The daughter of debate – Mary Queen of Scots at Tutbury Castle

01 January 2021
Tutbury Castle
Lesley Smith, curator at Tutbury Castle, tells the fascinating story of the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots at this Staffordshire castle, perhaps her most hated prison.

One day in March 1569 a startlingly beautiful woman arrived at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire. She had just been told that on entering the castle that it would be her first English prison and so distraught was the woman that she vomited black blood at the John of Gaunt Gateway.

Witnesses then describe how the queen had to be lifted from her horse and part-carried to apartments already prepared for her. This woman was Mary Queen of Scots and she had been queen of two nations -  Scotland and France - before she was twenty summers.

QUICK LINK: David Templeman 'captive queen' talk for History Scotland, 5 July 2022, book your place now!

Mary’s red-haired, cream-skinned beauty had apparently not been marred by her being ill and people must have been astonished at the sight of her feminine majesty just as they had been throughout her whole adult life whenever she was seen for the first time.

Mary’s arrival in England

Mary Queen of Scots had actually arrived in England the year before, having fled Scotland after losing the battle of Langside following escape from her bitter captivity on Loch Leven where she had been locked up by her own people. The place where she had also miscarried twins one dark night and very nearly died from shock and loss of blood.

Mary had arrived in the English Lake District and cast herself upon the mercy of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and been ‘sheltered’ in Carlisle Castle, Bolton and Sheffield before slowly making her way to Tutbury Castle. This slow progress had enabled Elizabeth to take the pulse of every royal house in Europe to ensure there would not be war if she locked up the Queen she described as ‘Scotch’. It seemed from the responses that there would not be war, or even very much interest in rescuing Mary.

Elizabeth had reason to be concerned about having this captive in her lands. Mary was her cousin as her grandmother Margaret was sister to King Henry the VIII so she had direct Tudor blood in her veins. Mary had never been declared a bastard, whilst Elizabeth had by her own father and despite this being overturned legally by Parliament in time, the taint still sat firmly on Elizabeth; certainly according to the Catholic royal houses of Europe who had technically never accepted the Anne Boleyn marriage stating she was just a mistress and Katherine of Aragon still lawful queen whilst she lived. 

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Elizabeth versus Mary

The Queen of Scots was nine years younger than Elizabeth, prepared to marry, and had borne a living son, James, with Tudor blood in his veins as well as the blood of the royal house of Stewart. Mary was beautiful with a ‘soft wit clouded with mildness’ and to cap all these queenly quality she was also 5'11" - probably the tallest woman in Europe.

She was every inch a queen and her red hair was magnificent, as well as being evidence of the royal houses of Stewart and Tudor. These intoxicating ingredients all made Mary Queen of Scots a very real heir to the English throne and to most Catholics, the rightful queen of England.

However, Mary was under a dark cloud when she arrived at the gates of Tutbury. Many believed she was directly implicated in the murder of her second husband Darnley so she could quickly marry her third husband, Bothwell who she claimed had raped her and so she had to marry him of honour for he had knowledge of her body.

It is not proved whether she helped plot Darnley's murder or had any knowledge of it and there is some doubt whether the rape happened, but there is no doubt she had formed a relationship with Bothwell months before all of these dramatic events. 

The ensuing scandal caused her to lose her kingdom and two battles, Carberry Hill and Langside. Her abdication in favour of her baby son under Regency had been forced upon her the night she miscarried her twins. Scurrilous leaflets of her were printed and distributed showing her as a crowned mermaid, a prostitute.

Most loathed prison

This dark star, this ‘daughter of debate’ was not even 27 when she arrived at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, England. Tutbury was the prison she above all others, she stayed in the castle four times; her final stay here lasted eleven months and this is when she received the Babington plot letters wrapped around beer barrel bungs.

The young Derbyshire Catholic man involved in the plot was high born, but elements of the plan were reckless and as a result of this plot, Mary lost her life on the block at Fotheringay castle on 8 February 1587.

She had been imprisoned for nearly nineteen years being moved regularly backwards and forwards between the same group of prisons to stop sedition or sympathy (or both) developing in an area.

Mary complained that the great royal castle of Tutbury had stinking privies and that one set of her apartments allowed ‘the winds and injuries of heaven’ to pour down on her. The gardens were apparently fit only for ‘pigs’.  All this may have been true, but Tutbury also represented the realisation by Mary properly that she was not making her way to London where she would be met lovingly by her cousin Elizabeth and given money and troops to get her kingdom back.

The lone queen

There is a tantalizing glimpse of Mary at Tutbury from an important and highly respected source, Nicholas White. White worked with William Cecil, Elizabeth's greatest councillor and it is known that Elizabeth at 25 when just come to the throne gave William Cecil the right to ‘tell me what I don't want to hear’ so flattery was not essential, but the truth was.

White came to Tutbury Castle in 1569 and said Mary spoke with a soft lowland Scots accent - not a French accent although French was the language she spoke and wrote most frequently, it seems from extant documents.

There were some lacklustre plots but actually Mary was abandoned by the royal houses of Europe and when she secretly attempted to marry the Duke of Norfolk, England's leading catholic peer (and still is). When Elizabeth discovered this, she chopped off his head which put a prompt end to that idea.

Mary’s end

There was a last kingdom waiting for Mary Queen of Scots, it was the kingdom of heaven. Ironically, Mary is now viewed by many as a saintly creature who did no wrong, which is not the way to understand a real woman with a real life who made some dreadful mistakes, but despite these was the mother of a future king of Scotland and England.

On 24 March 1603 at approximately 1.30am. Queen Elizabeth of England was able to give a sign with her hand as she was unable to speak. She touched her head to show where the crown should be when the name James of Scotland (Mary’s son) was given amongst a group of potential next monarchs for England.

That movement made peace between Scotland and England and peace between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary, who had been dead for all those years. They had never met despite the TV dramas. Or at least the evidence of a meeting isn't there… yet.

Lesley Smith has been Curator of Tutbury castle in for 18 years and has carried out much research on the life and times of Mary Queen of Scots. Lesley is a specialist in 16th century medicine, particularly women's medicine. She holds ad M.Phil, and honorary masters degree and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (Scot). 

She has appeared frequently on TV screens, in over 120 programmes such as "The One Show", "This Morning" and "The Worst Jobs in History" to name but a few. 

Lesley once made a full front page in "The Daily Record" as Mary Queen of Scots and in a number of national newspapers across Great Britain. She appears all over the UK and abroad giving monologues in character in spectacular costumes, including an £8,000 version of a Mary Queen of Scots gown.

To find out when you can see Lesley at Tutbury Castle or for an appearance tel:  01283 812129 or see the Tutbury Castle website; email

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