The True Story Behind Mary Queen of Scots (2023)

The new film Mary Queen of Scots posits that a series of decisions (and a bit of bad luck) set two 16th-century queens—Elizabeth I, the Queen of England, and Mary, Queen of Scotland—on divergent paths. Many viewers will come to the film well versed in Elizabeth’s story of triumph. The Virgin Queen (played in this film by Margot Robbie) opted for logic and politics over passion and desire. She chose never to marry or have children and, perhaps as a direct result, reigned for 45 years.

Historically, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has been framed as Elizabeth’s polar opposite: the proverbial whore to Elizabeth’s Madonna. Many believed Mary to be a femme fatale whose frivolousness, romantic dalliances and passion doomed her to fail.

The movie, based on historian John Guy’s book of the same name, does the noble work of reconsidering Mary’s circumstances. In doing so, it attemps to undo the sexist narrative that has long defined the monarch, who married three different men, two of whom tried to usurp her throne and one of whom kidnapped and raped her. At the same time, the film confronts the fact that each queen’s romantic decisions determined her political future: While Elizabeth maintained her power while she was alive, it was Mary’s son, James, who took the throne when Elizabeth died and united England and Scotland under one crown.

Mary Queen of Scotts earned two Oscar nominations, one for Makeup and Hair and one for Costume Design.

The film takes some liberties with history, including a climactic meeting between the two queens that never took place. Here’s what’s fact and what’s fiction in Mary Queen of Scots.

Probably Fiction: Elizabeth was preoccupied with her fertility

Much of the drama in Mary Queen of Scots centers on the two queens’ romantic choices. Historically, Elizabeth has been portrayed as cold and calculating, while Mary has been perceived as flighty and incompetent. Both Guy and the film take pains to show that both women actually defied such stereotypes.

Still, the movie also suggests that Elizabeth envied Mary’s pregnancy. It’s unclear whether that was actually the case. Elizabeth explicitly chose not to marry or bear children for political reasons. She may have believed that any man she married would try to seize power from her. Mary Queen of Scots suggests that she may have been right: Mary, who marries three times, must contend with two power-hungry husbands who try to usurp her.

However, Mary’s decision to marry and have a child ultimately won her family the throne: Her son James came to rule England and Scotland after the Queen of England failed to produce an heir.

The True Story Behind Mary Queen of Scots (1)

Margot Robbie and Joe Alwyn in Mary Queen of Scots

Liam Daniel—Focus Features

(Video) Mary Queen of Scots - A Tragic Tale of betrayal Documentary

Possibly Fact: Elizabeth had an affair with Robert Dudley

In the movie, Elizabeth is shown to be romantically entangled with Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) but refuses to marry him. At the time, rumors swirled about the two. Some people even posited that Dudley killed his own wife in order to be with Elizabeth. English noblemen did suggest that Dudley might be a good match for Mary, but Mary rejected him, probably because of the rumors about him and Elizabeth.

Fact: Elizabeth and Mary exchanged letters

Many of the letters that Mary and Elizabeth write to one another in the film are real. The two maintained a correspondence, and Elizabeth even considered naming Mary her heir. But Mary’s claim to the throne proved a threat to Elizabeth. Many perceived Elizabeth as the illegitimate child of a king who had sought an illegal divorce from his first wife and Mary as the rightful English queen.

The True Story Behind Mary Queen of Scots (2)

Ian Hart, Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan, and James McArdle in Mary Queen of Scots

Liam Daniel—Focus Features

(Video) The Downfall of Mary Queen of Scots

Fact: Mary’s half-brother James conspired with John Knox

Mary was raised in France alongside her eventual first husband, the Dauphin of France. But she was widowed at age 18 and fled to her homeland of Scotland after her husband’s death. Before she ever arrived on the country’s shores, the preacher John Knox (David Tennant) wrote the sexist screed The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, denouncing both Mary and Elizabeth.

Like John Knox, who would become one of Mary’s most outspoken critics, many in the Scottish government were devout Protestants who had recently fought to outlaw Catholic mass. When Mary, a Catholic, arrived in the country preaching religious tolerance, many quickly turned against her, including her Protestant half-brother James (James McArdle).

