Mary I, Queen of Scots, escaped from Loch Leven castle on the 2nd of May, 1568.
Mary I, Queen of Scots, first visited Loch Leven castle, standing on its island in the picturesque loch, in 1565, as a guest of Sir William Douglas. From then on, during her short reign, Mary Stuart was a frequent visitor to the castle of Loch Leven and at times used it as a base for her favourite pastime of hawking. Mary last visited Loch Leven castle on the 17th of June, 1567, but on that occasion, she wasn’t really a visitor. Instead, she arrived as a prisoner and her forced visit lasted almost a whole year. With the help of various sympathisers and relatives of her gaolers, Mary eventually managed an escape on the 2nd of May, 1568. Thereafter, she revoked her recent forced abdication and gathered an army to move on Dumbarton castle.
This adventure began after the murder of Mary’s second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley. Many of Mary’s Nobles opposed her marriage to Bothwell, rising against her and her recently created Duke. A Protestant Army of three thousand men, led by the Earl of Morton and the Confederate Lords, met Mary’s Army at Carberry Hill, not far from Edinburgh, on the 15th of June, 1567. After six hours of fighting, Mary persuaded Bothwell to leave the field. Abandoned by her Duke, Mary surrendered to an Earl.
Shortly after her defeat at Carberry Hill and after a brief pit stop in Edinburgh, Mary was taken to Loch Leven castle by her Lords Lindsay and Ruthven, under the instructions of her half brother, the Earl of Moray. She was given into the custody of Sir William Douglas of Lochleven and spent most of her captivity living in the early 16th century Glassin Tower, at the south east corner of the castle. At one time, foiling an earlier escape plan, she was moved to the Solar Storey of the Main Tower, above the Great Hall. Throughout her time in the castle, she was accompanied by her own cook, her physician and Jane Kennedy, Marie Courcelles and the faithful Mary Seton; ladies in waiting.
Aside from Sir William, the household included his mother, Lady Margaret Douglas, also mother of the aforementioned Earl of Moray, and his brother George Douglas, as well as a young, orphaned relative, who was possibly an illegitimate son of Sir William. Before her marriage, Lady Douglas had been the mistress of Mary’s father, James V, and six children were born out of that relationship, including the Earl of Moray. Morals were quite different in those days and it wasn’t uncommon for Kings, in especial, to beget several illegitimate offspring. The present day censure over Mary’s morals should, instead, be considered in the context of her own times. In reality, Mary Stuart wisnae muckle different from any other royal and she shouldna’ be criticised for her affairs; no more so than any of her male peers or even her ain faither. It’s said that Lady Douglas resented Mary’s presence on the throne, believing that her son, Moray, should’ve been King. However, as Moray was illegitimate, he could never have ascended the throne. But Moray did become Regent, in August, 1567; King in all but name.
Famously, Mary fell ill soon after her arrival at Loch Leven castle and, sometime before the 24th of July, she gave birth, prematurely, to stillborn twins that she may well have ‘scandalously’ conceived with Bothwell before Darnley’s murder. Her secretary, Claude Nau, who wrote under her authority, stated that the twins were buried on the island. There is another, less probable version, which suggests that Mary gave birth to a daughter who was smuggled out of Lochleven and sent to France. Whatever the truth of that matter of the bairns, Mary was certainly in a very weakened and vulnerable state when, under Moray’s instructions, the Lords Ruthven, Melville and Lindsay presented her with abdication papers. Under considerable duress and threat from Lindsay in particular, Mary was forced to sign the papers, which she did on the 24th of July, 1567. She abdicated in favour of her infant son James, who was at that time just over a year old. James VI (& I) would be a mere ten months old when his mother later saw him for the last time.
The young and handsome George Douglas reputedly fell in love with Mary from the moment he met her, and the ‘young, orphaned relative’, a youth of between fourteen and sixteen years of age, was also bewitched by the beautiful Queen. The latter has been consigned to history as ‘Wee Willie Douglas’. Perhaps that was a moniker given him by his ally – and rival for Mary’s affections – Geordie Douglas. Unsurprisingly, those two dopey, love struck characters played an important part in Mary’s escape. Aided by the starry-eyed Douglases acting undercover ‘on the inside’, various plans were made to help Mary escape. Those were either too fantastic to attempt or failed in their construction or, in the one case when an actual attempt was made, foiled by the attention of a boatman.
Finally, however, on the 2nd of May, 1568, Mary succeeded in escaping, primarily with the help of Wee Willie Douglas. The little hero managed to steal the keys to the Postern Gate from the table beside Sir William Douglas, when said gentleman was a wee bit the worse for wear after a banquet in the Great Hall. Mary, dressed as a servant girl, and Jane Kennedy made their way downstairs, across the courtyard and through the gates. Together, the three slipped away in one of the boats and rowed ashore, where George Douglas was waiting to welcome them and guide Mary to Niddry Castle, in Lothian. Legend has it that Wee Willie locked the castle gates behind him and, when half way to the shore, threw the keys into the water. Interestingly, when the Loch was being lowered, in 1831, a set of eight keys was found in the mud.
Immediately after her daring escape, Mary tried to have her abdication declared invalid and, with many Nobles readily declaring for her, was able to gather an army. However, that army was soundly defeated, in the space of an hour, by an opposing army, led by her half brother, the Earl of Moray. That was the Battle of Longside, that was, which took place just outside of Glasgow. Against the advice of her loyal Nobles, Mary fled south to England, in the hope that Queen Elizabeth I would help her. However, that wee plan wisnae as successful as her escape plan from Loch Leven. Mary was held in captivity for a further seventeen years and, in 1587, found guilty of being associated with various conspiracies, including the ‘Babington Plot’ and ultimately beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, in Northamptonshire.