IN an event that paved the way for modern British history, Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicated her throne 450 years ago today.

It meant that her one-year-old son immediately became King James VI, and, of course, he would later become King James I of England and Ireland.

Had Mary not abdicated and had her supporters triumphed in the civil war fought over possession of the Scottish throne, the Union of the Crowns might never have happened. Yet July 24, 1567, is rarely celebrated, not even by the most ardent Unionists, because it is a very murky episode in Scottish history.


MARY had been taken to France as young child with the Four Marys, her ladies-in-waiting. She was raised in the French court and betrothed to the Dauphin, who became King Francis II in 1559 but died shortly after ascending the French throne with Mary as his Queen Consort.

She returned home to claim the Scottish throne in August 1561 and, as a Roman Catholic, faced the wrath of John Knox and the Protestant Reformers. This redoubled after she married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, only for him to be assassinated in February, 1567.

Mary’s violent lover, James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, forced marriage upon her within weeks of her becoming a widow and the Protestant Lords of the Confederacy rebelled against their monarch.

At Carberry near Musselburgh on July 15, a short battle ended in defeat for the royal forces. Mary surrendered rather than risk a full battle, and Bothwell fled into exile. Mary was taken to imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle on an island in Loch Leven in present-day Perth and Kinross.


DESPONDENT and psychologically beaten, Mary’s troubles were compounded when, she miscarried twins, the progeny of Bothwell.

It was then, with their Queen at her lowest ebb, that the Confederate Lords pounced.

We know exactly what happened because Mary’s private secretary, Claude Nau de la Boisseliere, wrote of that fateful day in his memoirs.

In the castle, which belonged to Sir William Douglas – later the Earl of Morton – the Confederacy leaders Lords Melville, Lindsay and Ruthven and their lawyers came into the queen’s chambers where she lay in pain in her bed.

Lindsay told her the Lords demanded her resignation of the Scottish crown, and when Mary refused, Lindsay told her quite simply that they would cut her throat – “however unwilling they might be” as Nau de la Boisseliere wrote.

Mary, calculating that she could repudiate a signature obtained under duress, eventually signed the documents. The very much under-appreciated Gerda Stevens summed up the queen’s mood in her fine poem, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots:

Tak ma croon, an dinna fash –
aa yon wis ower fur me lang syne.
Ye needna glaum at ma silk goon
wi yer coorse nieve – I’m nae threit;
I’ll sign yer muckle scroll, dae whit I maun,
past carin noo. 


JAMES VI was crowned five days later, and Mary was kept at Loch Leven where she managed to turn some of her jailers into her allies. Sir William Douglas’s brother George and illegitimate teenage son William helped her escape on May 2, 1568, and many of her followers flocked to her side, but her army of 6000 was far from the numbers she previously commanded and there is no doubt Mary’s abdication had weakened their resolve – many of her nobles had already pledged their allegiance to James.

Defeat at Langside, then exile and death in England at the hands of her cousin Elizabeth, followed for Mary, who remained a devout Catholic to the end – the real reason why the English aristocracy did not want her on their throne.

Had she not abdicated Mary would doubtless have been murdered. But would James have survived the civil war that would undoubtedly have followed?