James led a quickly-quashed coup against Mary, funded by the English government. While Elizabeth was happy to support Protestant forces abroad, she proved unwilling to actually send troops to Scotland to support John. Mary eventually pardoned her brother.

Fact: Queen Mary’s second husband tried to usurp the throne

After Queen Mary was widowed by her first husband at 18, she married Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), her third cousin. Their marriage was likely motivated by politics, rather than passion: marrying Darnley strengthened Mary’s claim to the English throne.

Though Mary had agreed to rule with Darnley as an equal, once they were wed, Darnley demanded that Mary be his subordinate. Ambassador Thomas Randolph wrote of the marriage, “I know for certain that this Queen repenteth her marriage: that she hateth him and all his kin.”

Guy writes that Darnley probably wasn’t as heavy a drinker as we see onscreen. Unflattering accounts from the Tudor era never mentioned a heavy pour with the wine, except for the days leading up to the assassination of Mary’s secretary.

The True Story Behind Mary Queen of Scots (3)

Ismael Cruz Cordova in Mary Queen of Scots

Liam Daniel—Focus Features

(Video) Mary, Queen of Scots | Biography

Possibly Fact: Darnley had an affair with Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio

Some historians, including Guy, contend that Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, did in fact sleep with the Italian-born David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of the queen’s close associates. Guy writes that Rizzio and Darnley were found in bed together.

Meanwhile, Rizzio became a close confidant of Mary’s, playing cards with her at night and eventually becoming her secretary. Rumors swirled that the two might be having an affair, but it was likely started by lords who wanted to dethrone the Catholic queen.

Fact: Darnley conspired to murder Rizzio

Darnley either believed that he had been cuckolded or resented the fact that Mary’s court thought this to be true. Some historians also suggest that he grew jealous of Mary and Rizzio’s rumored relationship because he felt betrayed by Rizzo following their own rumored affair.

The rest of the court resented that Rizzio had the ear of the queen, especially considering that he was a devout Catholic who might influence her decisions. The lords convinced Darnley to sign off on Rizzio’s gruesome murder. Rizzio was reportedly stabbed 56 times while the pregnant queen was held at gunpoint.

Fact: Darnley was murdered

Someone blew up Darnley’s house, then strangled him to death after he managed to escape. Mary became convinced that these murderers were after her, as well. Though the two were estranged, she had visited Darnley’s house just a few hours before the attack.

Mary’s third husband Lord Bothwell (Martin Compston) was tried for Darnley’s murder but acquitted.

Fact: Lord Bothwell raped Mary

After Darnley was assassinated, Bothwell abducted Mary and kept her hostage for months. The movie condenses the timeline, but ultimately Bothwell did tell Mary that he would marry her, whether she wanted him or not. According to historians, Bothwell raped Mary, and the queen became pregnant—though she later miscarried.

Mary could do nothing to escape her marriage to Bothwell. But the Scottish people did not take kindly to the queen remarrying so soon after she had been widowed. Critics like John Knox portrayed her as promiscuous. By 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate the throne to her one-year-old son and subsequently imprisoned. Bothwell fled to Denmark and died in prison there 11 years later. Mary eventually sailed to England, hoping that Elizabeth would protect her.

The True Story Behind Mary Queen of Scots (4)

Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots

Liam Daniel—Focus Features

(Video) Mary Stuart I, Queen of Scots - The Actual Story of Her Reign

Fiction: Elizabeth and Mary met in secret

The secret tete-a-tete between Elizabeth and Mary is invented for dramatic purposes. Both Guy’s biography and the film assert that Elizabeth was jealous of Mary’s youth, beauty and charisma. Ultimately, in the scene between Mary and Elizabeth, Elizabeth discovers that those very attributes have doomed Mary, while the more cautious and chaste Elizabeth proves the better (or luckier) sovereign.

In reality, it seems Elizabeth was never particularly intimidated by Mary. When Mary wrote to Elizabeth, asking her to set aside “jealousy and mislike,” Elizabeth dismissed her framing of their relationship, and Mary’s cultivated image. Elizabeth wrote to one of her lords, “We wish … She were as innocent therein as she laboreth greatly to beare both us and the world in hand that she is.”

