On this date in History, February 8, 1587. The execution of Mary I, Queen of Scots.
In November 1558, Henry VIII’s elder daughter, Queen Mary I of England, was succeeded by her only surviving sibling, who became Queen Elizabeth I. Under the Third Succession Act, passed in 1543 by the English Parliament, Elizabeth was recognized as her sister’s heir, and Henry VIII’s last will and testament, excluded the Stuarts from succeeding to the English throne. Yet, in the eyes of many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate because they did not view Henry VIII’s divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, as legal and binding. Therefore, to many Catholics, Mary Stuart, (Queen Mary I of Scotland) was recognized as the legitimate senior descendant of Henry VIII’s elder sister, and was the rightful queen of England. When Elizabeth I succeeded to the English throne King Henri II of France proclaimed his eldest son and daughter-in-law king and queen of England, and in France the royal arms of England were quartered with those of Franḉois and Mary. Mary’s claim to the English throne was a perennial sticking point between her and Elizabeth I.
In 1567 Mary I, Queen of Scots was deposed and replaced on the Scottish throne with her son, who became James VI, King of Scots (1567-1625). Mary sought refuge in England. Elizabeth I, never trusting her cousin, eventually had Mary in custody in England. On August 11, 1586, after being implicated in the Babington Plot, Mary was arrested while out riding and taken to Tixall. The Babington Plot was a plan in 1586 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, and put Mary I, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, on the English throne.
From letters written by Mary that were smuggled out of Chartley it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. To keep a better eye on her activities Elizabeth had Mary moved to Fotheringhay Castle on September 20, 1586. In October Mary was put on trial for treason under the Act for the Queen’s Safety before a court of 36 noblemen, including Cecil, Shrewsbury, and Walsingham. Mary denied the charges. She told her triers, “Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England”. She protested that she had been denied the opportunity to review the evidence, that her papers had been removed from her, that she was denied access to legal counsel and that as a foreign anointed queen she had never been an English subject and thus could not be convicted of treason.
Mary was convicted of Treason on October 25 and sentenced to death with only one commissioner, Lord Zouche, expressing any form of dissent. Nevertheless, despite the conviction, Elizabeth hesitated to order her execution. Elizabeth faced great pressure from the English Parliament to carry out the sentence. However, Elizabeth had many concerns in executing a fellow anointed sovereign who was also her cousin. She was concerned that the killing of a queen set a discreditable precedent and was fearful of the consequences, especially if, in retaliation, Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, formed an alliance with the Catholic powers, such as France, whom Mary was a former queen consort of France via her marriage to King Franḉois II of France (1559-1560) would invade England.
Elizabeth asked Paulet, Mary’s final custodian, if he would contrive a clandestine way to “shorten the life” of Mary, which he refused to do on the grounds that he would not make “a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot on my poor posterity”. On February 1, 1587, Elizabeth reluctantly signed the death warrant, and entrusted it to William Davison, a privy councillor. On February 3, ten members of the Privy Council of England, having been summoned by Cecil without Elizabeth’s knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence at once.
At Fotheringhay on the evening of February 7,1587, Mary was told that she was to be executed the next morning. She spent the last hours of her life in prayer, distributing her belongings to her household, and writing her will and a letter to the King ????? of France. The scaffold that was erected in the Great Hall was two feet high and draped in black. It was reached by two or three steps and furnished with the block, a cushion for her to kneel on and three stools, for her and the earls of Shrewsbury and Kent, who were there to witness the execution. The executioners (one named Bull and his assistant) knelt before her and asked forgiveness, as it was typical for the executioner to ask the pardon of the one being put to death. She replied, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.” Her servants, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, and the executioners helped Mary to remove her outer garments, revealing a velvet petticoat and a pair of sleeves in crimson brown, the liturgical colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, with a black satin bodice and black trimmings. As she disrobed she smiled and said that she “never had such grooms before … nor ever put off her clothes before such a company”. She was blindfolded by Kennedy with a white veil embroidered in gold, knelt down on the cushion in front of the block, on which she positioned her head, and stretched out her arms. Her last words were, In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”).
Mary was not beheaded with a single strike. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew, which the executioner cut through using the axe. Afterward, he held her head aloft and declared, “God save the Queen.” At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand turned out to be a wig and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had very short, grey hair. A small dog owned by the queen, a Skye Terrier, is said to have been hiding among her skirts, unseen by the spectators. Following the beheading, it was covered in her blood and refused to be parted from its owner’s body until it was forcibly taken away and washed. Items supposedly worn or carried by Mary at her execution are of doubtful provenance; contemporary accounts state that all her clothing, the block, and everything touched by her blood was burnt in the fireplace of the Great Hall to obstruct relic-hunters.
When the news of the execution reached Elizabeth, she became indignant and asserted that Davison had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant and that the Privy Council had acted without her authority. Elizabeth’s vacillation and deliberately vague instructions gave her plausible deniability to attempt to avoid the direct stain of Mary’s blood. Davison was arrested, thrown into the Tower of London, and found guilty of misprision. He was released nineteen months later after Cecil and Walsingham interceded on his behalf.
Mary’s request to be buried in France was refused by Elizabeth. Her body was embalmed and left in a secure lead coffin until her burial, in a Protestant service, at Peterborough Cathedral in late July 1587. Her entrails, removed as part of the embalming process, were buried secretly within Fotheringhay Castle. Her body was exhumed in 1612, when her son, King James VI and I, ordered that she be reinterred in Westminster Abbey in a chapel opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I. In 1867, her tomb was opened in an attempt to ascertain the resting place of James I-VI of England and Scotland; he was ultimately found with Henry VII, but many of her other descendants, including Elizabeth of Bohemia, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the children of Anne, Queen of Great Britain, were interred in her vault.