Wednesday 9 February 2011

February 8th, 1587: The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Glamorous women should never live too long. History doesn't like it that way. In return for missing out on the lives of their children and grandchildren, of growing old in comfort and security, history freezes them forever in an eternal prism of youth. Like a fly caught in amber, Anne Boleyn, Gabrielle de Polignac, Eva PerĂ³n, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were spared the first signs of wrinkles, of infirmity, of senility, or even of middle age. Their husbands, their enemies, their co-stars, rivals, lovers, enemies, children and friends grew old. But they did not. The allure of their stories was achieved in no small part by the fact that their premature deaths meant that they could remain forever young. By this standard, Mary Stuart, Queen of France by marriage and Queen of Scotland by birth, lived too long. In her youth, she had been universally acknowledged as the most lovely princess of her generation. Poets had been driven half-mad by their worshipful desire for her and the sordid, tragic mess of her private life and all the men who had been drawn to her like moths to a flame, only to be burned and consumed, was a testament not only to her dazzling beauty but also the dangerous enchantments of her personality. Now, at the age of forty-four, Mary had lost her figure thanks to long years of inactivity and the only sign of her once legendary physical perfection which remained was the ivory-white, unblemished skin.

For nineteen years, the one-time Queen of Scots had been living under virtual house arrest as a guest and prisoner of her second cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. The two women had never met, but since Mary first became a widow at the tender age of eighteen, they had stalked each other's imagination and become much more important in one another's lives than any husband, lover, child or adviser ever could. Mary saw herself as Elizabeth's natural heir, but many saw her as Elizabeth's natural replacement. In some very real sense, the rivalry with Elizabeth Tudor was Mary Stuart's life and, at least for a time, vice-versa. Now, nearly two decades into the miserable purgatory of her confinement, the hysteria in the English Parliament and Court regarding the papist viper living amongst them had reached fever pitch. Despite fearing and mistrusting her implicitly, Queen Elizabeth had done everything in her power to prevent Mary being sent to the block. Butchering queens had been her father's past-time, not hers. And interestingly, given recent historiographical attempts to paint her as naturally crueler than her half-sister, Elizabeth had waited almost twenty times as long to murder Mary Stuart as Mary Tudor had to do away with Jane Grey. 

Parliament, however, and most of Elizabeth's advisers had now had enough of Elizabeth's squeamish horror at spilling royal blood, which she regarded as near-sacred. Not for the first time since she had so foolishly fled to England instead of France, Mary had been the centre of a Catholic plot to depose and murder Elizabeth and put Mary on her throne instead. Letters between the deposed Scottish queen and the plot's ring-leader, an English courtier called Sir Anthony Babington, had been unearthed by Elizabeth's spy master, Sir Francis Walsingham. In them, it seemed quite clear that Mary had not only consented to being rescued from the manor house she was currently been kept at but that, for the first time, she quite explicitly approved of the plans to murder Elizabeth. Elizabeth had wept and sighed and stormed and raged, but, in the end, she had signed the death warrant, conceding that her own life was in danger and that this time, she herself had completely lost control of English public opinion which had turned with astonishing, brutal venom on Mary Stuart.

Whether Mary was guilty or not, there is now no earthly way of telling. A variety of theories explaining her correspondence with the Babington conspirators have been put forward by historians studying this case and none can be said to be truly unconvincing. It is the assessment of Mary's most recent biographer, the strongly sympathetic Professor John A. Guy, that she probably was guilty and her consent to Babington's treason and attempted regicide was the desperate action of a desperate woman. He does however believe that Walsingham knew of the plot long before he revealed it to Queen Elizabeth and only allowed it to continue for as a long as he did in the hope that Mary would eventually agree to it and he would at long last have the incontrovertible proof Elizabeth demanded before she would even contemplate making a definitive move against Mary. Other historians have hypothesized that Mary had only consented to being rescued by Sir Anthony and that the incriminating postscript, in which she condoned her cousin's assassination, was added by Walsingham and his agents. And others, perhaps slightly less convincingly, have argued with great passion that every last bit of Queen Mary's alleged correspondence from 1586 was the result of English forgery. Either way, we will never know for certain and what mattered in 1587 was that Elizabeth clearly believed Mary was guilty and Mary believed, with equal fervour, that as an anointed queen she was legally ineligible to be judged by English law. (For a brief discussion on the various theories on Mary's guilt on this blog, click here.)

