WITHIN the interlocking dramas of the Scottish Reformation and Elizabethan politics the tragedy of Mary Stuart moved with all the fascination of beauty, passionate love, religious and political conflict, murder, revolution, and heroic death. Her ancestry almost assured a violent end. She was the daughter of the Stuart James V of Scotland and of Mary of Guise, Lorraine, and France; she was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, who was the daughter of Henry VII of England; she was therefore niece, loosely called cousin, of “Bloody Mary” and Elizabeth; by common consent she was the legitimate heir to the English crown if Elizabeth should die without issue; and for those who—like all Catholics (and, at one time, Henry VIII)—considered Elizabeth a bastard and therefore ineligible to rule, Mary Stuart, and not Elizabeth Tudor, should have succeeded to the throne of England in 1558. To make tragedy certain, Mary, on becoming Queen of France (1559), allowed her followers and her state papers to call her Queen of England. It had long been a vain pretense of French kings to be also kings of England, and of English kings to be also kings of France; but in this case the pretense came close to a generally acknowledged claim. Elizabeth could not be sure of her crown as long as Mary lived. Only common sense could have saved the situation, and sovereigns rarely stoop so low.
Mary was offered kingdoms within a year of her birth. Within a week of her birth her father’s death made her Queen of Scots. Henry VIII, hoping to unite Scotland as an appanage to England, proposed that the infant be betrothed to his son Edward, be sent to England, and be there brought up, presumably as a Protestant, to be Edward’s Queen. Her Catholic mother accepted, instead, the offer of Henry II of France (1548) to give her in marriage to his son the Dauphin. To guard her against being kidnaped into England, Mary, aged six, was hurried off to France. She remained there thirteen years, was educated with the royal children, and became completely French in spirit, being already half French in blood. As she matured into youth she developed all the charms of young womanhood in beauty of features and form, sprightliness of mind, and merry grace of ways and speech. She sang sweetly, played the lute well, talked Latin, and wrote poetry that poets affected to praise. Courtiers throbbed to “the snow of her pure face” (Brantôme),1 “the gold of her curled and plaited hair” (Ronsard),2 the slender elegance of her hands, the fullness of her bust; and even the grave and sober L’Hôpital thought that such loveliness must be the vesture of a god.3 She became the most attractive and accomplished figure at the most polished court in Europe. When, aged sixteen, she married the Dauphin (April 24, 1558), and still more when, aged seventeen, she became through his accession Queen of France, all the hopes of a fanciful dream seemed to have come true.
But Francis II died (December 5, 1560) after two years of rule. Mary, a widow at eighteen, thought of retiring to an estate in Touraine, for she loved France. But meanwhile Scotland had gone Protestant; it was in danger of being lost to France as an ally. The French government held it to be Mary’s duty to go to Edinburgh and lead her native land back to the French alliance and the Catholic faith. Unwillingly, Mary reconciled herself to leaving the comforts and brilliance of French civilization for life in a Scotland which she could barely remember, and which she pictured as a land of barbarism and cold. She wrote to the leading Scottish nobles, affirming her fidelity to Scotland; she did not tell them that in her marriage contract she had deeded Scotland to the kings of France if she died without issue. The nobles, Protestant as well as Catholic, were charmed; the Scottish Parliament invited her to come and possess her throne. She asked Elizabeth for a safe-conduct through England; it was refused. On August 14, 1561, Mary sailed from Calais, bidding France a tearful farewell, and gazing at the receding coast till nothing remained but the sea.
Five days later she disembarked at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, and discovered Scotland.