On the 8th of February 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots, the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland and his second wife Marie de Guise (a French-born noblewoman from the powerful House of Guise), was executed after 19 years of her imprisonment in England. Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle for her alleged participation in a secret conspiracy to assassinate her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England – the Babington plot.
Mary Stuart had a tumultuous and dramatic life, one that was filled with passion, eccentricity, ambition, often irrationality, and tragedy. One might say that her life was too full of French glamour and unreasonable actions due to her ignorance of fundamental things which a wise monarch should know. However, before criticizing Mary, we should remember that her life was also filled with losses – her father died when she was an infant, her first husband died when she was a teenaged girl – pain, especially during her long English captivity.
Mary was born into the powerful House of Stuart. Her father, King James V of Scotland, passed away only 6 days after her birth, and she was proclaimed Queen of Scots in spite of being an infant. In childhood, she was thrust into political turmoil as Cardinal Beaton and James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran, fought for regency in Scotland. Seizing the opportunity, Henry VIII proposed marriage between Mary and his son with Jane Seymour – Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales – hoping to have Scotland and England united, but this possibility fell apart.
The spreading violence between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland, as well as Scotland’s worsening relationship with England influenced the Scots to turn to France, their old ally according to the Auld alliance that had been concluded in 1295 between the kingdoms of Scotland and France against England. King Henri II of France offered to unite France and Scotland by marrying Queen Mary to his elder son, Dauphin François, and the Scottish nobles consented in exchange for French military help against the English. As a result, soon the six-year-old Queen Mary was shipped to France, where the girl was raised and educated in safety.
In 1558, the sixteen-year-old Queen Mary married the fourteen-year-old Dauphin François at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in a magnificent and elaborate ceremony. Her young husband inherited the throne as King François II of France after the untimely death of Henri II of France in the summer of 1559. Therefore, Mary became his consort. Nevertheless, François was very sickly and seems to have been unable to consummate his union with Mary before dying soon after their ascension. In 1561, the young widow was then dispatched to Scotland. Mary’s hopes to be queen of two kingdoms – France and Scotland – were shattered like glass.
Upon her return to her home country, Queen Mary failed to adapt to her new life in Scotland, which she had left years ago and which seemed foreign and a little wild to her. She did not understand many Scottish traditions, and her own countrymen did not understand her love for the French language and French clothes while also condemning her Catholic religious beliefs. Moreover, Mary was a Catholic queen in the country that was torn apart by Catholics and Protestants, who were growing more and more powerful. James Stuart, 1st Earl of Moray and Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, was one of the leaders of Scottish Protestant lords. The nobles were not fond of Mary’s French-like lifestyle, and their dissatisfaction was substantial.
Mary comprehended that she lacked military power compared to the Protestant lords, and for a short time the two parties achieved truce. At the same time, Mary was searching for a husband in Europe. She failed to make Spain, European superpower in the 16th century, Scotland’s ally through her union with to Don Carlos, King Philip II of Spain’s mentally unstable heir – her attempt to negotiate the match was rebuffed by Philip. Queen Elizabeth of England suggested that the Queen of Scots should marry Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her favorite and alleged lover, but Mary disliked the match, and so did Dudley.
In 1565, the Queen of Scots finally married the man of her own choice – Henry Stuart, styled as Lord Darnley, her English-born first cousin. He was created Duke of Albany shortly before their wedding in 1565, and then he was king consort of Scotland. Mary was infatuated with the handsome Darnley, ignoring the consequences of her actions – the deterioration of fragile piece in her realm and the increasing tensions between Catholic and Protestant lords, who disapproved of this matrimony, partly because both Darnley and Mary were Catholics. A little later Darnley’s murder and Mary’s quick remarriage to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, precipitated her downfall. Gossip about Mary’s participation in her husband’s death circulated throughout the whole country, including the rumor that she might have conspired with Bothwell to kill Darnley. Mary’s reputation was destroyed, and the Scottish people were outraged.
After being deposed, the queen was compelled to abdicate in favor of her little son with Darnley – James Stuart, who became King James VI of Scotland. Then Mary was incarcerated in Lochleven Castle, where she is said to have miscarried twins conceived during her short marriage to Bothwell, who fled to Denmark. In 1568, Mary escaped from her prison and rushed to England. Perhaps Mary believed that Elizabeth would help her regain the Scottish throne, but instead she was taken into custody at Carlisle Castle by the local authorities. Elizabeth commanded to investigate the situation in Scotland, making inquiries about the situation there and about the attitude of the Scottish lords towards Mary’s possible restoration.
