Case Study #4: Mary | Queen of Scots

To kick off the first case study for 2015 in style, Case Study #4 will focus around Mary, Queen of Scots, who was most famously known for attempting and also plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary | Queen of Scots (8th December 1542 – 8th February 1587)

Born on the 8th December 1542 in Linlithgow Palace in Linlithgow, Mary, Queen of Scots was the Queen of Scotland from the 14th December 1542 to the 24th July 1567, and she was also the Queen Consort of France from the 10th July 1559 to the 5th December 1560. Mary, who was the only surviving legitimate chilld of King James V of Scotland, was just six days old when her father died and she acceded to the throne.

She had spent most of her childhood in France while Scotland was ruled by regents, and in 1558, she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. He ascended the French throne as King Francis II in 1559, and Mary had briefly become the Queen Consort of France, until his death in December 1560. Widowed, Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on the 19th August 1561. Four years later, Mary married her first cousing, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, but their union was unhappy, and in February 1567, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley’s residence was destroyed by an explosion, and as a result, Darnley was found murdered in the garden.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to have orchestrated Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley’s death, but he was cleared of the charge in April 1567, and the following month, he married Mary, Queen of Scots. Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and on the 24th July 1567, she was also forced to abdicate (step down) from the throne in favour of James, her one-year-old son by Darnley.

After her attempt to regain the throne were unsuccessful, Mary fled southwards to seek the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary has previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own and was also considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many of the English Catholics, including the participants in a rebellion known as the Rising of the North. Perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had Mary cofined in various castles and manor houses in the interior of England, and after eighteen and a half years in custody, Mary, Queen of Scots was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, and was subsequently executed.

Mary’s Childhood & Early Reign

Born on the 8th December 1542 in Linlithgow, Scotland, to James V, King of Scots, and his French secon wife, Mary of Guise, Mary, Queen of Scots was said to have been born prematurely and was also the only legitimate child of James to survive him. She was also the great-niece of King Henry VIII of England, as her paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was Henry VIII’s sister.

On the 14th December, six days after she was born, Mary became the Queen of Scots when her father died, which may have been perhaps from the effects of a nervous collapse, following the Battle of Solway Moss, or either from drinking contaminated water whilst on a campaign.

A popular legend, which was first recorded by John Knox, states that James, hearing on his deathbed that his wife had given birth to a daughter, he ruefully exclaimed, “It came with a lass, it will pass with a lass!” His House of Stewart had gained the throne of Scotland by the marriage of Marjorie Bruce, the daughter of Robert the Bruce, to Walter Stewart, the 6th High Steward of Scotland. The crown had come to his family through a woman, and would be lost from his family through a woman. This legendary statement has come true much later, not through Mary, but through her descendant, Queen Anne.

Mary was baptised at the nearby Church of St. Michael shortly after she was born. Rumours were spread around that Mary was weak and frail, but an English diplomat, Ralph Sadler, saw the infant at Linlithgow Palace in March 1543, unwrapped by her nurse, and wrote that: “it is as goodly a child as I have seen of her age, and as like to live.” As Mary, Queen of Scots was an infant when she had inherited the throne, Scotland was ruled by the regents until she had become an adult.

From the outset, there were two claims to the Regency: one from the Catholic Cardinal Beaton, and the other from the Protestant Earl of Arran, who was next in line to the throne. Beaton’s claim was mainly based on a version of the late King’s will that his opponents had dismissed as a forgery. Arran, with the support of his friends and relations, became the regent until 1554 when Mary’s mother had managed to remove and succeed him.

The Treaty of Greenwich

King Henry VIII of England took the opportunity of the regency to propose the marriage between Mary and his own son, Prince Edward, hoping for a Union of both Scotland & England. On the 1st July 1543, when Mary was just six months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which would promise that at the age of ten, Mary would marry Prince Edward and move to England, where Henry would be able to oversee her upbringing.

The treaty had provided that the two countries would remain legally separate and had also stated that if the couple had failed to have children, the temporary Union would dissolve. However, Cardinal Beaton had risen to power again and had also began to push a pro-Catholic pro-French agenda, which angered Henry, who wanted to break the Scottish alliance with France.

Beaton wanted to move Mary away from the coast to the safety of Stirling Castle. Regent Arran had resisted the move, but had then backed down when Beaton’s armed supporters gathered at Linlithgow. The Earl of Lennox escorted Mary and mother to Stirling on the 27th July 1543 with 3,500 armed men. Mary was crowned in the castle chapel on the 9th September 1543, with “such solemnity as they do use in this country, which is not very costly”, according to the report of Ralph Sadler and Henry Ray.

