Could Mary Queen of Scots Have Kept Her Throne?

After a brief and tumultuous reign on seven years (1561-1567), Mary Queen of Scots was defeated by a rebel army led by her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, at the Battle of Langside in 1568 and fled to England for protection from Queen Elizabeth. In response to her cousin’s distress, Elizabeth had Mary locked up for the rest of her life, only to have her beheaded in 1587.

To us, Mary’s story reads like a sad tale of unfortunate inevitabilities, like a modern Oedipus, in which we lament that fate seemed set against Mary, poised to drag such a beautiful and promising young queen down to destruction. And yet, we who have the gift of four and half centuries of retrospection tend to forget that Mary’s fate was the result of many free-will choices, decisions that could have led one way or another. Mary, though a pious Catholic and renowned for her beauty, was notoriously impetuous, impulsive, and generally lacked the ability to foresee the consequences of her actions. Had she taken other paths, it is conceivable she could have retained her throne, and the history of England and Scotland unfolded much differently.

In this essay we will count down nine decisions Mary could have made differently in order to keep her throne; nine choices Mary made which either should have been made differently, or perhaps not made at all. It is a game of historical speculation, but it is an interesting one, and I think it contains valuable lessons for all those who would learn about the pitfalls of leadership. A warning before we go ahead, though—to make sense of these nine decisions, this article presupposes basic knowledge of the events of Mary’s life and the major characters that she was involved with (Rizzio, Darnley, Bothwell, etc.).

Also, the essay will only be considering those things Mary could have done prior to her imprisonment in England. After 1568,  when she falls into Elizabeth’s clutches, I consider Mary’s real opportunity for free action to be over, so I am not here concerned with evaluating the pros and cons of the various plots to free Mary that sprung up during her captivity. We are looking only at what she could have done to stave off that captivity in the first place by maintaining her crown, or at least her freedom.

9. More Severity With Her Lords

In general, Mary was too clement with individuals who had merited the punishment demanded by law. Mary endured two rebellions in her brief reign prior to the one that finally ousted her. In both rebellions, she pardoned nobles who had openly fought against her and even restored them to their lands. Though treason would have merited death, and Mary would have been justified in executing these rebels, even a permanent exile would have been sufficient. Victorious over these first two revolts, she ought to have bestowed the forfeited lands on her most powerful allies and been more severe with the rebel leaders that fell into her hands. Many of the rebels she pardoned would later fight against her again at Carberry Hill and Langside. In this, Mary had the same failing as Julius Caesar—she thought she could win rebels’ admiration by clemency when in reality such clemency only bred contempt.

8. Not Issue the 1561 Edict of Toleration

Scotland had become a Protestant kingdom only a few years prior to Mary’s ascension and was still rife with latent religious discord. Mary was understandably worried about the possibility of this dissension turning into open warfare: Protestants feared a forced Catholic restoration, as had occurred under Mary Tudor in England, while many Catholics lived in fear of John Knox’s “Kirk” and would perhaps have resorted to violence had Mary encouraged them. Seeking to not exacerbate this division among her people (and viewing the experiment of forced restoration under Mary Tudor as a failure), Mary issued her an edict of general toleration in 1561 shortly after returning to Scotland. This edict stated that she would leave the religion of Scotland as she found it (Protestant), provided that she and her court were allowed to maintain their practice of Catholicism in private without molestation.

Though Mary hoped to her edict would bring peace, it substantially weakened her position. It did not win her the respect of the Protestant faction because she herself did not convert, and she continued to scandalize the Protestant nobles by her “papist” rituals. It also alienated the Catholic nobility, who were hoping for some legal redress of their situation under Mary, and whose edict of toleration basically let them know that she was not planning to do anything to give public support to the Catholic cause. Thus she failed to win the goodwill of her enemies and undercut the strength of her would-be supporters, greatly weakening her position at the get go. A better strategy to maintain peace would have been to tell the Protestant nobles that she had “no immediate plans” to reintroduce Catholicism but without committing to that course, all the while maintaining strong ties with the Catholic nobles. In short, she should have adopted a policy closer to that which Elizabeth used when dealing with suitors—keeping all her options open. If the Catholic cause could be strengthened over the years, she could have had freedom to move more towards a Catholic restoration; if not, things could not have gone any worse than they actually did.

