Plotting the Demise of Mary Queen of Scots in 1572

It is often said that Robert Dudley supported his brother-in-law, Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, in the Elizabethan succession question. There is not much substance to this, however, and from early in Elizabeth’s reign his favourite candidate was clearly Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scotland. She was also Elizabeth’s own preference, which is probably reflected in Dudley’s choice. In the early 1560s, Dudley was also on the best terms with William Maitland, Mary’s principal secretary, and other Protestant lords in Scotland, supporting the English or, as he saw it, the Protestant interest.1

Mary Stuart, 1570s

Mary Stuart, 1570s

In 1563 Elizabeth suggested Robert Dudley as a consort to the widowed Mary; Lord Robert, becoming Earl of Leicester in the process, was horrified and Mary was not thrilled either, and finally Elizabeth herself changed her mind. Five years later, after two disastrous marriages to other candidates, Mary Stuart fled to England. – Henceforth the English political scene became dominated by an unending series of plots, real and imagined, to place Mary on the throne instead of the Protestant “bastard” Elizabeth. The immediate question in 1568 and 1569 was what to do with Mary, now in Elizabeth’s custody. Unlike Cecil, Leicester was in favour of restoring her as Scottish queen under English control, preferably with a Protestant English husband – as long as he himself was not the intended bridegroom (as had been suggested).2

In a letter from late 1569 Robert Dudley detailed his opinion to the Earl of Sussex, then President of the Council of the North at York. The basic question was whether to support Mary or the young James VI with his regent, the Earl of Mar. Leicester conceded that it was in the Protestant interest to assist the regency government, but: “I must confess myself to your lordship to be on the opposite side.” Support for the Lords would mean war, and war in Scotland would result in war with France or even Spain, and for that Elizabeth simply had no resources, “surely my Lord, I cannot see it.” Of course, one could not trust the Queen of Scots’ word, but, on her restoration, she might be forced to surrender some Scottish towns and be held in check with losing her rights to the English succession if she reneged on her promises: “There, I would think, would be sufficient bonds to bind any Prince, specially no mightier than she is.”3 – “For there is danger from delivering of her to her Government, so is there danger in retaining her in prison”.4

Then, on 23 August 1572, a terrible massacre of Protestants occurred in Paris and changed the scene once again. The outcry at this “St. Bartholomew’s Night” was immense. Edwin Sandys, Bishop of London, demanded “forthwith to cutt off the Scottish Queen’s head”, and Robert Beale, the privy council’s clerk, counselled “death to the Jezebel”!5 These were just two of many similar opinions, set out in uncalled-for written expertises. Something had to be done about the Queen of Scots, who in recent years had continued to plot, with the Duke of Norfolk and the banker Ridolfi.

Parliament, meanwhile, in 1571 and 1572, had also clamoured for Mary’s execution, but Elizabeth had resisted this sort of pressure; she now sought another way out. About a fortnight after the St. Bartholomew Massacre, Sir Henry Killigrew, then on a mission in France, was recalled and received instructions to travel to Scotland and deal with the regency government:

You ar … secretly to informe some … of the late horrible, universal Murder in France, thereuppon to move them … that the lyke be not ther attempted.

It is found dayly more and more that the Contynuance of the Quene of Scotts here is so dangerooss, both for the Person of the Quene’s majestie and for her State and our Realme as nothyng presently is necessary than that the Realme might be delivered of hir; and though by Justice this might be done in this Realme, yet for certen respects it seemeth better that she be sent into Scotland to be delyvered to the Regent and his Party, so as it may be by some good Meanes wrought, that they themselves wold secretly require it and that good Assurance may be gyven, that as they have hereto fore many Tymes … so they wold without fayle proceed with hir by wey of Justice.6

The idea was that the Scottish government would ask for Mary to be sent to Scotland so that they could try and execute her for the murder of Lord Darnley (her second husband and the father of James VI). Biographers of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I have usually ignored this particular episode in Anglo-Scottish relations; others, like John Guy, have ignored Elizabeth’s involvement in it.7 This was just the impression Elizabeth wanted to create, as Killigrew told his patrons, Cecil and Leicester: “Great charge her majesty gave me at my coming hither, saying that no more was privy to this matter but your honours, and I, that if it came forth the blame should fall thereafter.”8

Killigrew soon sent another missive to Leicester and Cecil in which he reported on his progress and that he would meet the Regent and his party at Leith, where they would “break their minds to me secretly”. He had also achieved that “this great matter” would be “moved by them and not by myself”.9

Cecil and Leicester, back in London, were waiting impatiently:

We two have received your several letters … and we do greatly long to receive from you a further motion with some earnestness, … as we may look for assurance to have it take effect; …

Wherefore we earnestly require you to employ all your labours to procure that it may be both earnestly and speedily followed there, and yet also secretly, as the cause requireth: and when we think of the matter, as daily, yea hourly, we have cause to do … we suspend all our actions only for this, and therefore you can do no greater service than to use speed.