She was to die in Fotheringhay Castle, an imposing but luxurious castle in Northamptonshire which had once belonged to Katherine of Aragon. It was in her rooms there, in the early morning darkness of that frigid February day, that she knelt in prayer when Sir Thomas Andrew, the Sheriff of Northamptonshire, came to fetch her, accompanied by Mary's one-time gaoler and admirer, George, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Henry, Earl of Kent. When they knocked, the door was opened by a retainer and Mary, dressed entirely in luxurious and sombre black, was praying in the flickering candlelight before a magnificent crucifix, surrounded by her devastated servants. Hearing the arrival of the sheriff and the two earls, she stood and turned to face them.

Even if her beauty had long since vanished, Mary of Scotland cut a magnificent figure. On her head, a long white linen veil, edged with fine French lace, denoted that she was a widow - three times over. Her elegant black satin gown was edged with sober-coloured jewels and there was a trimming of sable around the sleeves. It was February, after all. She wore light blue stockings underneath, green silk garters and suede shoes, with a heel, imported from Spain. As the time came to leave, she picked up a beautiful crucifix, carved completely from ivory, and a Catholic prayer book, with a set of golden rosary beads hanging from it. Around her neck, there was a silver devotional medallion of the Agnus Dei.

She was utterly fearless as she bid a smiling farewell to her servants, begging them to remain faithful to God and the Holy Catholic Faith. Her manservants threw themselves on their knees before her, sobbing uncontrollably as they kissed her hand one last time. She told them happily, "You ought to rejoice rather than weep that the end of Mary Stuart's troubles is now come." As she prepared to say goodbye to this faithful band, she announced, "Carry this message and tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman." 

This stirring dignity was temporarily set aside when Mary abruptly turned in unexpected fury on the two English earls, presumably when she remembered that she would need help removing her coat when she reached the scaffold and did not want to be touched by men at this crucial scene. Her favourite ladies-in-waiting, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, must come with her and, in fact, Mary considered it better if four of her manservants came as well, so that the only men with her were not Elizabeth's sheriffs and earls. Lord Shrewsbury tried to reason with her that they had received no instructions permitting her servants to accompany her as far as the block. Mary did not like his tone and shot back, "You know that I am the cousin of your Queen, and descended from the blood of Henry VII, a married Queen of France and the anointed Queen of Scotland." Faced with this regal proclamation, Shrewsbury began to waver and it was left to the more-level headed earl of Kent to explain, "Madam, it cannot well be granted, for that it is feared lest some of them would with speeches both trouble and grieve your Grace and disquiet the company." He also told her that the Council had forbidden people to dip their handkerchiefs in Mary's spilled blood, lest they be turned into relics by anti-Elizabethan Catholics.

Mary heard this dispassionate discussion of people imminently being able to dip their kerchiefs in her blood with a lack of emotion and she seemed to much prefer Kent's sage political pragmatism to Shrewsbury's weak excuses. "My lord, I will give my word," she replied, "and promise for them that they will not do any such thing." Kent was satisfied with Mary's royal promise and conceded that Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, along with four men of the household, could accompany their queen into the hall for the execution. Pleased with this victory, Mary nodded to the doors and said, "Allons donc."

They processed through the heavy double doors into the castle's great hall. Unlike the deaths of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey, Mary Stuart's would take place indoors and before a crowd of less than one hundred. A magnificent fire burned in the hall's cavernous fireplace as Mary, crucifix still in hand, stared up at the recently constructed scaffold and the headsman who was to bring the bizarre, captivating story of her life to its suitably dramatic conclusion.