7. Restrained Herself from Rushing to Bothwell’s Side

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

Even prior to the death of her second husband Lord Darnley, it was widely rumored that Mary was in love with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. In 1566, after Bothwell was wounded in a skirmish with some border raiders, Mary left her court at Jedburgh Castle and rode non-stop for four days to be by the side of the wounded Earl. It has been suggested that Mary was already planning on traveling to Bothwell’s Hermitage Castle to attend to other official business, but her apparently rushed flight to be by his side was later used as evidence against her to suggest that she was already in love with Bothwell prior to Darnley’s death. Even if Mary’s flight to Bothwell’s side was innocent, it did not look good for her and only gave ammunition to her opponents. Upon hearing of Bothwell’s injuries, she ought to have sent her regards by a courier or messenger of the court in a much more official manner while remaining herself at her husband’s side; riding horseback non-stop for four days to personally attend to Bothwell’s wounds could not but send the wrong message. And it did.

6. Kept David Rizzo at a Distance

The constant presence of the Italian David Rizzio in Mary’s court was a source of irritation to her nobles, who regarded the Italian as a meddling foreigner at best and a papist spy at worse. It might be said that Mary’s position would have been much stronger had she not taken Rizzio into her court at all, but what really proved disastrous for her was not Rizzio’s presence but his privileged access to the Queen. He was often the only male permitted in her chambers, where he attended on her alongside her personal attendants. He ministered to her behind closed doors and held frequent private audiences with Mary, although he never became a “gatekeeper” of the William Cecil or Aelius Sejanus sort. It was this privileged, private access, however, that gave rise to all sorts of conspiracies about what Rizzio and Mary were doing in private. Hatching papist plots? This was the favored theory of Mary’s Protestant nobles. Engaging in adulterous intercourse? Mary’s husband, Lord Darnely, was reputedly driven to rage by the thought of a Mary-Rizzio affair. It was Darnley’s personal envy of Rizzio and the suspicion in which he was held by the Protestant nobles that led to the brazen murder of Rizzio in front of Mary on March 9, 1566.

Mary was not wrong for taking a man as skilled as Rizzio into her court, and by all accounts, he was mainly engaged in translating documents for her and handling her foreign correspondence, being one of the few men of her court who could speak English, Scots, French and Italian. But she did make a serious prudential error in keeping such familiar company with the man and allowing him privileged access to her presence. Nothing breeds envy in the hearts of courtiers like a privileged favorite, and the whole court rejoices in their fall. Mary ought to have retained Rizzio but kept him at arm’s length and certainly ought never to have allowed him personal access to her chambers. But, alas, she did so, and it resulted in his murder, which precipitated the whole series of events that led to the loss of the kingdom. Once the nobles realized they could get away with murdering a favorite of the Queen in her very presence, whatever authority she still thought to command over them was empty.

5. Retained Custody of Prince James

By tradition, after Mary gave birth to James VI (also James I of England), the infant was entrusted to the care of the Erskine family, who had just been elevated to the lordship of Mar by Mary in 1565. John Erskine, 17th Earl of Mar, had looked after Mary when she was young and had even cared for Mary’s father, James V. Thus it was that shortly after James’s birth in 1566, Mary gave him over to Erskine to be raised and taught. Erskine was a Protestant (though not overly committed), but the real problem was that, as things got rough for Mary, her largest bargaining chip, her royal son, who stood in line to inherit the thrones of England and Scotland, was in the hands of her Protestant enemies. When Mary came out to engage the rebellious Protestant lords at the Battle of Carberry Hill in 1567, they brought the infant James out to the battle and laid him to rest in a crib at the height of a hill in Mary’s sight, something that she was distraught over. Though Erskine seemed to have treated James well, the intention of the nobles was to push Mary aside in favor of young James, whom they could dominate because they had him under their control. Later, after he was older and his mother was imprisoned in Scotland, James was taught to think of his mother as a murderess and a whore and instilled with contempt for her person. Had Mary retained James in her personal custody, she not only would have been able to prevent this brainwashing, but more importantly, would have had a lot more bargaining power in her affairs with the lords. By handing him over to a Protestant noble, she gave this power away.

