In the Footsteps of a Queen
by Andrew G Lockhart
Fotheringhay hides its past well. The village comprises a few dwellings, a charming hostelry and an historic church. The River Nene meanders through its fields on the way from the Grand Union Canal at Northampton to the North Sea. From time to time, a narrow boat passes this way and moors by the riverbank. The rural tranquillity, especially on a balmy summer day, is intoxicating.
The tranquillity conceals a history filled with treachery and bloodshed. Fotheringhay was once a place of some importance. King Richard III of England was born here in October 2, 1452. And it was here, on February 8, 1587, that Mary Queen of Scots, having been found guilty of complicity in a plot to depose Queen Elizabeth of England, was executed by royal command. All that remains of the great castle where she died are a few stones surrounded by an iron fence, yet today the site attracts visitors from all over the world.
Mary Stuart was, in the words of Sir Walter Scott, ‘… in every sense, one of the most unhappy Princesses that ever lived, from the moment when she came into the world.’ She was born on December 8, 1542 in the Palace of Linlithgow, about twenty miles from Edinburgh. Her father was King James V of Scotland, her mother Marie de Guise, the daughter of a noble French family.
Linlithgow today is a small county town of twelve thousand inhabitants, but in the mid sixteenth century it was, like Fotheringhay, a place of some importance. It lay on the royal road linking the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling. Parts of the Palace still stand. No prince lives there now, but it is used to stage historic pageants and as a setting for weddings. Even as a semi-ruin, it is a magnificent piece of architecture.
Close by and rising above it is the steeple of St Michael’s Church, rebuilt in the fifteen hundreds, a century after the fire that destroyed it and much of the town. Both palace and church occupy a prime position on a mound overlooking Linlithgow Loch to the north.
Just like the village on the banks of the Nene, it is a picturesque spot.
Mary Queen of Scots spent only twelve of her forty-four years in the country of her birth. She lived for thirteen in France. She ruled Scotland as an adult for only six years – turbulent years during which she became pawn in a deadly politico-religious chess game. In July of 1567, she abdicated in favour of her son James.
During the first six years of her childhood, Mary knew no fewer than four homes before being shipped to France and marriage with its Dauphin. Her father had died less than a week after her birth. It was 1561 when she returned to Scotland, and her destiny.
Mary was more French than Scottish, and probably the former by inclination. Not only did she have a French mother, she had on her father’s side English and Danish as well as French ancestry. Any blood of the great Bruce that remained in her veins was diluted by five generations of dynastic marriage.
Of the Stuart Kings, only the first two, Roberts II and III, had married Scotswomen. James I, who grew up in England and was ransomed to the Scots for £40,000, had married Joan Beaufort, granddaughter of John of Gaunt. The bride of James II was another French noblewoman, Marie de Gueldres, while that of James III had been Princess Margarethe of Denmark. To crown all, Mary’s paternal grandmother was Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.
Though greeted in 1561 by cheering Edinburgh crowds, Mary’s popularity was short-lived. The Scottish lords, Protestant and Catholic alike, vied with each other for her favour. The Calvinists muttered threateningly about her Papist rituals, though it has to be said that Mary did not flaunt her religion in public. Nor did she attempt to undermine the Scots Kirk.
In the end, she was brought down not by religion but by love. Mary fell for and married the handsome but rakish Darnley, son of James V’s half-sister. When in February 1567 Darnley was murdered, it is widely believed by the Earl of Bothwell, Mary married the latter in a Protestant wedding at Edinburgh. Her later claim that their engagement had been ‘accompanied not the less with force’ did not save her crown. She spent the last twenty years of her life in a prison of one sort or another.
‘These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present … act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.’ (Queen Elizabeth of England to Mary Stuart, Oct 12, 1586)
‘…think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate.’ (Queen Elizabeth to King James VI of Scotland, Feb 14, 1587)
Innocent or guilty, – and there will always be doubts – Mary kept her queenly calm to the block itself. She remained true to her Catholic faith despite entreaties to embrace the Protestant religion. Afterwards, her body was preserved at Fotheringhay for six months before being interred in a vault in Peterborough Cathedral. There it remained for twenty-five years until her son transferred it to a tomb in Westminster Abbey.
James I of Great Britain, ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, was not the greatest of our monarchs. However, he succeeded where others had failed in uniting the kingdoms of north and south.
Perhaps that was Mary Stuart’s true legacy.