Where was Mary Queen of Scots imprisoned?
Mary Queen of Scots spent a total of nineteen years as a prisoner on the orders of Elizabeth I of England. Find out more about where she stayed during her years of incarceration, in our history guide.
Mary’s prisons weren’t prison cells in the way that we might imagine them. Because of her royal status, Mary was kept imprisoned in castles and manor houses around England and depending upon the instructions given to her jailor by Elizabeth I, was sometimes allowed to ride out into the countryside under escort but other times kept under strict house arrest, unable to receive visitors or send and receive letters.
Despite the outward splendour of these prisons, the damp and cold buildings eventually took their toll on Mary’s health and she suffered from severe joint pains towards the end of her life.
On 18 May 1568, Mary was taken into custody at Carlisle Castle after fleeing Scotland to seek protection from England, after her defeat at the Battle of Langside. This would be the last time that the castle was used as a royal prison. Mary was kept in the Warden’s Tower, on the south-east of the inner ward.
Whilst at Carlisle, Mary and her small entourage were under the care of Sir Francis Knollys, who allowed the queen to walk on the ‘Lady’s Walk’ at the front of the castle.
Just two months later Mary was moved to Bolton Castle in North Yorkshire. She must have felt she was heading south and nearer to her goal of meeting her cousin Elizabeth I but the pair were destined never to meet. It was whilst Mary was at Bolton Castle that the ‘casket letters’ were produced as evidence of her part in a plot against Queen Elizabeth.
Mary’s bedroom at Bolton Castle is still known as the Mary Queen of Scots room. At this stage in her imprisonment Mary still had around fifty servants and attendants including an embroiderer, secretary, doctor, apothecary and two cooks, as well as her personal maids.
In January 1569, at the height of a bitter winter, Mary was moved to Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, which was perhaps one of her most hated prisons. She arrived on 4 February after a long journey south and was placed under the protection of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick. The castle is close to the spa town of Buxton where Mary was allowed to take to the waters in an attempt to alleviate her joint pains.
It is here that Mary’s imprisonment really began, since this was the first of her prisons to be an inhospitable and unpleasant building; at the time Mary Queen of Scots arrived here the building was already falling into disrepair.
Close to Tutbury was Sheffield Castle, where Mary spent around a third of her life. This 300-year-old medieval castle was cold and damp, and after Mary had been implicated in the Ridolfi Plot to assassinate the queen of England, her jailor the Earl of Shrewsbury was ordered to guard her closely. The castle was damaged during the English Civil War and was demolished in the late 1640s.
Mary was moved to Fotheringay Castle in September 1586 and it was here where she would be executed on the orders of her cousin Elizabeth I. Fotheringay Castle fell into disrepair during the reign of Mary’s son James VI/I and was dismantled in the 1630s.
Mary Queen of Scots was 44 years old when she was executed. She is buried at Westminster Abbey.
Mary Queen of Scots image © Library of Congress, reproduction number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-07692; Bolton Castle © W.F.Millar; Carlisle © Neil Boothman; Tutbury Castle © Mike Searle.