Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots

Steve - May 9, 2019

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan as Mary I of Scotland. Focus Features.

12. Wrong: Mary I of Scotland, in line with the customs and fashion styles of the 16th century, would not have worn a multitude of earrings

A minor historical grievance, but nevertheless an inaccuracy, as represented in Mary, Queen of Scots – which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design – Mary I of Scotland was a passionate fan of earrings. Seen throughout the movie wearing a series of jewelry pieces, of greatest notice is the repeated appearance of earrings on the Scottish warrior-queen. Ear piercing, as a fashion trend, dramatically declined in popularity throughout Europe after the tenth century, only enjoying a minor resurgence in popularity during the sixteenth century before becoming mainstream again in more recent times.

However, even allowing for the possibility that Mary Stuart was among those advocating the return of earrings – a plausible suggestion with earrings sometimes included in portraiture of the monarch – there is no indication women wore several earrings in the same ear at the same time. Furthermore, more generally the designs used in Mary, Queen of Scots were inaccurate for the sixteenth century. Whilst representations of Mary, as well as surviving pieces from the period, are commonly of single-stud or unobtrusive styles, the film depicts Mary wearing multiple hoop earrings, a design unrecorded and completely opposing contextual styles.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Production shot from the set of Mary, Queen of Scots (2018): Josie Rourke, Margot Robbie, and Joe Alwyn (left to right). Focus Features.

11. Correct: Elizabeth I did indeed attempt to choose her younger cousin’s husband for her in order to reinforce and secure her unstable position as an umarried and childless Queen of England

Upon the return of the widowed Mary to Scotland at the age of eighteen, the young Queen of Scotland was arguably the most eligible woman in Europe. Rivaling her older cousin for desirability, Mary enjoyed a strong claim against the throne of England and the fervent support of discontented Catholics. Terrifying Elizabeth, the prospect of Mary electing to marry a Catholic, especially the available heir-apparents of either Spain or Austria, threatened to undermine her hard-won crown. In response to this danger, Elizabeth attempted to neutralize the threat posed by Mary by pushing her towards a more amenable marriage with a loyal English Protestant.

Suggesting Mary wed Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, whom evidence indicates Elizabeth was herself in a secret relationship with, the English Queen hoped to gain a measure of control over her Scottish cousin and avert disaster. Dispatching Lord Thomas Randolph as her ambassador, Elizabeth, in her desperation, even offered Mary that she would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. Failing due to the unwillingness of Dudley to marry, hoping at this time to still win Elizabeth’s hand, Mary instead wed English Catholic Henry Stuart, her own cousin, strengthening her claim to Elizabeth’s throne even further.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
“The Murder of Rizzio”, by John Opie (c. 1787). Wikimedia Commons.

10. Wrong: Although Mary was present at the murder of David Rizzio – who was inaccurately portrayed as a homosexual rather than her alleged lover in Mary, Queen of Scots – his death most likely did not occur literally in front of her

An Italian courtier from Turin, David Rizzio, failing to ingratiate himself into the circles of Italian nobility, departed for Scotland in 1561 with the embassy led by the Count de Moretto. Failing once again to find employment at the Court of Scotland, Rizzio successfully attached himself to Mary’s musicians as a bass singer. Gaining the attentions of the young monarch, Rizzio grew immensely wealthy and rose to the position of the Queen’s private secretary by 1564. Unlike in Mary, Queen of Scots, which falsely depicted Rizzio as a homosexual and engaging in adulterous relations with Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, the preponderance of historical gossip centered on Mary’s supposed infidelity with the Italian.

Sparking jealously in Darnley, and with Mary five months pregnant, the Scottish nobility felt action was needed to stem the damaging rumors surrounding the crown and prospective heir. On the evening of March 9, 1566, a group of nobles, led by Patrick Ruthven, stormed the Queen’s apartments in the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Interrupting Rizzio and Mary eating dinner, the former, as represented accurately by the film, sought to hide behind Mary for protection. Dragged into a separate room, rather than in front of Mary, Rizzio was indeed brutally murdered after being stabbed fifty-seven times by the conspirators.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary I of Scotland and Elizabeth I of England. Focus Features.

