mary stuart in crisis


Mary Stuart &  English politics 1568 to 1572

Given at North Staffordshire historians 18th February 2019


Mary Stuart aka Mary Queen of Scots was in prison in England from February 3rd 1569 when she  arrived at Tutbury castle Staffordshire (450 years ago this month) to her execution at Fotheringhay on February 8th 1587. She had arrived in England as a fugitive from Scottish rebels on May 16th 1568. Tonight I will be looking at the opening years in England when – without overtly meaning to – Mary Stuart transferred from being a destructive element in Scottish politics to being a destructive element in English politics.


I will not be talking about Mary in Scotland or the (2018) film’s focus on Scottish politics because I am not a Scottish historian and the legend of Mary which is so powerful depends on  Elizabethan politics, which are defined by the years between her arrival in England  and the execution of her intended husband, the Duke of Norfolk, four years later on 2nd June 1572.


It is well known that Mary had been driven out of Scotland by rebels protesting at the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, and her marriage to the man accused of organising his killing, Lord Bothwell. These were sensations which even the sympathetic John Guy agrees “tarnished her reputation for ever, and rightly so. She (Mary TF) made no serious effort to bring Darnley’s killers to justice” (Guy 2018 p314= see the rest of the page for his analysis of the damage). The outome was that she had finally united her famously divided country as Guy concludes “Even the Catholics deserted Mary in her hour of need” (op cit p311). What happened in Scotland is essential background information but reasonably well  known. While the Catholics turned back to her later, as we will see, the legacy which she brought to England was a blackened reputation, and how this played in England raises the issues that I will be talking about.


Her arrival in England initially led to a period of  confinement which was not technically imprisonment despite her being close guarded – Guy says Bolton Castle after arriving from Carlisle “may have seemed less a place of imprisonment than a place of refuge ” (op cit p440). Warm physically (it had a primitive form of central heating) and in Lady Scrope a welcoming hostess. As the sister of the Duke of Norfolk she may have put the dangerous idea of marrying her brother into Mary’s consciousness, but certainly the months in the north of England were not really captivity.  Indeed Mary expected to be put back on the Scottish throne  by an English army.  In the months before Tutbury, she did not try to escape as she saw no reason to do so. This changed  when she arrived at Tutbury.


The current film sees the relationship of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart as always hostile, but not only did they never meet  but there was no serious conflict between the two while they were both Queens. Once at Tutbury  Mary  sparked conflict which poses three unresolved issues for historians. Firstly why has the Earls rebellion of 1569 been neglected – it had a clear link to Mary. As we approach the 450th anniversary of the Earls revolt it is time to give it the importance it deserves.

I will look at it in some detail, as it had a connection with Tutbury.


Secondly, why was the Marian period a golden age for assassination attempts – not all linked to Mary admittedly but the serious ones certainly were. And thirdly, why was Elizabeth reluctant to take action against Mary when this was the case? Despite Mary being culturally and historically a super star, unresolved questions about her career exist on these  crucial issues.


We are accustomed to think of Elizabeth as firmly in control and lasting for 45 years as Queen because popular and politically skilful. She was in fact more insecure than we have come to believe, and the risk that she would be ousted in favour of her younger cousin was far greater than appears in hindsight.


Any discussion of her historical role has to recognise there are two viewpoints on her life running in parrallel, one CULTURAL seeing her as Martyr or Victim and largely based on the years in  England. This rests on a partisan view of Elizabeth as her persecutor. Secondly there is a HISTORICAL view which takes into account her handling of power politics before and after arriving in England. For Scotland,  Jenny Wormald thinks this is a period of failure MQOS A STUDY IN FAILURE 1988 while others see the reign more sympathetically. How effectively she handed the political challenges facing her was  of course affected by the constraints of her time -she was  never an absolute monarch in Scotland – and in prison for eighteen years in England. But she was not helpless and was always able to make decisions – not always with good effects.




