The True Story Behind Mary Queen of Scots

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

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.

Margot Robbie and Joe Alwyn in Mary Queen of ScotsLiam Daniel—Focus Features

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.

Ian Hart, Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan, and James McArdle in Mary Queen of ScotsLiam Daniel—Focus Features

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.

Ismael Cruz Cordova in Mary Queen of ScotsLiam Daniel—Focus Features

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.

Mary Queen Of Scots
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of ScotsLiam Daniel—Focus Features

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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