1568 Mary and Elizabeth

The research for my book Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire threw up many puzzles that were not about Staffordshire. The most puzzling was and is the reasons why she left Scotland after defeat at the battle of Langside in 1568, which current writing cannot explain. None of her advisors were in favour. She hoped to gain support from two states she thought would help regain the throne, France and England, but she had no real reason to think either would help. France had never suggested they might come back to help butthe England of Elizabeth 1 was slightly more hopeful.

Although protestant like the majority of the English and Scots , Queen Elizabeth had made the principle of support for monarchy her most firmly held belief. This had led her to suggest that she might send an army to help Queen Mary if the Scots forced her off the throne. Mary took these suggestions as firm commitments, but as the following article shows, this assumption was one that Mary would come to regret.

NB The spelling STUART rather than the Scottish Stewart will be used as John Guy says The Queen used this and both major biographies of the last sixty years – John Guy and Antonia Fraser – use this spelling.

Losing Control

Mary Stuart aka Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in England from February 3rd 1569 when she arrived at Tutbury castle in Staffordshire to her execution at Fotheringhay on February 8th 1587. When she arrived at the grim fortress of John o’Gaunt it was plain that she was not a guest of Elizabeth 1: the castle, being used for the Royal Stud, was clearly a prison. How had she lost control of her fate? Her first months in England, which are still highly controversial, must be examined taking into account the conflicted relationship of Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth Tudor before and after Mary arrived in England The English Queen had made Mary a prisoner, despite their shared view of monarchy and the duties of the monarch uniting them – but once Mary had arrived in England in 1568 – this could not prevent them being torn apart.

The conventional view of Mary as victim has a basis in historical reality as she argued consistently, up to and at the trial which finally condemned her to be executed, that she was imprisoned without trial and was a refugee from injustice. However civil war, imprisonment by her own subjects, defeat at the battle of Langside (13th May 1568) ) and the flight in panic showed her judgement was poor. She made consistent failures of statecraft which made her in large part complicit in her own downfall. Thus victimhood is an easy case to make but is not the full picture. As the legacy of the Stuarts in England was to show, there was a fatal history of short sighted judgements in her family with only her great grandson Charles able to look ‘outside the box’ when he fled from defeat at the battle of Worcester. Perhaps Charles looked back at his ancestor and understood the value of taking advice.

It is true that Mary had arrived in England voluntarily, and had expected to be treated according to what we might see today as the principles of Natural Justice. Her repeated requests to Elizabeth to meet to discuss her imprisonment were always rejected – the two Queens never met, whatever dramatists may allege – and it may be suspected that Elizabeth felt unable to meet her cousin because she would be unable to make a reasonable answer to the claim that Mary would undoubtedly have made that her imprisonment could not be justified.

Or at least, not justified without resort to alleging Mary practised real politik involving disasterous miscalculations. While Mary was indeed a voluntary exile as a refugee from rebels, she could be accused of self destructive behaviour involving optimistic expectations of people she hardly knew – notably Elizabeth 1 and the Earl of Bothwell *- showing wildly unrealistic choices. This paper will focus on the events which led her to imprisonment in Tutbury castle in February 1569.



Calculation and Miscalculation

Mary had arrived in England as a fugitive from Scottish rebels on May 16th 1568 expecting that her cousin Elizabeth 1, would provide an army to put her back on the Scottish throne. This expectation alone was totally unrealistic. While Elizabeth was thoroughly opposed to rebels deposing anointed monarchs, once her cousin had arrived asking for aid she carried a history which could not be ignored. Elizabeth certainly wanted to return her to be Queen of Scotland, but the first months of her time in England through into 1569 were the months when the exiled Queen found unexpected challenges developing. Faced with the prospect of having their Queen returned, the Scottish power elite responded with accusations of scandalous behaviour and malpractice which Elizabeth could not ignore.

