Non-Fiction Review: Imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots, by Mickey Mayhew


book cover

Imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots covers the lives and careers of the men and women who ‘kept’ Mary Queen of Scots when she was a political prisoner in England, circa 1568/9-1587. Mary’s troubled claim to the English throne – much to the consternation of her ‘dear cousin’ Elizabeth I – made her a mortal enemy of the aforementioned Virgin Queen and set them on a collision course from which only one would walk away. Mary’s calamitous personal life, encompassing assassinations, kidnaps and abdications, sent her careering into England and right into the lap of Henry VIII’s shrewd but insecure daughter. Having no choice but keep Mary under lock and key, Elizabeth trusted this onerous task to some of the most capable – not to mention the richest – men and women in England; Sir Francis Knollys, Rafe Sadler (of Wolf Hall fame), the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, and finally, the puritanical nit-picker Sir Amyas Paulet. Until now, these nobles have been mere bit-players in Mary’s story; now, their own lives, loves and fortunes are laid bare for all to see.

From Carlisle Castle to Fotheringay, these men and women all but bankrupted themselves in keeping the deposed Scots queen in the style to which she was accustomed, while fending off countless escape plots of which Mary herself was often the author. With the sort of twist that history excels at, it was in fact a honeytrap escape plot set up by Elizabeth’s ministers that finally saw Mary brought to the executioner’s block, but what of the lives of the gaolers who had until then acted as her guardian? This book explains how Shrewsbury and Bess saw their marriage wrecked by Mary’s legendary charms, and how Sir Amyas Paulet ended up making a guest appearance on ‘Most Haunted’, some several hundred years after his death. In that theme, the book also covers the appearances of these men and women on film and TV, in novels and also the various other Mary-related media that help keep simmering the legend of this most misunderstood of monarchs.


Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.

Funny thing about British genealogy: if you’re among the ordinary people – even if you’re from Britain – it can be tough getting back much further than 1800. You can, however, be from the USA and be able to trace your ancestors back another couple of centuries. I say this because that’s how I came to this book. A couple of years ago, while working on our family history, I discovered my American husband is descended from Sir Amyas Paulet. The last of Mary Queen of Scots jailers is my 12th great-grandfather-in-law.

I’m not sure what I expected from Imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots. Perhaps I thought I’d get individual portraits of the gentlemen (and women). Separate sections on each maybe, starting with their lives before the Scottish queen entered them and then continuing after her death until they too succumbed to that great equalizer. Instead, this is a book focusing on Mary’s life and how they impacted it. This is very much a chronological look at her imprisonment, with various people coming and going from it. A dramatis personae would’ve been useful to have as a guide at the start. The overall impression is that being one of the queen’s jailers was to receive a poisoned chalice: it was an honor that came at great personal cost. The Earl of Shrewsbury held the position far longer than any others and so he receives the most coverage in this book. Previously, I’d thought his wife, known as Bess of Hardwick, as a hard woman. The narrative here has made me rethink.

Mayhew’s writing is easy to read. He’s casual, understandable, and uses modern day cultural comparisons to help the reader comprehend. And, while he uses several quotes from the players involved as well as more modern researchers and historians, he’s also not afraid of sharing his own opinions. These include his thoughts on certain conspiracy theories about the queen, and on her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I – he doesn’t appear to be a fan.

As for my husband’s ancestor, Sir Amyas, Mayhew doesn’t seem to be a fan of his either. Paulet is introduced as a bigot, and it doesn’t get any better. Later, he’s described as being “almost comically belligerent,” but apparently, he wasn’t “a total tyrant.” When Mayhew describes the supposed interaction between him and psychic Derek Acora in the Most Haunted episode, the author disagrees with Acora’s description of Paulet; not “a good kindred soul.” Mayhew reminds his readers that Paulet declined to be part of a plan to murder Mary prior to her execution. My husband likes to repeat his great-grandfather’s refusal to “make so great a shipwreck of my conscience.” So maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Publisher: Pen and Sword

Publication Date: 28 September 2022

Book Information


Lifelong Londoner Mickey Mayhew recently completed his PhD on the cult surrounding ‘tragic queens’ Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots. In that time, he was also co-author on three books relating to Jack the Ripper, published by The History Press. His first non-fiction work, The Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots, was also published by The History Press in January 2015; I Love the Tudors, by Pitkin Publishing, arrived in 2016. He has a column in the journal of The Whitechapel Society, having previously been a film and theatre reviewer for various London lifestyle magazines. Through 2018/2019, he was an assistant researcher on several projects for London South Bank University.

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