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AN ENGLISH ROSE IN GEORGIA –

By Lesley Francis

THE STORY OF MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS AND THE CASKET LETTERS

My friends, family and readers will know about my love of history, and I take my hat off to my fellow columnist Tom Hand for his encyclopedic-like knowledge of American history. Many Americans are also fascinated with the long history of the monarchy in England, a topic of regular conversation when I meet new people who hear my accent. In fact, royal families across Europe have been a source of admiration, fascination, gossip, intrigue, loyalty and treachery for literally thousands of years.  

Today, June 20, is the 457th anniversary of a compelling and enduring mystery in royal history, one that I learned about as a schoolgirl during my upbringing in England. It is the mystery of the Casket Letters, which led to the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots.   

The uniting of the United Kingdom – today comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – didn’t start to happen until 1707, and it continued to evolve until 1921 and some say with respect to Northern Ireland it continues to evolve today. 

However, back in 1567, Scotland was a completely separate Kingdom that was often at war with England in one form or another. Mary became the Queen of Scotland when she was just six days old in 1542. She was the only legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, who has been described as a greedy and vindictive king who focused primarily on increasing his wealth. He was also constantly in fear of an uprising from his nobles, who headed different clans, creating constant tensions among them. He died at age 30, probably of cholera, and the infant Mary assumed the Crown upon his death. 

As she grew into adulthood and took over royal duties, she was generally an unpopular monarch, who made controversial choices in marriage and in politics which, as her father had worried, did stir rebellion among the Scottish nobles.   

While the 25-year-old Mary had surrendered to a rebel group at the Battle of Carberry Hill (just east of Edinburgh) in 1567 in one of the never-ending battles for land, treasure and power of the period, the real beginning of the end of her power in Scotland was five days later with the discovery of the Casket Letters. These eight letters, allegedly written by Mary herself, implicated her in the murder of her 2nd husband, Henry Stuart, also known as Lord Darnley, a few months earlier. These letters were found in a silver casket in the possession of one of the members of the royal household, James Douglas the 4th Earl of Morton. 

Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scotland, had an intense rivalry with her cousin, Elizabeth I, the Protestant Queen of England. After Mary had escaped prison in Scotland, turmoil there forced her to flee southwards to England, while her supporters stayed in Scotland to fight a civil war. In England, Mary found herself imprisoned by her cousin.   

The contents of the casket were presented at Westminster in London a few months later before a group of commissioners appointed by England’s Queen Elizabeth I to investigate competing legal charges between Mary and a group of rebel Scottish lords. The letters were damning, suggesting that Mary was involved in the plot to murder Lord Darnley. The letters also hinted at a romantic relationship between Mary and James Hepburn the 4th Earl of Bothwell, who would later become her third husband. However, the authenticity of the Casket Letters was highly contested then and has been ever since. Some historians maintain that the letters were forgeries to incriminate Mary, yet others argue that Mary had penned them to serve her own political agenda. Almost five centuries later, no one really knows the truth. 

After the inquiry, the casket and its letters were taken back to Scotland and entrusted to the Earl of Morton. They disappeared when he was executed a few years later in 1581, with speculation that Mary’s son James VI was responsible for their disappearance. 

The discovery of the Casket Letters in 1567 was a turning point in the tumultuous political landscape of Scotland at the time. They were used as evidence against Mary, and she was eventually beheaded as a Roman Catholic threat to the Protestant English throne. The letters were later published and circulated widely, influencing public opinion and contributing to the narrative of Mary as a young and reckless queen embroiled in scandal and suspicion. The Casket Letters, whether authentic or not, give us a glimpse of the complex web of alliances, betrayals, and intrigues that defined the medieval and early modern periods of Scottish history. There is a lot more information at www.history.com. 

I say goodbye this week with a quote from Mary Queen of Scots herself, one that really summarizes her dramatic life of romance, royalty and war: “Love and ambition often collide, leaving destruction in their wake.” 

I hope you enjoyed this little tale of royal mystery and history.   

God bless America and royal families everywhere! 

– ENDS – 

Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or via her full-service marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.