top of page

Elizabeth’s Cousin: Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots


Though they were cousins, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots never met. Ultimately, Mary was a threat to Elizabeth’s throne. Mary was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII (the elder child of Henry VIII’s sister) and next in line to the throne after Henry VIII’s children. Many Catholics believed Elizabeth to be illegitimate, as she was the product of Henry VIII’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn. Mary had support from Catholics in both Scotland and England.

In 1567 when Mary was 24 years old, she was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne after marrying the man who had murdered her second husband and cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary was in dire need of help. In 1568, she wrote to Elizabeth requesting assistance. She crossed the border into England before receiving a response from the Queen and was quickly taken into custody. She never regained her freedom.

While under house arrest in England for 18 years, Mary lived at several castles, some more comfortable than others: Bolton, Carlisle, Tutbury, Sheffield and Fotherington. She was allowed to have several ladies-in-waiting with her during her imprisonment. While under this “house arrest”, Mary was implicated in taking part in three separate plots to assassinate Elizabeth.

This octagonal stair turret once gave access to the tower where Mary stayed while at Carlisle Castle

The Ridolfi Plot (1571): Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian banker, planned to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary Queen. He had the support of King Philip II of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk, and Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The plot was uncovered by Elizabeth's chief advisor, William Cecil.

The Throckmorton Plot (1583): The Throckmorton Plot involved a plan to encourage a popular uprising among English Catholic nobles in the north of England. This plot was uncovered by Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth, and his network of spies. Francis Throckmorton was arrested for carrying secret correspondence to Mary. He confessed and incriminated her.

The Babbington Plot (1586): The Babington Plot was introduced by a Roman Catholic nobleman named Anthony Babbington, who used coded messages to communicate with Mary. The plot and Mary’s involvement in it were the basis for the treason charges made against her and which led to her execution.

In August, 1586, Walshingham’s network of spies intercepted a response from Mary to Babbington and decoded it. Babbington was arrested and confessed. Mary was arrested several days later. She was taken to Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire, and her possessions were seized.

Ruins of Fotheringay Castle

On October 14, 1586, Mary’s trial began at Fotheringay. At first refusing to appear before Elizabeth’s commission, she arrived in front of them at 9:00 am. She wore a black velvet gown and a white cambric cap and veil.

Mary argued against the legitimacy of the court proceedings. She was not allowed access to legal representation or to call any witnesses in her defense. She was also not permitted to examine any of the documents being used against her.

"Mary: I knew not Babington. I never received any letters from him, nor wrote any to him. I never plotted the destruction of the Queen. If you want to prove it, then produce my letters signed with my own hand.

Counsel: But we have evidence of letters between you and Babington.

Mary: If so, why do you not produce them? I have the right to demand to see the originals and copies side by side. It is quite possible that my ciphers have been tampered with by my enemies.

Ciphers used by Mary, Queen of Scots

Evidence against Mary included a confession from Babbington, who pled guilty at his own trial and a deciphered transcript of Mary’s reply to Babbington.

"The majesty and safety of all princes falleth to the ground if they depend upon the writings and testimony of their secretaries... I am not to be convicted except by mine own word or writing."

Mary’s demand to be heard in front of Queen Elizabeth or Parliament went unheeded. On October 25, the commission found Mary guilty of treason. Elizabeth, eager to safeguard her throne but unwilling to call for the death of a fellow Queen, was reluctant to sign a warrant of execution.

She was nearly ready by the beginning of February, 1587. After signing and ripping up a first warrant, she signed a second warrant that was quickly dispatched to Fatherington Castle by Elizabeth’s Privy Council and William Cecil. Elizabeth was furious that this was done without her knowledge, as she had asked that the warrant be held undelivered for an undetermined amount of time.

On February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed in the Great Hall at Fatherington Castle. She was accompanied by two witnesses and two servants. She wore no outer garments and was blindfolded. Before she died, she commended her spirit to God.

Mary’s execution took a horrible turn. It took three blows of the axe to sever Mary’s head. After her execution, Mary’s “will” was read which provided for “provisions for faithful servants”.

A contemporary account by Robert Wynkfield tells of finding Mary’s little dog hiding under the skirts of her corpse. He was washed of Mary’s blood, but died several days later, perhaps in sorrow for his mistress. Any items with her blood on them were burned. The sheriff and his men carried her to a great chamber in the castle to be embalmed.

Mary was buried at Petersborough Castle in Cambridgshire, England. Her body was exhumed by her son, James I, in October 1612 and reburied in the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey-across the aisle from her cousin Elizabeth.

A copy of Mary’s effigy

Image courtesy of

Do you think Mary was a real threat to Elizabeth’s throne?

What do you think might had happened if Mary and Elizabeth had met? If Elizabeth had agreed to help Mary?


“Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart Parallel Timelines” in Sydney Theatre Co. Magazine, posted 21 Dec 2018, by


Guy, John. My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Harpercollins, 2004.


1 Comment

C.Marie B
C.Marie B
May 14

I believe she would have tried it again. And so did the people that were around Elizabeth. They needed to make sure Mary didn't get another chance to try to have Elizabeth. assassinated. I wouldn't put anything past Mary to try and do Elizabeth harm if they had met face-to-face. That's my take on it if all of the information that we were given in this article were true about her.

Elizabeth treated her like family. She gave her 3 castles servants. Ladies in waiting the whole think the woman had a screw loose. I really do, but the people in the Catholic Church were behind Elizabeth being The true queen of englandThe true Queen of England.




Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page