June 16, 1586: It Is Good to be King, but Queen…Not So Much! (Mary, Queen of Scots)

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A Brief History

On June 16, 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, named her heir and successor, Phillip II of Spain.  Since Mary was imprisoned at the time and not on any throne to give, this move was sure to irritate her jailer, Queen Elizabeth I of England.  Plus, Phillip II was Catholic as was Mary, something the Protestant Elizabeth would certainly not tolerate.

Digging Deeper

Mary had become Queen at age 6 days upon the death of her father, King James V of Scotland.  Raised in France while adults ran Scotland, she was married to the heir (Dauphin) to the French throne, who became King Francis II in 1559, thus making Mary Queen of France.  At least until 1560 when Francis died, which removed her from the throne in France.  She went back to Scotland to reign as Queen and married her cousin (Henry Stuart) in 1565.  Only 2 years later her husband’s house was blown up and he was found murdered. James Hepburn was accused of the murder, but upon his acquittal Mary promptly married him.

As if her life was not convoluted enough by this time, an uprising deposed her and Hepburn and she was jailed.  Forced to abdicate in favor of her 1 year old son, Mary managed to flee to England to seek help from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Fully aware that Mary had also made claims on the throne of England (fairly legitimate claims as it was), Elizabeth also had her locked away in a variety of castles, but not in a dungeon.  Though a prisoner, she still was treated with respect.  Over 18 ½ years of this Mary’s health deteriorated (including bouts of rheumatism and porphyria), all while English Catholics longed to put Mary on the throne of England and Mary plotted ways to make that happen.  Finally caught planning the assassination of Elizabeth, Mary was tried and convicted, sentenced to death, and beheaded in 1587.

The execution scene, drawn by eyewitness Robert Beale

The beheading did not go well.  The first blow from the executioner’s axe landed on the back of Mary’s head, and the second blow failed to cleanly sever her head.  The executioner had to saw through the stubborn sinews with his axe, and when he grabbed her hair to hold her head up for the crowd to see, her hair came off!  It became immediately apparent that Mary wore a wig and that her real hair was short and grey.

As if the above was all not spectacle enough, a small dog had been hiding in her skirts and refused to leave her body.  The blood drenched dog was carried away.  Prior to her execution her executioner asked her for her forgiveness, which she willingly gave.  Her last words were a brief Latin prayer.  She was only 44 years old.

The lives of European kings and queens could be ones of pampered luxury, but often were a constant struggle to stay in charge, fighting off intrigues from close family members as well as outsiders.  One never knew when the peasants would revolt or trusted advisers would become assassins.  How the people could possibly believe these crowned heads were somehow anointed by God as the rightful rulers of these countries in light of the incessant murders and blatantly evil activities is inexplicable.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think monarchy has a place in modern society?  Should all monarchies be dissolved?  Tell us what you think in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Waldherr, Kris.  Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di.  Three Rivers Press, 2008.

The featured image in this article, a portrait of Mary in captivity in 1578 by Nicholas Hilliard, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

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About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.