Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots at Carlisle Castle

On 16 May 1568, a small fishing boat carrying Mary Queen of Scots set sail from Scotland for English shores. After months of conflict and turmoil in Scotland, she had decided to entrust her fate to her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. Two days later Mary was escorted to Carlisle Castle – and so began almost 19 years as a prisoner, before her eventual execution in 1587.

Why did she seek refuge in England, and how did her two-month stay at Carlisle turn into a lifetime of captivity?

A portrait of Mary Queen of Scots dating from about 1558, by François Clouet
A portrait of Mary Queen of Scots dating from about 1558, by François Clouet
© Alamy Stock Photo

The trouble in Scotland

Born in 1542, Mary became Queen of Scotland when she was just six days old. During her childhood Scotland was ruled by regents. In 1558 she married Francis, the heir to the French crown, and in July 1559 he became king, uniting the thrones of France and Scotland. Eight months earlier, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth had become Queen of England. 

But Francis died suddenly in 1560, and Mary, who had lived in France for most of her life, found herself no longer welcome there. She decided to return to Scotland to rule in person. What followed was an uneasy balancing act. As a Catholic queen, Mary struggled to govern a country that was officially Protestant and allied to its former enemy, England.

The balance tipped from 1565 after Mary married her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who was a Catholic. Their son, James, was born the following year, but the marriage soon deteriorated. A series of disasters – the murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s secretary, by Darnley and others; the murder of Darnley himself; and Mary’s marriage to her adviser James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, three months later – led many Scottish nobles to rise against her.

Mary and Bothwell confronted their opponents on 15 June 1567. Mary surrendered and was imprisoned, on condition that Bothwell be allowed to go into exile. In July she was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son. The following May she escaped from her prison, Lochleven Castle – only for her forces to be defeated soon afterwards at Langside, near Glasgow.

The outer gatehouse (left) and keep (right) of Carlisle Castle
The outer gatehouse (left) and keep (right) of Carlisle Castle

Arrival in England

It was at this point that Mary decided to seek refuge in England. Her supporters begged her to stay in Scotland or head for Catholic France. But she was convinced that Elizabeth – her cousin, and like her an anointed monarch – would help her raise an army to return to Scotland in triumph. Before leaving Scotland she wrote to Elizabeth requesting a meeting and sending a diamond ring as a token of her friendship.

Without waiting for a reply, she and 16 supporters made the four-hour crossing of the Solway Firth (the strait that forms part of the border between England and Scotland). They arrived at the port of Workington in Cumberland (modern-day Cumbria) in the early evening.

The following morning Richard Lowther, the deputy governor of Cumberland, provided an escort to take Mary to nearby Carlisle Castle.

At this point, Mary’s status was uncertain. She had arrived of her own free will, and was neither a captive nor a hostage. From the moment of her arrival at Carlisle Castle Mary was put under armed guard. Yet on 20 May she wrote to a supporter that she had been ‘right well received and honourably accompanied and treated’.

This octagonal stair turret once gave access to the tower where Mary stayed while at Carlisle Castle
This octagonal stair turret once gave access to the tower where Mary stayed while at Carlisle Castle

Mary at Carlisle

Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Knollys, one of her trusted courtiers, to Carlisle to keep an eye on Mary. He was charmed by her in person:

She was a notable woman because she had no care for ceremonies beyond the acknowledgement of her royal estate; then she spoke freely to everyone, whatever their rank and showeth a disposition to speak much and to be bold and to be pleasant and to be very familiar.

However, he lived in constant fear that Mary would escape. He let her walk on the grass in front of the castle – thereafter known as ‘the lady’s walk’. Twice he allowed her to watch members of her entourage playing football against each other. But when she went out on horseback to hunt hare, ‘she galloping so fast upon every occasion’, he put his foot down and said that this could not happen again.

Having arrived with only a handful of attendants, Mary was allowed to send for many of her old staff, as well as her own clothing – she refused to wear anything else. Cartloads of clothes and personal effects soon arrived from Lochleven. Her numerous attendants included Mary Seton, a lady-in-waiting who had helped her escape from captivity in Scotland. The queen had cut off much of her hair after the Battle of Langside to escape recognition. But Mary Seton styled it so skilfully that ‘every other day-lighte … she hath a new devyce of head dressing’.

Mary borrowed money from city merchants to help her keep up a suitably royal appearance. However, the cost of maintaining her little court fell mainly on Queen Elizabeth. The English queen paid an average of £56 a week for commodities such as meat, fish, spices, biscuits, butter, peat for heating and wine.