It is not certain how that would have affected things; it could have made Mary that much more of a threat to the nobles if she had James in her custody. But it could have also meant a corresponding loss in the influence of her nobles. At least she would have deprived them of a considerable bargaining chip.

4. Rethink the Marriage to Bothwell

Here we enter into raw speculation, for we do not know for sure the true relationship between Bothwell and Mary. Little more than a week after Bothwell was acquitted of the murder of Darnley, Mary was returning to Edinburgh from visiting her son James when Bothwell abducted her on the road and took her away to Dunbar Castle, ostensibly to “protect” her from a possible revolt. While at Dunbar, Bothwell allegedly raped her. We say allegedly, because it is possible that Mary was in on this plot, and that the kidnapping and rape was a feint in order to compel Mary to wed Bothwell (Scottish law demanded that the dishonor of a rape could only be rectified by marriage; a rape, either real or staged, would secure Bothwell’s marriage to Mary despite any opposition). Shortly after the rape on April 24th, 1567, Mary elevated Bothwell to Duke of Orkney and then wed him on May 24th. This irrevocably split the kingdom into two camps, since Bothwell was widely suspected of Darnley’s murder; Protestants and Catholics alike were appalled that Mary would marry the man accused of murdering her husband and (allegedly) raping her. Her marriage to Bothwell led to war and the loss of the kingdom less than a month later.

Had Mary seriously wished to marry Bothwell, she should have been more circumspect. We do not know whether the rape scenario was real or feigned; if feigned, as many believe, it was a horrible plot—what nation would endure its Queen marrying the man who raped her? Who would honor him as king? Bothwell’s problem was that he tried to secure Mary too quickly and by going over the heads of the nobles (he compelled them to sign the Ainslie Tavern Bond allowing the marriage, but under duress). Mary ought to have distanced herself from Bothwell for sometime after the death of Darnley and tried to secure the marriage through other means rather than the kidnapping plot. Clearly, Bothwell felt this was his only hope of securing Mary. Had he acted otherwise, and had Mary done less to lead others to suspect her complicity with Bothwell, there is always the possibility that the nobles could have assented to the marriage, or at least that with the passing of enough time, Mary could compel the marriage despite their lack of assent. We do not know if the kidnapping was planned or not, but if it was, it was one of the worst blunders of Mary’s reign, and the one that led directly to Carberry Hill and the beginning of her long imprisonment.

Mary Stuart comforts the dying Lord Douglas at the Battle of Langside (1568)

 3. The Decision to Fight at Langside

On June 15thm 1567, the forces of Mary and Bothwell were defeated at the brief Battle of Carberry Hill and Mary was taken away into captivity at Lochleven Castle while James, her bastard half-brother and Earl of Moray, ruled as regent. James, however, was a terrible regent and provoked resistance from the nobles, even from those who had previously supported him against Mary. The kingdom grew so sick of Moray that, in May 1568, a successful plot was executed freeing Mary from imprisonment at Lochleven. Throngs of people flocked to her standard: Catholic families, but also many Protestant nobles who were disgusted with Moray. In a matter of days she mustered a zealous army of 7,000 troops while Moray could only muster 4,000. Some of the most eminent nobles were on her side, and Moray’s supporters were demoralized by the Queen’s escape.

At this pivotal point, Mary had to decide whether to engage Moray in battle or seek a compromise. Mary chose battle, and though she had numerical superiority, her commander, the Earl of Argyll, allowed Mary’s troops to be led into a narrow pass in the town of Langside and mowed down from the hillsides by Moray’s arquebusiers, leading to a crushing defeat for Mary that precipitated and her flight to England.