An important belief underlying the idea Mary was imprisoned without cause is the idea that she was imprisoned because she posed a threat to Elizabeth’s hold on the English throne. The threat of a Catholic on the throne became an issue, and was a constant in the view of William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) her key advisor, (see GUY 2004/18)  but was not the reason why Mary was detained. Elizabeth was 35 when Mary arrived, was still expected to marry and have children. The longer she did not, the more this became  factor but it was not important in 1568. Mary expected to be returned to Scotland and this belief dominated her attitudes for most of the first three years in England. She did become sympathetic to the Ridolfi plot – as protestant opinion turned violently hostile. Yet two and a half years after her arrival –  October 1570 – English ministers were discussing with her the terms for a return to the Scottish throne (Fraser 2002 p80) and her claim to the English throne was not yet important.


When she arrived in England both Queens expected that Elizabeth would give military assistance to Mary to regain the Scottish throne, initially the only condition being that Mary did not seek assistance from the French (AF p 10-11, p13 note14- strange comment by AF). The danger of the Auld Alliance reviving and England again being nut in an international nutracker was initially the major sticking point. However it rapidly became clear Mary could not be supported by England while she was accused by Moray (Murray) her half brother (James Stuart) of complicity in the murder of her second  husband, Lord Darnley.


Elizabeth decided that only if an inquiry found Mary  innocent of the charges would she be supported. Moray produced the infamous Casket Letters, which may have been faked  to prove her guilt, but the result was inconclusive: the outcome being a not proven verdict, Moray was left in charge in Scotland as Regent and Mary was blocked from the Scots throne. She found that she was accidentally  a major factor in English politics. This was  certainly not her fault, but  Elizabeth could not allow her to go abroad – the options available were Catholic countries – and the English feared she could become a pawn in a Catholic power play. She was officially a guest, but unofficially under House Arrest.


She was therefore sent to Tutbury castle in January 1569 and on arrival realised she was in prison, the Earl of Shrewsbury being her jailer. At this point both Cultural and Historical accounts agree that she was imprisoned without being convicted of anything, and her fate has a genuinely tragic element. Not suprisingly, she plotted to gain her release. She had already told Francis Knollys, her first jailer, in October 1568 though she hoped Elizabeth would back her as Scottish Queen if things  went badly “as a desperate person I will use any attempts that may serve my purpose”, and she kept her promise. She regarded imprisonment as illegal, and after  she was in prison began to explore ways to escape. (Fraser 2002 pp28-29)


Once it was clear she would not be supported in going back to Scotland she had appealed to the Spanish for help using her Catholic faith as a bargaining counter. She wrote in early January 1569 for a message to go to the Spanish Ambassador De Spes “Tell the Ambassador that if his master will help me, I shall been queen of  England in three months, and Mass shall be said all over the country” (OUP p130).  The timing was absurdly unrealistic and Spain was unable to invade in 1569 anyway, but De Spes added her call to the conspiracy known as the Ridolfi plot. There was no doubt Mary had concieved the idea of taking Elizabeth’s throne,  the implication clearly being she wanted Elizabeth killed or imprisoned, but while the wish was father to the thought, real action was difficult to achieve.


The third historical  issue however is why Elizabeth made so little response to so clear a threat. Mary was motivated by her own agenda- but what was Elizabeth’s?


From early 1569 events moved in two directions, both with significant research gaps. One is the projected marriage of Mary Stuart to the Duke of Norfolk, and the other is open Catholic resistance to the Protestant government of Elizabeth. This had been developing in the North of England since Elizabeth took over, as a Protestant monarch, in 1558. The two strands are distinct but are connected in the person of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, the premier aristocrat and a man of enormous arrogance but not a lot of intelligence or moral fibre.




Although the Duke was the chair of the inquiry into the Casket Letters and knew all the allegations against Mary, he was tempted by the thought of marrying a Queen. Possibly the cupid in this affair was the Duke’s sister, wife of Lord Scrope Elizabeth’s representative in the North West, and that the seed was sown as early as Mary’s time in Bolton Castle, (AF 2002 pp78-79) . But neither Fraser nor Guy say much  about Lady Scrope. Being Norfolk’s sister  meant she was  the sister of the Countess of Westmorland, and that points to the Catholic plots which Norfolk’s brother in law the Earl of Westmorland would lead later in 1569. There is however no clear link between the marriage plan and the Catholic uprising. The theory that the collapse of the marriage plan triggered the uprising is a misreading of what happened, though Mary was unwittingly part of the rebellion.


