Why you should care
Because being a rebel is great — as long as you don’t lose your head.
She gripped the unfamiliar skirts in each hand as she crept through the castle, knowing the slightest disturbance might rouse suspicion. Silently, she pushed open the heavy wooden door and ran to a waiting rowboat, hoping her eagerness wouldn’t give her away. As the boatman rowed swiftly away from the castle, he caught a glimpse of his mysterious passenger’s hands. Abruptly, he stopped rowing, and the boat glided silently over the dark waters of the lake. His gaze met hers, and Mary, Queen of Scots, knew she had been caught.
In a sense, she’d been on the lam her entire life. She ascended to the throne of Scotland in 1542, one week after she was born, when her father, King James V, died and left his infant daughter a political pawn. At age 6 she was sent to France and betrothed to future king François II. Tension between Scotland’s Catholics and Protestants was on the rise, and Scottish royals thought the marriage would solidify a Catholic alliance against the Protestant England of Elizabeth I. But when François died suddenly in December 1560, Mary returned to Scotland the following August to find she was ruler of a very different kingdom.
Bent on revenge for Darnley’s death, some of the Protestant Scottish lords decided Mary was unfit to rule.
Deborah Johnson, director, Historic UK
The previous August at a special parliamentary session, the Church of Rome had been formally abolished in Scotland, and Catholic Mary represented a threat to the Protestant cause. She wed a local Catholic, Lord Darnley, on July 29, 1565, in hopes of facilitating peace, according to Jenny Wormald, author of Mary, Queen of Scots: Pride, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. But she soon discovered that Darnley was vain and headstrong, and had a fondness for drink that made him a lousy royal partner. Mary took on the brunt of sovereign responsibility.
Nine months afer the birth of their son, the future James VI, Darnley was killed under mysterious circumstances, leaving Mary a widow for the second time. Her third husband, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, proved a contentious choice — rumors swirled that he’d been involved in Darnley’s murder. Twelve days after divorcing his wife on grounds of his adultery, Bothwell married Mary, on May 15, 1567. “Bent on revenge for Darnley’s death, some of the Protestant Scottish lords decided Mary was unfit to rule,” says Deborah Johnson, director of Historic UK and editor of the organization’s history magazine.
The Earl of Morton led the opposition. A month after her third royal wedding, Mary and her troops battled Morton and his men to a standoff at Carberry Hill, east of Edinburgh. She cut a deal. “After an oath made by the rebel lords that Bothwell would be allowed to flee, Mary agreed to surrender,” Johnson says. She was imprisoned in a castle on an island on Loch Leven and forced to abdicate the throne to her infant son. At the time, Mary was pregnant; while in captivity, she miscarried twins.
Depressed and physically weak, Mary brooded in the ancient castle’s tower house, contemplating her fate. But the queen, whose courage and stamina impressed her contemporaries, couldn’t be held down for long. Within a few weeks, she began to plot her escape. Her good looks and charm had attracted George Douglas, the 18-year-old son of the castle’s governor, as well as Willie Douglas, an orphaned cousin of the family, according to Wormald.
Both eagerly assisted in the escape, smuggling the uniform of a castle laundress to Mary and arranging for a boatman, who was not involved in the plot, to take her to safety under cover of night. The plan was nearly foolproof except for one glaring oversight: Mary had the soft, unmarked hands of a royal, not the raw, calloused ones of a working-class woman. Nearly halfway across the loch, the boatman spotted the discrepancy, and Mary’s plan was foiled.
Mary remained determined to escape her island prison. George Douglas had been banished from the castle for his role in the first attempt, so it was Willie who stepped up this time. He organized a May Day pageant in hopes the family would be too tired and drunk to notice his plans. That evening, Willie put holes in the bottom of every boat on shore except one. Mary walked out of Loch Leven Castle dressed as a plain countrywoman, and this time kept her hands hidden.
George had arranged for Lord Seton, a close friend of the queen’s, to take her to his castle for several nights. She then traveled west to Hamilton, where a bond was made promising to restore her to the throne. It was signed by nine bishops, nine earls and 90 lords and lairds, among others, including men who had opposed her rule.
As she traveled toward another ally at Dumbarton Castle, Mary made the mistake of passing too near Glasgow, where the Earl of Moray, the queen’s own half brother and nemesis, was waiting with his army. They attacked the queen’s forces and won. Mary fled for England, leaving her supporters in Scotland without a leader and essentially orphaning her 1-year-old son, James.
Seeking refuge in England would prove to be a grave misstep. Upon Mary’s arrival, Queen Elizabeth I arrested her, and she remained her prisoner for 19 years. But Mary hadn’t lost her cunning ways just yet. While in captivity, she plotted against Elizabeth and planned to reclaim the throne, but her coded letters were discovered before she could act. On the morning of Feb. 8, 1587, at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded for treason, leaving behind a legacy of artful rebellion.