The movie Mary Queen of Scots, out December 7, begins at the end. A group of guards march up to Mary Stuart’s (Saoirse Ronan) cold cell, where she sits praying. She’s led into a crowded room and instructed to place her head on the executioner's block. In the movie’s ensuing drama, it's easy to forget that it’s all leading to this: a beheading in the year 1587.
Mary Queen of Scots tracks the complicated relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) between the years 1561, when Mary first landed in Scotland after years away in France, to 1587, when she died. Though the women are remembered for their so-to-speak “rivalry,” the movie shows just how much Mary and Elizabeth had in common. Both faced pressure to marry, with the insinuation that a man might give their reign “legitimacy” as well as produce heirs — and both were gunning for the throne of England. Elizabeth had the throne; Mary wanted to be next in line. Ultimately, it was Elizabeth’s insecure hold on the throne that contributed to Mary’s execution.
How did Mary end up doomed in that crowded room? The pace of Mary Queen of Scots picks up significantly following the 1566 murder of David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova), Mary’s best friend. From there proceed a cavalcade of major events in Mary’s life story: the birth of Mary’s son, James, who would go on to rule England and Scotland; the death of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowdon) in a mysterious explosion in 1567; Mary’s controversial third marriage to her advisor James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston), in the same year; Mary’s abdication as Queen of Scotland following an uprising in response to her marriage to the Earl, who was a suspect in Darnley’s murder; her imprisonment and escape from Lochleven Castle in 1568. Talk about political intrigue.
These events influence Mary’s decision to ask her cousin, Elizabeth I, for shelter in England. Mary Queen of Scots culminates in a meeting between the two queens, who likely never met in real life. Elizabeth agrees to have Mary as a guest in England.
Unfortunately, life in England does not bring relief to the harrowed queen. Elizabeth immediately imprisoned Mary. Mary, after all, was a major threat to Elizabeth’s throne. Catholics considered Elizabeth’s claim to the throne illegitimate, as her father, Henry VIII, married her mother, Anne Boleyn, while his first wife was still alive. In their view, Mary, the granddaughter of King Henry VI, was the next legitimate heir, not Elizabeth. Mary’s very presence in England threatens to rile up already significant tensions between Protestants and Catholics.
Mary spent the next 19 years of her life under a kind of fancy house arrest (rest assured, Mary still requested table silver and tapestries for her bedrooms). She stayed in a series of castles and manor houses in England. At the beginning of her imprisonment, Mary still had a staff of approximately 50 servants. The imprisonment in the conventional sense of the word began when she was moved from Bolton Castle to the damp, cold Tutbury Castle in January 1569. In each ensuing location, Mary was subjected to different instructions provided by Elizabeth I. According to History Scotland, in some castles, Mary could ride in the countryside; in others, she was unable to even receive letters.
Even if Mary couldn't communicate freely, she was certainly a topic of conversation. In 2017, a trove of 40 letters written between the years of 1584 and 1585 were donated to the American Trust for the British Library. The letters, written between Elizabeth I and her advisors and Mary's jailer, Ralph Sadler, illustrate the growing paranoia around Mary's presence. Elsewhere in Europe, Catholics and Protestants were clashing, and Elizabeth had recently weathered an assassination attempt. Mary became the locus of their anxiety. As a result, her freedoms were curtailed and the budget allocated to her comforts curbed.
Was this paranoia founded? Probably. In 1586, Mary was found at the center of the Babington Plot, a scheme to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Mary and Anthony Babington, a Catholic Englishman conspiring with other Catholics and the King of Spain, communicated in letters written in a complicated cipher, which were smuggled inside beer barrels. But as The Imitation Game shows, where there are codes, there are code-breakers. With the help of cryptanalysts, Francis Walsingham, the head of Elizabeth's intelligence network, deciphered the messages and uncovered the assassination scheme. Walsingham waited for the conspiracy to continue so he could indict Mary. Patience paid off. In a letter, Mary wrote to Babington, "When all is ready, the six gentlemen must be set to work, and you will provide that on their design being accomplished, I may be myself rescued from this place." Walsingham had his proof.
In the aftermath, Babington and 12 of his co-conspirators were sentenced to death. At the age of 44, Mary was sentenced to be executed in February 1587. Mary's Catholicism was on display the morning of her execution. She was found praying in her cell, and she prayed in Latin and English before the execution. Finally, as legend has it, her handmaids removed her black dress to reveal a red gown, the color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church.
What the movie definitely doesn't show: Mary's botched execution. The executioner missed his target; it took three blows for her to die. Then, the executioner picked up the severed head by the hair — but since Mary wore a wig, the head slipped from his grasp. Finally, Mary's beloved dog had been hiding in her petticoats. He curled up in a pool of her blood and refused to leave her corpse.
Mary died believing in her right to the throne. In her last letter, Mary wrote, "The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned." Ultimately, Mary's descendants would rule. Her son, James VI, inherited the throne after Elizabeth's death in 1603. James VI united England and Scotland and was known as the King of Great Britain.