On the 8th February 1587, Mary Stuart, formally Queen of Scotland was led to a scaffold in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle. Shortly thereafter, she was beheaded on charges of treason against Queen Elizabeth I. Her execution was the first of it's kind in British history. Queen consorts such as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had met their ends on the scaffold, as had the teenage Lady Jane Grey following her own short reign, but Mary's death was something else entirely. She was not a consort or a would be usurper, she was as royal (if not more so) than Elizabeth I, and was very much an anointed Queen in her own right. Mary believed, as did her contemporaries at the time, that she was divinely appointed by God and therefore sat above the laws of man. It is for this reason that her death was so significant, and would likely pave the way for future monarchs to come under greater scrutiny - consider that it was Mary's own grandson, King Charles I, who would go on to become the only English monarch executed by their government.
Mary's early life was as removed from her end as could be possible. She was born at Linlithgow Palace in Scotland to King James V and his second wife, Mary of Guise. She would be James's only legitimate child to survive him. As the granddaughter of Princess Margaret Tudor, Mary was the great-niece of King Henry VIII and a great-granddaughter of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, who herself was a direct descendent of the Yorkist branch of the Plantagenets - England's ruling house prior to the Tudors. Mary's breeding was therefore as royal as it could possibly be. At just six days old, she became Queen of Scotland after her father unexpectedly died. Naturally her early reign would have to be conducted as a regency until such a time as she was able to wield power properly. A tussle soon broke out at who should lead this regency, primarily driven by religious conflict. In the end, the protestant James Hamilton, Earl of Arryn was selected as regent. He had been a natural choice, being second in line to the Scottish throne after Mary herself. Mary's parents can be seen below in portraits said to have been contemporary.
In July of 1543, a six month old Mary was promised in marriage to Prince Edward Tudor of England, son of King Henry VIII by his third wife, Jane Seymour. The marriage treaty stated that at the age of ten, Mary would move to England where her great-uncle would then take charge of her upbringing. For Henry in particular this marriage alliance was advantageous, as it would help break Scotland's existing alliance with the old English enemy, France. The marriage treaty was short lived, being rejected by the Scottish government in December of the same year, most likely in response to actions taken by Henry VIII to stop Scottish merchants reaching France. Less than a year after Henry VIII's death, Scotland suffered a horrific defeat against the English at the Battle of Pinkie, and it was felt that Mary's safety was in doubt. The Scottish nobles soon turned to France for help, which came swiftly and decisively. King Henry II of France proposed to formally unite France and Scotland in a marriage alliance between the infant Mary and his three-year-old son, Francis, Dauphin of France. The Scottish government agreed to the match, and in August of 1548, the now six-year-old Mary sailed from Dumbarton to Brittany.
Mary appears to have burst on the French court with a certain brilliance, being described by her contemporaries as vivacious, beautiful and clever. She was adored by nearly all at the court, although it is said that there was little love lost between her and Henry II's second wife, Catherine de' Medici. Mary was soon learned in all the subjects considered appropriate for high born women of the day - poetry, needlework, music and falconry. She also displayed an excellent ear for languages, becoming fluent in French, Italian, Greek, Spanish and Latin. Something else that made Mary stand out was the fact that she was six feet tall. This is considered tall for a woman even now, but by the standards of the day was most unusual, especially when one considers that the average height for a man in Tudor England was 5ft6.
After ten years in France, Mary was finally wed to the Dauphin at Notre Dame cathedral on the 24th April 1558. A few months later in November of the same year, across the channel in England Queen Mary I had died, and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, now Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had a problem however. Despite her fathers will making it clear that Elizabeth was his lawful heir (after Edward and Mary), this did not account for the large number of Catholics in England who still viewed Elizabeth as nothing more than the illegitimate daughter of "the great whore", Anne Boleyn. To these Catholics, Mary Stuart was the senior surviving legitimate descendant of Henry VII, and thus had a greater claim to the throne of England than their newly anointed Queen. Indeed the French King did nothing to dial down brewing tensions, when he openly proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law as King and Queen of England. This assertion, however beyond Mary's control it may have been, cannot have been an easy pill for Elizabeth to swallow. Mary, Francis and Elizabeth can be seen below.
In July 1559, King Henry II of France died from injuries sustained in a joust, elevating the fifteen-year-old Dauphin and Mary, now sixteen, to King and Queen of France. Following the death of Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, The Treaty of Edinburgh was drawn up by representatives from the courts of England, Scotland and France. This treaty finally put years of waring between England and Scotland with the support of France to bed. English and French troops withdrew from Scotland, and crucially for Elizabeth I the French court recognised her rule in England as legitimate. Just a few months later, Mary's world would come down around her ears. Her husband King Francis died on 5th December 1560 from an abscess on the brain, their reign had lasted just eighteen months. Mary was said to have been heartbroken. Now nothing more than a royal outcast, within nine months Mary said goodbye to her beloved France, and returned to Scotland in August of 1561 to finally take up her birth right, the Scottish crown.