Wash drawing of Queen Mary's Tower by JMW Turner, 1797
Drawing of Queen Mary’s Tower by JMW Turner, 1797. The two windows on the upper floor provided light for the chamber which Mary Queen of Scots was believed to have occupied when she stayed in the castle
© Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust

Queen Mary’s Tower

Mary was housed in what was then known as the Warden’s Tower, in the south-east corner of the inner ward. It later became known as Queen Mary’s Tower.

This two-storey building was added to the castle in 1308 to provide fine accommodation. It was said to have a window from which Mary could look towards Scotland. This is confirmed by a description of the 1830s of ‘a spacious room called the queen’s bedchamber lighted by two windows facing to the south and one to the north’ on the first floor. The tower was also described as being ‘in a richer style of architecture than the other parts of the castle’.

In 1835 the tower was demolished when it was on the verge of collapse. All that now survives is an octagonal turret housing a staircase that once gave access to this tower.

A 17th-century engraving depicting, from left to right, William Cecil, Elizabeth I and Francis Walsingham, the queen’s chief spymaster
A 17th-century engraving depicting, from left to right, William Cecil, Elizabeth I and Francis Walsingham, the queen’s chief spymaster
© Classic Image/Alamy Stock Photo

A disastrous mistake

Whatever Mary may have hoped, her decision to seek refuge in England was a disastrous mistake. It put Elizabeth in a difficult position. Privately she sympathised with Mary, as a fellow monarch who had been imprisoned and deposed. However, both she and her advisers – most forcefully her chief adviser, William Cecil – saw Mary as highly dangerous.

As a Catholic with a claim to the English throne, Mary’s presence on English soil provided both a potential rallying point for Catholic rebels at home and a possible cause for invasion by Catholic powers abroad. If she was restored to the Scottish throne, England would be surrounded by Catholic countries. It suited the English to keep the Earl of Moray, Mary’s half-brother and a Protestant, as regent in Scotland.

Looming over Mary was the suspicion that she had been involved in the murder of her second husband, Darnley. Cecil and Moray soon exploited this.

Although Mary hoped for a swift return to her throne, in late May Knollys told her that there was no prospect of this unless she was cleared of murdering Darnley. Mary protested her innocence and refused to stand trial, insisting that only God could judge a sovereign. Despite her impassioned letters to the queen requesting a face to face meeting, Elizabeth would not budge.

Detail from a needlework panel (now at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk), which is one of many made by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick during Mary’s imprisonment
Detail from a needlework panel (now at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk), which is one of many made by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick during Mary’s imprisonment
© The National Trust Photolibrary/Alamy Stock Photo

Years of captivity

Eventually, Mary reluctantly agreed to an inquiry into the charges against her. In late July 1568, before it began, she was moved south to Bolton Castle in Yorkshire. Four carriages, 20 packhorses and 23 riding horses were needed to convey her, her retinue and her belongings.

The inquiry began in October. Despite the Scots producing incriminating evidence against Mary (which was almost certainly falsified), in January 1569 Elizabeth declared that there was no proof either way. Yet although she was no longer accused of any crime, Mary remained in England. She was now without doubt a prisoner.

Bolton Castle was the first of many places where she would be held over the years that followed. From early 1569 the Earl of Shrewsbury, a leading nobleman, became her custodian, and Mary was shuttled between several of his castles and manors.

Although under house arrest she was treated as an exiled ruler and guest – she had her own household, could receive visitors, and was afforded luxuries and privileges. This put a huge strain on Shrewsbury’s finances, as well as his marriage. Mary initially spent many hours with Shrewsbury’s countess, Bess of Hardwick. Eventually, though, the two fell out, Bess suspecting Mary of having an affair with her husband.

Over her many years in captivity, Mary’s presence on English soil triggered various Catholic plots to murder Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne of England. Elizabeth hesitated to move against her while there was no proof of her involvement. However, in 1586 Mary was implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. She was found guilty of treason. Elizabeth, finally convinced that Mary would always remain a threat while she lived, signed her death warrant. Mary was beheaded on 8 February 1587.


Top image: Detail from a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, after Nicholas Hilliard, 1578 (© Lifestyle pictures/Alamy Stock Photo)

Further reading

Julian Goodare, ‘Mary [Mary Stewart]’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 3 Jan 2019)

John Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (London, 2004)

Kate Williams, Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots (London, 2018)

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