Mary, Queen of Scots, by unknown artist, ca. 1560 (National Portrait Gallery, London)
On Feb. 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed for treason on the orders of her English cousin, Elizabeth I. It was a tragic end to a turbulent life.
Mary became Queen of Scots when she was less than a week old, on the death of her father, James, in December 1542. When she was barely out of the cradle, her great uncle Henry VIII made an unsuccessful attempt to create an alliance between England and Scotland by proposing that Mary should be the future wife of his young son Edward. Trouble erupted between England and Scotland, and Mary was sent into exile at the French court. At age 17, she married Francis, 15, son of the King of France, who died two years later. Returning to Scotland, she married her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. An arrogant man with many enemies, Darnley was assassinated in dramatic fashion. When Mary’s quick marriage to one of Darnley’s accused assassins, the Earl of Bothwell, led to speculation that she was part of the murder plot, she fled to England. But Queen Elizabeth, fearing Mary might act on her claim to the English throne, imprisoned her for 20 years. When she was named as a co-conspirator in a plot to kill Elizabeth, Mary’s next move was to be her last: the gallows.
Historian Jennifer Paxton explores Mary’s life for an answer to one of history’s enduring questions: Was Mary a martyr or a failed conspirator? Paxton is a clinical assistant professor of history and director of the University Honor Program at The Catholic University of America.
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