The Queen had become an exile because she had made political mistakes generating civil war, something her grandson Charles 1 did with the same eventual result – he also lost his head to the executioners axe. The most serious mistake of her time in Scotland was her weak response to the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley generating suspicions she was involved. As the sensation developed, Elizabeth and indeed her French mother in law Catherine de Medici stood by her expecting her to prosecute suspects. When these expectations failed, rebels protesting at the murder of Darnley, and her marriage to the man accused of organising his killing, Lord Bothwell gained support. Mary faced a rebellion which was as brutal and unjust as mediaeval politics ever were: Scotland being very much a mediaeval society. The Scots power elite made an almost unprecedented judgement on her character that she was morally unfit as a mother to have the right to bring up her own child, and she would never again see her son.

These were sensations which even the sympathetic John Guy agrees “tarnished her reputation for ever, and rightly so. She (Mary TF) made no serious effort to bring Darnley’s killers to justice” (Guy 2018 p314= see the rest of the page for his analysis of the damage caused to her reputation). She had finally united her famously divided country as Guy concludes “Even the Catholics deserted Mary in her hour of need” (op cit p311). What happened in Scotland followed her into England. While the Catholics turned back to her later the legacy which she brought to England was a blackened reputation, which made Elizabeth hesitate to support her.. Catherine de Medici had abandoned her long before – something Mary did not seem to grasp. Nor did she grasp that putting her fate in the hands of her cousin was seriously foolish.

It was an unforced error to come to England with her advisors opposed to such a move, as she had no real reason to believe that Elizabeth while sympathetic was going to put her back on the Scottish throne. The Scots Queen assumed that she could put her whole future in the hands of her cousin though she had never met her and had no understanding the beneath her deep rooted principled support for monarchy the English Queen had an even deeper rooted commitment to holding onto the English throne, and her future was threatened by Mary’s demand to be returned as Scottish Queen. Leading English protestants agreed with the Scots protestants that Mary’s relationship with Bothwall was intolerable and may have been a cause of Darnley’s murder

The complexity of the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary, rests on the fact their blood ties meant she was clearly the strongest candidate to succeed Elizabeth as Queen, which was not an asset for Mary as this factor made Catholic rebellion highly likely, and the political agreements and disagreements arising from the religious divisions should have shown Mary her cousin could never support her. But Mary appeared incapable of making objective decisions which as Antonia Fraser wrote was to become a profoundly damaging family trait. Antonia Fraser comments that Mary’s nature showed “that streak either of the romantic or the gambler, which leads the subject ever to prefer hope and high adventure to the known quantity, and which Mary Stuart passed on so dramatically to many of her later Stuart descendants”. (Fraser 2002 p456). The history of her descendants in England confirms that this is so – with just one brilliant exception. Her great grandson, Charles II was faced with just the problem Mary faced after Langside: how to escape after defeat in battle.

Charles II was in worse straits after the Battle of Worcester than his great grandmother was after Langside, having seen his army destroyed by Cromwell’s highly skilled troops while his great grandmother still had potential forces that would rally to her. But Charles, the morning after the battle when tired, hungry and demoralised, evaluated his options and decided to dismiss his entourage and rely on the illiterate working people of the Forest of Brewood. He did not know them, could not be certain they would not betray him, and was unclear whether they had the skills he needed. But caught between a rock and a hard place, ie Cavaliers who could not help him and Forest People who might, he gambled and his choice saved his life. It was not just the Royal Oak that saved him but his intelligent appreciation of the right choice to make to escape a trap. He was the only Stuart in two centuries to have that skill.

His great grandmother was nowhere near as realistic. She knew she shared the assumptions with Elizabeth 1, that monarchy could not be challenged and monarchs should therefore support each other against rebels, and this was the trigger for Mary’s disasterous decision as she fled from the battlefield at Langside – that she should leave Scotland for England and plead for support of her cousin. She relied on Elizabeth’s stated policy as in 1567 Elizabeth had told her ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton to tell the Scots they had no right to rebel whatever the circumstances saying:

“they have no warrant or authoritie by the law of God or man to be as superiors, judges or vindicators over their prince and soverayne, howsoever disorders they do gather or conceyve mater or disordere against her” (

Doran 2015-18 p76)

Elizabeth was only persuaded not to threaten to go to war to prevent Mary’s deposition (which the ambassador knew could not be stopped) when Throckmorton pointed out Mary would be killed if an English army crossed the border. Mary was fully aware this could happen, as the rebels threatened her with this fate during her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle, Throckmorton believed only his presence would save her, (Fraser p425) and Elizabeth realised there was little she could do to intervene in Scotland.

