Mary Queen of Scots & The Old Hall Hotel

1700 words / 9 minutes

Of all the people who have visited Buxton in its storied past, it is Mary Queen of Scots who lives the longest in our collective memory.

Her eight visits to the town during her imprisonment under the care of George Talbot, 6th Earl Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick, are commemorated on a plaque on the right hand-side of the entrance to the Old Hall Hotel. The original Tudor core of the Old Hall was built as a prison to accommodate Mary during her stay and this blog shall explore Mary’s time in Buxton and the legacy that it has left us.

In 1565, there was a need to secure an heir to her throne and Mary married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565. Darnley had a distant claim to both the Scottish and English thrones through his maternal grandmother Margaret, who was Queen of Scotland and sister of Henry VIII. By the birth of Mary and Darnley’s son James in 1566, their marriage had soured, due in part to Darnley role in the murder of Mary’s secretary David Rizzio, which was apparently done before a heavily pregnant Mary in her chambers. In February 1567, Darnley died under suspicious circumstances: his house in Kirk O’Field, Edinburgh, was blown up and Darnley’s body was found in the gardens of the house, unharmed by the explosion. As in modern-day murders, Mary was Prime Suspect Number 1 and it was believed that she was aided by James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell in the murder. Bothwell was acquitted of the crime in April 1567 and within a month, he and Mary were married. The new royal marriage was unpopular, and Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, whilst Bothwell fled to Denmark where he would later die in prison charged with bigamy. Mary was forced to abdicate her throne on 24th July 1567 in favour of her infant son James VI. Upon escaping the castle, Mary fled south to England, hoping for protection and support from her first cousin once removed and sister queen, Elizabeth I.

After Elizabeth’s Catholic half-sister Mary I had died in 1558, there were calls that Mary Queen of Scots was the rightful heir to the English throne as a Catholic successor to Mary I. Mary Queen of Scots also asserted her claim to the English throne through her grandmother Margaret and had the English arms quartered on her own, which infuriated Elizabeth although she still took the throne with support from the lords and commons. Through Mary’s claiming of the English throne, she became a threat to Elizabeth and left Elizabeth in a quandary about what to do with her when Mary approached her asking for protection and help to regain her throne. Elizabeth entrusted Mary to the care of George Talbot and his wife Bess of Hardwick whilst and commission was created to again investigate Mary’s role in the death of Darnley, as Darnley was an English subject and this allowed Elizabeth to imprison Mary.

Talbot and Bess were chosen to care for the Queen for multiple reasons. Firstly, they were incredibly wealthy and had the finances required to accommodate the secondary royal court that Mary would require as the Dowager Queen of France, claimant of the English throne and Queen of Scots (Mary claimed her abdication as invalid because it had not been done with her complete consent). The couple were also devoted Protestants and therefore would be less likely to be lenient with the Catholic queen. They were also devoted to each other, and it was therefore seen as unlikely that the apparently beautiful Scottish queen would be able to seduce Talbot into her allowing her forbidden freedoms and lax security. Finally, the couple’s lands in Derbyshire were perfectly situated as they were not only central (reducing the chances of Mary escaping to the sea) but were also equidistant between to Scottish border and London, allowing Elizabeth and her ministers to move Mary north to Scotland if they wished to restore her, or south if they wished to bring her to London.

Mary would be imprisoned by Elizabeth from 1568 until her execution in 1586; she would spend fifteen of these eighteen years in the custody of Talbot and Bess. From the moment she entered the couple’s custody in 1569, the majority of her time was spent at Tutbury Castle, now in Staffordshire. This was her ‘most hated’ prison due to the location of the smally mire by her chambers and the dilapidated state of the prison; its only redeemable quality appears to be its easily defendable position. The conditions Mary was kept in were detrimental to her health, which would steadily decline throughout her imprisonment. Four years into her imprisonment, on the 21st or 22nd August 1573, Talbot brought Mary to Buxton for the first time to take the waters for her health, having finally secured permission to do so from a reluctant Elizabeth.

