NO film, play or novel has ever done full justice to Mary, Queen of Scots. The Marilyn Monroe of her day, a beautiful, seductive, clever but often unwise woman who met a tragic end, she remains endlessly fascinating.

Reportedly so lovely she made the sun go dark when she appeared, and something of a scholar and a writer, she arrived in Scotland from France – where she had been sent as a child for safety – as a young widow in 1561.

Shortly thereafter she met the forbidding Kirk minister John Knox. It was an omen of how difficult her time as Catholic monarch of an unforgiving Presbyterian country was going to be.

Since her death dozens of historians have written about her, but what follows are accounts of events that shaped her life, either by those who observed them, or in her own increasingly desperate words.


John Knox records one of many tempestuous meetings with the queen, in this case infuriating Mary not by religious browbeating but by cautioning her against marrying Lord Darnley.

The Queen in a vehement fume began to cry out, that never Prince was used as she was. ‘I have,’ said she, ‘borne with you in all your rigorous manner of speaking, both against myself and against my uncles; yea, I have sought your favour by all possible means; I offered unto you presence and audience, whensoever it pleased you to admonish me, and yet I cannot be quit of you; I vow to God I shall be once revenged.’ And with these words scarce could Murdock, her secret chamber boy, get napkins to hold her eyes dry, for the tears and the howling, besides womanly weeping, stayed her speech.

Riccio’s assassination
March 9, 1566

DAVID Riccio was a singer at Mary’s court in Holyrood whose friendship with her angered her husband Darnley. One of her advisors, Sir James Melville, witnessed his murder.

When the Quen was at hir supper in hir cabinet, a nomber of armed men entrit within the closs before the closing of the yetis, and tok the keyes from the porter.

Ane part of them passit up throw the Kingis chamber, conducted be the Lord Ruthven and George Douglas; the rest remanit in the close, with drawen swerdis in ther handis, crying ‘a Douglas, a Douglas,’ for ther slougern; for it was in the glomyng of the evenyng. The King was past up to the Quen of before, and was leanin upon hir chair, when the Lord Ruthven entrit with his knappisca [headpiece] upon his head, and George entrit in with him and dyvers uther, sa rudly and unreverently, that the burd [table] fell, the candelis and meat and plaitis fell. David tok the Quen about the waist, and cryed for marcy; bot George Douglas pluckit fourth the Kingis dager that wes behind his bak, and strak him first with it, leavyng it sticking within him. He geving gret skirlis and cryes, wes rudly reft from the Quen, wha culd not get him saif. He wes forceably drawen fourth of the cabinet, and slain in the utter hall, and her Maieste keped as captyve…   Smallpox May 1566 MARY’S relationship with Elizabeth I of England was fraught because of the claim she held to the English throne, yet it could also be friendly. This note was sent when Mary heard her cousin had suffered from smallpox ... I have heard the great danger you were in, and how you came off so cheaply that that fair face will lose nothing of its perfection.

Randolph begged me to send you some recipe to keep it from showing, which I could not have done as I would wish, for he who dressed me is dead, and was called Fernel, First Physician to the King: and he would never tell me the recipe for the water which he put on my face, after having opened it all with a lancet: and after all, it would be too late to use it. I am very sorry I did not know it sooner, for I would have sent you him whom I consider most excellent for this, who was my man, assuring you that I would never know of anything that would serve you, but that I would do it as a good sister should, so long as I know my love rewarded by such affection...

Your faithful and affectionate good sister and cousin forever.


Darnley’s fatal misstep
February 1567

OF the many bad decisions Mary made, marrying Darnley was among the worst.

After he was found murdered, near Holyrood, Mary was implicated in his death. Shortly before, the couple had been unexpectedly reunited after an acrimonious separation. During this time, Darnley stayed in his family’s well-guarded Glasgow home, recovering from illness. Did Mary lure him to a place where he could be killed? Darnley’s servant, Thomas Crawford, certainly thought so. This is his memory of their reconciliation.