When in July 1567 Mary had been finally deposed and her infant son crowned King (July 29th ), Mary’s half brother the Earl of Moray being declared regent, Elizabeth chose to be a passive witness to the events in Scotland – Moray being an acceptable governor to the English especially after he sold Mary’s jewels to Elizabeth, a development which Mary was unaware of. However Mary escaped from Lochleven and rapidly mobilised an army. With her supporters outnumbering those of her half brother, Moray, the odds at the Battle of Langside sugggested Mary would win and regain her throne without needing Elizabeth to have to fulfil her promise to mobilise to help her cousin in battle. But Mary lost.

Mary’s best option after the battle even if she was to appeal for English aid was to remain in Scotland, regroup her supporters to produce armed forces which the English could assist if need be. Certainly Mary’s advisors argued she should not go into exile, but Mary was determined to go across the border and seek the assistance of her cousin. Panic and the trauma of the events of her deposition and failure in battle influenced her decisions making a bad situation worse. Towards the end of her life Mary wrote in a letter to the Catholic Archbishop Beaton “But I commanded my best friends to permit me to have my way….” (Fraser 2002 p456) a mistake she would regret for the rest of her life.



A Queen In Exile

Elizabeth certainly did not expect that her strongly expressed views against rebels ousting monarchs would lead to Mary arriving in her territory. A Catholic monarch ousted by protestant rebels gave the protestant government of England a major headache. Why did Mary make so stunning a decision? Mary left Scotland as she believed Elizabeth would send an army to put her back on the throne, convinced that the English would act immediately, or just as unrealistically that the French government of Catherine de Medici would assist her as she was a former French Queen. On 20th May 1568, seven days after Langside, she wrote from Carlisle to the earl of Cassilis (Fraser 2002 p459) saying she was “right well received and honourably accompanied” and expected to be back in Scotland with a French or English army “about the fifteenth day of August”. There is no other word but “delusional” to explain her belief that armies could be magically produced in three months. The French would have to create both an army and an invasion fleet but Mary’s grasp of military logistics was limited.

Mary should however have had a firm grasp of the politics of France – but despite having lived there as the wife of the King, the obstacles to the French intervening had escaped her. As her mother was a Guise, and the current King under the control of the Italian Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici was hostile to the Guise faction, the internal politics of the French court meant that the French were not inclined to help Mary as this meant bolstering the Guise element within their divided polity. Hopes of French assistance were clearly delusional.

Mary remained convinced Elizabeth was inclined to help her. But the common assumption of both Queens that monarchy was divinely appointed and the subjects could not choose who would occupy the throne was overridden in Elizabeth’s case by a keen awareness of political reality. A protestant English army could never be sent to fight a protestant Scots army to impose a Catholic Queen. Thus the Scots would have to accept Mary back voluntarily and while talks about talks took place Mary was moved from Carlisle, where an invasion north of the border was feasible, to Bolton Castle in North Yorkshire, ending the prospect of an invasion as the castle was too far south to be a base for an invasion force. The rest of the year was involved in tortuous attempts to clear a way for Mary to be accepted back in Scotland.

Although Mary was upset when moved to Yorkshire she did not waver in her belief that Elizabeth would support her, She relied on her blood tie – she was Elizabeth’s nearest relative, both being descended from Henry VII – she was an anointed monarch and her deposition threatened Elizabeth who also faced potential rebellion. But the political reality overriding these factors was that Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth protestant and armed support for a Catholic against Protestant rebels would be a bridge too far for the daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. Not that she openly admitted this.