Why was Elizabeth I reluctant to have Mary stay in Buxton? Well the core of the building now known as the Old Hall Hotel still under construction and so not a very secure prison for such a high-risk prisoner. The original structure was a four-storey Tudor tower with the structure we see now being a Georgian façade and building around this core structure. Mary plotted constantly for her freedom with various Catholic lords and rebels to Elizabeth’s reign, so there was a safety concern if she were stay in a half-constructed building. The few buildings in the area surrounding the Old Hall Hotel were completely locked down during Mary’s visits so that possible plotters could not stay nearby to aid a possible escape. The sparseness of the surrounding area also posed a threat; if Mary (a confident and proficient rider) were to gain access to a horse, she could disappear in any direction and recapturing her would be impossible. To try and minimise the chances of her escape, Mary was more strictly monitored here than in any of her other prisons. For example, Buxton was the only place where she could not receive visitors after 9pm, although it is possible she met with people loyal to Elizabeth outside of these restrictions such as Robert Dudley and Elizabeth’s close advisor Robert Cecil.

As the main focus of Mary’s stays in Buxton were her health, much of her time would be spent bathing in the waters and drinking them. Mary’s main reason for taking the waters were for her rheumatism, the pain of which was exacerbated during her stays at the cold and dank Tutbury Castle. As both Mary and her captor Bess were both proficient needlewomen, it is highly likely that they embroidered together on the nights that Mary was not allowed to receive visitors to her rooms. Apparently, Room 26 of the modern Old Hall Hotel was Mary’s room during her visits to Buxton.

There are numerous legends and rumours surrounding Mary’s time in Buxton, such as her giving alms to a beggar by the well and openly admonishing Talbot for the beggar’s condition. It is also claimed that she visited Poole’s Cavern, and within the cavern you can see, carved into the rock, the name ‘Rowland Lockey’. Lockey was a portrait artist and painted Mary Queen of Scots. At the very least this shows that Poole’s Cavern was being accessed by those surrounding Mary. However, given that Mary’s mobility steadily decreased between her visits to Buxton and she was nearly immobile by the time of her execution two years after her final visit in 1584, if she were to have crawled through the small entrance into the cavern, it would have had to have been on one of her early visits, when she was more mobile. It was during her final visit in the summer of 1584 that on the window pane of Room 26, Mary inscribed : “Buxton, whose warm waters have made thy name famous, perchance I shall visit thee no more – Farewell.”

Within Mary’s own lifetime, her visits to Buxton generated interest in the waters here. There had already been texts published regarding the healing water of the town such as the works of William Worcester (c.1460s), Sir Henry Willoughby (1521) and Dr John Jones (1572). Jones’ work is interesting in that it is the first explicitly medical text mentioning Buxton’s waters in correlation to healing and Jones dedicated the book to Talbot. This text in no doubt helped Talbot’s case in encouraging Elizabeth that the sick Scottish Queen needed to visit the town. As Mary was a Queen at least twice over (and Catholics would argue a third, seeing her as the rightful queen of England), people would visit her during her times at the Old Hall and would subsequently take the waters for their health. Such as person was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and long-time favourite to Elizabeth I. Such a powerful man with a close relationship with the Queen visiting Buxton to take the waters both whilst Mary was in residence and when she was not, continued to advertise the waters and promote belief in its healing properties. Dudley was actually on his way to take the waters for his health when he died on 4th September 1588.

To this day there has yet to be a more famous visitor to Buxton that the tragic figure of Mary Queen of Scots. The plaque at the Old Hall Hotel is a permanent reminder of her periods of imprisonment here with her story being retold by many of the local heritage organisations in Buxton, including here at the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust as well as at Poole’s Cavern and Discover Buxton. In August 2023, to celebrate the 450-year anniversary of Mary’s first visit, there was a procession in front of the Old Hall organised by Discover Buxton and the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust. Mary Queen of Scots is a turning point in the history of town, her numerous visits lifting the waters here out of relative obscurity in a way that the books of the people would not have been able to. She is an enduring figure in the town’s narrative and the Old Hall remaining one of Buxton’s oldest and most iconic buildings. To learn more about Mary, either join us on the Buxton Crescent Experience Tour (bookable online or in the Pump Room) or pop into our gift shop to pick up a book diving into this fascinating historical figure.

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