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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)

On this day..

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

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

  1. Melisende’s witty observations about “guilt by association” nicely sum up the situation, and invite a closer look at how the statute of 1585 often referred to as the “Act of Association” grew out of the extralegal Band (or Bond) of Association (1584). Some fine details in the statute help in understanding the framework for the trial of Marie Queen of Scots — here I use her own preferred spelling of her name; and also the courageous dissent, at least in part, by Edward Lord Zouch from the verdict of guilty returned by the other members of the commission appointed to try her.

    The assassination of William of Orange on 10 July 1584 by Balthasar Gerard, on the authority of a ban by King Philip II of Spain against William as a Protestant heretic and leader of the rebellion in the Netherlands, caused fear in England that Queen Elizabeth might be similarly targeted by Catholic fanatics. Such fears were underscored by another event on the same day as William’s assassination, July 10: the execution of Francis Throckmorton for a plot that included her murder as well as a Catholic uprising and the invasion of the realm. Most English Catholics were in fact opposed to such plans, although they would have welcomed an end to Queen Marie’s illegal captivity in England which she had now endured for 16 years.

    The response of Queen Elizabeth’s most influential advisors, including William Cecil, Lord Burghley (or Burleigh) and Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State and spymaster, was an extralegal compact called the Band (or Bond) of Association. Signers of this “Association for the Queen’s Safety” pledged that in the event of a plot against her life, they would never accept any “pretended Successor, by whom, or for whom, any such detestable Act shall be attempted or committed,” and further that they would “prosecute such Person or Persons to death,” and “act the utmost Revenge upon them…”

    The “by whom, or for whom” language meant that Marie, as Elizabeth’s obvious successor, would be liable to an extrajudicial killing for any actual assassination or conspiracy to this end, even if she had no knowledge of the plot. Later commentators have justly characterized this as “lynch law,” and Queen Elizabeth herself as well as some Members of the Parliament called in late 1584, wanted to give such proceedings at least the veneer of legality and due process.

    The result was the Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Most Royal Person and the Continuance of the Realm in Peace, or “Act of Association.” It provided that in the event that “any thing be compassed or imagined, tending to the hurt of Her Majesty’s Royal Person,” a commission of no fewer than 24 members including the Privy Council and other peers should be appointed to examine the evidence and give judgment. Here, the “by whom, or for whom” clause of the original Association was modified to target any claimant to the throne “by whom or by whose means, assent, or privity” such a plot against Queen Elizabeth’s life should be made, as found by the verdict of the commission.

    In short, a successor to the throne of England such as Queen Marie would be liable to execution only if found by the commission to have had at least “privity” or knowledge of an assassination plot. The Act concludes with language specifically cautioning against “any sinister or wrong Construction or Interpretation” of the earlier Association. This language may have been intended in part to assure King James VI of Scotland, Marie’s son who had been raised as a Protestant, that he would not be barred from the succession because of plots of which he had no knowledge.

    When the plot of Anthony Babington and his co-conspirators was revealed in the late summer of 1586 — a plot which Walsingham had not merely detected but helped to make possible, providing the imprisoned Marie with her only access to communications with the outside world — her trial was conducted according to the Act of 1585. As Elizabeth’s commission for the trial explained, a main issue was whether the plot was “_cum scientia_, in English _with the privity_ of the same Mary.”

    After Queen Marie’s trial by a Commission of 36 members in October, Queen Elizabeth in December made a royal proclamation announcing the judgment and sentence of death, reproduced in _Holinshed’s Chronicles_ (1587). The two relevant findings were that:

    (1) “…diverse things were compassed and imagined within this realme of England by Anthonie Babington, and others, with the privitie of the said Marie, pretending title to the crowne of this realme of England, tending to the hurt, death, and destruction of our roiall person.”

    (2) “And likewise, that… the said Marie, pretending title to the same crowne, had compassed and imagined within the same realme, divers things tending to the hurt, death, and destruction of our roiall person, contrarie to the forme of the same statute:….”

    It is noteworthy that one commissioner, Lord Zouch, dissented in part by deeming that the evidence had not proved that Marie had herself compassed and imagined the death of Elizabeth. However, he did find that she had privity or knowledge of the Babington Plot, which was all that the statute required for conviction.

    Antonia Fraser, quoted by Melisende, agrees with Lord Zouch that Queen Marie was aware of the plot, but did not intend the murder of her cousin Queen Elizabeth. While Marie’s status as a sovereign monarch held illegally as a prisoner in England for 18 years provides the strongest basis for challenging the trial and verdict, from an ethical perspective another critically important issue is entrapment.

