On the 8th of February 1587, Mary Queen of Scots, the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, was executed after nineteen years of imprisonment in England. She was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle for her complicity in a secret plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I of England – the Babington Plot.
Mary Stuart had a tumultuous and dramatic life, full of passion and love, whim and eccentricity. One may say that her life was too full of French glamour and unreasonable turnarounds due to her foolish ignorance of certain fundamental things which a wise monarch should know. Yet, before criticizing Mary, we should remember that her life was also filled with a lot of sufferings and pain throughout the second half of her life in English captivity.
Mary’s life began with her wonderful birth into a God-fearing and powerful Catholic House of Stuarts. Her father, King James V, died only six days after her birth, and she was proclaimed Queen of Scotland in infancy. Already in her early childhood, she was thrust into political turmoil as Catholic Cardinal Beaton and the Protestant Earl of Arran fought for regency in Scotland.
Taking the opportunity of the regency in the northern neighbour, Henry VIII proposed marriage between Mary and his son, Prince Edward, hoping for a union of Scotland and England, but that possible alliance fall apart.
The religious violence between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland and the aggravation of Scotland’s relations with England made the Scots turn to France, their old ally. King Henry II of France offered to unite France and Scotland by marrying Mary to his eldest son, Dauphin Francis, and the Scots agreed with the match on the promise of French military help. As a result, Mary was shipped to France at age of six for her upbringing and education in safety.
In France in 1558, the sixteen-year-old Queen Mary married the fourteen-year-old Dauphin Francis, who soon became King Francis II of France. However, Mary’s first husband died quite soon after their marriage, and a young widow had to return to Scotland.
Upon her return to her home country, Mary failed to adapt to her new life in Scotland, which she had left years ago and which seemed foreign and wild to her. She didn’t understand many Scottish traditions, and her own kinsmen didn’t understand her. Moreover, Mary was a Catholic Queen in the country which was largely dominated by Protestant lords, including their leader the Earl of Moray, her illegitimate half-brother. The nobles were not fond of Mary’s pro-French lifestyle in Scotland, and their dissatisfaction was growing.
Mary acknowledged her lack of effective military power in the face of the Protestant lords, and for some time the two religious parties achieved accommodation. During that period, Mary tried to find a royal husband in Europe. She failed to make Spain, European superpower in the 16th century, Scotland’s ally through marriage to Don Carlos, King Philip II of Spain’s mentally ill heir – her attempt to enter into marriage negotiations was rebuffed by Philippe. Elizabeth didn’t want to turn a blind eye to Mary’s matrimonial agenda: she suggested that Mary marry Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her favourite and rumoured lover, but Mary disliked the match and so did Dudley.
In 1565, the Queen of Scots married Henry Stuart, styled as Lord Darnley, her English-born first cousin. She quickly fell for young and handsome Darnley, thinking with her heart and disregarding the ramifications of her actions – the deterioration of fragile piece in Scotland and the increasing tension between her and Protestant lords, who severely disapproved of this matrimony.
Darnley’s murder and Mary’s subsequent quick remarriage to James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, predetermined her quick downfall. Gossip about Mary’s participation in her second husband’s death began to circulate throughout the country, and people talked that she might have conspired with Bothwell to assassinate Darnley.
Mary’s reputation was razed to the ground in her own kingdom, and the Scottish nobility was outraged.
The young queen was deposed and forced to abdicate her throne to her little son James. Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, where she supposedly miscarried twins conceived during the short time of her marriage to Bothwell. Bothwell himself was driven into exile, and years later he was declared insane in Denmark. In 1568, Mary escaped from her prison with the aid of the castle’s owner, who was still relatively loyal to her, and she headed to England.
Maybe Mary believed that Elizabeth would help her regain the Scottish throne. However, she was taken into custody at Carlisle Castle by the local English authorities. Elizabeth was extremely cautious and ordered to investigate the situation in Scotland, making inquiries about the political situation there and about the attitude of the Scottish lords towards Mary’s possible restoration.
Mary’s struggle with those who didn’t want her back on the throne was over. In England, the drama of his life was elsewhere, in the struggle with her anxiety to see Elizabeth and finally receive her cousin’s help. But Elizabeth didn’t hurry to visit Mary, although the two women regularly exchanged letters.
Over time, Mary must have understood that Elizabeth wouldn’t assist her in any way, and the deal of the casket letters – eight letters and several sonnets which were claimed by the Scottish nobles to have been written by Mary to the Earl of Bothwell, between January and April 1567. Most modern historians, including Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser, think that the casket letters were forgeries, or some incriminating passages might have been deliberately inserted into the letters and sonnets to blacken Mary’s reputation.
