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1587: Mary, Queen of Scots

February 8th, 2008 Melisende

(Thanks to Melisende at Women of History and Historic Biography for the guest post -ed.)

A Death:

Shrewsbury: ” … Madam you must die, you must die!…”

The executioner held up the severed head of the Queen of Scots for all to see — but horror as the hair separated from the head, and the head dropped to the floor. There was a stunned silence from the spectators — the Queen, once considered the most beautiful woman of her time, had lost her hair and vanity dictated the wearing of a wig.

The Dean of Peterborough stood over the corpse of the dead Queen and uttered the words all longed to hear: “So perish all the Queen’s enemies”.

The body of the dead Queen was stripped, in readiness to be received by the embalmers — but the dead Queen’s corpse held yet another surprise. Concealed within her skirts was a small terrier, which positioned itself betwixt the severed head and the body, and nothing could move it. It alone remained loyal to the Queen.

But the indignity of the execution of the Queen of Scots was not over. The execution block, her clothing and any other object which could be considered a relic was burned at Fotheringhay, which was in lock down.

It was not until approximately four in the afternoon that the Queen of Scots’ body was prepared for burial — but not the burial one would associate with a monarch. No — the Queen’s lead coffin was walled up within the precincts of Fotheringhay Castle. It was not until her son succeeded as James I of England, that the Queen was accorded a suitable and more Christian burial at Westminster Abbey.

A Life:

Mary was born 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow, Scotland, the daughter of James V of Scotland (d. 1542) and Mary of Guise (d. 1560). From the day of her birth, Mary was betrothed to the future Edward VI of England — the vetoing of this marriage led to war with England.

In the ensuing conflict, the Scots were defeated at Pinkie (10 September 1547) by forces of the Duke of Somerset. A French alliance was decided upon. Mary was sent to the French court aged 5 (1548), where she received a Catholic upbringing under her Guise uncles. Mary married the Dauphin Francis at Paris, France (24 April 1558). Her husband succeeded to the French throne as King Francis II (1559).

Mary became Queen of France but shortly after, Francis died (1560/1561). Mary was returned to Scotland (1561), and upon her arrival promptly proclaimed herself rightful Queen of England as the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor.

However, during her absence, things had changed in Scotland, and Mary had to adapt to the anti-monarchical, anti-Catholic, anti-French elements that now dominated Scotland. Then Mary embarked upon an ill-considered marriage to her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (29 July 1565) at Edinburgh, Scotland. Mary soon gave birth to a son, James VI (of Scotland) & I (of England) (1566).

The following year Mary was caught up in the scandal surrounding the murders of her Secretary David Riccio and her husband, Darnley (1567). From then on, Mary made mistake upon mistake. Soon after both deaths, Mary made a scandalous third marriage to James Hepburn, 4th Earl Bothwell (1567), who just happened to have been recently acquitted of Darnley’s murder. Mary claimed that this marriage was made under duress — but none were convinced. There was an immediate uprising of Scottish lords which resulted in military defeat for Mary at Carberry Hill and Langside (1568).

Mary fled Scotland for England and threw herself on the mercy of Elizabeth I, who kept her imprisoned in various strongholds. Following numerous intrigues to rescue her and place her on the throne of England, Mary was placed on trial (Oct. 1586). She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death (25 October 1586).

After delaying for as long as possible, Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary’s death warrant (1 February 1587) and Mary was executed at Fotheringhay (8 February 1587).

A Question of Legality:

Was the execution of a monarch of one country by a monarch of another lawful?

Mary was initially brought to trial under the English Act of Association (1585) — which in the eyes of the English made Mary just as guilty as those who conspired against the Queen of England, either with or without her knowledge. Guilt by association — a phrase I am sure we have all heard of.

Mary herself said: ” … as Queen and Sovereign, I am aware of no fault or offence for which I have to render account to anyone …”

In fact, just how was it legal for a Queen of a foreign country to be tried for treason by a Queen whose subject she was not; in fact, how could one then execute this foreign sovereign?

The sovereignty of any monarch, at this period in time, was taken with all solemnity. Elizabeth I herself was fully aware of the implications — if Mary could be treated and punished like an ordinary subject, then what could Elizabeth herself expect should she venture beyond the English Channel? In fact, Mary could only be judged by her peers — and to this end, only Elizabeth filled this position — not the privy councilors or nobility.

