01 January 2022
Historian David Templeman tells the story of the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots in Sheffield Castle - the 'wretched prison' where she spent almost a third of her life.
The history of Sheffield is clearly defined by being the powerhouse of industry during the industrial revolution. From steel to mining, from cutlery to engineering, Sheffield was a mass of heavy industry from the late 19th century onwards.
What is little known is that Sheffield had a very important piece of English and European history thrust upon it in the 16th century. Sheffield became the main place of confinement for the English captivity of Mary Queen of Scots. She would spend almost a third of her life, moving between imprisonment in the Castle and Manor Lodge (pictured below).
Years of imprisonment
Mary arrived at Sheffield Castle on 28 November 1570, aged 27, having travelled from Chatsworth in Derbyshire. Little did anyone know that it would be 14 long years before Mary would leave Sheffield. Sheffield Castle would always be her main prison as it was an extremely secure building, being a 300-year-old medieval castle, built on solid bedrock and surrounded by the Rivers Don and Sheaf one side, moat and ditch on the other.
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After being spared the axe after the Ridolfi plot to assassinate Elizabeth I of England (in 1572), Mary’s keeper, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury implemented more severe restrictions on her imprisonment. This severe confinement would go on for year in, year out, with only brief remission periods, much to the detriment of Mary’s health.
Sheffield Castle was smelly, cold, damp and not a pleasant place to be in such close confinement. Mary’s health would suffer through ailments such as rheumatism and arthritis as the years took their toll.
Mary was very closely guarded at Sheffield Castle and disliked the guards intensely, especially as they changed shifts at 5 am and beat their drums very close to her bedroom door.
Mary commenced her visits to the new Sheffield Manor (just two miles from the Castle) in April 1573. From this date, Sheffield Manor (Lodge) was used for several months at a time every year until 1584 with the exception of 1575. Mary and her entourage would visit other places for several weeks at a time, whilst based at Sheffield, such as Chatsworth, Buxton and Worksop Manor. These were merely stopping off places as they would always return to base in Sheffield either at the Castle or the Manor.
In captivity, Mary’s meals were sixteen-course meals, four times a day, which were served buffet style with a choice of fish, meat, venison, rabbit etc. The cost of keeping Mary was immense and Shrewsbury’s allowance was totally inadequate, with even his small agreed sum paid infrequently.
A legendary beauty
Mary was almost six feet tall and was considered one of the great beauties of Europe. She had a flawless complexion, probably helped by her allowance of two barrels of white wine per month. As well as drinking it she also bathed and washed in wine.
Mary’s everyday life was very restricted during her Sheffield confinement. She read books and wrote many letters. It has been calculated she wrote over 2,000 letters in her captivity, and this figure does not include the intrigue letters she wrote at various points during her imprisonment.
Her main occupation was embroidery and with Bess of Hardwick (Shrewsbury’s wife), they spent many hours doing intricate work with the needle. Mary was very keen on birds and dogs and she set up an aviary at Sheffield which contained exotic birds such as Barbary fowl, Turtle doves and partridges. However, dogs were her favourite animals and she kept dogs of various sizes.
Over the years, Mary’s health deteriorated, mainly due to her “wretched prison” of Sheffield Castle. Due to lack of exercise and fresh air, she aged prematurely and by the time she left Sheffield in 1584, she could barely walk.
She wore a different wig on alternate days, as without if she would have looked like an old lady, with thin, wispy grey hair. She was only 42.
After leaving Sheffield in 1584, Mary became embroiled in the Babington plot and was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587, just over two years after leaving Sheffield.
David Templeman is the author of Mary Queen of Scots: The Captive Queen in England, which tells the story of Mary's years of imprisonment in England, on the orders of Elizabeth I. To order the book, visit the Friends of Sheffield Manor Lodge website.
Originally written December 2016. Revised July 2022.
(Sheffield Manor Lodge image copyright Brian Ward)