There is no evidence that Mary murdered Darnley, plotted to get rid of him with Bothwell, or dreamt of his death. All the claims of her enemies about her supposed guilt, including the casket letters, cannot be proved, and a person remains innocent until proven guilty. Mary’s hasty marriage to Bothwell doesn’t prove that she became indifferent to her second husband after falling for Bothwell and just found a way out of their marriage by murdering him.
In her book “Mary Queen of Scots and The Murder of Lord Darnley”, Alison Weir writes about Mary’s reaction to Darnley’s death:
“There is no doubt that Darnley’s murder left Mary grief-stricken, emotionally shattered and fearful for her own safety. For several months afterwards, she seems not to have functioned normally, and her judgement, never very good at the best of times, utterly failed her.”
Weir also adds about the queen’s actions that followed the murder of her second husband:
“The Queen had proclaimed a period of court mourning and ordered black serge from Florence for a mourning gown, cloak, mules and shoes. She had chosen to follow the French royal custom, whereby a widowed queen remained in mourning for forty days, secluded in her blackdraped chambers, which no daylight was allowed to penetrate. They were produced as evidence against Queen Mary by the Scottish lords who opposed her rule.”
In 1569, however, Elizabeth tried to mediate Mary’s restoration in return for guarantees of the Protestant religion in Scotland, but the Scottish lords categorically rejected the deal. Mary spent many long years imprisoned, and she was watched carefully by Elizabeth’s spies placed in her household.
In 1571, the Ridolfi Plot was uncovered: the conspirators were intent upon replacing Elizabeth with the help of Spanish troops and the Duke of Norfolk. The outcome was Norfolk’s execution and publication of the casket letters in London with the purpose to discredit Mary, although Elizabeth didn’t give her consent to the English Parliament to pass a bill barring Mary from the throne.
Throughout many years, Mary was imprisoned, and Elizabeth didn’t visit her. Her birthright to the English throne became the cornerstone in her relationship with Elizabeth: Mary was a threat to Elizabeth, and as long as she was breathing, she might have schemed against Elizabeth or might have been used by the Queen of England’s enemies in their plots. Elizabeth didn’t order Mary’s execution for many years, perhaps not wishing to commit regicide.
In 1586, Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot, which exhausted the patience of the English nobles. Mary was arrested and was taken to Tixall.
Walsingham entrapped the captive Queen of Scots: her letters to Anthony Babington were smuggled out of Chartley, where she had resided before her arrest, while she thought that they were secure, and then they were deciphered by Walsingham. These letters were used as proof against Mary on the trial, when she was accused of sanctioning the assassination of Elizabeth.
Mary pleaded innocent but was still found guilty and sentenced to death. Considering the Queen of Scots a threat to Elizabeth and to the peace in England, the nobles wanted to dispose of Mary and pressured Elizabeth into signing Mary’s death warrant. Nevertheless, Elizabeth hesitated to order her cousin’s execution, although eventually she signed the warrant on the 1st of February 1587 and entrusted it to William Davison, one of her privy councillors.
Next day, ten members of the Privy Council of England were summoned by William Cecil, and together they decided to carry out the sentence without Elizabeth’s knowledge.
Did Elizabeth know about their secret activities, or did Cecil and the others act behind her back? We will never know the truth, but I want to think that Elizabeth hesitated. In any case, Elizabeth understood that Mary had to die for the sake of peace in her kingdom, and she would have her cousin executed in the very end regardless of her qualms and uneasiness.
In the evening of the 7th of February 1587, Mary Stuart was told that she would be executed tomorrow. She spent the rest of the day praying, writing farewell letters to a few friends she still had abroad, and distributing her possessions between the members of her household.
Alison Weir writes about Mary’s last hours:
“The warrant arrived on 7 February, and Mary was told to prepare for death on the morrow. That night, she wrote her last letter, to Henry III of France, in which she protested that she would meet death “innocent of any crime”: as a devout Catholic, she would not have counted the assassination of the heretical Elizabeth as a crime because the Pope had sanctioned and urged it, but she was almost certainly also referring to the murder of Darnley. She further asserted that “the Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned.”
Next morning, Mary appeared in the room to face her death, looking brave and undefeated, as if she were walking to her throne instead of the block. There was a gasp of shock when Mary removed her black gown: she was wearing a kirtle of red beneath her gown, which symbolised Catholic martyrdom, and in her own opinion she was dying as a martyr for her faith.
Mary knelt and prepared to die, praying hard. Her head was severed with three strokes, but she probably passed out after the first stroke and died after the second one. Her execution was unprecedented and bloody, and some claimed that Elizabeth was shocked upon learning about her cousin’s brutal death.
Mary Queen of Scots was finally dead, and her soul left her body. Maybe in her death there was a new beginning for her, which was similar to her motto which she had embroidered not long before her execution: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement” “(“In my end is my beginning”).