The English jurists pondered over this question — if Mary committed treason, she should have been expelled from English soil. But in the end, the legal minds of England came up with a suitable solution. King Henry VIII claimed suzerainty over Scotland; thus, Mary was a subject of the English Queen and could be tried (and executed) for treason under English law.

As author Antonia Fraser wrote: “In the case of the trial of Mary Queen of Scots the traditional blindfold across the eyes of Justice was ruthlessly torn aside by English commissioners so that the desired verdict might be reached.”

(© Melisende ~~~ 1998 & 2008)

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,England,Famous,Guest Writers,Heads of State,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Scotland,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

16 thoughts on “1587: Mary, Queen of Scots”

  1. Fiz (UK) says:

    Mary and her followers plotted treason again and again against Elizabeth and England, even when she had arrived in England. It was treason for catholics to plot against the English Crown and Mary did it repeatedly and asked Spain, England’s greatest enemy at that time for help. She got what she deserved.

  2. Phill says:

    Fiz has obviously never read an account of Mary Queen of Scots life, it is clear that she was never in control – Scotland and England’s relationship was frail at the best of times; perhaps more obviously now than at any time in the recent past. The Auld Allience with France was a good way for the French to distract the attention away from there own plans for England and as such Mary’s fate had been sealed by the actions of her father.
    Throughout her life she was kidnapped, raped, forced to abdicated and framed using the “Casket Letters”, all whilst outliving at least one husband and two Scottish Civil Wars. I think that would be enough to make anyones hair fall out.

    She wasn’t an ideal monarch – but then again no one would have been in 16th Century Scotland.

  3. Fiz (UK) says:

    You are completely wrong, Phill. I am a historian, and everything that happened to Mary was a result of her own lack of judgement. Mary thought it was smart to insult Catherine De Medici – first mistake which got her sent back to Scotland after Francois died, when she might otherwise have been kept in France. Plus it was Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, who sent her to France, not her father, who died when she was born, rather than marry her off to Edward VI. However the French thought very little of the Auld Alliance, which was why she was packed off home again. Mary’s deliberate conspicous Catholism infuriated Calvinist Scotland, and she did it quite deliberately. I could go on all night giving examples of her stunning lack of judgement and commonsense, both of which led to her death. And please don’t call her Mary Queen of Scots, which is a completely Victorian invention and never used by historians. She’s Mary Stuart, not some romantic heroine, and please read a litlle more yourself before you try to condemn what I do or don’t know.

  4. Ravensdottir says:

    It has always riled me to hear the “But she was so beautiful!” defense. Fiz is right: Mary was wilful without the will or intelligence of Elizabeth. She led (or attempted to lead) with her emotions, not her brain. And what right did Elizabeth have? The mandate to rule as the only surviving sister of the last Queen regnant & previous King regnant, & the child of the King regnant before that. She went in & out of legitimacy depending on the hopes & pragmatism of Henry VIII, as did Mary Tudor. Elizabeth also had the military behind her, which Mary Stuart did not. Scotland was also fragmented in the 16th century and under the influence of John Knox (the infamous author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women), which should have been fair warning to any sensible monarch. If we are to judge the legality of Mary Stuart’s execution, we also should judge the illegal victory at Bannockburn by the Scots in 1314. Rules, as they were, of siege stated that a siege was lifted if a relieving army came within 3 leagues of the siege. Sterling Castle was under siege by Scots forces, & Robert Bruce’s brother had agreed that the castle would be ceded to the English if the siege were lifted within a year. The English marched North in the given time frame and within the 3 leagues to Bannockburn. And met their fate (without Mel Gibson).

  5. Diane Wilshere says:

    Queen Mary was only buried at Fotheringay until the summer of 1587. She was then buried in Peterborough Abbey (now cathedral) in the aisle opposite Katherine of Aragon. The spot now says former grave of Mary, Queen of Scots. James had the reburial in Westminster Abbey in 1612. Not everything was burned. Arundel Castle has her prayer book and rosary, given to an attendant at the execution

  6. Libby says:

    If you want another twist with a bit of truth and fictional account of Mary Stuart, read Blood Royal. It is quite entertaining and does portray Mary as an emotional ruler with very little intellect.

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