A marriage between the Queen in Exile and the nominally protestant Duke of Norfolk was a welcome prospect to many leading aristocrats  as it would secure the succession if Mary had children by an English lord. Her half brother Moray (or Murray) initially favoured it as keeping Mary out of Scotland: but Moray then realised if his half sister did replace Elizabeth and became Queen she could invade Scotland with an English army and impose the Catholic religion.  Elizabeth had been kept in the dark about the marriage which clearly posed a threat to her,  but heard rumours. When the Queen interrogated Norfolk he said “Should I seek to marry her, such a notorious murderess and adulterer? any marriage with her might justly charge me with seeking your crown from your head”. (Ackroyd 2013 pp354-5).  Despite knowing the marriage threatened the Queen and was treasonable, Norfolk ploughed on. When Elizabeth recieved proof of the intended marriage from Moray in Scotland, she banned it  knowing it would effectively make her redundant. Norfolk  knew  perfectly well that planning to marry a woman with Mary’s dynastic claim to the English throne was High Treason and can hardly have been suprised when Elizabeth forbade him to marry Mary.


Six weeks earlier the Scots made it clear they were not having her back – the Scottish Lords voted in July at a Convention in Perth 40-9 (AF 73) to reject her return whatever conditions were made about her role. Mary had no future except in England, but had seemed not to pose an immediate threat to the throne. Elizabeth allowed Shrewsbury to move Mary to Wingfield Manor and Chatsworth  in Derbyshire during the summer of1569 though these were not as secure as Tutbury Castle. The political climate then rapidly deteriorated with rumours of a  Catholic rebellion in the north linked to Norfolk’s reaction to having his marriage refused – he left the court without permission in early September and was thought to be on the warpath. This forced Mary’s  return to Tutbury creating a considerable problem for historians, who do not understand the seriousness of the rebellion nor Mary’s unwitting but vital contribution to it.




The Northern or more properly Earls rebellion is the first of the wider failures of historical study involving Mary Stuart. She did not play a direct role, but could not escape involvement in events many miles north of Tutbury, and her passive role is often linked to her intended marriage. What actually happened has to be brought under scrutiny. Few historians have taken the rebellion seriously..


The view of Robert Wood introducing a document collection on the rebellion republished in 1975, sums up the state of play at that time by writing  “little attention has been paid to the one pitiful attempt made during her reign by some of her subjects to rebel against her government”.  (Wood 1975) He is right about the lack of attention, and the organisation was indeed pitiful, but this is not the whole story as  the rebellion  has been underestimated, and since he wrote little has changed – despite the publication of K J Kesselring’s THE .NORTHERN REBELLION in 2007. Meticulous and informative, he still adopts the conventional view that the rebellion did not have much to do with Mary Stuart.


The two main biographers of Mary Stuart are massively dismissive, Antonia Fraser commenting that the rebellion led by the Catholic Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland “did nothing to improve her lot. … (it was) more in the nature of a separatist movement on the part of northern catholics than a revolt on the part of Mary Queen of Scots” (2002 p74). Guy agrees, giving the rebellion short shrift in a mere three sentences (2004 p463). The dismissive attitude of historian goes back before the First Word War, notably featuring  Conyers Read who in 1909 wrote that while Norfolk was in the Tower at the time  he had some responsibility as “His bolder friends in the North thereupon mustered their forces and broke out in open rebellion. They were repressed almost without fighting. The end of the business, for the moment at least, was a triumphal vindication of Cecil and his party” (Bardon Papers 1909 pxxiv). Only three sentences which set the tone for later writing on the Northern Rebellion, overwhelmingly seen as badly organised – which it was – and therefore unimportant.  The reasons may lie in the misconception this was a re-run of an earlier failure.

It is easy to see the Rebellion as a re-run of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, and therefore also doomed to fail. Certainly the aim was  the same – to overthrow the Protestant Reformation by challenging the government. To do this the Pilgrimage had had the massive challenge of marching badly trained and half starved peasants over 250 miles across the River Trent and overthrowing the government minister in London, Thomas Cromwell who was blamed as  the driver of the new religion. The 1536 revolt got nowhere near crossing the Trent, the geographical dividing line of England in the Tudor period, accepting promises from the King and going home – whereupon Henry VIII broke his promises and crushed the rebellion. If the 1569  rebellion had been simply a restaging of the 1536 revolt it would have indeed been futile – and this did seem to be the original plan. But neither this –

nor the view that its aim was to put Mary on the throne are valid.


