• University of Glasgow

The Life and Afterlife of Mary Queen of Scots

Explore the 16th century life of Mary Queen of Scots, and her place in cultural history in the centuries that followed.

The Life and Afterlife of Mary Queen of Scots

Discover the life and lasting legacy of Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots was born and ascended to the throne of Scotland in 1542, before being forced to abdicate in 1567. She was married three times, first to the king of France, and then to two noblemen from the British Isles, one of whom was spectacularly murdered.

She would spend close to 20 years imprisoned by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I before being executed for treason. Her son, James I and VI would go on to become the first monarch of both England and Scotland.

The history of Mary Queen of Scots was a dramatic one, even by the 16th century standards of the Tudors and Stuarts.

On this course from the University of Glasgow, you will learn about Mary Queen of Scots’ life You will also explore her afterlife in our shared cultural history, where she still occupies a prominent position.

Mary Queen of Scots, from the 16th to the 21st century

The life of Mary Queen of Scots provides a lens through which we can explore many of the tensions that defined 16th century Scotland and England. This was a period in the history of the British Isles that was characterised by deep political, cultural and religious upheaval.

On this course you will explore the complex forces that led to Mary’s rise and fall from power, and her imprisonment at the hands of a fellow monarch.

You will also explore how Mary Queen of Scots’ life has been memorialised in popular culture, investigating why she is so deeply entrenched into our cultural history.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 25 seconds STEVEN REID: Hello, you’re joining me here at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where Mary Queen of Scots. Spent much of her short and tumultuous personal reign. It’s a great place to welcome you to the life and afterlife of Mary, Queen of Scots, an online course hosted by the University of Glasgow and Future Learn. Mary is arguably the most famous person in Scottish history, and you might think you know her story. A story that is full of marriages, murders, and tragedy.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds But Mary’s life and reign were far more complex than the well known narrative suggests, and she faced a wide range of unique challenges as queen due to her gender, her religion, and her upbringing in France. Much of her later reputation is built on stories created to justify her removal from the throne in 1567, which in turn were responded to by her defenders and which have led to huge debate ever since. In this course we asked two key questions. Who was the real Mary Queen of? Scots, in her own time? And why has there been such massive and continual interest in her story ever since?

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds You’ll hear from a range of leading historians of Mary, of 16th Century Scotland in Europe and of Mary’s cultural history, and we’ll examine a wide range of places, people and objects connected to the Queen of Scots.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds We’ll guide you through this minefield with competing evidence not to give you one set view of Mary. There’s no such thing, but to give you a sense of how subjective the idea of truth is when it comes to the Queen of Scots.


  • Week 1

    Introducing Mary and her world; her early life

    • Welcome

      In this week we look briefly at what the course covers and introduce the team who'll be taking you through Mary's history. We also find out a little about you and your interest in Mary - what do you already know about her?

    • Who is Mary? An overview

      This section gives you a very quick summary of Mary's life, and discusses (with your help) the reasons why she is such a figure of endless interest and debate.

    • Sixteenth Century Scotland and Europe

      This section examines the impact of the Protestant Reformation on Scotland and Europe in Mary's lifetime, and why Mary had to flee to France as a result of war with England.

    • Mary in France, 1548-1561

      This section looks at Mary's life at the French royal court in the decade after 1548, her marriage to the crown prince François in 1558, and their brief time as king and queen of France between 1559 and 1560.

    • Consolidation and Next Steps

      Well done on finishing week one of the course! The short video and activity in this section go over the key learning for this week, so you can revise and consolidate any key points you may have missed.

  • Week 2

    Mary, Queen of Scots – 1561-1587

    • Mary's Reign: Introduction

      This short video provides a quick account of the key events that took place in Mary's personal reign in Scotland between 1561 and 1567. It also summarises her captivity in England between 1568 and 1587, when she was executed.

    • Good beginnings? Mary in Scotland, 1561-1565

      This set of activities looks at Mary's 'balance-sheet' as a ruler - how she handled religion, domestic and foreign policy, and the key issues of her remarriage and the English succession.

    • Mary and Darnley

      Arguably, Mary's marriage to Henry Stewart Lord Darnley was her greatest mistake - so why did she marry him? And what went so horribly wrong after she did? This section answers these questions.

    • Mary and Bothwell

      James Hepburn, fourth earl of Bothwell, was Mary's notorious third husband, who seized her in April 1567 and who may have raped her and forced her into marrying him. Here we look at their relationship.

    • Mary's Later Life

      Mary escaped to England in May 1568, where she would spend the next nineteen years as a prisoner before being executed for treason against Elizabeth. We look here at how she got there, what she did, and why she was executed.

    • Consolidation and Next Steps

      After week 2, you should now have a full picture of Mary's life and reign - congratulations! This section's discussion activity will allow you to share your knowledge with your peers.

  • Week 3

    ‘In my end is my beginning’: Mary’s Afterlife

    • Introduction

      In this video Steven Reid explains why Mary's cultural afterlife is so important, and how different versions of Mary's story are produced in different times and places.

    • Mary's death and the Early Legend

      In the first part of this section we look at an eyewitness account of Mary's execution. We then look at how propaganda for and against Mary in the later sixteenth century created the early legend surrounding her.

    • Mary's image

      Mary is immediately recognizable in any picture thanks to her famous cap, rosary cross, and black dress and ruff. In this section we look at how the visual iconography for Mary evolved in the century after her death.

    • Collecting Mary

      As well as images and texts, Mary has been commemorated in an incredible range of relics, objects and curios. This activity samples some of these items, and explores why people are so interested in them.

    • Some Modern Maries

      In this activity we survey Mary's portrayal in modern global media, focussing on films, plays and pop culture. We also showcase a commission by renowned comic artist Vincent Deighan to produce a 21st-century Mary.

    • Consolidation and next Steps

      We've reached the end of our short course on Mary. What have you learned? And where can you find out more about the Queen of Scots?

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and learn at your own pace. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

Learning on this course

You can take this self-guided course and learn at your own pace. On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Apply a deep and broad knowledge of the personality of Mary Queen of Scots, of the major events and issues connected to her life and reign
  • Assess the major developments in political, cultural and religious life in Scotland between c. 1542 and c. 1587, using sources in a variety of media to do so
  • Compare the myriad ways in which Mary has been memorialised in popular culture from her own time to the present day
  • Evaluate multiple interpretations of complex historical debates relating to Mary, her reign, and her cultural afterlife

Who is the course for?

This course would suit anyone with a personal or professional interest in the life of Mary Queen of Scots, 16th century history, or cultural history.

It also covers culture, religion, and gender, as well as Anglo-Scottish relations through history.

Who will you learn with?

I'm a teacher and researcher in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow. I specialise in sixteenth-century Scotland, particularly the reigns of Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI.

Who developed the course?

The University of Glasgow

Founded in 1451, the University of Glasgow is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is a member of the prestigious Russell Group of leading UK research universities.

  • Established

  • Location

    Glasgow, Scotland, UK
  • World ranking

    Top 70Source: QS World University Rankings 2020

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