In the times of Tudor rule in England there were two rival Queens, both with claims to the throne. The first was Elizabeth I, Queen of England and daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The second was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and the great niece of Henry VIII (Mary’s grandmother was Henry’s elder sister Margaret Tudor who became Queen of Scotland upon her marriage to James IV).
These two cousins had a rivalry that lasted from the time Elizabeth took the throne (in 1558 after the death of her sister Mary I) until Mary Queen of Scots was executed. Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland at just six days old when her father James V died of wounds received on a battle field. For Elizabeth the crown was hard won, she was the daughter of a marriage that was never seen as legitimate by the Catholics in England. Elizabeth also dealt with questions to her legitimacy that were raised by her own father, as he had divorced her mother before she was executed. In Tudor times divorce automatically made any children born of that marriage illegitimate. Henry VIII would go on to write a succession policy that included Elizabeth as the third in line after her brother and sister. She managed to outlive both, survive the attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne prior to Mary, and endure being locked in the Tower of London by her sister!
Mary Stuart spent her formative years in the French court as the betrothed fiancee of Francois, the Dauphin of France. Mary was married to the Dauphin when she was sixteen and he was fifteen, and they would become King and Queen consort of France for a short time. Mary would be widowed and return to her native Scotland at age eighteen, after having spent thirteen long years in France. She was seen as more French than Scottish, and she did prefer the French language above all others (like her cousin Elizabeth she knew six in total). She also preferred the French spelling of her name (using Stuart instead of the Scottish Stewart) and had a French mother, Marie de Guise.
Mary had tried to lay claim to the English throne early on, even before the death of Mary I, and she was supported by the Catholics in England and the Catholic Church in Rome. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and they saw her as a bastard, so it is unsurprising that the Catholic nobles would not want her in power. Mary did not get far into her claim on the throne before having to leave for Scotland. When she arrived in her homeland she was welcomed coldly into a country that was taken over by Protestants who did not want a Catholic Queen, or a Queen at all. John Knox repeatedly tried to have her power stripped and to make a fool of her.
It is in this precarious circumstance that saw Mary attempt to find a second husband. She of course succeeded in marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. They were half-first cousins, they shared a grandmother in Margaret Tudor through different marriages of hers. The marriage of cousins was not uncommon amongst royal unions. In this particular case Mary was strengthening her own claim to the throne of England by marrying a man that also had a blood claim. Mary was at first very attracted and enamored with Lord Darnley, but his alcoholism and gambling (as well as his violent nature and philandering) quickly soured the relationship. Yet Mary had what she needed from her marriage, she was pregnant with an heir to the throne. A son, James, was born and thus Mary had succeeded in providing the most important thing a Queen could for her country, an heir.
An heir to the throne was something Elizabeth I could never provide, especially given her decision never to marry and instead to be married to her country. Elizabeth was not without love, she had a lover in the form of Robert Dudley. Now there is much debate over whether the relationship with Dudley was ever consummated. I believe that is was, it is unrealistic to believe that a young beautiful queen would not embrace her sexuality. She knew she could not become pregnant, especially given that Robert was married to Amy Robsart Dudley. It is known that royals and nobles of this era did know something about contraception, it was rudimentary at best, but it could be effective. There have been some who go as far as to say Elizabeth had a child by Robert that was secreted away, and this was covered by one of her many extended illnesses. I think this is vaguely plausible, but it is a bit of a stretch. Her decision over whether she could ever marry Dudley was taken out of her hands when his wife died after a fall down a flight of stairs. Robert was not there when it happened, but he was accused of her murder in order to get her out of the way so he could marry Elizabeth. The irony of this is that the scandal is the one thing that prevented them from ever marrying. Robert was acquitted of all charges, but his name remained tainted by scandal. He would eventually go on to marry Elizabeth’s cousin Lettice Knolleys (who looked a great deal like her).
After the birth of James, Mary was tiring rapidly of her husband. He was growing more bitter and violent and was trying to usurp her crown. During her pregnancy Darnley had gone so far as to kill her good friend and secretary David Rizzio right in front of her eyes. This was something that could have caused a miscarriage of the royal heir, given the stress, but it was lucky it did not. James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell, had become a great protector of the Scottish Queen. It is believed he is the one that helmed the murder of Lord Darnley, in order to protect Mary, and of course likely to marry her. Bothwell would, of course, go on to marry Mary not long after Darnley’s death. It was seen as very inappropriate to marry so quickly, and there were even some who said Bothwell raped her and she had no choice but to marry him (to protect her name and status). I think it is much more likely that she ran away and married him for love, and that she was very happy to be rid of an abusive crazy husband. These acts would lead to her having to step down from her throne. The crown would pass to her six month old son, who was coronated James VI.
Mary was forced to leave Scotland, and attempted to take shelter in England. But Elizabeth could not risk Mary rallying an army of Catholic nobles to her cause to be crowned Queen of England. Instead Mary was taken prisoner and housed in many castles for eighteen years. There was at least one uprising that attempted to free Mary in order to have her replace Elizabeth. After eighteen years in captivity Elizabeth signed the death warrant for her rival queen.
Mary Queen of Scots was executed on February 8th of 1587, aged 44 years, and she wore red to her beheading. Red was the color of Catholic martyrs, and that is exactly what Mary believed herself to be! Elizabeth would later say she signed to death warrant accidentally, as her advisors had mixed it in with other papers, and she seemed to truly feel guilty over the regicide committed in her name. Whether she meant to sign the death warrant or not, I truly believe that she did not take the action lightly, after all she lost her mother to execution.
After the execution of Mary Queen of Scots Elizabeth continued to rule England. Elizabeth inspired her soldiers and sailors with her famous Tilbury speech, and after that won a victory against the Spanish Armada. In her latter years it is believed she began suffering from a form of dementia, but whether this is true or not can never be known. What is documented is an increase in her paranoia as she came close to the end of her life.
Elizabeth I died on March 24th 1603 at age 69 (she would have turned 70 in September). With her death the Elizabethan Age and the Tudor Dynasty came to an end. She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, Mary Stuart’s son. James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and was the first monarch to reign over a combined kingdom.
Both of these rival queens are remembered today as inspiring examples of female rule at a time when woman were seemed as too weak of body and spirit to reign!
Below are a list of books, movies, and television shows to help quench you thirst for information on these powerful women.
- The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir
- Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser
- The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court by Anna Whitelock
- Mary Stuart by Stefan Zweig
- Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn
- Reign (2013-2017) ~TV show
- Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot (2004)~TV miniseries
- Queens (2016-2017) ~TV miniseries
- Elizabeth (1998) ~Movie
- Elizabeth The Golden Age (2007) ~Movie
- Elizabeth I (2005) ~TV miniseries
- The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) ~Movie
- The Virgin Queen (1955) ~Movie
- The Virgin Queen (2005) ~TV miniseries
- Mary Queen of Scots (1971) ~Movie
- Elizabeth R (1971) ~TV miniseries
- Mary Queen of Scots (2018) ~Movie
- Mary of Scotland (1936) ~Movie