Ministers had feared that Norfolk would react to his marriage being cancelled by  rebelling and when he left for his Kenninghall estate in Norfolk without permission in early September it was believed he was preparing to mobilise his tenants for rebellion in the old feudal manner. De Spes the spanish ambassador believed this and talked of military aid from Spain, while the OUP says Mary “counselled him to be bold”. Norfolk was anything but bold and surrendered on 24th september. He was taken to the Tower and locked up.


It is often thought the rebellion was aimed at forcing the marriage of Norfolk and Mary and putting

her on the throne. For example, J B Black in the Oxford history of England says  “the rebellion should have begun when Norfolk, disappointed of his purpose, left the court in high dudgeon in September” (OUP p157). But Norfolk still hoped Elizabeth would agree to the marriage and wrote to his brother in law the Earl of Westmorland urging the plan be abandoned as he could be arrested for high treason. When Norfolk  surrendered on September 24th it created some confusion in the counsels of the three leaders of the revolt, the Lords Dacre, Northumberland and Westmorland but they were not driven by supporting Norfolk. The actual rebellion, which was purely about religion, went ahead regardless of what he or Mary thought


The rebel leaders agreed the aim would be purely to restore the Catholic Church, leaving all issues relating to Mary off the agenda. Historians have noted both the chaotic planning and the neglect of Mary’s position and concluded the subsequent rebellion was  futile and fatally confused. But the 1569 rebellion did not need to  march south of the Trent to confront the government in London. The leaders of the rebellion were well aware there was a vital difference with 1536.


Unlike 1536, the rebels of 1569 had an ace in the hole potentially able to mobilise the considerable Catholic support of a country still largely Papist. The ace in the hole was Mary, who was not a prime mover but  was fated to feature in developments.  Tutbury, was over a hundred miles nearer than London and on the northern side of the River. Releasing Mary was an achievable objective. This was not spoken of openly for obvious reasons but the interrogation of the Earl of Northumberland, one of the revolt leaders, after being defeated points to that being the case. And the logic is very clear. If Mary could be released from Tutbury by the rebel army, many Catholics who had been sitting on their hands could join the Rebellion.


Kesselring quotes a contemporary writer, stating the rebels when shouting “God Save the Queen… they have plainly showed that it is not our Queen, Queen Elizabeth, that they mean” (Kesselring 2007P159). The original pamphlet was published in 1569, during the rebellion, and there is no doubt that while Mary was not a mover and shaker, a successful revolt depended on her. If she were released, then Elizabeth faced  catastrophe. While historians do not understand this, Elizabeth and her ministers certainly did.


The revolt erupted on November 14th when armed men celebrated the catholic mass in Durham cathedral and then marched south. When news reached Tutbury, Shrewsbury wrote to London that he had put an extra 100 guards on the castle, sent mounted scouts to look for rebels, and ordered a search for weapons in the houses around the castle walls. He had already, on 22nd September, welcomed the Earl of Huntingdon and Viscount Hereford (from Chartley), but these did not bring many extra troops. The danger was of a fast moving troop of horsemen heading across country to storm the castle. But whether this was a real threat is not at all clear from the literature.


The account of the rebellion in the Oxford history of England almost uniquely notes that the rebels were well placed to attempt such a raid. Sussex the commander of the Royalist forces at York (Lord President of the Council) could not raise protestants to form an army of the north and could only defend York (1959 p139). On the 20th November he wrote to Elizabeth that the rebels were strong in horses, having the reivers of Tynedale and Redesdale in their ranks. This was exactly the type of troops who would be needed for a race across country to Tutbury, and according to Black who wrote the Oxford history, Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth’s cousin, who was moving north to take Berwick for the Queen found his progress blocked at Doncaster had heard from the men who were holding Doncaster for the Queen the rumour  that the rebels were aiming for Tutbury to release the exile.


