Few feuds are as epic as the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. The decades-long battle that took place between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I was, surprisingly, entirely carried out through letters. Despite being cousins and two female rulers in a male-dominated world, the two queens never met. They did, however, send each other dozens of impassioned and biting letters, letting their words sting as sharply and cut as deeply as a knife in the back.
The Catholic Mary, the daughter of James V of Scotland, grew up in France, and at age 16, she married the future King Francis II of France. After her husband died, she returned to Scotland in 1561, then fled for England after an uprising against her. She hoped to find protection from her cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, but she couldn't have been more wrong.
Not surprising for two powerful and stubborn rulers, the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary I of Scotland was a fiery one, starting with letters charged with passive-aggressive language and ending with words stripped of all pretense, with the two women plainly stating the deep betrayal they endured at the other’s hands.
When Queen Mary I died, Mary’s father-in-law, Henri II of France, proclaimed his son and Mary King and Queen of England and Ireland. While Mary was only 16 at the time, she went along with Henri’s claim and would eventually ask to be named Elizabeth’s successor. As Henry VII’s great-granddaughter, Mary had a strong claim to the throne, especially in the eyes of English Catholics who believed Elizabeth to be illegitimate.
Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth saw Mary as a threat, and despite formally forgiving Mary for her “unjust, unreasonable, and perilous” pursuit, her distrust for Mary lingered. She later stated, “If it became certainly known in the world who should succeed me. I would never think myself in sufficient security.”
After Mary’s first husband, the King of France, died two years into their marriage, Mary sought a new husband. Elizabeth strongly suggested Mary wed Elizabeth’s childhood friend and rumored lover, Sir Robert Dudley. The Queen told Mary’s envoy, James Melville,
The Earl of Leicester is my brother and best friend. I would have married him myself, but I have decided to remain a virgin. I therefore heartily recommend the Earl to my cousin of Scotland. In fact, if she married Leicester, I would even look favorably on her claim to the English Succession.
So why would the queen give away the man who was arguably the love of her life? Well, the Queen was a brilliant tactician, and who better to spy on your rival than someone who has your complete trust? Mary was understandably insulted by the offer, as it was widely rumored that Elizabeth and Dudley were once and perhaps still lovers. Not only that, but he was the son of a traitor and a low-ranking aristocrat.
Ultimately, Mary chose to marry her cousin, Lord Darnley. While he initially seemed like a good choice, he turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and murdered Mary’s private secretary in a jealous rage. Darnley himself was killed shortly after, with many believing that Mary had a hand in his death.
Things quickly went sour after Mary wed her second husband, Lord Darnley. Despite fulfilling her most important task as a female monarch by delivering a male heir, the marriage itself was a disaster, with Darnley emerging as a boorish, alcoholic brute. Mary was quite open about her miserable state, saying that “unless she were quit of [Darnley] by one means or another, she could never have a good day for the rest of her life.”
Mary was quit of Darnley soon enough when an explosion killed her husband. It was believed the Earl of Bothwell, a close friend and rumored lover of Mary’s, was responsible for the explosion. This made it particularly shocking when Mary ran off with her husband’s supposed murderer. The Queen of Scots ended up marrying the Earl of Bothwell, but many believe she was kidnapped and forced into the marriage.
As these events unfolded, Elizabeth repeatedly wrote to Mary imploring her cousin to distance herself from the earl. She said:
How could a worse choice be made for your honour than in such haste to marry such a subject, who besides other and notorious lacks, public fame has charged with the murder of your late husband, besides the touching of yourself also in some part, though we trust in that behalf falsely.
Elizabeth threatened to start a war to help protect her cousin, telling her, “We assure you that whatsoever we can imagine meet for your honour and safety that shall lie in our power, we will perform the same…you [shall not] lack our friendship and power for the preservation of your honour in quietness."
Mary had been imprisoned by the Scottish lords who had forced her to abdicate, but when she broke free, she fled to the safety of England, where she could take comfort in her cousin’s aid.
Unfortunately for Mary, the aid was not forthcoming. Upon arriving in England, she wrote to Elizabeth asking her to bring her to the court, but Elizabeth did not send for Mary nor did she send her any help. Mary repeatedly wrote to Elizabeth and even sent her hand-sewn gifts, but Elizabeth continued to keep Mary at a distance. She feared that now that Mary was in England, it would be easier for her to rally the support of the English Catholics who wished to overthrow Elizabeth.
When her favors didn’t work, Mary threatened Elizabeth, telling her cousin, “If for any reason I cannot come to you, seeing I have freely come to throw myself in your arms, you will I am sure permit me to ask assistance of my other allies…”
None of Mary’s words or ploys worked, and she remained imprisoned for 19 years on Elizabeth’s orders until her cousin signed off on her execution orders.