Renaissance and Reformation Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots)
Amy Blakeway
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0387


Mary, Queen of Scots, remains one of the most contested figures of the early modern era. Born in December 1542, she became Queen of Scots at six days old following the death of her father, James V, from dysentery. During her minority, Scotland was ruled by two regents, her heir apparent, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran and Duke of Châtelherault (r. 1543–1554) and her mother, Marie de Guise (r. 1554–1560). The first years of Mary’s minority were dominated by war with England, and in 1548, as a result of the Treaty of Haddington that provided for her future marriage to the Dauphin, she was sent to live in France. She only returned to Scotland in 1561, following the deaths of her husband and mother in 1560. The efficacy of her personal rule (1561–1567) is hotly debated. Following her deposition in 1567, Mary endured a brief period of captivity in Scotland before escaping to England in 1568, where she remained captive until her execution in 1587. The cocktail of salacious stories about Mary’s sex life, the glamour of her court, and personal attractiveness have made Mary a subject of perennial interest for scholars and writers of less academic works. Despite the proliferation of popular biographies (the most prominent, and perhaps the best of these being by Antonia Fraser), the works included here are only those with a scholarly component. Sources for Mary’s life are rich, including a raft of personal correspondence, governmental financial and administrative records, and large quantities of polemical debate in prose and poetry, printed and manuscript, and words and pictures, produced to debate first the legitimacy of her deposition then of her execution. Major themes in the literature include the effect of Mary’s education on her suitability to rule, the efficacy (often characterized in bleak “success versus failure” terms) of her personal rule, the events that surrounded her deposition in 1567, and her involvement in the plots on her behalf during her captivity; in recent years, these classic themes have been joined by a growing interest in the propaganda produced after her deposition.

Biographies and General Works

Mary, Queen of Scots, has been the subject of numerous biographies—both scholarly and otherwise. Those listed here are the more recent, and scholarly, approaches to the subject. Mary’s performance as queen, guilt—or at least complicity—in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, and sexual morality remain contentious topics. Yet, most scholarly biographies have focused upon her political abilities as queen. Wormald 1988, for instance, trenchantly characterizes Mary as a “failure,” a view out of step with most other works, including Lynch 1988 and Guy 2004, which have gradually reassessed Mary’s personal rule in more favorable terms. More recent works, such as Walton 2007 and Warnicke 2006, have sought to outline the role that gender and cultural norms played in Mary’s rule and downfall.

  • Guy, John A. My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: Fourth Estate, 2004.

    Also published as John Guy, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Written for a wider as well as academic audience, this biography’s accessible nature makes it especially helpful for students. However, the analysis of the casket letters in the context of French religious and courtly poetry makes the sections of the book relating to them an important contribution to debate on these controversial documents.

  • Lynch, Michael, ed. Mary Stewart: Queen in Three Kingdoms. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

    This was first published as a special issue of Innes Review for the four hundredth anniversary of Mary’s execution, worked together to contribute to a favorable reassessment of Mary, arguing, for instance, that her carefully trodden path of avoiding endorsing the reformation settlement while allowing the practice of the reformed religion and maintaining her own Catholicism helped to avoid civil war.

  • Walton, Kristen P. Catholic Queen, Protestant Patriarchy: Mary Queen of Scots and the Politics of Gender and Religion. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230285958

    This recent study examines Mary’s career through the lens of gender relations, including an examination of the propaganda produced after Mary’s downfall. The book focuses upon perceptions of Mary up to the conclusion of the Marian civil war.

  • Warnicke, Retha M. Mary Queen of Scots. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006.

    Approaches Mary’s life from a cultural perspective and pays particular attention to issues of cultural attitudes to gender and Mary’s training, or preparedness, for rule. The clear writing style makes it helpful for students seeking an introductory work.

  • Wormald, Jenny. Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure. London: G. Philip, 1988.

    Revised version: Jenny Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots: Politics, Passion and a Kingdom Lost (London: Tauris Park, 2001). Reissued with foreword and afterword by Anna Groundwater: Jenny Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2017). This provocative biography sought to place Mary in context with her Stewart predecessors and assess her rule by the usual standards of Stewart kingship. This formed the basis for a highly critical reassessment of the personal reign, citing in particular a major failure to secure respect from her subjects as well as allowing the prospect of the English succession to overshadow domestic concerns.

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