It is suprising that what happens next is obscure. Black in the OUP cannot work out whether such a raid was attempted, stating that the main rebel army marching from Richmond reached Selby “about 24th November. Whether a swift raid was actually made from here on Tutbury – a distance of  some 50 miles – by a band of horsemen under Northumberland is uncertain but highly unlikely”. (OUP 140)  In the sixty years since Black’s book was published, we have made no progress at all on whether the raid  on November 22nd the Queen ordered Shrewsbury and his two aristocratic assistants to move Mary south of the Trent to Warwickshire (K p76) – to Coventry in fact, which they reached on  November 25th . It is not in my view accidental that immediately  the revolt began to collapse, the rebel army retreating to Richmond in Yorkshire on the 28th November.


By this time large numbers of Royal Troops were moving North. To put the mobilisation in context, Jasper Ridley claims that for the Spanish Armada in 1588 the government mobilised 22,000 troops

but for the Northern rebellion Elizabeth mobilised 28,000. THE TUDOR AGE 1998/2002 -p237). Kesselring is more precise, commenting that (p79) the government mobilised 10,000 foot and 700 cavalry to guard the Queen, with 20,000 foot and 2,500 cavalry being mobilised to march into the North to suppress the rebellion. An attack on the Queen was clearly expected and these preparations show they feared civil war. This was a frightened government.


In the end the northern army consisted of 14,215 men, a highly impressive total which demonstrated that the notoriously skinflint Queen had no reservations about spending money to repress the rebellion. The Earls Rebellion was taken very seriously by government and demands more attention by historians than it has received to date. Mary was the key factor and moving her to Coventry the decisive act in defeating the rebellion.




Once the rebellion had been suppressed, Catholics kept their heads down and radical Catholic activity  morphed into the insurrection known as the Ridolfi plot, aided by the excommunication of Elizabeth 1 by the Pope. The papal bull was issued in Rome on February 25th (OUP 167) ie before news of the Earls rebellion had reached the Vatican, and was posted in London in May 1570, after the north had been crushed by Elizabeth’s armies, some 900 rebels being hung with their bodies left hanging as a warning for others. What happened in Rome did not counteract the brutal defeat the Catholic rebels had suffered. Instead a pre existing plot re-emerged.


Ambassador de Spes had told Philip of Spain about the plot as early as  29th February 1568, having been approached by a Florentine merchant Roberto Ridolfi on behalf of Norfolk and Arundel for a Catholic rebellion supported by Spanish invaders. This went off the radar while the Earls revolt took place, but was revived after the failure of the Earls Rebellion – and Norfolk would again be drawn in. The Bull encouraged murder plots against Elizabeth as a heretic, Ridolfi had used his professional ability as a financier to move across borders  to build a network for a Catholic conspiracy.

Norfolk was released from the Tower in August 1570- his imprisonment being a perfect alibi; no one could accuse him of being a rebel. However  he and  Mary seemed to share the illusion that  their  marriage was  possible, Antonia Fraser commenting that she wrote to Norfolk that their marriage would be approved although “She had had considerable evidence to the contrary” (AF 2002 p72), but  Norfolk realised that this was only possible if Elizabeth was removed, and was open to being involved in the Ridolfi plot.


This was to be a three pronged affair: A Catholic Uprising supported by a Spanish invasion using troops from the Netherlands and then the release of Mary who would become Queen after the removal of Elizabeth. It was a fantasy, ignoring  the defeat of the actual Catholic uprising of 1569. But Mary gave it her support, showing again astonishing bad judgement, in letters quoted at Norfolk’s trial


The Spanish commander in the Netherlands, Alva, regarded Ridolfi as a windbag, who was so full of himself that he told the Grand Duke of Tuscany of the plot, being unaware that Cosimo di Medici would immediately write to Elizabeth to tell her of the threat to her throne, which is exactly what he did. It was thus by accident Elizabeth’s ministers found that the Plot was well advanced.


The government having no police or secret service had no knowledge of the extent of the plot, but in April 1571 Charles Baillie a messenger for Norfolk was arrested at Dover with ciphered messages for continental catholics and forced to reveal the ciphers. The government had another lucky break when. on 29th August 1571 Norfolk’s secretaries asked a Shrewsbury merchant to deliver silver coin to one of his officials in the north of England. Finding the bag contained gold coin and ciphered letters, he handed the find to William Cecil. Norfolk’s London home was searched and a ciphered letter from Mary was found which when deciphered proved to give support to the plot, though not for overthrowing Elizabeth. At this time, Mary was careful not to give hostages to fortune.


