On February 8, 1587, Mary Stuart was decapitated. At only 44 years old, the former Queen of Scotland and France reached the end of a fate as tragic as it was exceptional.
The heiress of the Stuarts became Queen of Scotland three days after birth, upon the death of her father, James V.
The regency was assumed by her mother, Mary of Guise, whose brothers featured prominently in the Catholic and anti-English party at the court. They had the authority to betroth the little Queen to King Henry II of France's eldest son, the future Francis II.
Thus, at barely six years old, Mary embarked for France. Thrust into a refined court, the young girl turned princess attracted Ronsard's praises. She married the Dauphin in 1558 and signed a secret act in which she promised to give France her rights to Scotland . . . and England, if she were to die childless.
Francis II's accession to the throne in 1559 reinforced the influence of the House of Guise in the court. There followed an increasingly bitter rivalry between the Guises and the Protestant party from which the long and dramatic Wars of Religion would arise.
But the sickly King Francis II died at seventeen years of age on December 5, 1560 after a reign lasting fewer than two years. The young Queen regretfully returned to her father's country.
Mary Stuart came back to find a kingdom torn by the Reformation and perpetual dissent between clan leaders. The people were taken in by the charm of an austere minister, John Knox. A Catholic priest turned to Anglicanism and later to Calvinism, Knox established in Scotland a national reformed church, the Presbyterian Church. In each parish, the believers themselves named their pastor. At the highest level of the State, pastors, the bourgeois, and squires sat together.
This was the context, so far displaced from that of the Valois court, in which Mary Stuart found herself. The young Queen attracted John Knox's hatred.
To make matters worse, despite numerous marriage proposals from great foreign princes, she let herself be seduced by her cousin, the spirited – and Catholic – Lord Darnley. This was a disasterous choice. The handsome Lord never missed an opportunity to humiliate his spouse and attracted the aristocracy's unanimous hatred.
Mary herself took a small Italian music, David Rizzio, as a courtier. The court did not support this, and a plot encouraged by Darnley led to Rizzio's murder in front of the Queen while they were eating dinner.
Three months later, on February 9, 1567, Lord Darnley himself died in a bomb attack a few days after the birth of his heir, the future James VI, whom some suspected was Rizzio's son! Mary remarried at once to the instigator of the crime, the Earl of Bothwell, thus providing the Protestant nobility with a pretext for an uprising.
Dethroned by her Scottish subjects, she abdicated in favor of her son. After ten months imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, she fled to England on horseback in 1568 and was placed under the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of the Tudor dynasty, whom she had never actually recognized as legitimate.
Elizabeth I was the daughter of King Henry VIII and the granddaughter of Henry VII. Mary Stuart's father, King James V of Scotland, was the son of Margaret Tudor, Henry VII's daughter and Henry VIII's sister. Elizabeth I was therefore James V's first cousin and Mary Stuart's second cousin.
Fearing an uprising from the English Catholics, the Queen of England had her troublesome cousin imprisoned. Over nearly twenty long years in her prison, Mary Stuart participated in multiple schemes hatched by the 'papists' to restore her to the throne.
The Queen of England's advisors were worried about the danger she represented at a time when a new war with Catholic Spain was looming. Elizabeth I finally had her condemned to death and beheaded. Sir Francis Walsingham, in charge of the police, employed a provocateur to trick the captive into participating in a plot against the Queen. Mary Stuart gave a written statement and even advised the conspirators on how to proceed with the murder. This earned her a trial in which she was condemned to death.
The Commons demanded her immediate execution. In spite of everything, Elizabeth I objected to executing a sovereign, however guilty she may have been, but after much hesitation resigned herself to signing the death warrant.
Mary Stuart gathered her courage and dignity as she ascended to the scaffold. It took the maladroit executioner three tries to sever her head from her body.
Having triumphed over her enemies but still without a direct heir, the Queen of England bequeathed her crown to King James VI of Scotland, the son of none other than Mary Stuart and Lord Darnley. Thus it happened that, in 1603, at 37 years old, he acquired the additional title of King of England under the name James I and inaugurated the Stuart dynasty.