Mary Fleming and Mary Queen of Scots

Morvern French
Friday 5 December 2014

One of the best-known Flemings in the history of Scotland is perhaps Mary Fleming, one of the Four Maries that accompanied Mary Queen Of Scots. Even to this day Mary Fleming’s life is celebrated in the Scottish towns of Biggar and Cumbernauld. Both towns have long associations with the Fleming family. In this blog posting, Charles Rigg examines Mary’s life and her relationship with Mary Queen of Scots.


When Malcolm, 3rd Lord Fleming died on the battlefield of Pinkie in September 1547, he left behind a widow, two sons, and five daughters. His widow, Lady Janet, was the illegitimate daughter of James IV, making her a half-sister to James V and an aunt to Mary Queen of Scots. She also enjoyed the friendship and respect of Mary of Guise, the queen’s mother, who entrusted her in 1548 with the responsibility of taking the five year-old queen to France and remaining with her in the important role of governess, a position more like the principal lady-in-waiting than a teacher.[1]

Janet Fleming and James IV. Images: Wikimedia Commons.
Janet Fleming and James IV. Images: Wikimedia Commons.

Life in France: 1547–61

Mary Fleming, the youngest of Malcolm’s daughters, was very close in age to Mary Queen of Scots and traveled with her to France. As first cousins, they were introduced to each other from an early age and were certainly together in 1547 when the queen spent some three weeks in the security of the island of Inchmahome, in the lake of Menteith.

Also on that journey were three other Maries: Beaton, Seton and Livingston, who made up the queen’s celebrated Four Maries. The next 13 years of their lives were spent growing up in France, although not always in the company of the queen. It was decided that it would be in the best interests of the Scottish queen if she immersed herself in the life of the French court, so the Four Maries were sent to the convent of the Dominican nuns of Poissy, near St Germain, to be educated, before being allowed to attend the queen as maids-in-waiting.

For Mary Fleming, these must have been happy years, spoiled only by two incidents. The first involved her vivacious mother, who caught the roving eye of the French king, Henry II, and became pregnant in December 1550. Rather foolishly, she made no secret of the fact she was carrying the king’s child and was ordered, most probably by Mary of Guise, to return to Scotland to have the baby.

The second incident was more serious and dampened what should have been a happy occasion at the wedding of Mary Queen of Scots to the dauphin Francis in 1558. James, Mary Fleming’s brother, who had inherited the title of Lord Fleming on the death of his father, Malcolm, was one of eight Scottish commissioners sent to attend the marriage. Unfortunately, he never returned home as he became ill after the wedding celebrations and died in Paris.

It was not long before accusations were made back in Scotland that Fleming had been poisoned; suspicion of foul play stemmed from the fact that another three commissioners had also mysteriously died. However, these accusations originated from John Knox and the Protestant lords, who opposed the French development. If there had been any substance to these allegations it is unlikely that in November the Scottish Parliament and the returning commissioners would have endorsed the crown matrimonial being granted to Francis.[2] A more likely explanation can be found in a letter from Queen Mary to her mother in which she makes reference to an epidemic that was particularly virulent at Amiens and the channel ports at the time.[3]

Two years later, Mary met her mother once again as she returned to France with her son, Henry. By this time her half-brother was nine years old and made very welcome by the French court. He remained in France, where he was made Abbot of La Chaside-Dieu and became Prior General of the Galleys; he died in 1586 from a wound sustained in a quarrel. It is less clear as to what happened to Lady Janet but it is presumed that she died before 1564.

Return to Scotland and the Personal Rule of Mary Queen of Scots: 1561-7

After thirteen years in France, and at the age of nineteen, Mary Fleming returned to Scotland. Her life, like that of the other Maries, was inextricably linked with the fortunes of the queen whom they served, and following the early death of Francis from an ear infection in 1561, Mary Stuart decided to return to the country where she was still queen.

Mary Fleming and the other three Maries traveled in the same galley as the queen. Historians have commented that Fleming was the ‘belle of the quartet’ although there are no paintings of her or the others to validate that opinion.[4] What is known is that at the Twelfth Night festivities of 1564 she stole the show after finding a bean in her cake which allowed her to become ‘Queen for a Day’. Contemporary accounts described Fleming’s appearance, in a gown of silver cloth covered in jewels, as dazzling.[5] 450 years later that occasion is still celebrated annually in Biggar.

