The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots on February 8, 1587 was a landmark moment in the reign of Elizabeth I and history has often given the English queen a bit of a side eye for her handling of it. Likely there would be more sympathy for Elizabeth’s position if Mary hadn’t, at face value, appeared so sympathetic – a beautiful woman, a mother, a widow, a deposed queen, a Catholic punished for her faith.
But Mary certainly isn’t without detractors. Though she ascended the Scottish throne as an infant after the premature death of her father, James V, she would only directly rule Scotland from within its confines for less than seven years. Raised in France as a Catholic, Scotland and its increasingly Protestant people were wholly foreign to her when she returned to it as an adult in 1561. Her rule was clumsy, her government fractured, her personal life scandalous and she continued to make herself a thorn in the side of England and her cousin, Elizabeth. What helped to solidify Mary’s legacy as a martyr-like figure is, in fact, her behavior during her execution.
On the evening of February 7, 1587 Mary was told that she would be executed the next morning. The news was delivered to her by delegates from Elizabeth’s court, one of which was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, who had been deputized as Mary’s captor for 15 years when she first came to England. When Mary asked to delay her death to set her affairs in order and write her will, Shrewsbury’s response was:
‘No, no, Madam you must die, you must die! Be ready between seven and eight in the morning. It cannot be delayed a moment beyond that time.’
Mary spent the night writing her will, divvying up her belongings among her household and writing to her brother-in-law, King Henry III of France. On the morning of the 8th, Mary was taken to the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle where a two-foot-high scaffold had been built and draped in black cloth, and a crowd of 400-500 people had assembled. Once she has ascended the scaffold she was denied her Catholic almoner and instead offered a Protestant, who she denied. Her outer garments were removed to reveal a crimson petticoat and sleeves, the traditional color of Catholic martyrdom – Elizabeth had taken great pains to ensure that Mary’s death wouldn’t lead to a religious cult of personality after her death; Mary took great pains to ensure it did.
One of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Kennedy, helped to blindfold the Queen, at which point she knelt before the block. A good executioner was able to sever the body in a single blow and (reportedly) limit the pain felt by the victim; Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn, was famously beheaded with a sword instead of an axe for this very purpose. Mary’s executioner, on the other hand, missed on the first swing, striking her instead on the side of the head, in response to which she reportedly whispered, “Sweet Jesus.” The second strike severed the head from the shoulders with the exception of a small amount of sinew, which the executioner cut through with a third strike using an axe.
The executioner then lifted Mary’s head up by her hair and shouted for the benefit of the crowd, “God save Queen Elizabeth! May all the enemies of the true Evangel thus perish!” Reports vary on what happened next – some say that the executioner yanked Mary’s headdress from the head to further humiliate her (she had been wearing a wig), while other say that when he held the head up by the hair, it simply detached. In any event, what had appeared to be a lustrous auburn mane was revealed to be short, unkempt grey hair. Mary was only 44 when she died and it’s likely that the stress of her last years of captivity had prematurely greyed her.
Unbeknownst to Mary’s executioner or the spectators, her small terrier had apparently accompanied her on the scaffold, hiding among her skirts. When discovered, the dog refused to be separated from its masters until it was forcibly removed to be washed of blood. The clothing that Mary had been wearing, as well as the entire scaffold, was then burned to reduce the chances of materials being ferried off and held up as relics.
Mary had requested that her body be sent to France (she was the widow of Henry III’s brother, Francis II), however that request was denied. Her body was embalmed and placed in a lead coffin, before being interred following a Protestant ceremony that July at Peterborough Cathedral (ironically also the burial site of Katherine of Aragon, another queen who refused to give up her Catholicism). Her body would remain there until 1612, nine years after her son, James I, inherited the English throne upon Elizabeth’s death. James ordered that his mother’s body be re-interred to the grander location of Westminster Abbey. Her new resting place would, somewhat poetically, be situated directly across from Elizabeth, where she remains today.
The decision to execute Mary had not been lightly made on Elizabeth’s part and was the result of Mary’s participation in what become known as the Babington Plot, a plan hatched with coordination from King Philip II of Spain to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. It was not the first plot in which Mary was rumored to have participated, and even if her innocence is presumed, she remained a lightning rod for Catholic sympathizers and political dissidents. There was, however, the concern of one crowned head executing another, particularly in light of the religious nature of a coronation, as well as the fact that both queens were cousins, descended from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
When Elizabeth was brought the news of Mary’s death she reacted in anger, claiming she had been disobeyed and had never meant for Mary to be executed. She had, of course, but her reaction was a nice display of political theatre that gave her plausible deniability on the European stage.
In hindsight, England is lucky that Elizabeth prevailed and Mary never saw the English throne. However, it is Mary’s blood and not Elizabeth’s that can be found traced through all subsequent monarchs. Mary’s son, James, founded the House of Stuart, uniting England and Scotland, and it is from him that flowed not only the other Stuart monarchs via his son, Charles I, but the House of Hanover as well, through his daughter, Elizabeth.
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