Unfortunately for Mary, she had little experience in dealing with Scotland's considerably dangerous political landscape. As a devout Catholic, she was viewed with fear and suspicion by many of her people, as well as by the other Queen south of the border, Elizabeth I. Scotland was torn between Catholic and Protestant factions, often led by the various Scottish clans who still held considerable power in government. This teenage Catholic girl with a (likely) French accent might be their rightful Queen, but she was ultimately an unknown quantity. It appears however that unlike her namesake, the deceased Queen of England Mary I, that Mary, now Mary Queen of Scotland was disposed to tolerance on the part of protestants. Her half-brother the Earl of Moray was the leader of the Protestant faction and he had been named her Chief Advisor, and Mary's privy council was also dominated by Protestants. The first few years of Mary's reign went by with relative smoothness. It was in 1565 that things began to take a turn. Mary had rushed into a marriage with her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. As an Englishman and a cousin also of Elizabeth I, Darnley was a claimant to the English throne. Elizabeth was said to have been apoplectic when she heard the news that Mary had married Darnley, for in her eyes Darnley should have sought her permission to marry, but more crucially it further strengthened Mary's own claim over the English crown, in effect doubling the rights of any children she and Darnley may have. Darnley and Mary can be seen below.
Elizabeth needn't have worried. It soon became clear that Darnley was quite simply the worst choice that Mary could have made in a husband. He grew arrogant and violent, drank excessively and demanded to be known as King of Scotland. It is also believed that he conducted extramarital affairs, some of which with men. Darnley did however manage one key job of a consort. In October 1565 Mary was pregnant. In June the following year Mary gave birth to a healthy son, Prince James. For Elizabeth, this cannot have been news which she welcomed. Notoriously childless, James was undoubtedly the obvious successor to Elizabeth's throne, and it is said that Mary treated her son as "Heir to Scotland AND to England". With her heir now safely delivered, Mary could turn her attention to her biggest problem - Darnley. In November 1566, Mary met with her nobles to devise a plan to rid them of this troublesome consort. It would appear that Darnley sensed the end was in sight, as he began to worry for his safety and took refuge at his fathers estates in Glasgow. By the following February however, the plans had been put into action and whilst staying at the former abbey of Kirk O'Field, Darnley was assassinated. The abbey had exploded, but it appears this is not what killed him. He was found naked from the waist down in the grounds of Kirk O'Field, apparently smothered. Despite gross unpopularity, his murder sent shockwaves across Scotland and England, and soon Mary was viewed with suspicion as having been behind it.
One of the key figures who almost certainly was behind Darnley's murder was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. He was tried for murder, but acquitted when Mary blocked delays to proceedings which may have unearthed irrefutable evidence against them both. Two months later, Mary was abducted by Bothwell - most historians agree however that this was a clever rouse, and that Mary went with Bothwell willingly. Either way, in May, just three months after Darnley's death Mary and Bothwell were married. Even by the standards of the day, this was a shocking move and caused much upset in the Scottish parliament. In England Elizabeth I was said to be utterly dumbfounded. The marriage soon turned sour and was ultimately brought down by twenty-six Scottish peers who raised an army against Mary and Bothwell in a bid to seize power. Bothwell managed to procure safe passage away from battle, but Mary was arrested and taken to Edinburgh. On the journey through the Scottish capital Mary suffered the humiliation of being paraded to her people who jeered, calling her a harlot and murderer. On July 24th Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son Prince James, with her half-brother Moray acting as regent. A drawing of Darnley's murder and portrait of Bothwell can be seen below.
Mary's next move would lead to her eventual downfall. Perhaps trusting in the sanctity of Queenship and kinship, she escaped Scotland on a fishing boat and landed in Workington, Cumbria in the far north of England. She was taken to safety at Carlisle Castle. Mary had thought that Elizabeth I would help her recapture her stolen crown, but this was not to be. Elizabeth whilst appalled at the treatment of a fellow Queen, was undeniably wary of an overt display of support in favour of Mary. Mary had acted in a most unqueenly fashion in her marriages and was still regarded with significant suspicion on the part of Darnley's murder. Elizabeth herself was sceptical of Mary's assertion that she had had nothing to do with it and ordered an enquiry to take place. Inquiry's were held in York and London between October of 1568 and January of 1569. As an anointed Queen however, Mary refused to acknowledge the power of any court to try her. The key piece of evidence brought against Mary was the so-called "casket letters"- a series of eight unsigned letters supposedly between Mary and Bothwell which made her guilt to Darnley's murder clear. The authenticity of the letters is widely debated by modern historians and Mary herself insisted they were forgeries, but the courts of the day accepted them as genuine which by extension made Mary guilty of murder. Elizabeth however had no intention of moving further against Mary judicially, the trial was a mere political formality. Elizabeth had no desire to convict nor acquit Mary, she merely wanted to be seen to have done her part.