Elizabeth seemed to have little issue with imprisoning her cousin, who had once tried to rebel against her. Mary wrote many letters to her associates expressing frustration that Elizabeth would not meet with her, while Elizabeth debated what to do in her own writings, never ultimately coming to a conclusion as to whether to meet with her cousin.

Ultimately, Mary was implicated in a plot against Elizabeth’s life, and in 1587, she was executed.

Correction, Dec. 11

The original version of this story misstated the name of Mary’s son. It was James, not John.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com.

(Video) Mary Queen of Scots Story

FAQs

What is the truth about Mary, Queen of Scots? ›

The only daughter of the late James V of the ruling Stewart dynasty, Mary became Queen of Scots at only six days of age. She reigned from 1542 until her forced abdication in 1567. After 19 years as a prisoner of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, Mary was executed on 8 February 1587.

What really happened to Mary, Queen of Scots? ›

Mary spent 19 years in various prisons in English castles, and was eventually found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots was put to death by beheading in 1587.

Is reign the true story of Mary, Queen of Scots? ›

If we were to ask the question 'Is Reign' a true story? We'd have to answer no. Aside from some minor events in backstory, Reign is a fantasy and its only claim to history is that there was indeed a Mary, Queen of Scots who married Francis, Dauphin of Viennois.

Did the real Mary, Queen of Scots have a child? ›

1567-1625) Born in Edinburgh Castle on 19 June 1566, James was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Lord Darnley.

Why was Mary, Queen of Scots face white? ›

The Queen washed her face with white wine

According to Mickey Mayhew, author of The Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots, the cost of her expensive beauty regime became a bone of contention for her keeper, the Earl of Shrewsbury, whose allowance to keep Mary in custody was cut by Elizabeth I.

How old was Queen Mary Scots when she died? ›

Mary was finally executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 8 February 1587, at the age of 44. She was buried in Peterborough Cathedral, but in 1612 her son James VI and I had her body exhumed and placed in the vault of King Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Why was Mary removed from the throne? ›

She was forced to abdicate as a consequence of having taken as her third husband the man who allegedly murdered her second husband. Mary's life had already been eventful. When she was a toddler, Henry VIII of England had sought her as a bride for his son, Edward VI.

Who was the rightful queen Mary or Elizabeth? ›

1558-59: The rivals take the stage

Yet for many Catholics in England and abroad, Elizabeth was illegitimate. They saw Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and legitimate granddaughter of Henry's sister Margaret Tudor, as the rightful queen of England.

Why was Mary a threat to Elizabeth? ›

Why did Mary pose a threat to Elizabeth? Mary, Queen of Scots was a threat to Elizabeth's rule because she had two claims to the English throne: Many people believed Elizabeth to be illegitimate and so felt she had no right to be on the throne. (Her father, Henry VIII, had divorced his first wife.

Did Mary and Elizabeth ever meet? ›

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots have met many times on stage and on screen – from Friedrich Schiller's early 19th-century play Mary Stuart, to Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie's dramatic head-to-head in Josie Rourke's film, Mary Queen of Scots. Yet in reality the two women famously never met.

Was Lola from Reign a real person? ›

In the 2013-2017 CW television series Reign, the character Lady Lola Fleming, played by Anna Popplewell, is based on Mary Fleming. In the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Fleming is played by actress Maria-Victoria Dragus.

Who was the last queen of Scotland? ›

The Kingdom of Scotland was merged with the Kingdom of England to form a single Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. Thus, Queen Anne became the last monarch of the ancient kingdoms of Scotland and England and the first of Great Britain, although the kingdoms had shared a monarch since 1603 (see Union of the Crowns).

Did Mary, Queen of Scots ever see her son again? ›

It was a controversial marriage and months after their vows Mary abdicated the throne in favour of her son and left for England in 1568. She would never see her son again. James IV would be raised as a protestant and become King James IV of Scotland. 12.

Who raised Mary of Scots son? ›

The care of James was entrusted to the Earl and Countess of Mar, "to be conserved, nursed, and upbrought" in the security of Stirling Castle. James was anointed King of Scotland at the age of thirteen months at the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling, by Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, on 29 July 1567.

