The Tragic Story Of The True Mary Queen Of Scots At The Heart Of The CW’s ‘Reign’

Ever since The CW’s period drama Reign hit the small screen back in 2013, it’s fan base has been solidly increasing as the hefty storyline has gathered momentum.

Yet, while we have been peering over the tumultuous romances at the heart of the show, the and the intricate outfits worn by its cast members, one thing has remained clear — despite the series bringing to light the exploits of Mary, Queen of Scots, Reign largely remains a work of fiction. Here’s a snippet from the very first episode:

Naturally, life at court wasn’t as glamorous during the 16th century as portrayed on the show. And while Reign does deal with a real figure from history, there is much to the real Mary, Queen of Scots, that viewers probably aren’t familiar with.

Below, why not dive right in to the true story behind Reign and its titular character to decipher the facts from The CW fiction:

The true story behind Reign’s Mary, Queen of Scots:

Early beginnings in Scotland

A portrait of Mary in her adult years

A portrait of Mary in her adult years

Mary was born in Linlithgow Palace on December 8, 1542 to James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. Born prematurely, she was the only legitimate child of the King upon his death six days later and thus, she ascended the throne just days after being brought into the world.

As she was only a baby at the time, her rule was taken over by regents until she came of age. At this time, she was already betrothed to Henry VIII’s son Edward (who was hoping for a union between England and Scotland) but this fell through and instead, her hand in marriage was promised to the Dauphin of France. As a result, she was sent to get a French education befitting a future queen in France at the young age of 5.

Life in France

Mary, aged 13-year-old

Mary, aged 13-year-old

Young Mary spent the next 13 years of her life living in the French court, where she was accompanied by two half-brothers and the “four Marys” — much like The CW show, they were four young girls of the same age as her and all daughters of Scottish noblemen.

At court, she was much-loved and often regarded as exceptionally beautiful and clever. In her childhood, she learnt to play the lute, read poetry, rode horses, engaged in needlework and even handled falcons. Mary also became learned in French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Greek.

As for her relationship with the Dauphin during this time, his father King Henry II of France was said to have commented that:

“From the very first day they met, my son and she got on as well together as if they had known each other for a long time.”

Mary’s doomed marriage to the Dauphin of France

King Francis II and Mary Stuart

King Francis II and Mary Stuart

In 1558, around ten years after being betrothed to the French heir, Mary married the Dauphin at the Notre Dame in Paris. Following the death of King Henry, the 15-year-old boy and his new wife claimed the thrones of France. Additionally, Mary announced herself as the Queen of England since Mary I died in 1558.

Many welcomed this claim, seeing her as a legitimate Catholic alternative to the Protestant and illegitimate Elizabeth I (Henry VIII’s daughter with executed wife Anne Boleyn.)

However, a year after ascending the French throne, her young husband King Francis II died, leaving the young Queen alone and without prospects in a foreign land. Mourning the death of her King, she returned to Scotland to assume her position as the Queen of Scots.

The Queen’s return to Scotland

Mary in her mourning garments

Mary in her mourning garments

The race was now on to find the widow a new husband. Numerous suitors came forward, including Elizabeth I’s loyal courtier Robert Dudley (with the English Queen was supposed to have also had an affair.) Instead, the Mary decided to marry Henry Stuart, otherwise known as Lord Darnley.

Although her marriage was incredibly frowned upon amongst the Protestant factions of her court due to Darnley’s Catholicism, Mary was very much in love with him. Yet, alongside the political turmoil his marriage triggered, he also failed to be a good husband to the Queen — reports claim that he was an alcoholic, who often turned to violence. He also felt insulted by his title of ‘King Consort’ and demanded to be made King independent of his wife.

A sketch depicting where Darnley's body was found

A sketch depicting where Darnley’s body was found

In 1566, his arrogance and rage reached such great proportions that he murdered her private secretary in front of his then-pregnant wife. Despite a reconciliation and the birth of their son James that same year, their marriage was never stabilized and in 1567, he was supposedly killed by an explosion. Though later, his body was discovered in the garden bearing marks suggesting he had been smothered.

The curious case of the Earl of Bothwell

A Portrait Earl of Bothwell
A Portrait Earl of Bothwell

Naturally, many were shocked by Darnley’s sudden death and turned the blame on the Queen, a number of lords and in particular one of her close friends, the Earl of Bothwell. The latter was put on trial for murder but the case was soon dropped.

History gets rather muddy surrounding the following details: In April 1567, Mary was visiting her son James at Stirling castle when she was abducted by Bothwell, and taken to Dunbar Castle, where she is reported to have been raped in attempts to secure the crown. It remains unknown whether the story of her violent assault was a mere cover for wishing to marry the man who was just linked to the murder of her husband.

Regardless, we do know that a month later, she married Bothwell, showering her new husband with gifts and making him a Duke. Many saw this as confirmation that the Queen had in fact been a willing participant all along, resulting in turmoil on the battlefield the same summer.

While her husband fled, Mary was taken captive by victorious lords. She tragically miscarried her two twins and was forced to abdicate her throne to her one-year-old son James.

Two decades of imprisonment in England

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Queen Elizabeth I of England

The true story regarding Mary’s last few years is undeniably tragic. Imprisoned at Loch Levan castle on an island in Scotland, she managed to escape to England in hopes that Elizabeth I would aid her in regaining the Scottish throne. Sadly, the English Queen had no intentions of doing so.

Frustrated that Mary had ignored her requests not to marry Darnley and had antagonized her own claim to the English throne, Elizabeth took the shunned Queen of Scots as prisoner. She was seen as too volatile to be allowed to return to Scotland (rumors that she was still plotting to usurp the English throne remained rife during her time in captivity) and she remained in prison for the next 18 years of her life.

In 1586, she was implicated in the Babington Plot, a secret plan to assassinate Elizabeth I and make her Queen of England. Despite denying charges, she was found guilty and sentenced to death by execution.

Mary’s gruesome death on February 8, 1578

A servant blindfolding Mary for her execution

A servant blindfolding Mary for her execution

Mary was only told the evening before her execution of her impending doom the next morning and she spent the rest of her time in prayer in preparation. That night, she also gave away all of her belongings to those in her household and wrote a will.

The next day, wearing the red color of Catholic martyrs, she ascended the scaffold where she was helped by her servants Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle to remove her outer garments. According to historical statements, during the process, she smiled and said:

“[I have] never had such grooms before … nor ever put off her clothes before such a company.”

Horrifically, it was only the third strike of the executioner’s axe that beheaded Mary. The first blow missed her neck and only struck the back of her head, while the second didn’t cut through a necessary bit of tendon. Yet, once the executioner was done severing her head with a small axe, it was held up to reveal that she had been wearing a wig all along. An almost bald head of wispy grey hair lay underneath the long auburn locks in what became the Queen’s last stroke of public humiliation.

Her little dog is reported to have also been hiding under her petticoats all along and the blood-soaked creature refused to be parted from her body. It had to be forcibly dragged away — something that The CW’s Reign is unlikely to show viewers.


Mary’s wishes to be buried in France were refused by Elizabeth and instead she was placed in Peterborough Cathedral, before her son James VI ordered in 1612 that she be moved to Westminster Abbey. Today, that is where her body lies in the center of London.

Are you surprised to learn about the true story of Reign‘s Mary, Queen of Scots?

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