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William Shakespeare was just two years old when Mary Queen of Scots was removed from power in 1567. The Queen was put under confinement in Lochleven Castle and forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her young son, James VI, the future James I of England. Mary and her supporters, however, did not go quietly. Mary would escape from prison one year later and incite her followers to confront their enemies in a vicious civil war known as the Marian Civil War. Mary herself left Scotland after the Battle of Langside in 1568, seeking refuge from her cousin, Elizabeth I. Mary would be placed under confinement in England for 19 years, until she was finally executed in 1587, when William Shakespeare was 23 years old, and just starting to make a name for himself in London. Mary was a powerful figure, and her story from Queen to executed criminal played a prominent role in the cultural backdrop of William Shakespeare’s formative years, making it an important event to understand when you’re trying to get to know what life was like for William Shakespeare. Our guest this week is the author of an article on the Marian Civil War history for the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee, Dr. Allan Kennedy.  

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Allan Kennedy is Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of Dundee. His research focuses on the early modern period, especially the seventeenth century, and he has a particular interest in political and social topics.

More on Allan’s work and publications.

I’ll be asking Allan Kennedy about:

  • What was the relationship between England and Scotland at the start of the Marian Civil War?  
  • Why was Mary Queen of Scots being asked to abdicate in favor of her son, when he was just an infant and unable to rule without representation? 
  • What happened to the baby, James VI, during this conflict? Was he with Mary, or being kept somewhere else? Who was taking care of him and why did he not have a father? 
  • …and more!
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Mary Queen of Scots

Our guest David Schajer is the author of a series of books on the intersection between Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and James I, the lives of which contained so much real life drama that their impact spilled over onto the stage of William Shakespeare, where many moments in his plays like Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Merchant of Venice which seem to belie the the thoughts of the moment, like time capsules offering a glimpse into what it was like to live through this pivotal moment in history.

Allegorical Portrait of English commander John Luttrell, painted to celebrate his military prowess during the “Rough Wooing” of Mary Queen of Scots to Edward VI | by Hans Eworth, dated 1550. | Public Domain | Source

Scotland and England Relationship Was Tense

Henry VIII England wants to marry infant Mary Queen of Scots to Edward VI in 1542, but Scotland gets worried that marriage will place them under England’s subjection, so they back out of the agreement, leading to a phase of hostility lasts throughout 1540 and into 1550s.

The relationship is complicated further by the presence of France. France is a traditional ally of Scotland, and one from whom Scotland seeks support in response to England. There are some English forces allied with France who support Scotland, so the entire arrangement is murky at best.

After the Reformation, Scotland becomes Protestant, where previously they had been Catholic. Internally, While Scotland is debating about joining the Reformers, Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, returns to Scotland from France.

All of these situation converge and at the start of Marian Civil War in 1567, England and Scotland are no longer enemies in 1567.

Removing Mary Queen of Scots From Power

Even among the Reformers, there’s a distaste for women ruling at all. John Knox famously publishes a book denouncing women ruling. Additionally, Mary is not the ideal ruler for Scotland because now Scotland is Protestant and Mary is Catholic. There was tension about her ruling because there’s been a great deal of work done to become Protestant and the reigning powers felt threatened by a Catholic Queen.

Darnley and Mary, Queen of Scots (painting circa 1565, now at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire) | Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, parents of King James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England. Lord Darnley is on the left, Queen Mary on the right. | Unknown artist | Public Domain | Source

Mary herself doesn’t help her own case, either, because she makes some strategically awful decisions in her final years. The first, and perhaps worst, of her decisions is to marry Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565. That marriage is disastrous, he’s a bad partner, angers Mary’s court, and brings into question her judgement in general.

1567 drawing of Kirk o’ Field after the murder of Darnley, drawn for William Cecil shortly after the murder. | Unknown Artist |Public Domain | Source

In 1567, Darnley is murdered and by this time Mary and Darnley are estranged, but the Murder of the Queen’s husband (with the title, but not the power in practice) was a major event. The person widely suspected of murdering Darnley is the Earl of Bothwell, and Mary’s response is markedly strange. Instead of opposing the prime suspect, Mary throws her support behind Bothwell and treats him as a friend and ally, trusted advisor, and she even forms a personal relationship with Bothwell, marrying him later that same year in 1567.

There are some who suggest Mary was forced into the marraige, with some evidence suggesting she may have been kidnapped, but the marriage itself, regardless of how or why it took place, is horrifying to anyone of status or position in Scotland. A battle is staged, but Mary surrenders before the battle takes place. It is demanded that Mary abdicate in favor of her infant son, James VI.