How many babies did Queen Mary have? ›

She married King George V in 1893 and they had six children. Queen Mary's early life was not particularly princess-like.

What is Queen Elizabeth's illness? ›

The Queen, who died in September after more than 70 years on the throne, worked through the agony of bone marrow cancer — the most common symptom of which is bone pain, according to “Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait,” an upcoming biography written by author and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth.

Why did Mary leave Scotland? ›

Mary then fled to England. In England she became a political pawn in the hands of Queen Elizabeth I and was imprisoned for 19 years in various castles in England. Mary was found to be plotting against Elizabeth; letters in code, from her to others, were found and she was deemed guilty of treason.

Who is the father of Mary's baby in Reign? ›

James VI and I, Prince of Scotland, is the son of Queen Mary Stuart and King Darnley. He is the heir to the Scottish and English thrones. Shortly after his birth, he was kidnapped by his father and left out in the middle of the cold woods.

How were Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots related? ›

Mary was Elizabeth's cousin and an heir to the English throne through her Tudor grandmother, Margaret, Henry VIII's older sister.

Why did Elizabeth become queen and not Mary? ›

Queen Elizabeth I inherited several issues from the reign of her predecessor, Queen Mary I, including an unpopular war with France and the religious divisions that Mary's campaign against Protestantism had left behind.

What was the age difference between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth? ›

This was because Mary – who was 17 years older than her half-sister – took pity on Elizabeth. "When Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed, Elizabeth was ousted from favour. She didn't really have anything to do with her father, Henry VIII.

What happened after Mary, Queen of Scots died? ›

The aftermath

Queen Elizabeth reigned until 1603. She died aged 69, unmarried and childless. Mary's son, King James VI of Scotland, became King James I of England. It was not until 1612 that Mary's son had her remains moved to Westminster Abbey, where he had commissioned her a grand monumental tomb.

Is Queen Elizabeth related to Virgin Mary? ›

Long story short: Mary and Elizabeth were first cousins once removed through King Henry VII of England. Two of Henry VII's eight children were Henry VIII Tudor and Margaret Tudor. Margaret went to Scotland and married James IV; their son, James V, had Mary with his second wife, Mary of Guise.

How did Elizabeth get rid of Mary? ›

Mary was eventually found guilty of conspiring to assassinate the queen in the Babington plot; her own signature on secret letters securing her own death. Elizabeth had no choice but to execute Mary, as was the law.

Did Mary, Queen of Scots have a better claim to the English throne? ›

Mary, Queen of Scot's religion was Catholic, so many people wanted a Roman Catholic ruler instead of the Protestant Elizabeth. Many Catholics felt that Mary, Queen of Scot's religion meant that she was the true heir of the English throne and that Elizabeth I did not have the right to rule.

What happens to Lola's baby after she dies? ›

John Philip is the illegitimate son born to his father, King Francis, and his mother, Lady Lola. He has been given lands and titles, including Baron of Vallie. He lost his father to a gang of Scottish assassins and his mother was decapitated not long after, making him an orphan.

Who were the 4 Marys? ›

They are known to history as 'The Four Marys'; Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton and Mary Livingston. Mary Fleming was also a relative of Mary Queen of Scots, as Fleming's mother was the illegitimate half-sister of Mary Queen of Scots' late father King James V.

Is Sebastian from Reign a real person? ›

He is the only main character not based on a real person. There are internet rumors that Bash is based on Bastian Pagez, one of Mary's most loyal servants. This is not true.

Who is the Princess of Scotland now? ›

She is the second child and only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and the only sister of King Charles III. Anne is 16th in the line of succession to the British throne and has been Princess Royal since 1987.

What is a cool Scottish name? ›

Whether you're Scottish yourself or simply want to appreciate the culture through baby, a cool Scottish baby name is an excellent choice.
  • Frazier.
  • McCarthy.
  • Gilles.
  • Clydell.
  • Bartley.
  • Eon.
  • Fergus.
  • Bran.