On 7th September Norfolk was taken to the tower again and confessed to supporting Catholic rebellion in Scotland, to aid Mary regain the throne, which was treasonable action against a friendly country. In the end Norfolk, who was back in the Tower, faced three charges of high treason and was convicted. Mary’s letters read out at the Trial laid her open to the charge of complicity. Protestant opinion was outraged, particularly as excommunication was an open incitement to Catholics to murder Elizabeth, and Norfolk acted after the Bull had been published. While John Guy attacks William Cecil for orchestrating calls for Mary to be tried for treason, he had little need to do so. Protestants expelled Catholics from parliament and in the protestant backlash few politicians had any doubt Norfolk and Mary deserved execution.


The refusal of Elizabeth to do so raises the other two major questions from this period of Mary Stuart’s time in England. It was clear that England would now be troubled by conspiracies attempting to remove Elizabeth and reversing protestantism by de facto civil war stimulated by Mary’s presence in England. Yet Elizabeth remained unwilling to put Mary under strict quarantine, and she continued until 1585 and her third jailer Amayas Paulet to be able to plot. Why the regime remained lenient is a question which puzzled Elizabeth’s ministers through out the next decade or more (see Mary- Staffs======) with continual plotting failing for over a decade to provoke a more rigorous confinement of Mary.


But even odder than this is Elizabeths’ toleration of a woman who was out get her throne and to do so by having her killed. As Antonia Fraser writes,”it was the will of Elizabeth 1… which stayed the hand of the Commons against her in the summer of 1572. Elizabeth personally prevented the Commons from passing a bill of attainder against her in the summer of 1572… her preservation of Mary’s life in 1572 by personal intervention must be to her credit”. (AF 2002 pp86-87). Indeed, far from persecuting her, Elizabeth kept her alive and in conditions which allowed her to plot regicide. I cannot think of any other example of a monarch keeping a potential killer alive and able to plot in any similar set of circumstances. It remains a deep puzzle of their relationship, still not explained.

There was a price in 1572 for stopping the Bill of Attainder-  Norfolk had to die. He was clearly guilty of treason and was convicted, yet Elizabeth was reluctant  to have the death sentence carried out. Three times she signed the death warrant: twice it was withdrawn. Only when in the summer of 1572 the clamour against the two intended bride and groom had reached dangerous proportions did Elizabeth allow Norfolk to be executed. His death protected his intended bride. Mary survived because of Elizabeth’s refusal to have Protestants martyr Mary, and perhaps for that reason. We do not know. WHat we do know is that by taking this decision, and allowing a relatively lenient regime for the imprisonment of the exiled Queen, she was allowing Mary to plot to kill her.


Yet this apparent willingness to flirt which her own killing was not due to Elizabeth not knowing the threat that Mary Stuart posed. In a letter quoted by Ackroyd (but no date) written to Mary, the English Queen wrote


ackroyd 2012 quote= Elizabeth to Mary DATE?


MARY says she has a secret to tell: “you have caused a rebellion in my realm and have aimed at my own life. \you will say you do not mean these things. Madam, I would I could think so poorly of your understanding. …. you will say you have some mystery which you wish to make known to me. If it be so, you must write it. You are aware that I do not think it well that you and I should meet”.


Why Elizabeth would tolerate such an open challenge to her royalty and indeed her very existence is

a deep puzzle. The evidence shows that Mary was not a passive victim, and could not be seen as an innocent abroad at any time since she left France and took control of her fate. Why she provoked so many hostile reactions is the key issue for Biographers, yet to be addressed, but for historians of Elizabethan England the central puzzle is why Elizabeth put her throne at risk.


It is a matter of fact that she survived, Mary died on the block and Elizabeth overcame the Spanish attempts to overthrow her by invasion. We should stop thinking that the outcome was inevitable. As the history of Mary Stuart and her attempt to marry the Duke of Norfolk shows, the threat she posed was considerable and teetered on the verge of success. To understand why Mary did not become Queen Mary II of England with all that that would have entailed needs a closer scrutiny of her ability to pose serious threats to the protestant regime than we have seen in the history books written after both Queens were dead- and the challenges start with the first four years of Mary Stuart’s time in England.

Trevor Fisher                                                    18 2 19

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