Historians have also claimed that Mary Fleming enjoyed a special place amongst the Four Maries in the queen’s affections. Perhaps this explains why, in the spring of 1563, it was to Fleming that the queen turned to share her bedroom. This followed the Chastelard scare, when the French poet was found hiding under her bed. The next day he was ordered to leave the court, but foolishly repeated his folly a second-time at St Andrews. There was no leniency for him on this occasion and he was executed after a public trial.

An unlikely marriage to William Maitland of Lethington: 1567-73

It was not until January 1567 that Mary Fleming became the third of the Maries to marry, but what was surprising was her choice of husband – William Maitland of Lethington, the queen’s Secretary of State. Maitland was a widower, 18 years Fleming’s senior, and his romantic pursuit of her over two years provoked much comment and amusement at court on what seemed an unlikely pairing.[6]

William Maitland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
William Maitland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Maitland did not always enjoy the queen’s trust. He had both disapproved of Mary’s second marriage, to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, and then involved himself in the Rizzio murder. But by 1567 he was sufficiently back in the queen’s favour for her to approve the wedding, although this might have been influenced by a perceived need to use Fleming to keep a close eye on a man she still did not entirely trust.[7]

Only a month after their wedding at Stirling’s Chapel Royal, Darnley was murdered at Kirk o’ Field, and three months later the queen married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Despite being one of the few to attend that wedding, Maitland abandoned the queen almost immediately; his wife also went with him, leaving the queen distraught at her departure.

Mary Fleming, or Lady Lethington as she was now known, must have been tormented by the dramatic events that unfolded after she and her husband parted company from her cousin, the queen. As wife to Maitland, she now had dual loyalties, but she may have played a part in eventually persuading him to return to Mary’s side. During Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven an engraved ring was sent from either Maitland or his wife to the deposed queen, with the words engraved in Italian: ‘He who has spirit enough will not want force’. It was taken at the time to be a promise of future support from Maitland.[8]

That support took some time in coming: it was not until after the battle of Langside and the first trial of Mary at York that Maitland began to shift his position, moving away from the queen’s half-brother James, Regent Moray and back to Mary. On returning to Scotland he joined Kirkcaldy at Edinburgh castle, but it eventually fell in May, 1573. By then an ailing man, virtually unable to walk, he was held prisoner in Leith to await trial for treason.

His wife’s devotion was reflected in her decision to leave their two children at home in Haddington and join him. On the 9th of June Maitland died before he was brought to trial. There was still the gruesome possibility that his dead body be propped up at a posthumous trial as was sometimes the Scottish custom, but due to the intervention of his wife that was avoided. Mary wrote to Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor, asking for support. It brought a response from the queen, who sent a strongly worded letter to Regent Morton advising him against such action.

Mary Fleming’s sisters and Mary Queen of Scots: 1567-87

Mary never saw Mary Queen of Scots after 1567. In contrast, her sister Agnes, who was married to Lord Livingston, played an increasingly significant role in the deposed monarch’s life during her years in captivity in England. She was with her when Mary was first held at Bolton and also joined her at Tutbury, where it was recorded that Lord and Lady Livingston were ‘the greatest personages’ about Mary in 1569.[9] However, it was not possible for Agnes to remain with her cousin indefinitely and in 1572 she returned to Scotland to see her own children. Scotland at this time was under the regency of the Earl of Morton, and he imprisoned her in Dalkeith Castle for allegedly communicating secret messages between the queen and her allies in Scotland. After a period of two months she was released.

Mary Fleming’s other sister, Margaret, must have been as devastated at the turn of events as any of her family. She had been by the queen’s bedside at the time of the birth of Prince James in June 1566, when the queen was in labour for 20 hours; at one stage Margaret, who was thought to have the powers of casting spells, attempted to transfer Mary’s labour pains to another lady-in-waiting at the birth, Lady Reres. While there is no record to tell us if Margaret was successful in this, we do know that she was a lady-in-waiting at court and received the second highest remuneration.[10]

Margaret was married at this time to her third husband, John Stewart, the powerful Earl of Atholl, a staunch Roman Catholic who had voted against Scotland becoming Protestant in 1560. He provided loyal support to Mary in the challenging circumstances of being a Catholic queen in a Protestant country, and was one of the four earls to regularly attend her court. But his support ended in the aftermath of Darnley’s murder. He expected the queen to actively hunt down the perpetrators of the crime and bring them to justice; he did not expect her to marry Bothwell only three months later, the person popularly believed to have been behind the crime. These actions persuaded Atholl to abandon Mary and become part of an unlikely alliance of Catholic and Protestant lords at Carberry: he then signed the warrant for the queen’s indefinite imprisonment at Loch Leven Castle.