Shortly before Mary’s coronation, the Scottish merchants that headed for France were arrested by Henry, and their goods were impounded. The arrests had caused anger in Scotland, and Arran joined Beaton and became a Catholic. The Treaty of Greenwich was rejected by the Parliament of Scotland in December, and the rejection of the marriage treaty and the renewal of the Auld Alliance between France & Scotland prompted Henry’s “Rough Wooing”, a military campaign that was designed to impose the marriage of Mary to his son.

The English forces mounted a series of raids on Scottish and French territories, and in May 1544, the English Earl of Hertford (later known as the Duke of Somerset) raided Edinburgh, and the Scots took Mary, Queen of Scots to Dunkeld where she would be able to remain safe and sound.

In May 1546, Catholic Cardinal Beaton was murdered by the Protestant Lairds, and on the 10th September 1547, nine months after the death of Henry VIII, the Scots suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Mary’s guardians were fearful for her own safety, so they had decided to send her to the Inchmahome Priory for no more than three weeks, and then they returned to the French for help.

The French King, Henry II, proposed to unite France and Scotland by marrying the young Queen to his three year old son, the Dauphin Francis, and on the promise of the French’s military help, with a French dukedom for himself, Arran had agreed to the marriage. In February 1548, Mary was moved, again for her own safety, to Dumbarton Castle. The English had left a trail of devastation behind once more, and had also seized the strategic town of Haddington. In June, the much awaited French help arrived at Leith to besiege and ultimately take Haddington. On the 7th July 1548, a Scottish Parliament held at a nunnery near the town agreed to a French marriage treaty.

Life in France

With her marriage agreement in place, five year old Mary was sent to France to spend the next thirteen years at the French court. The French fleet sent by Henry II was commanded by Nicolas de Villegagnon, sailed with Mary from Dumbarton on the 7th August 1548 and arrived a week or more later at Roscoff or Saint-Pol-de-Léon in Brittany. Mary was accompanied by her own court, including the two illegitimate half-brothers, and the “four Marys”, four girls her own age, all named Mary, who were the daughters of some of the noblest families in Scotland: Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston. Janet, Lady Fleming, who was Mary Fleming’s mother and James V’s half-sister, was appointed as the governess.

Being vivacious, beautiful and also clever (according to some contemporary accounts), Mary did have a promising childhood. At the French court, she was a favourite with everyone, except for Henry II’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Mary had learnt to play the lute and virginals, she was also competent in prose, poetry, falconry, horsemanship and needlework, and she was taught French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Greek, in addition to speaking her native Scots.

Her future sister-in-law, Elisabeth of Valois, became a close friend of whom Mary “retained nostalgic memories in later life”. Her maternal grandmother, Antoinette de Bourbon, was also another strong influence mainly on her childhood, and he had also acted as one of Mary’s principal advisors.

The portraits of Mary show that she had a small, oval-shaped head, a long, graceful neck with bright auburn hair, hazel-brown eyes, under heavy lowered eyelids, along with finely arched brows, smooth pale skin, a high forehead, and regular, firm features. She was considered a pretty child and later, as a woman, strikingly attractive. At some point in her infancy or childhood, she contracted smallpox, which had fortunately not marked her main features.

She was eloquent and was also especially tall by the sixteenth century standards (she had attained an adult height of 5 feet, 11 inches or 1.80m), while Henry II’s son and heir, Francis, stuttered and was abnormally short. Henry had commented that: “from the very first day that they met, my son and she got on as well together as if they had known each other for a long time”. On the 4th April 1558, Mary had signed a secret agreement, bequeathing Scotland and also her claim to England to the French crown, should she die without issue. Twenty days later, Mary married the Dauphin at Notre Dame de Paris, and Francis had become the King Consort of Scotland.

Mary’s Claim to the English Throne

In November 1558, Henry VIII’s elder daughter, Queen Mary I of Englanf, was succeeded by her only surviving sibling, Elizabeth I. Under the Third Succession Act, which was passed in 1543 by the Parliament of England, Elizabeth I was mainly recognised as her sister’s heir, and Henry VIII’s last will and testament had excluded the Stuarts from succeeding to the throne.

Yet, in the eyes of many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate, and Mary Stuart, as the senior descendant of Henry VIII’s elder sister, was the rightful Queen of England. Henry II of France had proclaimed that his eldest son and daughter-in-law, the King & Queen of England, and in France, the Royal Arms of England were quartered with those of Francis and Mary. Mary’s claim to the English throne was a perrenial sticking point that would go between her and Elizabeth I.