9. Wrong: Whilst both Queens were polite and courteous towards one another, maintaining at best a cordial relationship, Mary, Queen of Scots at times ahistorically exaggerates the affection between the pair

Upon her return to Scotland in 1561, where Mary, Queen of Scots begins Mary’s story, the young widow understood the political difficulties facing her. A Catholic, and a foreigner in the eyes of many, in a newly Protestant country bordered by a Protestant England, Mary was compelled to adopt a degree of congeniality and friendliness towards her cousin. Similarly, Elizabeth sought to ensure Scotland remained a stable neighbor and, most importantly, Protestant. With a Catholic Scotland posing a genuine threat to herself, Elizabeth likewise was forced to adopt an accommodating posture towards her relation.

However, Mary was equally combative and disruptive towards Elizabeth and it would be inaccurate to depict either as anything more than polite rivals. During her residency in France and marriage to Francis, his father, Henry II, had declared Elizabeth unfit and proclaimed Mary the rightful Queen of England. Maintaining this claim throughout her husband’s brief reign, Mary’s public attempt to usurp Elizabeth’s crown precluded any sisterly bond as depicted in the film. Elizabeth’s concerns for Mary, depicted as genuine and legitimately traumatizing for the English monarch, were exaggerated, with Elizabeth and Mary’s familial bond muted at best.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

8. Correct: Elizabeth I of England did wear immensely complicated and elaborate wigs, plastering herself with lead-based makeup to obscure the scars of smallpox and effects of time

Earning Mary, Queen of Scots an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, one of the film’s most redeeming historical qualities is its physical depiction of the changing public image of Elizabeth I of England. The Virgin Queen, renowned for her beauty and desirability throughout Europe, used this persona in no small part to retain ownership of her crown without the support of a husband or consort, carefully crafting every aspect of her physical appearance to maintain this perception. However, due in part to the ravages of smallpox, as well as the passage of time, Elizabeth was forced to apply ever more intrusive means to create this illusion of perpetual youth.

Her almost fatal encounter with smallpox had not only rendered Elizabeth scarred and pocked, but had also left the Queen of England half bald. To combat this unsightly appearance, combined with the deterioration of her natural reddish coloration with age, for the remainder of her life Elizabeth was forced to rely upon wigs. A sign of prestige in Tudor England, Elizabeth reputedly donned immensely ostentatious hairpieces of bright red designed to both intimidate and catch the eye. Equally, Elizabeth endured hours each day of maids painting her face with a lead-based makeup to disguise her scars, inadvertently orally ingesting a distinctly unhealthy quantity of the toxic substance.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan as Mary I of Scotland in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

7. Wrong: While Mary undoubtedly considered Elizabeth to be her inferior, the Queen of Scotland would never have expressed this belief directly to her English cousin

In the climatic face-to-face meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Mary, Queen of Scots, the dethroned Scottish Queen denounced her English cousin’s criticisms. Responding that she would not be “scolded by her inferior”, moving beyond the already considered historical reality that the pair never, in fact, met in person, Mary’s behavior in this scene would never have transpired in real life. Not only was Elizabeth at this time Mary’s salvation, fleeing from imprisonment in Scotland and hoping the English Queen might assist her in reclaiming her lost crown and child, but Mary would have felt no need to explicitly state something so impolitely which she believed to be true.

However, that Mary did indeed regard herself as Elizabeth’s better is incontrovertibly accurate. Along with the bulk of her Catholic contemporaries across Europe, Mary was considered the rightful ruler of England due to Elizabeth’s heretical Protestantism, as well as a treasonous mother, invalidating her claim. Mary repeatedly sought to contest the throne of England, strongly opposing the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560 – which declared Elizabeth the official monarch and denied Mary the right to use the arms of signs of England and Ireland in her heraldry – successfully blocking its ratification.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Jack Lowden as Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

6. Correct: Although not believed to have been intimately involved with David Rizzio, Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, is suspected of having relationships with other men

Departing London on February 3, 1565, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, presented himself before Mary on February 17 at Wemyss Castle. Instantly besotted with the Englishman, the pair were within days inseparable from one another’s company. Mary’s half-first-cousin via two different marriages by their grandmother, Margaret Tudor, consequently placing both Darnley and Mary prominently in the line of succession for the English crown, the couple were married on July 29, 1565. In advance of the wedding, Elizabeth commanded in vain Darnely, one of her subjects, to return to England in an attempt to prevent the union against her.

