Mary of Guelders, Queen of Scots


Mary of Guelders had a singular upbringing for a Scottish Queen. She was the great-niece of Philip the Good, 3rd Duke of Burgundy and his third wife and Duchess, Isabel of Portugal. They reigned over a sumptuous and cultivated court at Brussels and they gathered around them many nieces and nephews, seeing to their education, well-being and arranging marriages.

Mary was born on January 17, 1433, the daughter of Arnold, Duke of Guelders and Catherine of Cleves, a great aunt of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of King Henry VIII of England. The duchy was named after the town of Geldern which is now located in Germany. The present province of Gelderland in the Netherlands occupies most of the area of the former duchy. Very little is known of Mary’s early life. We do know at the age of twelve she went to live with the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy in Brussels. In order to cement an alliance with Anjou, they had planned on marrying Mary to Charles, Count of Maine who was the brother of René of Anjou. But Mary’s father couldn’t raise the necessary cash for her dowry. Mary continued to live in Brussels with the position of lady-in-waiting to Duchess Isabel’s daughter-in-law, Catherine, who was the daughter of King Charles VII of France. Mary’s name appears in the Duchess’ accounts with outlays of cash for some of her expenses. The accounts also mention that Mary had ten attendants of her own.

Duchess Isabel had never met Queen Joan of Scotland but the two women were almost certainly in contact with one another through intermediaries. Shortly after Queen Joan died in 1445, there were discussions of a possible marriage of Joan’s son, King James II of Scotland and Mary of Guelders. In June 1446, James II had an ambassador in the area and in July, a Scottish and a Burgundian envoy travelled to see ‘the maiden of Guelders’ who probably was with her parents. About the same time, Princess Catherine died but Mary stayed at Brussels, most likely in attendance on the Duchess herself. In 1447, Mary’s father called together his leading subjects to discuss the potential marriage of his daughter and King James. In 1448, King James wrote to King Charles VII in France, renewing the “Auld Alliance” and asking for advice on a possible bride. Charles wrote back suggesting James look to the Burgundian court for a bride, most likely knowing in advance Mary was the choice.

Woodcut of King James II of Scotland, Mary's husband
Woodcut of King James II of Scotland, Mary’s husband

On April 1, 1449, a marriage contract was finalized. Scotland, Burgundy and Guelders agreed to look out for each other’s interests and would assist each other against all enemies. Scotland was given significant trading privileges, Duke Philip agreed to pay a dowry and Duchess Isabel paid for Mary’s trousseau. Mary and her entourage sailed for Scotland on June 12, 1449. She arrived within a week and came ashore at Leith on June 18. James and Mary’s wedding took place on July 3, 1449 at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. After the wedding mass, Mary was taken and dressed in purple robes. She was then anointed and crowned Queen.  This was followed by an enormous feast.

James was nineteen at the time of his marriage and led by the regency of Sir Alexander Livingston and his family. Livingston had arrested and imprisoned James’ mother in 1439 in a power grab and James never forgot this. Once James was married and had established ties with Burgundy and France, he felt secure and confident enough to start freeing himself from the regency and ruling in his own right. He also needed cash to pay for Mary’s jointure. It has been suggested Mary may have urged him to move against Livingston but we will never really know. James had Livingston and some of his family members arrested and a couple of them were executed. He made their lands and possessions forfeit to the crown. A day after the executions, Mary’s jointure was finalized and she received several castles and incomes. By January of 1450, Mary was pregnant.

Mary’s child was due in August but she delivered in May and the child died within a few hours. There is no record of the sex of the child. By December, she was pregnant again. In July 1451, the future James III was born. Mary went on to have several more children. Another son, Alexander, 1st Duke of Albany was born in 1454, David, Earl of Moray in 1456, John, 1st Earl of Mar in 1459, Princess Mary of Scotland in 1453 and Princess Margaret of unknown date. Princess Mary was the mother of James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran who later was on the regency council with Marie of Guise for the young Mary Queen of Scots.