Mary would spend the next twenty years imprisoned in England. Her confinement was not exactly uncomfortable - she still had her own domestic staff, her chambers were richly decorated and she had her own chefs who would prepare her food from a list of thirty-two dishes. She was allowed outside and spent several summers in the spa-town of Buxton, Derbyshire. With that said, imprisonment is still imprisonment, even if it's not in four cold stone walls. Through apparent lack of exercise, Mary soon developed severe rheumatism and was rendered lame. By 1585, several plots had been uncovered to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, and although no proof could be found in tying Mary to them, it undoubtedly shook Elizabeth and caused her to become even more suspicious. Soon Mary was under even stricter custody. Mary's own son abandoned her, signing an alliance treaty with Elizabeth I in place of an accord with his mother which would have made her imprisonment more comfortable. A portrait of Mary painted during her long imprisonment and her son King James VI/I can be seen below.
In 1586, things came to a head with the uncovering of The Babington Plot. The plot was simple - assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her on the English throne with Mary. The longer-term goal of the plot was the invasion of England by the Spanish and French forces and to reinstate the Catholic religion. Elizabeth I's chief spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham had successfully implicated Mary in the plot. Her coded private letters which she thought were leaving Chartley Manor (her then prison) safely, were in fact being redirected to Walsingham, who correctly deciphered the coded language, which implicated Mary and proved that she had sanctioned the Babington Plot and assassination of Elizabeth. Walsingham had Mary where he wanted her. She was moved to Fotheringhay Castle and in October 1586 was formally put on trial for treason. She was sentenced to death on October 25th, but Elizabeth refused to move precipitously. In her eyes, the execution of an anointed Queen set an awful precedent that she wanted no part of. Elizabeth held out for three months, but on February 1st 1587 she finally signed the death warrant. Even here Elizabeth appears to try and distance herself from ultimately authorising Mary's death. She instructed William Davison of her privy council to not act on the signed death warrant, but this was to be in vain. So hated was Mary by the English council that they agreed to proceed ahead with the execution as planned.
On the evening of the 7th February 1587, Mary was told that she would die the following morning. Her final hours were spent in prayer and distributing her belongings to her household. She also wrote her will and a letter to the King of France. The following morning, Mary was led to the great hall in Fotheringhay. She approached the scaffold which had been draped in black, but paused at the foot of the steps leading up. Her once striking looks were now faded with age and years of imprisonment, but she was said to still radiate royal dignity. Sir Amias Paulet who had been her long-time jailer offered his hand to assist her up the steps. Mary turned to him and said “I thank you, sir. This is the last trouble I shall ever give you". Reaching the scaffold, Mary was asked to sit in a chair whilst the warrant for her execution was read aloud. The executioner and his assistant asked her forgiveness as was customary, which she gave gladly. Her servants then removed an outer gown of black velvet to reveal a crimson kirtle - the liturgical colour of Catholic martyrdom. Clearly Mary was determined to put on a show. She lowered her head to the block and recited "In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum" - "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit". The executioner swung the axe down but missed, instead cutting into the back of Mary's head, Mary was said to quietly groan "sweet Jesus". A second blow of the axe all but beheaded her, but for a small bit of sinew which the executioner had to cut through using the axe like a knife. The head fell and her body retracted back pouring with blood. To add to the indignity of the whole occasion, Mary's head was then lifted into the air at which point it parted company with the executioners hand, leaving nothing but auburn wig in his fingers and the head landing unceremoniously on to the scaffold and rolling around like a football.
Walsingham, the man behind Mary's downfall and a drawing of Mary's beheading are seen below.
When Elizabeth was told of Mary's execution she became indignant and claimed that Davison had acted against her wishes. Her actions gave her some level of deniability which one suspects was her ploy all along. Mary was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Her remains were eventually exhumed in 1612 by her son King James, and reinterred in Westminster Abbey in a chapel directly opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I. A photo of her tomb can be seen below.
Whilst Elizabeth has undeniably gone down in history as the greater of the two Queens, Mary it could be argued had the last laugh. Her son would go on to rule England after Elizabeth, and her descendants unlike Elizabeth's are still on that throne today - our current Queen, Elizabeth II and thus all of her descendants are direct descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Written by Adam Pennington
8th February 2021