08/08/2017
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Acquit? How Mary Queen of Scots was framed

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Was Mary Queen of Scots guilty of the murder of her husband Lord Darnley? Author Donald Smith believes it's time to take a new look at the case against the Stewart queen and restore her to her rightful place in Scotland's story.

500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation began a trail of events that led in time to the overthrow and then execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The problem was that Scotland had not expected Mary to return from France where she was married to the Dauphin Francois, who would succeed to one of Europe’s most glittering thrones.

Queen regent Marie de Guise

Scotland was ruled meanwhile in the French interest by Mary’s mother, Marie de Guise, as Queen Regent. Despite Marie’s considerable abilities, the Regency was a thankless task. As ever during an interregnum, the Scottish nobility sought to fill the power vacuum. Moreover, the landowners and merchants were divided on questions of religion as well as politics.

The deciding factor however was not John Knox, who was brought back from exile in Geneva to head the Protestant charge, but Mary’s half-brother James Stewart, later Earl of Moray. He coveted the throne and in the expectation that Mary would remain in France, he overthrew the now dying Marie de Guise and secured the power of regency, attracting Protestants as well as support from many of the nobility, who aimed to take over church lands.

Changing times

Then, dramatically, the recently crowned King Francois died from an ear infection. The whole scenario was changed and Mary returned in 1561 to claim her own crown as Queen of Scots. But she was now the Roman Catholic Queen of an officially Protestant country.

Also, ever a family person, she leaned on her brother James for support and guidance, underestimating till too late his personal ambition. In addition, her expectation of support from her cousin Elizabeth I of England also proved misplaced, since Mary’s position as heir to the childless Elizabeth made her a threat in that quarter also.

The odds were stacked against Mary, and she made mistakes, but overall, she proved courageous, willing to compromise and in times of danger resolute.  Was she complicit in the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley though, or guilty of conducting an adulterous affair with the Earl of Bothwell whom she subsequently married? Those were the charges laid against her and used to usurp her throne and imprison her in England.

Guilty of murder?

For centuries, Mary’s reputation has been tainted by these accusations. Was she guilty? Absolutely not. That lurid scenario, matching the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was the inspired creation of James Stewart and his fellow plotters, notably playwright turned propagandist George Buchanan. But the power of that fiction brought her down as intended. 

Yet the only evidence ever brought against Mary is obviously forged. In Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, it’s time to look again at the case for Mary Queen of Scots, and restore her to her rightful place in Scotland’s story.

 Donald Smith is the author of Ballad of the Five Marys, a historical novel exploring the lives of Mary and her closest female associates.

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