Mary Queen of Scots


The castle’s heyday came under the Lancastrian kings from Henry IV (1399-1413) to Henry VI (1422-61 and 1470-71), and most of the surviving structures date from this time. The castle continued to receive some attention in the late fifteenth century, but despite a visit from Henry VIII in 1511, the castle largely fell into disrepair. Surveys in 1561-2 identified the need for major repairs and described it as ‘An old stately castle, decayed in many places’.

Fit For A Queen

Despite this it was certainly still imposing; as one historian describes it as ‘more of a fortified town than a castle’. It was also conveniently remote – both from the centre of Elizabeth’s power in London and from the neighbouring kingdom of Scotland. Perhaps that was the attraction for Elizabeth in choosing it as a castle fit for a queen, a special queen – a captive queen.


On the 4th February 1569, Mary Queen of Scots and sixty attendants, including her gaoler Knollys, rode into Tutbury Castle. She had been many hours in the saddle and for the first time since her arrival in England, she realised that she was now in prison.

Mary loathed Tutbury. Not only because of what it represented but also because it was cold, draughty and extremely damp – threatening Mary’s already delicate health. She wrote of its miseries in winter that ‘mechante vieille charpenterie’ caused the wind to whistle through her chamber. Rather than waxing lyrical about the magnificent view Tutbury offered, she described it as ‘sitting squarely on top of a mountain in the middle of a plain’, subjecting her to all the ‘winds and injures of heaven’.

Shortly after arriving, Mary’s keeping was handed over to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, husband to Bess of Hardwicke, and Constable of Tutbury Castle. Shrewsbury remained her gaoler with only a few respites for the next fourteen years. We know something of how she spent her time – reading, writing and a great love of her life, embroidery. She sent gifts to powerful figures such as Queen Elizabeth herself. Perhaps on consideration the embroidered pillow we know she sent to Norfolk was not such a good idea, he was ambitious enough.

At the end of February 1569, Nicholas White was travelling to Ireland on behalf of Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, William Cecil. White broke his journey to visit Mary at Tutbury Castle. His letter to William Cecil reporting what he found is enlightening. He stated the Queen spent far too much of her time embroidering. ‘All the day she wrought with her needle and that the diversity of colours made the time less tedious’. They also discussed the artistic values of carving and painting during the course of which Mary expressed her view that painting was the greatest skill. He replied sharply that he believed painting to be a false truth, ‘Veritas Falsa’. Mary understandably at this point, ended the audience and withdrew into her own rooms.

Despite Nicholas White being able to resist the considerable charms of Mary, he couldn’t resist describing how she looked as ‘having dark hair’, although he had been warned by Knollys she wore false hair of different colours, and ‘hath withal an alluring grace, a pretty Scotch accent, and a searching wit clouded with mildness. Fame might move some to relieve her, and glory join with gain might stir others to adventure more for her sake’. A warning indeed.

Endlessly on the Move

In June 1569 she was moved to Wingfield Manor to avoid suspected rescue attempts, but was moved back to Tutbury later in the year. In the wake of a plot to marry her to the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, there was a Catholic uprising in the north of England, and in November 1569 she was moved to Coventry, further from the rising. Following the suppression of the rebellion, Mary was moved back to Tutbury once again on 2nd January, 1570, remaining there until May the same year. She had her suite cut down and she was unable to give or receive messages to the outside world. Huntingdon was also sent by Elizabeth to assist Shrewsbury in his task.

Her final visit

When Mary’s health seemed to worsen in Tutbury’s atmosphere she was moved to other houses, but on 14th January 1585 she was sent back to Tutbury for the final time. The impregnable fortress was this time guarded by Sir Ralph Sadler, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was kind to Mary, finding his task as distasteful as his absence from home. He allowed Mary to hawk and ride. This news in London caused some anger so in April 1585 she met her most severe gaoler, Sir Amyas Paulet – she loathed him as much as Tutbury. One of the first things he did was remove her chair and royal cloth of state. Despite her tears, he remained unmoved. His puritan conscience kept him severe and distant.

We also know Mary had been allowed to walk in a little privy garden within the castle walls. Now, instructions from London were given that she was to be held in the strictest confinement, not even being allowed to walk outside, ‘for that heretofore under colour of giving alms and other extraordinary courses used by her, she has won the hearts of the people that habit about these places, where she has heretofore lain’. Even Mary’s servants were not allowed to walk on the thick walls for fear they would signal messages to spies or passers-by.

Mary had a habit of caring for the poor on Maundy Thursday; monarchs still do. In 1585, 42 girls and 18 little boys received 1½ yards of woollen cloth. Money was also given to the poor of Tutbury town. Paulet was furious when he discovered this practice and stopped it immediately. On Christmas Eve 1585, Mary was moved to nearby Chartley Castle. Following the discovery of firm proof that Mary was plotting against Elizabeth, she was moved again to Fotheringay in Northamptonshire, where at ten o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, 8th February 1587, the captive Queen was released by three blows of the axe. She was 44 years of age.