Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

The Rival Queens

I have said nothing about the reign of Queen Mary. It was a dismal time for England. The Queen, who had suffered herself on account of her religion, to which she was indeed sincerely attached, was bent upon bringing her subjects back to the old faith. Many who refused were cruelly put to death. About these things, however, you will have to read elsewhere. I must mention two things only: that Mary, very much against the will of her subjects, married Philip II., King of Spain, and was not at all happy in her marriage; and that the town of Calais was taken by the French in the month of January, 1558. The Queen was much distressed at this loss, and is said to have declared that after her death they would find "Calais" written on her heart. She died in the month of November that same year; and to the great joy of the nation was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth.


Queen Elizabeth.

There was much to make people hopeful, but there were also many difficulties in the way. The new Queen's title to the Crown was doubtful, and there was a great party in England, not half or nearly half the people, but still numerous, which did not wish well to her. Both at home and abroad things had been much mismanaged. There was no money in the Treasury, and England was at war with France, not for any object of her own, but to suit the plans of King Philip of Spain. And the new Queen herself was, in some respects, a strange person. She knew how to choose good counsellors, and, on the whole, she trusted them, and listened to their advice. William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, was one of her ministers during nearly the whole of her reign—in fact, from her coming to the throne, till he died, on August 4, 1598.

But she had very bad favourites, and sometimes she would let them lead her into very dangerous positions. She was bent on doing great things for England, but sometimes she was so mean that she would not furnish her soldiers and sailors with proper pay and food. And she was foolishly vain—vain of her learning, of which she really had a good deal, and vain of her beauty, which was nothing very remarkable, though all her courtiers, good and bad, spoke to her and of her, and that to the very end of her life, as if she was the most lovely creature under the sun.

But the person who really was her greatest danger, and of whom, at the same time, this vanity of hers made her most jealous, was Mary Stuart of Scotland.

When I last mentioned Mary, it was just before the death of Edward VI. She was then betrothed to Francis, eldest son of King Henry II. of France. The marriage took place in 1558. In the following year King Henry died, and her husband succeeded him. He too died after a reign of little more than a year. Eight months afterwards Mary came to Scotland. She was only nineteen, very beautiful and charming, very accomplished, and in a degree learned —she had quite a large library of books, considering the age. But she had led a very troubled life, partly on account of the circumstances of the times, and partly from her own fault. There was the same division in Scotland as there was in England, between the favourers of the old faith and the favourers of the new; and Mary, unlike her cousin Elizabeth, belonged to the old. This made her the hope of those who hated Elizabeth. She was, in any case, the next heir to the English Crown, and many believed that it rightfully belonged to her now, partly because they held that Elizabeth's mother had not been properly married, and partly because she, as a heretic, was not qualified to reign. In 1565 Mary married a certain Lord Darnley, a foolish and ill-behaved young man, with whom she soon began to quarrel. In the following year she had a son, of whom we shall hear again. Elizabeth was troubled at the news. "The Queen of Scots," she cried, "hath a fair son, while I am but a barren stock." She had refused to marry, though her subjects had time after time urged her to do so, and though she amused herself by encouraging various suitors, some of them foreign princes, among them a brother of the French King, Henry III., and some of them English nobles, as William Courtenay, Earl of Devon, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Dudley is said to have procured the murder of his wife, Amy Robsart, in order to clear the way for his marriage to Elizabeth. But she could never resolve to give up her liberty, and at the same time she was really afraid that her marriage would injure the country. All the other parties, their own hopes being gone, would have joined together against her and her husband.

Mary, with her son to come after her, was now a really dangerous rival, and if she had been a wise woman, could hardly have failed to make good her claim to the Crown. But a wise woman, happily, it may be, for this country, she was not. She had done, as we have seen, a very foolish thing in choosing Darnley for a husband, but worse was to follow. He refused to attend the christening of the young Prince. Afterwards he fell ill of smallpox, and Mary went to see him, and behaved very affectionately to him. When he could be moved, he was brought to a house outside the walls of Edinburgh, called the Kirk of Field, because it had once been a house of monks. It was a small, ruinous place. Mary slept on the first floor; her husband was below. To all appearance she was very loving to him. But a few days after he came into the house, he was warned that, unless he got away at once, he would never leave it alive. On February 9—i.e. twelve days after Darnley came to Kirk of Field—there was a wedding of two of the royal servants at Holyrood Palace, and a ball afterwards. The Queen was at the wedding and at the ball; she went in the evening to bid her husband good-night, but she slept at the palace. That night Kirk of Field was blown up with gunpowder. Some of the servants were found dead among the ruins. But Darnley's body was discovered eighty yards from the house, together with that of his page. Both of them were dressed in their shirts only; neither showed any marks of scorching. Indeed there were no signs to show how they had come by their death.

One thing comes out quite clearly, when, very unwillingly and after a long delay, the Queen ordered an inquiry to be made into the affair, that the man who had plotted the murder was a certain James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Whether Mary herself was also guilty was doubted then, as it is doubted now. It is needless to say any more, than that, little more than three months afterwards, May 15, 1567, she married the murderer. Whether she was guilty or not, the suspicion was so strong that, in Scotland at least, it ruined her hopes. For a time it looked as if there might be civil war. Two armies, one led by Mary and Bothwell, the other by the nobles who were her enemies, actually met. But there was no fighting. Mary's soldiers left her, and she had to yield herself prisoner, and a few weeks later was shut up in Lochleven Castle and compelled to give up the crown. In the year following she escaped, but her friends were defeated at Langside (just a year after her marriage), and she had to take refuge in England.

In England she remained for nineteen years, taken from castle to castle, and, wherever she was, a cause of anxiety and danger to Elizabeth. In 1570 the Pope solemnly declared that Elizabeth did not belong to the Church, and that she was not rightfully Queen of England. This turned against her many Roman Catholics who up to that time had been loyal. Abroad the great Roman Catholic rulers were her enemies, and, if they could have given up their jealousies and united against her, she could hardly have held her own. Then plot after plot was made in England against her life. With all these things Mary Stuart was more or less mixed up. She knew about many of them, and it was to put her upon the English throne that all were made. Again and again Elizabeth was urged to get rid of her. If Lord Burleigh had had his way she would have been executed long before the end of the nineteen years.

At last a plot was discovered in which she was proved, by the testimony of her own handwriting, to have had a part. One Anthony Babington, who had been one of Mary's pages, and had been charmed by her, as were all who came near her, John Ballard, a Jesuit priest, who had obtained the Pope's leave for the assassination of Elizabeth, and others conspired to murder the Queen, and to raise the country for Mary Stuart. Babington wrote to Mary, telling her of what had been planned, and she sent him an answer, in which she approved of his plans, and urged him to carry them out with all speed. But the English ministers knew what was being done, they had spies everywhere,—and at the proper time arrested the conspirators. Mary's letter was found among their papers, and Babington's letter to her in her room, which was searched during her absence. Of course all these things are doubted or denied by those who take Mary's side. More need not be said. She may not have been guilty, but Elizabeth had only too much reason for believing that she was. The Queen had many doubts as to what she should do. She hated the idea of having to put her cousin to death; but then, as she said to herself, it was "Strike, or be stricken." If it could have been done without her knowledge it would have pleased her best. At last she gave a half consent, and on February 8, 1587, Mary Stuart was beheaded.

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