When Henry II died on the 10th July 1559 from the injuries he sustained in a joust, fifteen year old Francis became the King of France, with Mary, aged 16, being his Queen Consort. Two of Mary’s uncles, the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorriane, were now dominant in French politics, enjoying an ascendancy called by some historians as the: “la tyrannie Guisienne”.

In Scotland, the power of the Protestant Lords of the Congregation was rising at the expenses of Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, who had maintained the effective control, only through the use of the French troops. The Protestant Lords had invited the English troops into Scotland in a bid to secure Protestantism, and a Huguenot rising in France, called the Tumult of Amboise, in March 1560, had made it possible for the French to send further support.

Instead, the Guise brothers had decided to send the ambassadors to negotiate a settlement. On the 11th June 1560, their sister, Mary of Guise, had passed away, and so the question of the future Franco-Scots relations was to be a pressing one. Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed by Mary’s representatives on the 6th July 1560, France & England had undertook to withdraw troops from Scotland & France, while Elizabeth’s right to rule England was recognised. However, 17 year old Mary, who was still in France and also grieving for her mother, had refused to ratify the treaty.

Mary’s Return to Scotland

After King Francis II died on the 5th December 1560 from a middle ear infection that led to an abscess in his brain, Mary was left grief-stricken. Her mother-in-law, Catherine de’ Medici, became the regent for the late King’s 10 year old brother, Charles IX, who had inherited the French throne. Mary returned to Scotland just 9 months after her husband’s passing, arriving in Leith on the 19th August 1561. Having lived in France since the age of five, Mary did have little of direct experience of the dangerous and complex political situation in Scotland, and as a devout Catholic, she was also regarded with the suspicion by many of her subjects, as well as by Elizabeth and her father’s cousin.

Scotland was torn between the Catholic and Protestant factions, and Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray, was a leader of the Protestants. The Protestant reformer, John Knox, had preached aginast Mary, condemning her for hearing Mass, dancing, and also for dressing too elaborately. She had summoned him to her presence to remonstrate with him unsuccessfully, and she later charged him with treason, but he was acquitted and released.

To much of disappointment for the Catholic party, however, Mary had tolerated the newly established Protestant ascendancy, and had also kept her half-brother, Lord Moray, as her chief advisor. Her privy council of 16 men, appointed on the 6th September 1561, retained those who had already held the offices of state, and was also dominated by the Protestant leaders from the reformation crisis of 1559-1560: the Earls of Atholl, Erroll, Montrose and Huntly, who was Lord Chancellor.

The Modern Historian, Jenny Wormald, had found this remarkable, suggesting that Mary’s failure to appoint a council sympathetic to Catholic & French interests was a main indication of her focus on the goal of the English throne over the internal problems of Scotland. Even the one significant later addition to the council, in December 1563, Lord Ruthven, was another Protestant whom of which Mary had personally disliked. In accordance to this, she was acknowledging her lack of effective military power in the face of the Protestant Lords, while also following a policy which would, in effect, strengthen her links with England. She had joined with Lord Moray in the destruction of Scotland’s leading Catholic magnate, Lord Huntly, in 1562, after he had led a rebellion in the Highlands against her.

Mary had sent William Maitland of Lethington as an ambassador to the English court to put the case for Mary as the heir presumptive to the English throne. Elizabeth had refused to name a potential heir, fearing that in order to do so, this would invite the conspiracy to displace her with the nominated successor. However, Elizabeth had assured Maitland that she knew no one else with a better claim than Mary’s. In late 1561 and early 1562, there were arrangements that were made for the two Queens to meet in England at York or Nottingham in the August or September of 1562, but Elizabeth had sent Sir Henry Sidney to cancel in July, because of the ongoing Civil War that was occurring in France.

Mary had turned her attention mainly to finding a new husband from the royalty of Europe. However, when her uncle, the Cardinal of Lorriane, began the negotiations with the Archduke, Charles of Austria without her consent, she had angrily objected, with the negotiations being foundered. Her own attempt to negotiate a marriage to Don Carlos, the mentally unstable heir apparent of King Philip II of Spain, was rebuffed by Philip.

Elizabeth made an attempt to try and neutralise Mary by suggesting that she should marry the English Protestant, Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester (Sir Henry Sidney’s brother-in-law and the English Queen’s own favourite), whom Elizabeth had trusted and thought she could control. She sent the ambassador, Thomas Randolph, to tell Mary that if she would marry an English nobleman, Elizabeth would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. The proposal went to bust, not least, however, because the intended bridegroom was unwilling.

