Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mary Queen of Scots

Was there really a gay affair in the royal court? A secret rendezvous with Queen Elizabeth? We break it all down.

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Saoirse Ronan as Mary, Queen of Scots
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by François Clouet/Wikipedia and Focus Pictures.

Mary Queen of Scots isn’t afraid to spoil its own ending—it opens moments before Mary’s execution, clearly conscious that most viewers have at least a vague sense of where she’ll end up. But how faithful is the new biopic to the facts of how she got there?

While the story follows the broad outline of Mary’s rise and fall, it takes considerable liberties with its relationships, motives, and timelines. Below, we break down where Beau Willimon’s screenplay departs from the history as we know it.

Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan)

After teasing her decapitation, the film flashes back to 1561, when the newly widowed Mary returned to Scotland following the death of her first husband, François II. Her uncertainty around her half-brother James (James McArdle), who served as regent in her absence, and her immediate antipathy with John Knox (David Tennant) are decidedly true to life. The preacher was one of her brother’s earliest allies and one of her own most outspoken critics—three years before she arrived in Scotland, he penned The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which was as polemical (and sexist) as it sounds. As historian Retha Warnicke puts it, “Claiming it was monstrous for a realm to have a woman as its head, Knox validated rebellion against the rule of ungodly governors.”

Knox wasn’t alone in his hostility toward Mary. On her arrival in Scotland, the government was composed largely of Protestants who had outlawed Catholic mass. As the film shows, she attempted to preach tolerance for both religions—and according to Warnicke, “Unlike many of her contemporaries, she seems to have genuinely wished that people of differing faiths could live unmolested together.” Even so, an ascendant Catholic queen could only be seen as a threat by the Protestant Elizabeth.

Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie)

Elizabeth I, Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by National Portrait Gallery/Wikipedia and Focus Pictures.

When we first meet Elizabeth in Mary Queen of Scots, she’s in her element at the English court, skeptical of and even amused by her young challenger to the north. But counter to the film’s framing, Mary’s claim to power was arguably more assured than her cousin’s. Where Elizabeth was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, Mary’s descent from the Tudors was more direct, and, per UC–Irvine’s Jayne Lewis, her “sterling pedigree, untainted by the stain of bastardy, put her before Elizabeth in the line to the English crown” in the eyes of many.

Even at the time, it was tempting (and common) to compare and contrast the two. As Lewis puts it, “politically maladroit and sexually active … Mary Stuart was indeed everything that her famously chaste and indomitable cousin once-removed was not.” In the film and in life, Mary’s fertility threatened her older (and, yes, eventually smallpox-ridden) counterpart, but it’s unlikely that Elizabeth was as fixated on childbirth or as politically disengaged as the screenplay makes her out to be. It’s more plausible that she refrained from marrying explicitly for political reasons: She avoided alienating her own people (and losing her autonomy) by refusing to partner with a foreign royal, while at the same time keeping her suitors’ hopes high enough to incentivize peace with their respective countries.

Her rumored affair with Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn) also failed to end in marriage, though that was perhaps in part because he was suspected of having killed his own wife to be with her—a fact that the film leaves out entirely. It’s true that he was suggested as a match for Mary, but she likely rejected him on those grounds, not because Elizabeth expressed a desire to keep him for herself.

Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden)

Portrait of Henry Darnley, Jack Lowden as Darnley
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by unknown/Wikipedia and Focus Pictures.

In the film, Henry Darnley charms Mary before revealing his true colors as a petulant, power-hungry prince who beds a courtier, David Rizzio (or Riccio), instead of his wife on their wedding night. Angry at being denied kingship, he drinks, swaggers, and schemes. Ultimately, he’s pressured into killing his former lover to avoid being exposed as a “sodomite” before meeting his own untimely end in an assassination at Kirk o’Field.

Just 19 years old when he arrived in Scotland, Darnley was in fact young and handsome by all accounts, but Mary was likely more strategic than infatuated—she knew reports of her favoritism would reach Elizabeth, and even as she was courting him, she was actively pursuing other possible alliances in England and Spain. As a fellow Stuart (and one born in England, at that), marrying Darnley ultimately made sense for her claim to the English throne, which was only strengthened by the birth of their son, James.

In terms of personality and conduct, the real Darnley is a difficult figure to pin down, though their eventual alienation probably had more to do with politics than anything else. Most of what we know comes from Thomas Randolph, Elizabeth’s exaggeration-prone ambassador, whom historian John Guy describes as “a hostile witness. His task was to prevent Mary’s marriage to Darnley, and so he found as many reasons as he could to discredit the man …” That Randolph didn’t accuse him of alcoholism under these circumstances means Darnley probably wasn’t the heavy drinker we see on screen (though he was often intoxicated in the days leading up to Rizzio’s assassination—Warnicke speculates that “his decision to plot the death of Riccio was unnerving the young man“).

