On August 11, 1586, after being implicated in the Babington Plot, Queen Mary I was arrested while out riding and taken to Tixall Hall in Staffordshire. In a successful attempt to entrap her, Walsingham had deliberately arranged for Mary’s letters to be smuggled out of Chartley. Mary was misled into thinking her letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham. From these letters it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in a four-day journey ending on September 25.
On October 14, she 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.
Spirited in her defence, 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.
She was convicted on October 25, and sentenced to death with only one commissioner, Lord Zouche, expressing any form of dissent. Nevertheless, Elizabeth hesitated to order her execution, even in the face of pressure from the English Parliament to carry out the sentence. 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, King James VI, formed an alliance with the Catholic powers and invaded 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 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.
Mary was beheaded on February 8,1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. Mary’s life, marriages, lineage, alleged involvement in plots against Elizabeth, and subsequent execution established her as a divisive and highly romanticised historical character, depicted in culture for centuries.