The imagined events of Schiller’s Mary Stuart transpire over the course of a few days, but the story’s roots, and its consequences, begin two centuries earlier in 1377 and “end” in 1603, fifteen years after the play concludes.
The legacy of the Plantagenet king, Edward III (1312-1377) looms over its story. Founder of the dynasty from which both Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, descend, Edward III is the indirect cause of the struggle for power between these two queens who, through Edward, each assert her claim to the English throne.
Edward III was a strong, stable, and remarkably fertile English king. He fathered thirteen children—of whom eight were male. But the king’s eldest son and heir apparent, Edward, the Black Prince, died one year prior to his father’s own death when the crown fell to the Black Prince’s oldest, living son, crowned Richard II of the House of York.
That might have been the end of the story had it not been for Richard’s Lancastrian cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. In 1399 Henry deposed his Yorkist cousin and assumed the throne as Henry IV. Henry IV managed a successful reign, and the crown passed peacefully to his son, Henry V. But less than a decade into his reign, Henry contracted dysentery and died.
Henry V’s infant son ascended to the throne. Dominated by his courtiers and later his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI proved a weak, ineffective king. Under his reign, England’s claim to France was lost and the crown ran up massive debts. The Yorkists—claiming their right to the throne through two sons of Edward III—grew exasperated with Lancastrian rule.
The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) commenced—thirty years of civil war in which the crown was passed between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Among this succession of kings was Richard III, who reigned from 1483 to 1485 after declaring his late brother’s marriage invalid and heirs illegitimate.
In 1485 Henry Tudor returned to England from France, where he had been preparing for a rebellion against the Yorkist kings. Henry triumphed, and with Richard III’s death, Henry VII became the first of the Tudor dynasty. A pragmatic ruler, Henry married Elizabeth of York, strategically uniting, the houses of Lancaster and York. Their intentions for the country’s future were symbolized by the name of their first born son: Arthur, England’s king of ancient legend. To protect England against its historic French enemy, Henry allied with Spain and a marriage between Prince Arthur and the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon was thereby arranged.
Five months into their marriage, Arthur died. When Henry VII, too, died in 1509, his surviving son ascended to the throne, Henry VIII. Only with a papal dispensation did Henry marry his brother’s widow and father one living child, named Mary (not the same as Mary, Queen of Scots). Desperate to produce a male heir, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and divorced Catherine in 1533. He quickly remarried the pregnant Anne Boleyn and declared Mary illegitimate. Anne too gave Henry one living heir, the princess Elizabeth, before she was charged with a litany of crimes and executed. Elizabeth, too, was subsequently declared illegitimate. His third wife, Jane Seymour, birthed a son, Edward, before she died of postnatal complications.
Henry’s subsequent three marriages produced no more children. In 1543 his parliament passed the Third Succession Act, which returned both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession following Edward. When Henry died in 1547, his nine-year-old son became Edward VII, reigning for just eight years. Not wanting to leave England to the Catholic Mary, Edward and his Protestant advisors tried to divert the succession to Lady Jane Grey, great-granddaughter to Henry VII. The plan failed, and Edward’s eldest half-sister succeeded him as Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), who died a few years later, without issue.
In 1558 Elizabeth, the last of Henry VIII’s issue, ascended to the throne, where she would remain until her death in 1603, despite competing claims for the crown: Mary, Queen of Scots, another great-granddaughter to Henry VII, was one of those claimants. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, was to inherit the English throne, as England’s James I. James—raised away from his Catholic mother in a largely Protestant Scotland—was meant to ensure that England remained beyond the reach of the papacy. The English throne secured James’s silence following his mother’s execution. 1603 marked the end of the Tudor dynasty and the rise of the Stuarts under James I.
—Brooke Sutter, a graduate of Loyola University, researched and wrote teaching resources for Mary Stuart as an intern with CST’s Education Department.