Saturday, November 5, 2016

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The Daring Escape of Mary Queen of Scots from Loch Leven Castle.



When the confederate Scotch lords had taken Mary Stuart prisoner after her defeat at Carberry Hill, and had resolved to dethrone her, they sent her for safe custody to the castle of Loch Leven, situate on a small island in the middle of the lake of that name. They chose this gloomy place, not only because it was nearly inaccessible, but because the hapless lady would there be in the keeping of that most watchful of all gaolers, a mortal enemy. Margaret Erskine, mother of William Douglas, the owner of the castle, had had a son by James V., whom it pleased her to regard as the legitimate heir to the throne of Scotland, and she hated Mary as an obstacle to her schemes of ambition. Religious differences intensified this feeling, for Margaret was a zealous Presbyterian. In short, her character, her faith, her family pride, and the natural harshness of her temper, all conspired to make her an inexorable guardian of the unfortunate Queen.

After Mary had been compelled by violence to renounce the crown in favour of her son, she was placed in the most rigorous confinement, the strictest watch being kept over her to prevent her, not only from effecting her escape, but from holding any sort of communication with the outer world. Many of the sovereigns of Europe were well disposed towards her, but she was not allowed to write to her friends, though she sometimes found an opportunity of doing so while the daughters of Margaret, who shared her chamber, were asleep, or at their meals. The cruelty of these restraints defeated their end, for it touched the very son her gaoler, George Douglas, with compassion for the captive Queen, and led him to form a plan for her escape. But his first attempt to aid her was unsuccessful.

It was arranged that the Queen should leave the castle in the dress of the laundress who brought her linen to Loch Leven, and that George Douglas and a number of his partisans should be ready to receive her as soon she had crossed the lake. The appointed day came; the young man was at his post, and the Queen, thanks to her disguise, had actually got clear of the castle, and reached the boat, when one of the boatmen, struck by the figure of the pretended laundress, attempted to lift her veil, and the hasty gesture with which the Queen resisted his touch, revealed a hand too white and too delicately formed to be that of a hard-working girl. The man at once guessed her real rank, but even at that moment Mary did not lose her presence of mind. She declared her name and title, and ordered him, on pain of death, to row her across the lake. The name of Margaret Erskine had, however, greater terror for the fellow than that of Mary Stuart; and the Queen was taken back to captivity again.

As the penalty of this unfortunate attempt of the 25th March, George Douglas was sent away from the island. This did not, however, make him one whit the less eager to succeed in his noble design; and he confided the Queen to the care of one who was equally devoted to her—his brother, a youth of fifteen or sixteen, called the “Little Douglas,” and employed as page to his mother.

Mary was, of course, made to suffer more heavily, and every fresh precaution against her escape took the form of a new torture. Her life became almost unendurable. She wrote to Elizabeth, to Catherine de’ Medicis, and to Charles IX., supplicating them for aid, but before any of them could move in her favour other help was at hand. George Douglas had never forgotten his promise to set her free. He used the liberty gained by his banishment from the castle in extending the circle of her friends. He engaged the powerful families of the Seatons and the Hamiltons in her cause, and with their aid formed a more carefully prepared plan than the last for her escape. It was arranged that on a given night they should be waiting for her where he had formerly waited. The page, young Douglas, undertook the rest.

Sunday, the 2nd May, 1568, was the day fixed for the execution of the project. The whole household at Loch Leven took their meals in a common hall; and while they were together the keys of the fortress were placed on the table by the governor’s side. At supper time on the appointed night the young page watched his opportunity; and while he held out his plate to be filled, he contrived to get possession of the keys without being for the moment observed. He at once ran to Mary’s chamber and released her, and then led her to the boat, locking every door behind him on his way to diminish the chances of pursuit. He then threw the keys into the lake, and took the oars, after handing the Queen and her waiting-woman into their seats, and pulled vigorously for the shore. Before leaving the castle he had placed a signal light in one of the windows, so that when the Queen stepped from the boat she found her friends waiting to receive her. She at once took horse, and accompanied by Lord Seaton, galloped hard for that nobleman’s house at Niddry, in East Lothian, whence after a few hours’ repose she made her way to the more strongly fortified castle of the Hamiltons. She was received there by the Archbishop St. Andrew’s and Lord Claude, who had gone out to meet her with fifty horses.

The news of this escape, according to Scott, spread through Scotland with the rapidity of lightning, and the Queen was greeted everywhere with enthusiasm. The people remembered her affability, her grace, her beauty, and her misfortunes; and if they remembered her errors too, it was only to say that she had been punished for them too severely. On Sunday Mary had been a sad captive, abandoned to her enemies in a solitary tower; and on the Saturday following she found herself at the head of a powerful confederation, in which nine counts, eight lords, nine bishops, and a great number of gentlemen of the highest rank were engaged to defend her and to restore her to her throne. But this ray of hope only illumined her sombre destiny for an instant. On February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded for treason. Mary's son, King James VI of Scotland became king of England, Scotland, and Ireland upon Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603.

The keys thrown into the lake by the page were found by a fisherman in 1805, and are now placed at Kinross. The place where the fugitive Queen landed, on the southern shore of the lake, is still called Mary’s Knoll

Contents prepared from sources in the public domain.

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