Despite this, we have evidence that Margaret did not abandon her imprisoned cousin and in 1570 sent her an expensive piece of jewellery. The jewel was intercepted by the English, and sent Queen Elizabeth into a frenzy because it included an inflammatory inscription: ‘Fall what may fall, the Lion (of Scotland) shall be lord of all’.[11] It would appear that even fifteen years later Elizabeth had neither forgotten nor forgiven this when Margaret offered to come with her daughter and stay with Mary at Tutbury Castle. Mary was thrilled at the prospect, but Margaret and her small retinue were refused permission by Elizabeth.

Something similar may have happened to Mary Fleming following Mary Seton’s announcement to seek retiral through ill-health in 1581. Mary Queen of Scots once again sought Mary’s services, but either Elizabeth prevented it or there was reluctance on Mary Fleming’s part to leave her second husband, George Meldrum of Fyvie.

It was on the 8th of February 1587 that Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, after almost nineteen years as a prisoner in England. None of the Four Maries or sisters of Mary Fleming were present. Mary Fleming lived until about 1600.

Mary Fleming in Perspective

There were many moments of great significance and drama in the life of Mary Queen of Scots that Mary Fleming witnessed at first hand: court life in France; the wedding to the Dauphin (April 1558); the French coronation (July 1559); sorrow at the death of Francis II (December 1560); the journey back to Leith (August 1561); the reception of John Knox; the intrusion of Chastelard (1563); the wedding to Darnley (1565); the murder of David Rizzio (March 1566); the growing tension between Mary and Darnley; the baptism of the future James VI at Stirling (December 1566); the queen’s reactions to Bothwell’s attentions; and Mary’s wedding to Bothwell (May 1567). Few would have been better placed to have written an insightful biography of Mary’s life, from childhood to the end of her personal rule. The same could not be said for the remaining 20 years of the queen’s life, when Mary Seton’s constant presence up to 1583 contrasted with Fleming’s complete absence.

Undoubtedly Mary Fleming was more a close witness than a key player in the dramatic events of the queen’s personal rule. However, there has been a suggestion that she might have played a part in procuring for her husband the Casket letters, then doctoring them by forging the queen’s writing and signature.[12] The content of these letters was damaging for the queen as it claimed to provide evidence of her love for Bothwell and complicity in Darnley’s murder. A similar accusation has been made against Mary Beaton, who at that time was in dispute with the queen over some jewels and whose hand-writing was closer to the queen’s than Mary Fleming’s.[13] But, as Antonia Fraser has argued, ‘there is no proof against Mary Beaton or indeed Mary Fleming except the merest supposition’.[14]

Signature of Mary Fleming. Image: M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965).
Signature of Mary Fleming. Image: M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965).
Signature of Mary Beaton. Image: M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965).
Signature of Mary Beaton. Image: M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965).
Signature of Mary Queen of Scots. Image: M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965).
Signature of Mary Queen of Scots. Image: M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965).

Charles Rigg
December 2014

Charles Rigg, the author of this blog posting, is a Trustee of Biggar Museums. At present the Trust is involved in a £2million project to relocate two museums to a new purpose-built site on the main street. The museum is due to open in July 2015. One of the centrepieces of the museum is Mary Fleming, who was closely associated with Biggar.


[1] Rosalind K. Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women (2006), p. 42.
[2] Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1973), p. 102.
[3] John Guy, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (2004), pp. 89-90.
[4] Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, p. 215.
[5] Thomas Randolph spoke glowingly of her in a letter to Cecil, 15th of January 1563. Arnold Fleming, Flemish Influence in Britain (1930), pp. 194-6.
[6] Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange suggested that a Protestant like himself was more suitable to be pope than Maitland was of being Fleming’s suitor.
[7] Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, p. 212.
[8] Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, p. 388.
[9] Report from Nicholas White to William Cecil, 26th of February 1569, quoted in Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, p. 182.
[10] Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, p. 166.
[11] Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, p. 167.
[12] M. H. Armstrong Davison, The Casket Letters (1965), pp. 245-6; Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, p. 446.
[13] Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, p. 446; Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, pp. 146-7.
[14] Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, p. 446.

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