As accurately portrayed in Mary, Queen of Scots, Darnley and Mary’s relationship quickly soured following their nuptials. Arrogant and prone to excessive drinking, Darnley was an unpleasant husband who grew immensely jealous of his wife’s companions, especially David Rizzio. Despite his own extramarital relations with women, habitual chasing after others even once married, historical evidence suggests Darnley equally engaged in same-sex relations. Of particular note, and overlooked by the film in favor of a fictional relationship with Rizzio himself, Darnley’s close friendship with Don Francisco de Alava has come under modern scrutiny, with the pair described as “intimate” and enjoyed prolonged overseas trips together.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

5. Wrong: Whilst Mary did indeed flee Scotland after being forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, James Stuart, the former Queen of Scotland was imprisoned for a year before she could actually escape to England

As represented accurately in Mary, Queen of Scots, in the aftermath of the death of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, the Scottish Queen sought to quickly remarry a member of the nobility believing it would shore up her claim. Overlooked by the cinematic production was that her protector, James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, abducted Mary on April 24, 1567, likely raping her at Dunbar Castle, before forcibly marrying the widowed monarch at Holyrood on May 15. Prompting outrage among the wider nobility, with the public scandalized by their ruler marrying the very man accused of murdering her former husband, a coalition formed to remove Mary from the throne.

Confronting her enemies at Carberry Hill, her army deserted during negotiations leaving Mary no option but to abdicate the crown in favor of her one-year-old son on July 24. However, whereas Mary, Queen of Scots, largely for the sake of narrative pace, depicts Mary immediately departing into exile in England, in reality the former monarch was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle for more than a year. Escaping on May 2, 1568, Mary raised an army of six thousand but was defeated at the Battle of Langside eleven days later. Only after this loss did Mary flee across the border, entering via fishing boat, in the hope her cousin would provide military assistance.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Jack Lowden, Saoirse Ronan, and James McArdle in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

4. Correct: Mary’s second husband and royal consort, Lord Darnley, was murdered in bizarre circumstances, with his body discovered outdoors after an explosion hit Kirk O’ Field in 1567

Approximately eight months after the birth of Mary’s son James, on February 10, 1567, his father, Lord Darnley, suddenly died at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh, where the royal consort had been staying. Brought back by Mary after a period of estrangement to recover from an illness, claimed at the time to be smallpox but more recently speculated to have been syphilis, around two in the morning on the night of the tenth an explosion rocked the foundations of Kirk o’ Field. The product of two barrels of gunpowder placed in a room beneath Darnley’s sleeping quarters, the assassination failed to immediately claim the life of Darnley.

Miraculously surviving by reasons unknown, lying in just a nightshirt Darnley’s body, alongside that of his valet, William Taylor, were found in a nearby orchard. Although official post-mortems claimed the explosion had taken his life, speculation circulated, including by surgeons who examined the body, that the consort had been strangled. Depicting the latter cause of death explicitly, Mary, Queen of Scots carefully treads the line of historical accuracy by strongly implying, but never explicitly stating, whether or not Mary herself was responsible for the murder. Never admitting wrongdoing, and denying it throughout her life, either way, Mary mourned little for her husband’s death.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

3. Correct: Expressing accurately the difficulty placed upon Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen was nevertheless compelled to sign her cousin’s death warrant after Mary became closely implicated in an assassination plot against the English monarch

Neglected for the most part by Mary, Queen of Scots, the period of Mary’s imprisonment, and accordingly the series of plots against Elizabeth I, received limited airing. Executing the Duke of Norfolk after discovery of the Ridolfi Plot – a scheme to replace Elizabeth with Mary through the aid of Spanish troops – in 1571, following the Throckmorton Plot in 1583 the Bond of Association and Act for the Queen’s Safety was passed. Sanctioning the death of any individual who plotted against Elizabeth, the Babington Plot of 1586, which sought to assassinate Elizabeth, was to be Mary’s ultimate downfall.

Consenting to the plot in letters intercepted by the Queen’s men, although Mary protested the words were not written by her hand but instead forged, the Babington Plot wished to supplant Elizabeth and restore a Catholic monarchy in England. Arrested whilst out riding, Mary was placed on trial for treason in October 1586. Continuing to assert her innocence, as will be discussed Elizabeth did not desire her cousin’s death. However, part of Mary’s defense was her status as a queen, placing her above the judgment of English courts, inexcusably putting Elizabeth in an awkward position. Relenting at last, Elizabeth was forced to order Mary’s death for her alleged crimes.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

2. Wrong: Elizabeth did not sign the death warrant of Mary Stuart surrounded by councilors in a special meeting, nor did the English Queen probably intend for her cousin to be executed at that time

As depicted in Mary, Queen of Scots, overlooking the nineteen years of Mary’s captivity in England, hastily compressed into only a couple of scenes at the end of the movie is the eponymous character’s death. Concluding with Mary’s execution, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth finally signed a death warrant for her cousin and entrusted it into the care of William Davison. Unlike in the film, however, Elizabeth did not sign the warrant with any pomp or circumstance, nor did she in front of her privy councilors. Instead, it is likely the order was signed as part of a routine series of documents in private without special comment.