He said he would never think that she ‘who was hys owne propre fleshe,’ would do him hurt... So he desired her to bear him company, ‘for she ever fownde som adoe, to drawe her sellfe from him to her owne lodginge, and woulde never abyde with him paste two houres at once.’ She was very ‘pensiffe,’ and he found fault; and said he heard she had brought a litter with her. She said it was brought to carry him more softly than on horseback. He said a sick man should not so travel, ‘in so colde weather.’ She answered she would take him to Craigmiller to be with him ‘and not farre from her sonne.’ He said he would go, if they might be at bed and board as husband and wife, and she to leave him no more: and if she promised this on her word, he would go where she pleased – without this, he would not go. She said if she had not been so minded, she would not have come so far, and gave him her hand and faith of her body, that she would love and use him as her husband. But before they could come together ‘he must be purged and clensed of hys sicknesse... For she minded to give him the bathe at Craigmiller.’ ...

He then asked me what I thought of his voyage? I said I liked it not, for if she had desired his company, instead of to Craigmiller, she would have taken him to his own house in Edinburgh, rather than a gentleman’s house 2 miles out of town – therefore my opinion was she took him more like a prisoner than her husband. He answered he thought little less himself: save the confidence he had in her promise only. Yet he would put himself in her hands, ‘thowghe she showlde cutte hys throate’.

May 28, 1568

FOLLOWING an equally disastrous marriage to the thuggish Earl of Bothwell, and the defeat of her troops at Carberry and Langside, Mary fled to Carlisle and Elizabeth’s protection. Here she writes anxiously after hearing nothing from the English queen.

... I have already found somewhat harsh and strange, seeing that I have so frankly placed myself in your country, without conditions, and that, having stayed a fortnight in your castle, as almost a prisoner, I received no permission, when your councillors came, to go to you with my complaint, though I trusted you so much that I asked no more than to go to you and let you hear my true grievances... Remember, I have kept my promise! I sent you my heart in a ring, and now I have brought you the real one, and my body with it, more surely to knit the knot that binds me to you... .

Your very faithful and obliged, if it please you, good sister and cousin without charge.


Mary’s last letter
February 8, 1587

AFTER 19 years as a prisoner, during which she was accused of plotting against Elizabeth, Mary learned she was to be executed. Early on the morning of her death, she wrote this last letter to her brother-in-law Henri III, King of France.

... Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject.

The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions...

This Wednesday, two hours after midnight.

Your very loving and most true sister, Mary R

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
February 8, 1587

THE courtier and assassin Robert Wingfield was one of those present at Mary’s beheading in the castle of Fotheringay.

Then she being stripped of all her apparel saving her petticoat and kirtle, her two women beholding her made great lamentation, and crying and crossing themselves, prayed in Latin. She turning herself to them, embracing them, said these words in French, ‘Ne criez vous, j’ai promis pour vous,’ and so crossing and kissing them, bade them pray for her and rejoice, and not weep, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress’ troubles.

Then she, with smiling countenance, turned to her men servants, standing upon a bench nigh to the scaffold, who sometimes weeping, sometimes crying out aloud, and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, and crossing them with her hand bade them farewell, wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.

This done, one of the women, having a Corpus Christi cloth lapped up three-corner-ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scots’ face, and pinned it fast to the caul of her head. Then the two women departed from her, she kneeling down upon the cushion most resolutely and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this psalm in Latin, ‘In te Domine confide, non confundar in aeternum, etc.’ Then groping for the block, she laid down her head, putting her chin over the block with both her hands, which holding there still, had been cut off had they not been spied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms, cried, ‘In manu tuas, Domine,’ three or four times. Then she lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding of her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner his axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from where she lay; and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut in sunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly, saying ‘God save the Queen’.

Then her dressing of lawn falling off from her head, it appeared as grey as one of three score and ten years old, polled very short, her face in a moment by so much altered from the form she had when she was alive, as few could remember her by her dead face. Her lips stirred up and down for a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off...

Extracts taken from Scotland: Her Story: The Nation’s History by the Women who Lived it, edited by Rosemary Goring (Birlinn, £20)