James VI and I (right) depicted aged 17 beside his mother Mary (left), 1583. In reality, they were separated when he was still a baby. | by Cornelis Peter Urban | Public Domain | Source

A Baby James VI

James VI is Mary Queen of Scots son with Lord Darnley. Before Darnley’s murder, Mary will see baby James for the last time at the beginning of 1567. After that, she never sees James again. In the course of his youth and adulthood she never sees him. Throughout 1567-1573, Mary is involved in the war, and the baby is not old enough, nor capable, to be personally involved in any way shape or form in the conflict. James VI lives the whole conflict at Sterling Castle, basically locked up there by his supporters, call themselves the King’s Men. 

James doesn’t have a father at this point, since Darnley is murdered, but he does have a nobleman, Earl of Marr, who is appointed guardian of James. Marr and his wife live in Sterling Castle, and ensure James VI is educated, ensure he’s safe, and take care of his upbringing. In terms of the government of Scotland, that is being carried out by a series of people, initially Earl of Moray, and then a series of others as James gets older. The only intervention James has is his coronation, immediately after Mary is overthrown, his supporters arrange a coronation ceremony which is ludicrous because he’s so tiny, the crown swallows him up. James will not play a significant role in the government of Scotland until he begins acting as regent in his own right, during the 1580s.

The End of the Marian Civil War

Mary escapes Lochleven in 1567, and Dumbarton Castle was held for her. She starts to head towards Dumbarton, with an army of 6000 men that she gathered very quickly (just over a fortnight). While she’s heading towards Dumbarton, she’s confronted by an opposing army of 4000 men, which engage her in battle at Langside. At this battle, Mary is defeated, so she never makes it to Dumbarton.

Dumbarton Castle, 2006. | Photographer – Alan Hughes Looking north across the River Clyde towards Dumbarton Castle | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. | Source

Langside happened 11 days after she escaped Longleven Castle. After the battle, she has a choice to either regroup and try again, or to escape. She immediately decides to flee to England and appeal to Elizabeth I. While Mary probably expected solidarity, Elizabeth I is extremely insecure on her throne, which means instead of finding an ally, Mary has handed herself to the one person in the world who has a vested interested in keeping her under control and out of power. Mary remains imprisoned until 1587, when she is executed.

One of the reasons the civil war ends with James emerging victorious is that Mary makes it extremely difficult for her partisans to keep fighting. If the Queen’s Men wins the civil war, she’s in prison and cannot take up the throne. As time passes, it becomes pretty clear that whichever side wins, Mary isn’t coming back, so what’s the point to continue to fight. The war doesn’t end straight away, but drags on until 1573. Edinburgh Castle was the last stronghold holding out for Queen Mary, and the Civil War Ends with the King’s Men finally capturing Edinburgh Castle in 1573, ensuring entire kingdom is loyal to James VI.

James Stuart, Earl of Moray

James Stuart, illegitimate half brother of Mary Queen of Scots, is considerably older than Mary, politically experienced, and when she comes back from France in 1561, he’s an important advisor of hers. After Mary’s marriage to Darnley, however, Moray turns against her, and leads the King’s Men in support of the infant James VI. When Mary deposed in 1567, Moray becomes the regent (effective ruler of Scotland in the name of James VI). As regent, Moray is a good ruler, successful military leader, and he really seems to put a lot of effort into running Scotland well on behalf of the King. In 1570, after only 18 months or so as regent, Moray is assassinated by firearm. He is killed by one of the Queen’s supporters, James Hamilton, who shoots Moray from a house on High Street by leaning out a window and shooting him with a handgun. This is the first assassination anywhere in the world using a firearm. 

James Hamilton in the act of assassinating The Earl of Moray at Linlithgow| by G. Cattermole | Public Domain | Source
Mary Queen of Scots’ portrait in captivity | Unknown artist | Public Domain | Source

England’s response to the War and Mary Queen of Scots

The English government puts Mary on Trial at the end of 1568. The event is called an inquiry, but effectively it’s a trial in disguise to discover whether Mary’s overthrowing in Scotland was legitimate. Representatives of the new Scottish government come down, and give case. In the course of these trials, there’s a set of Casket Letters that emerge. The Casket Letters are a cache of papers and other items supposedly written by Mary, which are presented by the Scottish government during the trial to suggestMary was complicit to kill Darnley. These letters are a way of “proving” that Mary deserved to be deposed.

According to modern historians, the Casket letters are probably forgeries, but the point is that the production of these letters during the English inquiry is electrifying, and everyone is wowed by the private life of Mary, her salacious choices, and issues being touched on by those letters.

Someone like Shakespeare almost certainly would have been aware and gah access to reading material and recognized it was of material importance. 

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!