Similarly ignored by Mary, Queen of Scots was the immediate aftermath of the execution itself. Having been called, in secret, a meeting of some members of the privy council on February 3, it was agreed to carry out the execution immediately. Beheading Mary on February 8, the sentence was performed without Elizabeth being informed of the proceedings. Reportedly becoming outraged and irate, it is unclear whether Elizabeth’s anger was merely for show as a form of plausible deniability or if she had not actually intended to kill her cousin. Imprisoning Davison in the Tower of London, the unfortunate noble was only released after other councilors interceded on his behalf.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Still from Mary, Queen of Scots, depicting the execution of Mary I of Scotland in 1587 (2018). Focus Features.

1. Wrong: Cutting to black with a swing the executioner’s ax, implying the sudden beheading of Mary Stuart, the execution of the former Queen of Scotland was, in fact, a botched affair

Informed on the evening of February 7, 1587, that she was to die the following morning, Mary Stuart walked freely and with dignity onto the scaffold erected in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle. As depicted accurately in Mary, Queen of Scots, two servants removed their mistresses outer garments to reveal a crimson petticoat: the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church. Accepting a blindfold, unlike in the film whereupon she refuses it, Mary, Queen of Scots ends by cutting to black as the executioner swings his ax down upon the neck of the condemned and praying Mary.

Strongly implying Mary’s sudden death, the real-life execution of the Queen of Scots was far less clean. Having accepted per convention the apologies of the executioner, replying “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”, the pardoned soul incompetently bungled his task. The first blow failed to behead the slender woman, missing Mary’s neck and striking instead the back of her head. Unsuccessful with his second swing, the next attempt severed Mary’s neck albeit not entirely, remaining connected by pieces of sinew. Forced to cut through the remnants with his ax, the executioner finally completed his gruesome objective.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Mary Queen of Scots”, Antonia Fraser, Delta Publishing (1993)

“‘My Heart is my Own’: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots”, John Guy, Fourth Estate Publishing (2004)

“Why Mary Queen of Scots Isn’t Another All-White Biopic”, Rebecca Farley, Refinery 29 (December 10, 2018)

“Mary, Queen of Scots”, Jenny Wormald, George Philip Publishing (1988)

“Elizabeth I: The Golden Reign of Gloriana”, David Loades”, The National Archives (2003)

“The Life and Times of Elizabeth I”, Neville Williams, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1972)

“These Letters Tell the Inside Story of Mary, Queen of Scots’ Imprisonment”, Brigit Katz, The Smithsonian Magazine (January 8, 2018)

“Mary Queen of Scots”, Retha M. Warnicke, Routledge Publishing (2006)

“Queen Elizabeth I”, Susan Doran, British Library (2003)

“Elizabeth I”, Christopher Haigh, Longman Pearson (2000)

“Elizabethan England: History of Fashion and Costume Book Three”, Alex Woolf and Kathy Elgin, Facts on File (2005)

“Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare: 1564-1616”, Sarah Jane Downing, Shire Publications (2014)

“Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley”, Alison Weir, Ballantine Books (2003)

“Elizabeth I”, Anne Somerset, Anchor Books (2003)

“Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography”, J.E. Neale, Jonathan Cape (1934)

“Elizabeth the Queen”, Alison Weir, Ballantine Books (1999)

“Scotland’s Story: A New Perspective”, Tom Steel, William Collins Sons and Company (1984)

“Darnley: A Life of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots”, Caroline Bingham, Constable Publishing (1995)

“Mary, Queen of Scots”, Rosalind Marshall, National Museums of Scotland (2013)

“The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots: A Brief History With Documents”, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Bedford Publishing (1999)

“Mary Queen of Scots and French Public Opinion, 1542-1600”, Alexander S. Wilkinson, Palgrave Macmillan (2004)

“The Reign of Elizabeth: 1558-1603”, J.B. Black, Clarendon Publishing (1936)

“Elizabeth I”, Patrick Collison, Oxford University Press (2007)