The circumstances of Darnley’s own death are also relatively accurate (minus the male lover), with an early-morning explosion followed by strangulation when he managed to escape the initial blast. Mary, for her part, became convinced that the attack was meant for her—though she and Darnley were by then mostly estranged, she’d been with him at Kirk o’Field mere hours earlier, and only by chance left around 11pm that night.

David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova)

Portrait of David Rizzio, Ismael Cruz Cordova as Rizzio
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by anonymous, British School/Wikipedia and Focus Pictures.

In Mary Queen of Scots, Rizzio is established as an Italian courtier, musician, and eventually Mary’s dear friend, the only man among her coterie of maids. He’s also heavily implied to be gay, though Mary says explicitly that she doesn’t hold his “nature” (or, more to the point, his relationship with her husband) against him.

It’s true that Rizzio became one of Mary’s confidants, playing cards with her nightly and assisting with her correspondence once she retained him as her secretary. Darnley’s supposed sexual relationship with him has far less to substantiate it. There is one claim, attributed to Randolph, that they were so intimate they “would lie sometime in one bed together,” but somewhat convolutedly, that seems to have sprung up to explain Mary’s interest in Darnley. The men around her didn’t believe that she could have come to her own decision about her future husband, so they concluded that she was led astray by the Catholic Rizzio whispering in her ear. Per Warnicke, “These rumors helped fuel the animosity that led later to Darnley’s conspiracy against Riccio,” as did Randolph’s insistence on blaming him for any royal policies he disliked.

It’s become popular for Rizzio to be coded as gay in more recent adaptations, including the CW’s Reign and the 1971 movie Mary Queen of Scots. Despite this, the prevailing historical narrative is more straightforward (and, well, straighter): Darnley was jealous of the other man, whether because he genuinely believed rumors of Mary’s adultery or because those rumors reduced him to a cuckold in the eyes of the court. Feeling emasculated by Mary’s refusal to make him her equal, he latched onto the gossip blaming Rizzio, and retaliated by signing off on his murder—which was, in the film as in life, an extremely bloody affair. Mary herself was threatened at gunpoint, and Rizzio was reportedly stabbed 56 times (though in reality, he was dragged into the next room rather than murdered at her feet). In the centuries since, the site of the supposed blood stain has become a gruesome tourist attraction.

Mary’s Time in England

In the film, Mary’s relationship with her half-brother James, the Earl of Moray, is fraught from the outset—he’s both her chief advisor in the Scottish court and a Protestant who expects obedience and conformity. Historically, that resentment culminated in the quickly-quashed uprising known as the Chaseabout Raid, when Moray found himself outnumbered five to one by the forces of, according to Guy, “an energetic, charismatic and infuriated queen who had the loyal, unstinting support of her own native Scots.” While England didn’t mind bankrolling the rebellion (as is hinted at in the film), sending troops was another, messier matter, and Moray found himself without Elizabeth’s support for a second attempt.

Mary ultimately pardoned her brother, but the power vacuum following her husband’s death brought fresh conflict. Though the film acknowledges the hostility she faced from her captor and eventual third husband, Lord Bothwell—and from her own people after their hasty marriage—it collapses the timeline of events considerably. After Darnley’s assassination, Bothwell abducted her and kept her as his prisoner for months. They didn’t marry right away, and one of his allies “later recalled that Bothwell boasted he would marry his royal captive whether she would or would not have him.” He raped her, sought a divorce from his own wife (who doesn’t appear in Mary Queen of Scots), and ensured “that [Mary] could neither escape nor be rescued before publicly repeating her promise to wed him.“ Mary’s subsequent miscarriage is also elided, and the film cuts straight to her concession of the throne to her infant son, James.

Mary’s Time in England

Mary Queen of Scots’ most marked departure from history is the secret, in-person rendezvous between Elizabeth and Mary at the latter’s lowest point. Though this isn’t the first time such an encounter has been dramatized—meetings between the two were imagined as early as 1801—the reality is that the pair never saw each other face-to-face. Guy asserts that “the real reason became apparent from [Elizabeth’s] many lame excuses. She feared that the younger, possibly more beautiful Queen of Scots was so magnetic, so brilliant in conversation, that she would overshadow or surpass her.”

The film takes this insecurity to its logical endpoint, painting the young queen as having won over her elder cousin with sheer charisma and sincerity, their would-be alliance scuttled solely by the men around them. But we know from Elizabeth’s own letters that she wasn’t taken in by Mary’s image: When her cousin implored her to set aside “jealousy and mislike,” Elizabeth wrote that “we wish … She were as innocent therein as she laboreth greatly to beare both us and the world in hand that she is.” Far from being quietly sympathetic to her cause, Elizabeth was reportedly “resentful of the cost involved in Mary’s upkeep“ during her long internment in England.

Mary’s fate was sealed when she was implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. The aesthetics of her execution in Mary Queen of Scots—namely the tearaway black dress, the blazing red one underneath, and the fact that she hasn’t aged a day during her 19-year imprisonment—all seem to underscore the biopic’s guiding principle, for better or for worse: Where the two conflict, the legend wins out over the reality every time.