At the steps of the scaffold, as she had wished, the sheriff and earls left her and went to sit with the other witnesses. This was the fourth queen to be executed on English soil in fifty years. It did not bode well for the institution of monarchy. On the scaffold, the headsman of the Tower of London and the Protestant Dean of Peterborough waited for her. For a few moments, the queen was forced to sit on a low stool as she suffered the indignity of hearing the charges and sentence against her read out one last time. True to her character, she showed no signs of fear or distress and indeed looked positively "cheerful," staring out around the hall as if she could neither see nor hear the herald. She endured it all with commendable patience, but when the Dean stepped forward to preach a sermon on the justice of Mary's fate, she understandably lost patience. Apparently awed at the sight in front of him, the Dean tripped over his words three times in the sermon's opening sentence and eventually Mary looked at him witheringly and said, "Mr Dean, I will not hear you. You have nothing to do with me, nor I with you. I am settled in the ancient Roman Catholic religion, and mind to spill my blood in defence of it."

Mortified to have been publicly humiliated in what he must have imagined was the high point of his clerical career, the Dean tried to argue back and idiotically made a last-minute attempt to convert Mary to Protestantism. "Madam," he shouted, "change your opinion and repent you of your former wickedness, and settle your faith in Jesus Christ, by Him to be saved." He had now definitely over-stepped the line and Mary furiously ordered him to be silent. Embarrassed by Fletcher's incompetence, the earls advised him to skip the sermon. He obviously couldn't be trusted to think or perform clearly in Mary's presence and several politicians were livid that the Dean had chosen to argue with Mary about the merits of Protestantism, rather than correct her and point out that she was being executed for plotting Elizabeth's murder, not for being a Roman Catholic. This was a political occasion, not a religious one and yet by his stupidity, the Dean of Peterborough had just seemingly corroborated Mary's version of events. Infuriated and irritated by him, the earl of Kent stepped forward and told the Dean to go straight to the prayers. 

As the Dean began to lead the witnesses in the prayers of the Church of England, Mary slipped off her stool as one of her servants held the crucifix before her eyes and began to pray in Latin. The Dean kept trying to shout her down, but eventually he gave up as tears of pious euphoria were seen pouring down Mary's face as she prayed. With silence now restored in the hall, Mary switched from Latin into English, just to make doubly sure everyone could understand her. At first, the English section of Mary's prayers went very well. She prayed for the cause of the Holy Church and for an end to the savage sectarian differences ravaging Europe, which had convulsed and then destroyed most of her generation. She prayed for her disloyal son, the twenty year-old James, now reigning in Edinburgh as King James VI, and already making plans to marry one of the Lutheran princesses of Denmark. As convention demanded, she prayed too for Queen Elizabeth's long life and continued prosperity. She then reiterated her belief in the Divinity of Jesus Christ and petitioned the Virgin and saints to pray for her soul in Purgatory. Then, there was a blip in these charitable statements when Mary begged God not to unleash too many plagues on "this silly Island" for what they were about to do to her. The earl of Kent, in particular, was livid at this description of his homeland. 

Reaching the end of her prayers, Mary leaned forward and kissed the crucifix. She spoke briefly to her executioner, telling him "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you will make an end of all my troubles." She also told him that although it was custom that he should be allowed to keep her jewellery, she would like it to be left to her servants as a keepsake and she had made arrangements for him to receive a large gift of money instead. Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle then stepped forward to help the queen undress. As the removed her veil and the black satin robe, Mary even managed to whisper a little joke to them that she had never gotten undressed before such a large crowd before. 

As the black satin and fur robe fell away, a collective gasp went up from the observers. Mary's dress was a satin tribute to the liturgical colour of holy martyrdom in medieval Catholicism - crimson. She stood for a moment, stock-still on the stage, in an absolutely flawless moment of colour-coordinated public relations triumph. When the news was broken in Paris of the colour of her gown, cries went up from the crowd outside Notre Dame that the martyred queen should be made into a saint. The red-clad Mary turned to kiss the catatonic Jane and Elizabeth, whispering, "Ne criez vous, j'ai promis pour vous." She offered them her blessing, before turning to repeat the same ritual with her four remaining manservants. She asked, as if she needed to, if they would please remember her in their prayers, before kneeling down by the block, firmly and without any sign of fear. A cushion had been provided for her and she stared resolutely ahead as a trembling Jane Kennedy kissed a gold-trimmed Corpus Christi cloth and tied it around her mistress's eyes. To ensure it did not fall away, Jane secured it with one of her own hairpins, before she and Elizabeth Curle stepped off the scaffold and left Mary to make her exit alone.