Mary’s struggle in Scotland was over. In England, the drama of her life was elsewhere: in the struggle with her anxiety to see Elizabeth and receive her cousin’s help. Yet, Elizabeth did not hurry to visit Mary, although the two women corresponded. Over time, Mary must have realized that Elizabeth would not assist her in regaining her throne. Then appeared the so-called Casket letters – 8 letters and some sonnets, which the Scottish aristocrats said to have been written by Mary to the Earl of Bothwell between January and April 1567. Most modern historians such as Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser think that these letters were forgeries, or some incriminating paragraphs could have been inserted into the letters to blacken Mary’s reputation.
There is no credible evidence that Mary had Darnley assassinated and/or plotted to dispose of him together with Bothwell. All the claims of her enemies about her supposed guilt, including the Casket letters, cannot be proved. Mary’s hasty marriage to the Earl of Bothwell does not prove that she had fallen in love with Bothwell and then had found a way out of her marriage to Darnley by murdering him. According to contemporary sources, Darnley’s violent demise left Mary grief-stricken, emotionally devastated and fearful for her own safety. For several months following Darnley’s demise, the queen did not function normally and mourned for him.
Weir said about the queen’s actions after the murder of Lord Darnley:
“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, Queen Elizabeth endeavored to arrange the deposed queen’s restoration in return for guarantees of religious freedom for Protestants in Scotland, but the Scottish lords rejected the deal. Mary was doomed to spend many long years imprisoned, watched closely by Elizabeth’s spies placed in her household. In 1571, the Ridolfi plot was uncovered: the conspirators intended to depose Elizabeth with the help of Spanish troops and Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. The discovery of this plot resulted in the Duke of Norfolk’s execution and in the publication of the Casket letters in London perhaps to discredit Mary, although at the time Elizabeth did not give her consent to the English Parliament to pass a bill barring Mary from the throne.
Queen Elizabeth never visited her jailed cousin. As long as Mary was breathing, she might have schemed against Elizabeth or might have been used by Elizabeth’s enemies in their plots. However, Elizabeth was unwilling to have royal blood on her hands. In 1586, Mary was implicated in the Babington plot, arrested, and delivered to Tixall. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, trapped 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 their contents were deciphered by Walsingham. These letters were used as proof against Mary during her trial when she was accused of trying to kill 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 Queen Elizabeth suspect about this? Or did Cecil and the others act behind her back? We will never know the truth, but I think Elizabeth hesitated. In any case, Elizabeth understood that Mary had to die for the sake of peace in her country, regardless of her qualms of conscience. In the evening on the 7th of February 1587, Mary Stuart was told that she would be executed tomorrow. Mary spent the rest of the day praying, writing farewell letters to a few friends she still had abroad, and distributing her belongings between the members of her household. Mary wrote to her French relatives, asking them to be buried in France, but it was impossible.
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, in the early hours of Wednesday 8th February 1587, Queen Mary appeared in the execution room. The unfortunate woman looked brave and undefeated, as if she were walking to her mighty throne instead of the block. There must have been a gasp of shock because Mary wore a kirtle of red beneath her black gown, which symbolized Catholic martyrdom, for in her own opinion, she was dying as a martyr for her faith. Mary knelt gracefully and prayed hard. Sadly, her head was severed with 3 strokes: she probably passed out after the first stroke and died after the second one. This must have been a dreadful picture.
Mary, Queen of Scots, was finally dead. Her bloody execution was rather unprecedented, and some reported that Queen Elizabeth was truly shocked upon learning about the details of her cousin’s brutal demise. Maybe in her death there was a new beginning for Mary, similar to her motto that she had embroidered not long before her execution: “En ma Fin gît mon Commencement” “(“In my end is my beginning”). Mary’s garments were burned so they could not be kept as relics. Her embalmed body was hidden at Fotheringhay for 6 months until it was buried in a secret ceremony at Peterborough Cathedral in August 1587.
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2022 Olivia Longueville