In this contrast, a French poet that was at Mary’s court, Pierre de Boscosel de Chastelard, was apparently besotted by Mary, and in early 1563, he was discovered during a secruity search, after being found to have hidden underneath her bed, apparently planning to surprise her when she was completely alone to declare his love for her. Horrified as she was, Mary banished him from Scotland. He chose to ignore the edict, and two days later, he forced his way into her chamber, just as she was getting ready to disrobe.

Mary reacted with fury and fear, and when Moray rushed into the room, in reaction to her cries for help, she had shouted: “Thrust your dagger into the villain!”, which Moray had refused to do as Chastelard was already under restraint. Later on, Pierre de Boscosel de Chastelard was tried for treason, and was also beheaded. Maitland had claimed that Chastelard’s ardour was feign, and that he was a part of the Huguenot plot to discredit Mary by attempting to tarnish her reputation.

Mary’s Escape & Imprisonment in England

On the 2nd May 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots had escaped from Loch Leven Castle with the aid of George Douglas, the brother of Sir William Douglas, who was the castle’s owner. By managing to raise an army of 6,000 men, she had met Moray’s smaller forces at the Battle of Langside on the 13th May. After being defeated, Mary fled South; after she spent the night at Dundrennan Abbey, she crossed the Solway Firth into England via a fishing boat on the 16th May.

She landed at Workington in Cumberland, in the North of England, and after landing there, Mary stayed there overnight at Workington Hall. On the 18th May 1568, the local officials took her into protective custody at Carlisle Castle.

Mary had apparently expected Elizabeth to help her regain her throne. Elizabeth was cautious, as she had ordered an inquiry into the conduct of the confederate lords, and the question of whether Mary would be found guilty of Darnley’s murder. In mid-July 1568, the English authorities had moved Mary to Bolton Castle, because it was further away from the Scottish border, but was not too close to London. A commission of inquiry, ot conference as it was known at the time, was held in York, and later on in Westminster between October 1568 and January 1569, and in Scotland, her supporters had fought a Civil War against Regent Moray & his successors.

The Casket Letters

As she was anointed Queen, Mary had refused to acknowledge the power of any court to try and her and had also refused to attend the inquiry at York personally (she sent representatives), but Elizabeth forbaded her attendance anyway. As evidence was presented against Mary, Moray had presented the so-called ‘casket letters’ – eight unsigned letters of which were purportedly from Mary to Bothwell, two marriage contracts, and a love sonnet or sonnets that are said to have been found in a silver-gilt casket just less than one foot (30cm) long, decorated with the monogram of King Francis II.

Mary had denied writing them by arguing that her handwriting was not difficult to imitate, and had insisted that they were forgeries. They are widely believed to have been crucial as to whether Mary had shared the guilt for Darnley’s murder. The chair of the Commission of Inquiry, the Duke of Norfolk, had described them as horrible letters with diverse fond ballads, and he sent copies to Elizabeth, stating that if they were genuine, they might just prove Mary’s guilt.

The authenticity of the casket letters have been the source of much controversy among many historians. It is impossible now to prove either way. The originals, written in French, were probably destroyed in 1584 by Mary’s son. The surviving copies that may have been in French & translated into English, do not form a complete set. There are incomplete printed transcriptions in English, Scots, French & Latin from the 1570s. Other documents that were scrutinised included Bothwell’s divorce from Jean Gordon. Moray had sent a messenger in September to Dunbar to get a copy of the proceedings from the town’s registers.

Mary’s biographers, such as Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir and John Guy, came to the conclusion that either the documents were complete forgeries, or the incriminating passages were inserted into genuine letters, or that the letters were written to Bothwell by some other person or by Mary to someone else. John pointed out that the letters were disjointed, and that the French language & grammar that were employed in the sonnets were too poor for a writer with Mary’s education. However, certain phrases of the letters (including certain verses in the style of Ronsard) and certain characteristics of style would be compatible with the known writings of Mary’s.

The casket letters did not appear publicly until the Conference of 1568, although the Scottish privy council had seem them by December 1567. Mary was forced to abdicate and was held captive for the best part of a year in Scotland. The letters were never made public to support her imprisonment, which had forced her abdication. The historian, Jenny Wormald, believed the reluctance on the Scots part to produce the letters, and their destruction in 1584, whatever their content, constitute proof that they contained real evidence against Mary, whereas Weir thinks that it demonstrates the Lords required the time to fabricate them.

