The Accuracy (and Inaccuracy) of the Movie Mary Queen of Scots

By Ashlee Peck Premium

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“‘Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity’. This portrait is one of the many portraits of the queen of Scots during her captivity in England. They are known as ‘Sheffield portraits’ and have the painted date 1578. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mary Queen of Scots film follows the tumultuous life of Mary Stuart (played by Saoirse Ronan) and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England (played by Margot Robbie), as both women reign amidst the political, social and religious upheaval of their time.

Just who was Mary Queen of Scots and how accurate can we expect the new movie to be? Join us as we take a closer look at this prominent figure from Scottish history, both on screen and in the history books.

Who Was Mary Queen of Scots?

Mary Stuart was born in 1542 to King James V of Scotland and Mary de Guise, a frenchwoman of the powerful de Guise family. The only surviving heir, Mary became queen of Scotland at just six days old, after the death of her father.


Mary was raised and educated in France while her mother acted as regent of Scotland. At sixteen she was married to the dauphin of France, Francis II in 1558 and ruled as queen consort of France until Francis’s death just two years later.

Returning to Scotland, she married her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley in 1565. The marriage was highly controversial given multiple claims to the Scottish throne, as well as the fact that Mary was a Roman Catholic in a largely Protestant nation.

An uprising against the couple in 1567 lead to the death of Lord Darnley and forced Mary to go into hiding, as well as to abdicate her throne to she and Lord Darnley’s one-year-old son, James I.


In 1568, Mary fled to England, hoping for the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I. The religious tension, as well as both women having strong claims to the English throne, landed Mary in a precarious position. She was imprisoned and put under surveillance for nearly 20 years.

“Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Great Chamber at Fotheringay Castle, co. Northants., 14-15 October 1586.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Mary was eventually put to death as a threat to Elizabeth and the English throne. She was beheaded in 1587.

Mary Queen of Scots Family Tree
A family tree of Mary Queen of Scots. Source: Wikipedia (,_Queen_of_Scots)

Historical Accuracy (and Inaccuracy)

Although the film has received some praise for the costuming and strong performances from the leading actresses, it has received criticism from various historians who cite multiple historical inaccuracies.

Firstly, the film relies on the volatile relationship between the two leaders and includes at least one scene of the two together when in reality, Mary and Elizabeth never actually met in person.

Along those same lines, the film appears to include an element of hostility between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth when according to historians, Queen Elizabeth was hesitant in her decision to eventually sign Mary’s death warrant.

While this isn’t the first time Mary Queen of Scots has appeared on screen (Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for best actress in her role as Mary in the 1971 film) it is certainly a testament to the tragic legacy of this singular figure from Scottish history!


Mary, Queen of Scotland, Encyclopedia Britannica
Queen Elizabeth I, Encyclopedia Britannica
Mary Queen of Scotland, BBC History

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