July 29, 1565: Mary, Queen of Scots, marries her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

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A Brief History

On July 29, 1565, Mary, Queen of Scots, married her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. In her case, the only thing advantageous about this marriage, was that it ensured that the Scottish throne stay under the control of the House of Stuart by keeping it in the family so to say. Other that that, except for producing a son to carry on the lineage, the marriage was a complete disaster.

Digging Deeper

First cousins are defined as cousins who share at least one grandparent. Marriages between first cousins have taken place throughout history in both royal houses and amongst commoners. On the one hand it was commonly practiced to safeguard a family’s assets, lands and possessions and to prevent these from being spread too thin. On the other, it was sometimes the result of the lack of other options, as towns and villages were smaller in the past, and people did not travel like they do today.

Since royals of the past did not like to mix with non-royals, their lists of potential suitors and brides was especially small. The Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria took it to the extreme by even encouraging marriages between uncles and nieces, etc. They did this for so many generations and without an influx of new blood that they developed physical deformities such as the Hapsburg jaw and produced children who were also mentally handicapped and sterile. This eventually cost them the Spanish throne.

Nowadays, marriage between first-cousins is still permitted in most of the Western world, with the only country with laws against it being the United States. Due to greater mobility, however, the marriage rate among first cousins in Europe and in the Americas is now only at less than 1% to 4%. Higher rates of first-cousin marriages can be found in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and India, with rates ranging from 20-80% depending on the region.

First-cousin marriage is often stigmatized because of the fear of birth defects. Studies, however, have shown that the rate of birth defects only increases by 2% in the children of first cousins. Of course, if cousin-coupling takes place over multiple generations, as was the case with the Hapsburgs, this rate rises exponentially.

There is also often a social stigma against first cousins marrying. For some people it borders on incest. Such unions are often considered disturbing and repulsive, and coupled cousins are sometimes discriminated against.

Throughout history there have been many cases of well-known first cousins marrying. Some prominent, non-royal examples include:

-Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood (They had 10 children!)

-Albert Einstein and Elsa Einstein (They were cousins on both sides!)

-Edgar Allen Poe and Virginia Clemm (He was 13 years older than her, and most scholars believe their marriage was not consummated.)

Among royals the most famous example is surely Queen Victoria of Great Britain and her husband, Prince Albert (They had 9 children!)

Question for students (and subscribers): Should cousins be allowed to marry each other?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please read…

Weir, Alison.  Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley.  Random House, 2007.


About Author

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.