As she laid her head upon the block, she began to recite the seventy-first Psalm, in Latin: 

In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion. 
Deliver me in thy righteousness and cause me to escape: incline thine ear unto me, and save me.
Be thou my strong refuge, whereunto I may continually resort: thou hast given commandment to save me; for thou art my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, O God, out of the hands of the wicked, out of the hands of the unrighteous and cruel man.
For thou art my hope, O Lord God: thou art my trust from the days of my youth.
By thee have I been holden up from the womb: thou art he that took me out of my mother's bowels: my praise shall be continually of thee.
I am as a wonder unto many; but thou art my strong refuge.
Let my mouth be filled with thy praise and with thy honour all the days.
Cast me not off in the time of my old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.
For mine enemies speak against me; and they that lay wait for my soul take counsel together, saying God hath forsaken him: persecute and take him; for there is none to deliver him.
O God, be not far from me: O my God, make haste for my help.
Let them be confounded and consumed that are adversaries to my soul; let them be covered with reproach and dishonour that seek my hurt.
But I will hope continually, and will yet praise thee more and more.
My mouth shall shew forth thy righteousness and thy salvation all the day; for I know not the numbers thereof.
I will go in the strength of the Lord God: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only.
O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.
Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.
Thy righteousness also, O  God, is very high, who has done great things: O God, who is like unto thee?
Thou, which has shewed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shall bring me up again from the depths of the earth.
Thou shalt increase my greatness and comfort me on every side. 
I will also praise thee with the psaltery, even thy truth, O my God: unto thee will I sing with the harp, O thou Holy one of Israel.
My lips shall greatly rejoice when I sing unto thee; and my soul, which thou hast redeemed.
My tongue also shall talk of thy righteousness all the day long: for they are confounded, for they are brought unto shame, that seek my hurt.

Prostrate on the block, the former queen then stretched out her hands and cried aloud the final words of Christ upon the Cross: "In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum." And then the axe swung and missed. It hacked through the back of the Corpus Christi cloth and into Mary's skull. She screamed softly, but tried to keep praying. The axe came back down, cutting through most of her neck. And then, on the third slice, the head of Mary Stuart rolled at last on the scaffold and Walsingham and Burghley could breathe a sigh of relief. 

Shaking, the executioner step forward and picked up her head by the hair, holding it aloft to the crowd to prove the prisoner was dead. He cried out, "God save the Queen!" And at that moment, the head came away from the hair and bounced to the ground. Embarrassed by her greying hair, Queen Mary had chosen to wear a wig for her execution and one of such flawless skill that nobody realised until his macabre and mortifying point that it was not her real hair. Useful at last, the Dean proclaimed the second traditional part of the execution ceremony, "So perish all the Queen's enemies."

Some have accused Mary of stage managing her execution and of saturating it with a theatrical devotion to Catholicism which she had never displayed whilst alive. Writing of the exceptional piety of Mary's exit, one biographer has gone as far as saying, "This was very largely contrived. Mary had never been the ideological Catholic that she now wished to appear to the world. She was far too political for that. As a ruler in Scotland, she had sensibly accepted a compromise based on the religious status quo and the inroads made by the official Protestant Reformation. Only after her imprisonment in England had she reinvented herself as a poor Catholic woman persecuted for her religion alone. What happened in the great hall at Fotheringhay was for show, and it worked."

In some sense, I'm inclined to agree with this assessment. Mary's protestations and display of faith at her execution were melodramatically over-the-top and delivered with a true prima donna's flare for performing and manipulating audience. However, that does not necessarily mean that it was all for show. Like Anne Boleyn, like Charles I and like Marie-Antoinette, Mary, Queen of Scots knew that appearances mattered, no more so than when making one's exit. Anne, Charles and Marie-Antoinette delivered knock-out performances of cleverly, movingly and deliberately organised visuals, but none of them came close to delivering a performance anything like Mary's in 1587. Whatever one might think of her personality and motives, both of which continue to divide and entrance people even today, it is difficult to deny that she behaved magnificently at her death. It was a scene which reverberated down British history and entered the canon as one of the defining moments of historical romanticism.

