Previous Talks and Outings

Lieutenants and Loyalty: How did Mary, Queen of Scots rule Scotland from an English prison?

Presented by Dr Amy Blakeway.

Amy is a Senior Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland and Parliament and Convention in the Personal Rule of James V

On Mary’s capture after Carberry Hill in 1567, she was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and induced to write a formal document of abdication in favour of her infant son James (James VI). It was made to appear a voluntary action arising from despair and exhaustion following the 6 turbulent years since her return from France.

To ensure its full legitimacy the Earl of Morton had the document read out in Parliament and James (around 18 months old) was declared King. Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray was appointed as Regent.


The following year Mary escaped and quickly raised an army. She had taken legal advice and it was accepted in law, if not by her opponents, that the abdication, being made under duress, was null and void.  Unfortunately, there followed the defeat at the Battle of Langside, no doubt occasioned by the tactical failures of her Lieutenant General, Argyll. Some have taken the view that Mary’s subsequent flight to England was a mistake and that her cause could have prospered had she remained, such was her popularity and, indeed legitimacy, as the anointed Queen of Scots. She was imprisoned in various English castles thereafter until the end of her life 19 years later.

Meanwhile, to begin with, her supporters in Scotland, the ‘Queen’s men’, continued to fight her cause in the Marian civil war which lasted until 1573. Elizabeth 1 convened a conference at York (1568/69) to consider the matter of Darnley’s murder. Representatives of Mary and of the Regency were present, Elizabeth represented by the Duke of Northumberland. Unfortunately, the ‘casket letters’, purporting to prove Mary’s adultery with Bothwell and acquiescence in the plot to murder Darnley, were revealed and added to Elizabeth’s growing unease. For political reasons, however, no guilt was ascribed. Around the same time Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, led a failed Catholic rebellion against Elizabeth’s government (the Rising of the North) following which he and many of his supporters fled over the border. Regent Moray, hitherto not recognised as such by the cautious Elizabeth, engineered the capture of Percy and, in turning him over, gained acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the Regency.

Moray was assassinated in early 1570 and succeeded by the Earl of Lennox, Darnley’s father, who in turn was killed by Mary’s supporters and replaced by John Erskine, Earl of Mar. Already an old man Mar, in turn died in 1572, surprising as it may seem, of natural causes. However, he had managed to engineer a short truce. His successor, the Earl of Morton, was focussed on ending the civil war and managed to buy off many of Mary’s supporters. He was well connected at the English court and had the approval of Elizabeth for military support to take Edinburgh Castle, the last bastion of the Queen’s supporters. This, in 1573, ended the civil war. Political and military support for Mary in Scotland largely evaporated. The rest of her life saw her associated with various plots, all monitored by Elizabeth’s counsellor and spymaster Francis Walsingham and his network of household spies. These culminated in the fatal, for Mary, Babbington plot uncovered in 1586.

Mary’s Rule 1568-73

Despite her imprisonment in England, Mary was able to control her interests in Scotland through her appointed Lieutenants: Duke of Chatelherault (Earl of Arran), Earl of Argyll and Earl of Huntly.


Mary departed from the usual tradition of giving lieutenants control as the monarch’s representatives over specific geographical areas. For Mary the lieutenants ruled ‘conjointly and severally’ over the whole realm as three equals. This gave them flexibility to make joint decisions or, if circumstances dictated, decisions individually or in pairs over military and political issues. They made formal use of parliament in Edinburgh to emphasise the legality of their actions: during the struggle to hold Edinburgh against the King’s men a parliament was summoned in Mary’s name, with all due pomp and ceremony at the Tollbooth, while their opponents, under the guns of Edinburgh Castle, had to assemble their parliament in the Canongate by dodging the attentions of the gunners. The latter was the so called ‘creeping parliament’. For much of the period of the Marian war, Mary’s supporters controlled the two most important cities in Scotland: Edinburgh and the major port of Aberdeen.

Clearly, Mary knew well how to delegate and had astutely organised her lieutenants to prosecute her interests. Key to this was communication. Mary wrote many letters to her supporters, usually encrypted, with instructions, questions and advice. Most have been lost, but two remaining examples give a flavour of her communications.  First is her letter to Grange and Lethington asking them to put about the lie that an English parliament had been called to declare James as Elizabeth’s heir and for the child to be brought to England and, second, a letter to Huntly asking him not to replace the provost of Elgin. Mary was therefore not only active in regulating the big picture, but seems also to have given attention to some fine provincial detail. Other letters provide evidence suggesting she was an accomplished people manager. It is undoubtedly the case that much communication was by word of mouth, the only form not accessible to Walsingham and his decryption team, but not available to posterity either. In addition, many of Mary’s letters are lost – perhaps only 1 in 5 have survived – and so we are left with a very fragmentary record.

In summary, then, Mary was well aware of the value of propaganda and misinformation; had the political nous to use parliament and the law to underpin her position; would seek and apply advice from trusted advisors; and took an interest in the fine political and administrative detail of her realm (see Elgin).  In short, she understood clearly the importance of people management and the control of information and narrative, deploying these skills effectively through her lieutenants despite her imprisonment. 

Peter R