Mary’s initial confinement was not technically imprisonment despite her being close guarded – Guy says Bolton Castle after arriving from Carlisle “may have seemed less a place of imprisonment than a place of refuge ” (op cit p440). Warm physically (it had a primitive form of central heating) and in Lady Scrope a welcoming aristocratic hostess. As the sister of the Duke of Norfolk she may have put the dangerous idea of marrying her brother into Mary’s consciousness. Certainly the months in the north of England did not seem captivity. However Mary was confused by the preparations for a commission of inquiry which was taking on the appearance of a trial.



Elizabeth was acutely aware that the Scots objection to their former Queen was based on the accusation she had colluded in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley. Elizabeth adopted the position that she could not support Mary until this slur was removed, and promised that after an inquiry, all would be straightforward in restoring her to the Scots throne. Mary who assumed this was a foregone conclusion had no choice but to accept that this was the road ahead, and she was comforted by a letter in which Elizabeth explained they would not meet but:

“If you find it strange not to see me you must make a ‘metamorphose’ of our persons, and then you will see it would be ‘malaise’ for me to receive you before your justification… But once honourably acquitted of this crime, I swear to you before God that among all worldly pleasures that will hold the first rank”. (J B Black, 1959 p110)

Thus Elizabeth was still claiming she was prepared to back the restoration of her cousin to the Scottish throne. She told the French ambassador that “She would take the cause of her sister the Queen in hand, and was resolved to place her again in her country in her former degree and authority royal, either by a good appointment and reconciliation… between her and her subjects, or by force” (op cit p111-112).

Mary replied on the 13th June refusing to take part in a confrontation with her accusers, writing “Here I neither can nor will answer their false accusations, although I will with pleasure justify myself voluntarily as friend to friend, but not in the form of a process with my subjects”, but the Privy Council stated that “her majesty can neither in honour or with surety aid her (Mary), nor permit her to come into her presence, nor restore her, nor suffer her to depart without a trial” (Black 1959 p111)

Elizabeth was able to take from the views she was given the device of a commission in inquiry – it was never called a trial – which Mary had to accept as giving the chance to clear her name, and allowed Elizabeth to maintain the apparently clear position of imposing Mary on the Scots if Mary was found innocent of the charges made by Moray and her opponents in Scotland. However this compromise position was not to survive the commission which began in York in October. This was clearly biased against Mary, who was forbidden to attend and make her own case while her half brother Moray was allowed to attend bringing with him the ‘Casket’ letters which he claimed were written by Mary and showed she colluded with Bothwell with whom she was in an adulterous relationship. Mary was furious that she could not attend, while the bias of the process was shown as Darnley’s father was not allowed to come though as Jenny Wormald comments, “At Elizabeth’s insistence, the matter to be discussed was whether Mary was innocent or guilty of the murder of Darnley; for that alone provided straightforward grounds for deciding whether she should be restored to her throne or not” (Wormald 2001/2017 p183). The inquiry was not designed to hear both sides in an even handed way.

The Casket letters were produced by Moray when the commission – or more realistically ‘trial’ – moved to Westminster to bring in additional commissioners. Whether they were forged or not is still a major issue, and one which cannot be decided since the originals vanished in 1584 when in the possession of James Stuart. It is a material factor that he had no desire to see his mother continually accused of aiding the killing of his father so it is not surprising the original letters vanished. The Duke of Norfolk who was one of the original commissioners is supposed to have said the casket letters were too extensive to have been forged (Fraser op cit 2002 p480). (The casket was said to contain eight letters allegedly from Mary to Bothwell, a long love sonnet and two marriage contracts). Norfolk’s conclusiond meant that Mary was guilty, so Mary’s defenders argue they were forged. Whether they were genuine or forged is not really the main issue. If forged, then the conclusion was that powerful interests in Scotland would go to any lengths to stop Mary coming back – which would be proven the next summer when a vote of the nobles barred her returning.