    As the Jesuit historian John Hungerford Pollen has compellingly argued, there were in 1586 two simultaneous and interwoven plots: the Babington Plot against Elizabeth; and Walsingham’s plot against Marie. Here it is significant than many of the Babington plotters, including Babington himself, began with grave moral and religious doubts as to whether it was licit to assassinate Queen Elizabeth: Walsingham and his agents promoted the escalation of the plot so that it included her murder. Indeed Marie had “privity” or knowledge of the Babington Plot only because Walsingham and his agents had provided the means of communication — after she had been deprived for many months of virtually any communication with the outside world. Thus Walsingham used the Babington Plot as a means in his own scheme, aimed from the beginning at Queen Marie’s life.

    Writing in 1615, William Camden well sums up this aspect of her case by citing this argument against her execution (1635 translation from Camden’s Latin):

    “that privy messengers were suborned, which with dissimulation, counterfeit letters, and cunning devices had circumvented her being a woman prone to conceive an injury and greedy of her liberty, learned her secret counsailes, and drawne her into worse designes, which never would have entred into her thought if she had beene kept with that care as was meete, and such cunning underminers had not been privily sent unto her of set purpose. That in all ages it hath been a familiar thing among Courtiours, to thrust forward those whom they have, even against their willes, into matter of treason, and craftily to endanger heedlesse innocency once imprisoned.”

  2. chris y says:

    “it came wi a lass, it’ll gang wi a lass”, were the reputed last words of James V. And he was right, too, but the lass in question was Anne, not Mary.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

    1. Fiz, you remarked (I realize almost a decade ago now), “And please don’t call her Mary Queen of Scots, which is a completely Victorian invention and never used by historians.” Thank you motivating me to go back to some 16th-18th century sources for a better perspective on this question. One useful overview is John Scott, C. B., _A Bibliography of Works Related to Mary Queen of Scots 1544-1700_ (1896), available on the web.

      In the Latin of the 16th century, Marie (or Mary) Stuart is commonly called _Maria Regina Scotorum_ or _Maria Scotorum Regina_, with either translating then or now to the familiar Mary Queen of Scots. Thus William Camden in his Latin _Annales_ of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1615), a germinal source for the history of this period, has Maria Scotorum Regina, rendered in an English translation (1635 edition) as “Mary Queene of Scots.” Another Latin form is _Maria Regina Scotiae_ or “Mary Queen of Scotland,” and this is also found in 16th-18th century English sources, as are its equivalents in French, Spanish, or Italian.

      She is known as “Mary Queen of Scots” in favorable and unfavorable period sources alike. In 1572 or so, for example, there was published a work in Scots entitled _Ane Detectioun Of the Doingis of Marie Quene of Scottis, Twiching The Murther of hir Husband; And hir Conspiracie, Adulterie, and pretensit Mariage with the Erle Bothwell…_. (“Twiching” means “touching.”) The Latin text providing the basis for this translation was written by the pre-eminent Scottish intellectual and classicist George Buchanan, with whom she had read Livy and to whom she had extended patronage. A fine point here is that “Marie Queen of Scots” or “Marie Stuart” would follow her own spelling of her name, also used by some other Scottish authors including her adversary John Knox; reflect the French aspect of her heritage and upbringing; and also help to distinguish her from Queen Mary I of England.

      Buchanan’s attack on Queen Marie as an adultress and murderer ties in with the “Question of Legality” which Melisende has discussed in her article. From 1568 on, when Queen Marie had sought refuge in England, Queen Elizabeth had held her as a prisoner, rather than either meeting with her and offering honorable asylum, or else permitting her to move on to France, two alternatives which would comport with the international law of relations between sovereign monarchs. Portraying her as an utterly immoral woman and criminal could be useful not only in arguing her unfitness to govern again in Scotland, but to distract from the illegal nature of her captivity in England. From this captivity she had a natural right to liberation: preferably by negotiations with her cousin Elizabeth, with some efforts on both sides recorded by Camden; but, if necessary and possible, by escape (a right which St. Joan d’Arc had also famously claimed).

      Returning to her title, very relevant here is the capital trial in September 1586 setting the stage for hers: that of Anthony Babington and others for plotting not only to free her but to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Here the charges read in court refer repeatedly to “the said Mary Queen of Scots.” (This is as published in _A Complete Collection of State-Trials and Proceedings for High-Treason_, 1742 edition, so some Elizabethan spellings might be modernized, etc.)

      At her own trial held the next month, the charge to the commission appointed for this purpose described her as “Mary Daughter and heire of James the Fift, King of Scots, and commonly called Queene of Scots…” This circumlocution at once reflects a desire to play down the highly problematic legality, as addressed by Melisende, of sentencing to death and executing a sovereign monarch; and confirms that Marie Stuart is “commonly called Queene of Scots.”

      After her execution on 8 February 1587, at least one writer that same year felt no need to be so circumspect in a work whose title begins _A defence of the Honorable sentence and execution of the Queene of Scots_.

      Certainly, Fiz, I agree that Queen Victoria herself and historians of that era such as Agnes Strickland show a great admiration for Mary (or Marie) Queen of Scots; but this familiar title itself is an authentic and common 16th-century usage.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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