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Mary, Queen of Scots: The real life of Queen Elizabeth I’s rival and prisoner

“In my end is my beginning,” wrote Mary, Queen of Scots, in the lead-up to her death. Six words that, to this day, still ring true.

More than 400 years have passed since her brutal execution, yet Mary remains a figure of intrigue, debate and, for some, admiration. Like so many events in her life, even Mary’s death at the age of 44 did not go as planned. Her beheading included a howling dog and some serious wig snatching, but we’ll get to that later.

Known most commonly as the Queen of Scots or Mary Stuart, Mary was the great-niece of the infamous Henry VIII, the Tudor king with a penchant for divorces and decapitations.

Over the years, hundreds of books and numerous documentaries have been based on Mary’s tumultuous life. In Scotland, she has even inspired a music festival. Fascination with Scotland’s former queen existed long before the new film “Mary Queen of Scots,” which stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as her cousin and bitter rival, Queen Elizabeth I.

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ won’t surprise you, but it’s an engaging period drama nonetheless

Today, there is much interest in her physical appearance — “Was Mary Queen of Scots beautiful?” is one of the most Googled queries related to her — as well as her questionable life choices and tragic demise. It is said that Mary had bright red hair and pale skin — distinctive features that added to her beauty.

While some royals wait a lifetime to be crowned king or queen (just ask Prince Charles, who recently turned 70 and is still waiting to take the British throne), Mary became Queen of Scots when she was six days old after her father, King James V, died of a fever in December 1542. Mary was the king’s only child to survive him, and so, to the displeasure of most in a patriarchal society, a woman rose to power.

At the age of 5, Mary was sent away to France by her mother, Mary of Guise (royals really do like to reuse the same names). Many historians suspect that it would not have been safe for the young queen to grow up in Scotland and that this was done to protect her.

Mary spent much of her early life learning French and soaking up rich culture. Mary was deeply religious, a Catholic who wrote poetry. She married her first husband, Francis II, at the age of 15, despite once having been betrothed to Henry VIII’s son, Edward. Francis and Mary later went on to become king and queen of France, and Mary returned to Scotland only when Francis died of an infection. His death left Mary a widow at the age of 18.

Five years after the death of her first husband came Mary’s second marriage, to her cousin, Henry Stuart, Earl of Darnley. He was described by Mary as the “lustiest” man; historians describe Darnley as an alcoholic womanizer who had syphilis and anger issues.

At dinner one evening, while Mary was present and pregnant with their son, Darnley murdered Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio, whom she considered a close friend. In a fit of jealous rage, he stabbed Rizzio more than 50 times. It is said Mary never got over his death at the hands of her husband.

One year after the birth of their son James, heir to the English and Scottish thrones, Darnley was killed in an explosion. The circumstances surrounding his death were murky and not helped by the fact that Mary quickly remarried — to the main suspect in his apparent murder.

Many historians say Darnley was not killed in the explosion but instead was strangled after escaping the blast. The Scots regarded Mary’s behavior as suspicious and impulsive. In 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate and imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. Her third and final husband, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was arrested in Denmark and imprisoned there until his death 10 years later.

After escaping in 1568, Mary eventually fled to England, hoping to fall into the arms of her cousin Elizabeth, with whom she had struck up a relationship through letters. But Mary’s dreams were shattered — Elizabeth kept her as a prisoner for almost two decades. It is believed that Elizabeth, who was known as “the Virgin Queen,” grew increasingly disapproving of Mary’s life choices, in particular in her love life.

Contrary to popular belief, the two never met — one of the key differences between real-life events and the latest film, which includes an emotional meeting between the two fierce cousins.

After being found guilty of plotting to kill Elizabeth, Mary was put to death in 1587. Ever the fashionista, she donned a crimson robe (the color of martyrdom) under a black overgarment for the occasion. According to historians, her last words were, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Having missed his first shot, it took the executioner another two attempts and some vigorous sawing to completely sever her head.

Holding the detached head up for all to see, the executioner was flabbergasted when Mary’s bloody head rolled away, leaving him clutching her red wig. As the surrounding spectators retracted in horror, Mary’s pet dog appeared from under her dress and began howling for her. According to historians, the Skye terrier refused to leave her bloody body and died soon after the slaying of his beloved owner.

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