The next step was a conference in the Earl of Morton’s bedchamber, with the earl himself, the Regent Mar, and Killigrew the only persons present. Both noblemen were “willing to do the thing you most desire”, however their lordships could as yet not make up their minds, although both “thought it the best way to end all the troubles, as it were in both realms.” As it turned out, the two lords did not want it to be done without “some manner of ceremony, and a kind of process” which would require an assembly of the Scottish nobility ”after a secret manner”, and “would ask some time”. They also demanded that Elizabeth send troops in order to hold back disaffected elements who might come to Mary’s rescue. Morton and Mar were confident, though, that once they succeeded in getting the Scottish Lords’ consent, “they will not keep the prisoner three hours alive after she come into the bounds of Scotland.”

In further dispatches to Leicester and Cecil, Killigrew informed them how “very hot and earnestly bent” the Earl of Morton was “in the matter”, and how the Earl of Mar had “sent his resolute mind unto my Lord Morton, insomuch that he desired me to write speedily unto both your honours to further the same by all the good means you might, as the best, and as it were, the only salve for the cure of the great sores of this commonwealth.”

Mar and Morton handed their written conditions to Killigrew, an important point in which was that the English Parliament should guarantee James VI’s title to the English throne, notwithstanding any proceedings against his mother. Another demand was that the Earls of Huntingdon, Bedford, and Essex witness Mary’s execution, bringing some 3,000 English troops with them.10

Alas, Killigrew now also had to write that the Regent Mar was gravely ill and not expected to live. As it turned out, the Scottish earl died on the very day Killigrew sent his letter with the Scottish demands. On 3rd November 1572 William Cecil, Lord Burghley, informed Leicester that their scheme had died as well:

My lord – This bearer came to me an hour and a half after your departure. The letters which he brought me are here included. … This way that was meant for dealing with Scotland is, you may see, neither now possible, nor was by their articles made reasonable.

If her majesty will continue her delays for providing for her own surety by just means given her by God, she and we all shall vainly call upon God when the calamity shall fall upon us. God send her majesty strength of spirit to preserve God’s cause, her own life, and the lives of millions of good subjects, all which are most manifestly in danger, and that only by her delays; and so, consequently, she shall be the cause of the overthrow of a noble Crown and realm, which shall be a prey to all that can invade it. God be merciful to us.11

As for Leicester, in his 1569 letter to the Earl of Sussex, he had sensed the moral dilemma the coming years would put him into:

In wordly causes men must be governed by wordly policies, and yet so frame them as God, the author of all, be chiefly regarded. And though in some points I shall deal like a wordly man for my Prince yet I hope I shall not forget that I am a Christian, nor my duty to God.12

1 Adams 2002 pp. 104, 107, 137 – 138, 141
2 Jenkins 2002 pp. 159 – 160, 168 – 169; Adams 2002 p. 18
3 Jenkins 2002 pp. 168 – 169
4 Chamberlin 1939 p. 187
5 Whitelock 2013 pp. 145 – 146
6 Chamberlin 1939 p. 194
7 Guy 2009 p. 470
8 Chamberlin 1939 p. 195
9 Chamberlin 1939 p. 195
10 Chamberlin 1939 pp. 196 – 197
11 Chamberlin 1939 p. 198
12 Jenkins 2002 p. 169

Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.

Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.

Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.

Guy, John (2009): My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. Fourth Estate.

Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.

Whitelock, Anna (2013): Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court. Bloomsbury.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at
This entry was posted in Elizabeth I, letters, Robert Dudley and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Plotting the Demise of Mary Queen of Scots in 1572

  1. Beata says:

    I’ve often wondered how serious Elizabeth was in suggesting Robert as a possible consort for Mary. Elizabeth was pretty complicated and I really, really feel that had Robert and Mary actually announced plans to marry Elizabeth would have prevented it!

  2. Jan Abraham says:

    Thank you for this terrific article on this subject.All the politics dealing with Mary are intricate, and complex. My feeling is that she put forward Leicester to insult the Queen, as it was widely known that he was QE1’s lover and dear friend. She was playing a cat and mouse game with Mary, knowing she would feel insulted. He also was not royalty, even though she had elevated him to Earl. Her plan went smoothly, and then she sent Young Darnley up to Scotland, knowing his pedigree and height would attract Mary. When Mary told her good sister he was the one she had decided on, she basically said NO. This of course only hastened Mary to the alter, as she thought, well , I’m Queen, I’m in love with this fellow, and he is royal . He is Scots, and a Catholic as well so I will marry him quickly and we will rule happily. For the several months he wooed Mary he did put on a good mask of his true personality, dancing beautifully, reading poetry, staying sober and charming. She really didn’t have any sense of his true person, but QE1 did. She had spun the trap, and she knew “marry in haste, and regret in leisure”.
    Had Marie had a longer courtship, I surely think Darnley would have revealed himself, and Marie would have made it clear that he would not ever be King, but only consort. To conclude, QE1, being wise about women, and having dealt with Mary for some time knew how to promote a disastrous marriage that would cause her great trouble, especially insured by her providing bribes to the Scots council. She orchestrated the perfect downfall for Mary and it worked! I am posting this wonderful information on this crucial matter on my page, and thank you for your fine scholarship and writing. Another piece of the puzzle fits.

    • Jan Abraham says:

      I will of course be respectful of giving you full credit, and telling folks on the page who are unfamiliar with your wonderful website to take a look,. Great article Christine. I still see a book there in you. You are a fine, careful historian, and your articles are so well researched.
      Marie Queen of Scots facebook page

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