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Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I: A tale of no winners

Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, were both descendants of Henry VII. Mary was the grand-daughter of Henry's eldest daughter Margaret, who had become Queen of Scots on her marriage to James IV of Scotland. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VII's son, Henry VIII.

Nostalgia for the Tudor kings and queens has often clouded the general understanding of the legitimacy of the Tudor family line both in its beginnings and also in specific issues of personal legitimacy. In a previous blog I introduced you to the shaky foundation on which Henry Tudor claimed the throne of England [READ THAT BLOG HERE]. In this, I will give you a quick introduction into how issues of legitimacy contributed to the story of cousins Elizabeth and Mary.

When Mary became Queen at only 6 days old Scotland held its breath for trouble. Not only was their sovereign an infant but even worse, female. There were however, no concerns over her legitimacy. Such security would not be a feature for Elizabeth. The marriage of her parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was widely considered to be invalid. Technically he was still married, under the law of the land, to Katherine of Aragon when he married the already pregnant Anne.

Until I went beyond being a mere history fan and into the realms of questioning received wisdom I had only ever seen Mary, Queen of Scots, from an English perspective from English sources. Mary, as merely part of Elizabeth's story, played the part of foreign threat to Elizabeth's throne as if she were a usurper to the position of one of our greatest monarchs.

The women are compared to one another; the Virgin vs Mother, Spinster vs 3 time Wife, Chaste vs Sexual, Wedded to her Country vs Abandoned her Country and, of course, Protestant vs Catholic. In almost all the comparisons it is clear that Elizabeth should appear to us superior to her cousin. This belies not only the true, complex and fascinating character of Mary but also her legitimate claim to Elizabeth's throne and her justifiable endeavour to secure her formal place in the succession to the childless Elizabeth.

Perhaps this would have been possible had Mary not been on English soil. Mary fled to England in 1567 after being implicated in the murder of her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and being forced to abdicate her throne in favour of her infant son, James.As a Catholic, direct descendent of Henry VII and with a legitimate claim to the English throne, her existence was a persistent threat to Elizabeth as she provided the perfect figurehead for Catholic uprisings.

Mary was not an entirely innocent party in plots against Elizabeth and her involvement ultimately led to her execution on 8th February 1587 at Fotheringay Castle. This followed much procrastination from Elizabeth who felt understandably uncomfortable with signing the death warrant of a fellow monarch and blood relative. Mary met her end with dignified grace, becoming a martyr for her faith and somewhat elevated in death within the hearts and minds of the people. In contrast, Elizabeth met news of Mary's death with initial calm followed by uncontrolled panic and fear. She ranted at her advisers, blaming everyone but herself for Mary's death a thing, she claimed, she had never intended.

By the time of Mary's execution she had been a captive in England for 20 years. During this time she had often pleaded for an audience with Elizabeth but the cousins, forever tied together in history, never met.


- Philippa Brewell

History Writer and History Tour Creator


Calling all Tudor Lovers who want to immerse themselves in the ultimate Tudor experience!


Sources and Further Reading

Elizabeth & Mary: United in Blood Divided by Ambition. by Jane Dunn

Mary Queen of Scots: A study in failure. by Jenny Wormald

BBC History Magazine. Christmas 2015. 'Elizabeth and Mary'

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. Available on Audible.

Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon's Marriage

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