In May of 1454, Mary was present at the siege of Blackness Castle which the King won and gave to her as a gift. James continued to enrich her with lands and incomes and she became wealthy in her own right. She gave a great deal of her money to charity. Mary was very devout and endowed the Franciscan friars in Scotland, founding a friary for them in Edinburgh. She also established a hospital just outside Edinburgh for the indigent.

In the summer of 1460, King James laid siege to Roxburgh Castle which had been held by the English for generations. James had quickly adopted the latest artillery technology, the canon, and used it in battle before. On August 3, he was standing beside one of the bombards when it was fired. A piece of the canon flew off hitting the King and killing him. The Scots continued the siege and captured the castle on August 8, and Mary arrived with her young son on the same day. On August 10, James III was crowned and Mary was given official custody of the King.

In the autumn, Mary began the founding of a Collegiate Church of the Holy Trinity next to her hospital in Edinburgh, in memory of her husband. Her plans included her own burial in the church. She also started construction of Ravenscraig Castle, which may be the first castle built in Scotland to withstand canon fire. The castle was also a memorial to her husband and she planned on it being her dower house. She lived in Ravenscraig while it was under construction until her death. In her position as regent, she was advised by a council including Bishop Kennedy, other bishops and earls. These men were not happy to serve with a woman but Mary exhibited great administrative skills and a strong sense of duty. She no doubt learned much from Duchess Isabel of Burgundy.

Ravenscraig Castle (Image by user:kilnburn from Wikimedia Commons)
Ravenscraig Castle (Image by user:kilnburn from Wikimedia Commons)

Mary was drawn into the War of the Roses in England and harbored the Lancastrian King Henry VI and his family more than once. She was shrewd in her dealings with the Houses of Lancaster and York and at one point considered marrying the Yorkist candidate, Edward IV. Her dealings with England brought her into conflict with Bishop Kennedy on the regency council. At one point, Kennedy was leading the “old lords” in the Lancastrian cause and Mary was leading the “young lords” with a more moderate policy of playing off the Lancastrians against the Yorkists to Scotland’s advantage. By July of 1463, Bishop Kennedy was becoming increasing powerful and may have forced Mary into a military campaign in support of Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI of England’s Queen. Mary was present at the siege of Norham Castle which turned out to be a disaster. Margaret of Anjou left for Burgundy and Mary became seriously ill a few months later. Mary died on December 1, 1463 probably in Edinburgh at the age of thirty. Mary had been a distinguished consort and a capable and successful ruler. Her death was a great loss to her son and to Scotland.

Painting of Trinity College Kirk where Mary was buried
Painting of Trinity College Kirk where Mary was buried

Mary of Guelders was the great-aunt of Philippa of Guelders, Duchess of Lorraine, the great-grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots

Further reading: “Scottish Queens, 1034-1714” by Rosalind K. Marshall, “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders int he Late Middle Ages” by Gerard Nijsten

11 thoughts on “Mary of Guelders, Queen of Scots

  1. […] Mary of Guelders was one of Philip’s great-nieces and she had lived at the Burgundian court since she was twelve years old under the tutelage and guidance of Philip’s third wife, Isabel of Portugal. As early as 1447, a marriage between Mary and James II, King of Scots was considered with the blessing of King Charles VII of France. A commercial treaty was negotiated first and then a marriage treaty was signed in April of 1449. Philip paid the dowry and for the ships to take Mary to Scotland. She sailed from Sluis on June 12 at 4:00 in the morning and with favorable winds, arrived on the Isle of May a week later. From there she came ashore in Scotland at Leith. […]


  2. My dear Susan this posting was very interesting and help me a lot with the book I am reading now, like I said I learn something every day, she was a very intelligent person, I do like her story.❤❤❤❤


  3. Good article like always! I heard about her name in some history books but I didn’t know much about Mary’s entire life. I cannot think about a life when the women were stuck in a commitment without love or even a friendship.


  4. my passion for history started when I saw Keith Mitchell in the Six wives of Henry VIII too. and I haven’t stopped reading or watching movies and tv shows since then.


    • Interesting. That is when my passion for history started. That series starring Keith Mitchell was the absolute best. Both Annette Crosbie and Dorothy Tutin were excellent as Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.


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