Since she had the numerical superiority and had morale on her side, Mary ought to have called Moray out to parlay. By all accounts, Moray was the sort of man who did not like to strike unless he had a clear advantage. Mary had the clear upper hand, with superior numbers and half the kingdom behind her. If, instead of pushing right to battle, she had called James out to come to terms or demanded his unqualified surrender, it is possible he might have negotiated, abdicated, or fled the country. James did not know that his smaller army could beat Mary’s larger army, until of course, Mary allowed her troops to be put into a tactically weak position. In this case, the maxim “Better close your mouth and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt” remains true—better to have a larger army and let your opponent think you can beat him than lead them into battle and prove him wrong. Moray had always preferred negotiated settlements to warfare in other engagements, and it is likely that he would have done so here as well. But, again, Mary snatched defeat from jaws of victory.

2. Fled to France Instead of England

After her defeat at Langside, Mary could have fled to either France or England. She chose England, and we know how that wound up. Mary could have gone to France, a Catholic country, where she would have been out of the reach of both her Scottish enemies and the English. Yet she chose the court of Elizabeth.

The decision makes more sense if we remember that France was in the middle of the bitter Wars of Religion at the time, and that Mary, as a controversial figure to both Protestants and Catholics, might not have been safe there. We should also remember that Mary’s French family, the Guises, were being systematically assassinated during the Wars of Religion, so the struggle there touched Mary personally. Still, if she was not safe in France, there is no doubt that she could have at least obtained safe conduct through France and came to Italy where she could have resided with queenly dignity in Rome until such a time when she could have returned to Scotland. But, if such a time never came, she would have had a comfortable life in Italy, as did another Catholic Queen, Christina of Sweden, who left Protestant Sweden and lived a comfortable and pious life in Rome from 1654 to 1689, practicing her faith freely and dying contented. This would have been undoubtedly better for Mary than the eighteen long years of captivity that awaited her in England. And, if circumstances at home changed, she could have conceivably gotten her throne back.

1. Friendzoned Lord Darnley Instead of Marrying Him

No matter how we look at Mary, her biggest problem—the fundamental error from which most of her later miseries sprang—was her disastrous marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. So much of her later history is wrapped up with this one tragic marriage that it is fruitless to speculate on how things would have been different had the marriage never taken place. Upon marrying Darnley, he proved to be such a vain, boastful drunkard that the whole peerage was offended by him and Mary soon grew estranged from him. This led to Darnley’s suspicions about Rizzo with the subsequent murder, followed shortly by Darnley’s own murder, perhaps by Bothwell in collusion with Mary, perhaps now. Either way, the Darnley murder led directly to the Bothwell kidnapping, the third marriage and the Battle of Langside with the flight to England. All of this could have been prevented had Mary not married such a worthless man, repudiating his advances instead.

Concluding Thoughts

The common thread through all these missteps was an impulsiveness and a certain naivete about leadership: her impulsive flight to Bothwell’s side, her impulsive decisions to marry to Darnley, her impulsive decision to fight at Langside rather than press her advantage by negotiation. She demonstrated astounding naivete in thinking the familiar company she kept with Rizzo would not lead to envy; that her subjects would accept as king a man charged with raping her; that forgiving and inviting back men who had tried to overthrow her was a good policy (how many men conspired against Queen Elizabeth got a second chance?)

Mary’s good intentions notwithstanding, she lacked sound judgment and an ability to perceive the long term consequences of her actions. At least Queen Christina had the good sense to know that her kingdom needed a strong ruler (which she was not) and abdicated in order to spend the rest of her days in Rome. Mary lacked this sense, and this unfortunate lack led her down the path of destruction. Nevertheless, her story remains one of the great “what if’s” of Catholic history. Had she exercised sounder judgment, I do not doubt she could have been a splendid monarch, and that we would today be talking about the “Golden Age of Mary” in Scotland.

Phillip Campbell “Could Mary Queen of Scots Have Kept Her Throne?” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, April 2, 2012. Available online at: