elizabeth as their
queen, believing her to be the illegitimate product of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, a union they failed to recognise.

It seemed Mary had finally been brought under control when, in 1568, she fled to England, begging for Elizabeth’s protection after being forced to abdicate by her Scottish nobles.

Mary was kept under house arrest in England for some 19 years, but even under lock and key, continued to cause problems for Elizabeth. Should Elizabeth free her troublesome cousin, a fellow monarch anointed by God, or should Mary be executed to put an end to her threats?

Elizabeth remained indecisive until, in 1586, Mary was found to have been plotting Elizabeth’s demise with a group of English Catholics – led by Anthony Babington. Elizabeth gave into pressure from Parliament and reluctantly signed her cousin’s death warrant.


Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587. Her son, James VI of Scotland, enjoyed a better relationship with Elizabeth; it was he who would ultimately unite the thrones of England and Scotland.