Back in the hall however, as Mary's pet spaniel lay down piteously next to its mistress's corpse, the news of what had happened to Mary Stuart was about to filter out into the outside world, fusing again politics, piety and personality in a way which Mary had been uniquely capable of bringing together in a combustible mixture whilst she lived.

An extract from the fantastic 1971 BBC series Elizabeth R below dramatises Elizabeth's reaction to her cousin's death. Mary is played by Vivian Pickles and Elizabeth by the incomparable Glenda Jackson, in one of my favourite performances of an historical person.


  1. What an awful scene this must have been. I knew you would not miss this anniversary! It's rather odd, the way there seem to be so many anniversaries of regicides or royal tragedies at this time of year (Louis XVI, Charles I, Mary Queen of Scots, the Mayerling incident, and so on).

    It's interesting what you say about glamorous women- I guess Queen Astrid of Belgium would fit in the category of the frozen in time and eternally young. Her successor as King Leopold's wife, Princess Lilian, however, did live a long time- but retained her glamorous image nonetheless. An exception to the rule?

  2. Matterhorn, I am completely embarrassed. There was one name from that list which I knew I had forgotten and Queen Astrid was it! I think actually Princess Lilian, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, the late Queen Mother and Alexander III's widow, the Dowager Empress Marie Fyodorovna, are good examples that glamour is ageless, IF you get over the hump of middle age with your spirits intact. And you're right about this time of year; it keeps me busy! Jane Grey's and Catherine Howard's are up next week!

  3. Great article. Deplorable re the axe slipping; perhaps injudicious to have a cloth covering the neck? Still, maybe that was inevitable...

  4. Thank you and you're right, actually; the decision to use the large Corpus Christi cloth instead of the usual cloth MAY actually have been the reason for the headsman's poor performance of his duties. Interesting thought!

  5. "Glamorous women should never live too long. History doesn't like it that way. In return for missing out on the lives of their children and grandchildren, of growing old in comfort and security, history freezes them forever in an eternal prism of youth."

    So true, Gareth. So true!

  6. Glenda Jackson made the BEST Queen Bess ever, IMO. That scene is incredibly moving!! I remember watching it as a child.

    Gareth, your description of Queen Mary's death is the best I have ever read, better than the published biographies. I am moved beyond words.

    However, I must disagree with you and John Guy (who I believe said that same thing) about Mary putting on a display of Catholicism for show at her death. When people are about to die, they are just trying to hold themselves together and get through it. Mary was concerned about dying well, as became a Catholic Queen, not about the political effect it would have. Many of the English martyrs who died at Tyborne prayed aloud in Latin like Mary and were conscious of the symbols surrounding their executions because of the holy example it would give to the onlookers. It was more than just a show put on for the spectators; it was sacred duty to die well. I like John Guy's biography but there are some things I just don't agree with him about and that is one of them.

    The other thing I disagree with is when Guy says that Mary must have liked being ravaged by Bothwell because she did not cry for help. How many women today are afraid to admit that they have been raped? It was even more shameful in those days, especially for a Queen. When it comes to Mary Queen of Scots, I agree with Antonia Fraser all the way.

  7. Thank you very much, Elena Maria. I know how you feel about Mary and so that is high praise.

    I agree with you that there are moments were I was unconvinced about many of John Guy's arguments and would have to say that for me Antonia Fraser's assessment of her is much more convincing. I don't think Mary's piety is necessarily incompatible with the idea of politicising it. I don't think one automatically negates the other, although I wasn't trying to imply that she didn't believe very strongly in her Catholic faith by this stage in her life.

    A very, very brave woman.

  8. Yes, she was. Poor Mary. Yes, I see what you mean about the politicizing not being incompatible with piety. After all, politicizing was what monarchs were taught to do from the moment they were born!

  9. Yes, just because someone tries to project a certain 'image', does not mean he or she is insincere, or that the image does not reflect reality.

  10. Wonderful post! Thank you! :)


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