Who is current king of Scotland? ›

3, 2022 in Braemar, Scotland. Charles became King Charles III on Sept. 8 following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

What happened to Mary, Queen of Scots after her son was born? ›

Forced to abdicate by Scottish nobles in 1567, Mary sought the protection of England's Queen Elizabeth I, who instead had her arrested. Mary spent the remainder of her life in captivity until her 1587 execution.

Who ruled Scotland when Mary died? ›

James VI became king of Scotland in 1567 when Mary was forced to abdicate. On the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he became James I of England.

Who rules Scotland after Mary dies? ›

On February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded for treason. Her son, King James VI of Scotland, calmly accepted his mother's execution, and upon Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603 he became king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

How old was Mary, Queen of Scots when she got married? ›

On this day in history, 24th April 1558, Mary, Queen of Scots, married Francis, the Dauphin of France, at Notre Dame in Paris. Mary was fifteen, and Francis was fourteen.

How tall was Queen Mary? ›

Mary Stuart – the woman

Mary Stuart, known as Mary Queen of Scots, was a remarkable specimen of humanity. She was 5'11" in height when the average woman was around 4'11", so she was the equivalent of a woman 6'5" by modern standards and probably one of the tallest women in Europe.

Who was with Queen Mary when she died? ›

They included the Duke of Windsor and the Princess Royal. Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived with Princess Margaret at 1646 GMT.

Did Queen Mary have a boy? ›

After Philip's visit in 1557, Mary again thought she was pregnant, with a baby due in March 1558. She decreed in her will that her husband would be the regent during the minority of their child. But no child was born, and Mary was forced to accept that her half-sister Elizabeth would be her lawful successor.

Why is Elizabeth afraid of Mary, Queen of Scots? ›

The most important reason why Mary was a threat to Elizabeth's reign was the fact that Mary was Catholic. Elizabeth had reinstated Protestantism as the official religion of England when she inherited the throne, but that did not mean that there were not still Catholics residing in the country.

Why was Mary, Queen of Scots removed from the throne? ›

She was only 24 years old and had been queen of Scotland since the first week of her life. She was forced to abdicate as a consequence of having taken as her third husband the man who allegedly murdered her second husband. Mary's life had already been eventful.

How is Queen Elizabeth II related to Mary, Queen of Scots? ›

So, even though there have been three different houses who ruled England since the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, (the Stuarts, the Hanovers, and now the Windsors), Elizabeth II is a great-granddaughter 11 times over of Mary, Queen of Scots.

How is Queen Elizabeth related to Mary, Queen of Scots? ›

Mary was Elizabeth's cousin and an heir to the English throne through her Tudor grandmother, Margaret, Henry VIII's older sister.

Why did Mary and Elizabeth not like each other? ›

Wyatt's revolt

Mary and Elizabeth were not close. The half-sisters were separated by age and religion, and Mary had always resented Elizabeth as the daughter of the woman who replaced her mother as queen. As Mary's Protestant heir, Elizabeth was the natural focus for those discontented with Mary.

Who was the last true king of Scotland? ›

Thus, Queen Anne became the last monarch of the ancient kingdoms of Scotland and England and the first of Great Britain, although the kingdoms had shared a monarch since 1603 (see Union of the Crowns). Her uncle Charles II was the last monarch to be crowned in Scotland, at Scone in 1651.

Who is the king of Scotland now? ›

3, 2022 in Braemar, Scotland. Charles became King Charles III on Sept. 8 following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

Why did the Queen dislike Princess Diana? ›

Queen Elizabeth II passed away on September 8 had an uneasy relationship with daughter-in-law Princess Diana. According to the reports, the association had many ups and downs, primarily because of the Queen's son Prince Charles' alleged extramarital affairs.

Is Queen Elizabeth a Stuart or Tudor? ›

Tudor was Queen Elizabeth's surname. "House of Tudor" refers to the Tudor dynasty i.e all monarchs who were of the Tudor family. The Tudor dynasty began when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and became King Henry VII.

Why was Mary Stuart called Bloody Mary? ›

During her five years on the throne, she burnt around 280 people to death. The most famous of these were the Oxford Martyrs, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. It was this that earned her the rather horrible nickname of Bloody Mary.

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