Mary still believed that Elizabeth was on her side, despite the obviously partisan nature of the way the conference proceeded. On the transference of the conference to London, Mary wrote to her cousin showing total trust in her good behaviour, writing “ Since you, my good sister, know our cause best, we doubt not to receive presently good end thereof: where through we may be perpetually indebted to you” (Fraser 2002 p481). Relying on Elizabeth was foolish. Through into December Mary’s representatives did little to press for her to be allowed into the hearing. Elizabeth was aided in ignoring Mary by heavy snow which made her ability to travel 250 miles to Westminster out of the question, giving Elizabeth a breathing space to consider how to solve the problem Mary posed while at Bolton Castle.

Late in December 1568 Elizabeth suggested that Mary hand over the throne of Scotland to her infant son – meaning Moray would run the government – and live in England with all parties accepting that if James died before his mother she could return as Queen. This attempt to keep the throne occupied by a Stuart, albeit an infant, was rejected by Mary and Elizabeth washed her hands of the problem. The Conference was ended by Elizabeth on January 11th 1569 without Mary or her representatives having even seen the casket letters.

Moray was sent home with £5000 to pay for his expenses, and Elizabeth wrote that both Moray and the Queen had done nothing to compromise their honour. This was ridiculous, since Moray had accused his half sister of complicity in murdering Darnley, and finally awoke Mary to the fact she had been abandoned. The treatment of the two key characters in the civil war which had followed Darnley’s murder were treated in such vastly different ways that while Elizabeth would sanction further talks to see if Mary could be returned to Scotland, the reality that she was now to be in prison in England. She was now moved from Bolton and pleasant aristocratic company to Tutbury Castle where the presence of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick, could not conceal the brutal fact Mary was now a prisoner with no time limit on the sentence.

Mary was therefore sent to Tutbury castle, arriving on February 3rd 1569 and finally could have no doubt that she was a prisoner, not a guest. Not suprisingly, she plotted to gain her release. She had already told Francis Knollys, her first jailer, at Bolton Castle in October 1568 though she hoped Elizabeth would back her as Scottish Queen if things went badly “as a desperate person I will use any attempts that may serve my purpose”, (Fraser p477). She kept her promise and now began to explore ways to escape.

Once it was clear she would not be supported in going back to Scotland she had appealed to the Spanish for help using her Catholic faith as a bargaining counter. She wrote in early January 1569 for a message to go to the Spanish Ambassador De Spes “Tell the Ambassador that if his master will help me, I shall be queen of England in three months, and Mass shall be said all over the country” (JB Black OUP p130). The timing was absurdly unrealistic with no understanding of how much support Catholicism had in England, the wish was very much the father to the thought, and Spain was unable to invade in 1569 anyway, but De Spes added her call to the conspiracy known as the Ridolfi plot. There was no doubt Mary had returned to the idea of taking Elizabeth’s throne which the Guise family had proposed when she was in France. This could be achieved in theory by marriage to the Duke of Norfolk. This was to be the major priority through 1569 though Elizabeth was to be understandably hostile.

Mary bowed to force majeure and abandoned any idea of returning to Scotland in the immediate future, though talks with Elizabeth’s ministers about some way out to allow her back home would continue for several years. But it was now clear to Mary once under the control of the Earl of Shrewsbury that she had made a disasterous miscalculation in putting herself in Elizabeth’s hands – and losing control of her fate. The reason why she took this fatal decision remain without any plausible answer. There is plenty of evidence that Mary Stuart was a charismatic figure with a sharp and creative mind skilled in writing poetry. She was undoubtedly clever. Her tragedy – unlike that of her great grandson Charles Stuart – was that she was clever, but not intelligent.

*In fact Mary hardly knew either of her Scottish husbands – Darnley she met only when she arrived in Scotland and he had arrived from England. Bothwell she had met in France briefly. Elizabeth 1 was wholly unknown to her save through letters..

Selected Bibliography

Doran Susan Elizabeth and Her Circle Oxford University Press 2015- 2018 ed)
Fraser Antonia Mary Queen Of Scots Phoenix 2002
Guy John My Heart is My Own Fourth Estate 2004, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS 2018
J B Black The Reign of Elizabeth – Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1959

5th April 2021