At least some of Mary’s contemporaries who saw the letters had no doubt that they were genuine. Among them also was the Duke of Norfolk, who had secretly conspired to marry Mary in the course of the commission, although he denied it when Elizabeth alluded to his marriage plans, say that “he meant never to marry with a person, where he could not be sure of his pillow”.

The majority of the commissioners had accepted the casket letters as genuine after a study of their contents and comparison of the penmanship with the examples of Mary’s handwriting. Elizabeth, as she had wished, concluded the inquiry with a verdict that nothing was proven, either against the confederate Lords or Mary. For many overriding political reasons, Elizabeth had wished to neither convict nor acquit Mary of murder, and that there was never any intention to proceed judicially; the conference was intended as a political exercise.

In the end, Moray had returned to Scotland as its regent, and Mary had remained in custody in England. Elizabeth had succeeded in maintaining a Protestant government in Scotland, without either condemning or even releasing her fellow sovereign. In Fraser’s opinion, it was one of the strangest “trials” known in legal history, ending with no finding of guilt against either party with one let home to Scotland, while the other had remained in custody.

The Plots

On the 26th January 1569, Mary was moved to Tutsbury Castle & placed in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth had considered Mary’s designs on the Enlgish throne to be of a serious threat and so she confined her to Shrewsbury’s properties, including Tutsbury, Sheffield Castle, Wingfield Manor & Chatsworth House, all of which are located in the interior of England, halfway between Scotland & London, and distant from the sea.

Mary was permitted with her own domestic staff, which were never numbered less than 16, and needed 30 carts in order to transfer her belongings from house to house. Her chambers were also decorated with fine tapestries and carpets, as well as her cloth of state on which she had the French phrase: “En ma fin est mon commencment (“In my end lies my beginning”) embroidered. Her bedlinen was changed daily, and her own chefs often prepared meals with a choice of 32 dishes served on silver plates.

She was occasionally allowed outside, but under strict supervision, and she spent seven Summers at the spa town of Buxton, and also spent much of her own time doing embroidery. Her health was gradually beginning to decline, perhaps through porphyria or a lack of exercise, and by the 1580s, she had severe rheumatism in her limbs, which had rendered her lame.

In May 1569, Elizabeth had attempted to mediate the restoration of Mary in return for the guarantees of the Protestant religion, but a convention that was held at Perth rejected the deal overwhelmingly. Norfolk had continued to scheme for a marriage with Mary, and Elizabeth had imprisoned him in the Tower of London, between October 1569 and August 1570. Early on in the following year, Moray was assassinated, and his death coincided with a rebellion in the North of England, led by the Catholic Earls, which had persuaded Elizabeth that Mary was, indeed, a threat.

The English troops had intervened in the Scottish Civil War, consolidating the power of the anti-Marian forces. Elizabeth’s principal secretaries, Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil & Lord Burghley, had watched Mary carefully with the aid of spies that were placed in Mary’s household.

In 1571, William Cecil & Francis Walsingham had uncovered the Ridolfi Plot, which was a cunning plan to replace Elizabeth with Mary, with the help of the Spanish troops and the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk was effectively executed, and the English Parliament had introduced a bill which would ban Mary from being on the throne, to which Elizabeth had refused to give the royal assent. To discredit Mary, Queen of Scots a lot further, the casket letters were published in London. The plots that centred quite frequently around Mary had continued.

Pope Gregory XIII had endorsed one plan in the latter half of the 1570s to marry her to the governor of the Low Countries, and the half-brother of Philip II of Spain, Don John of Austria, who was supposed to organise the invasion of England from the Spanish Netherlands. After the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, Francis Walsingham had introduced the Bond of Association and also the Act for the Queen’s Safety, which would sanction the killing of anyone who had plotted against Elizabeth and had also aimed to prevent a putative successor from profiting from her murder.

In February 1585, William Parry was convicted of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, without Mary’s knowledge, though her agent, Thomas Morgan was implicated. In April, Mary was placed in the stricter custody of Sir Amias Paulet, and at Christmas, she was moved to a moated manor house at Chartley.

Mary’s Death & Trial

On the 11th August 1586, after she was implicated in the Babington Plot, Mary was arrested while she was out riding and was taken to Tixall. In a successful attempt to entrap her, Francis Walsingham had deliberately arranged for Mary’s letter to be smuggled out of Chartley. Mary was misled into thinking that her letters were secure, but in reality, they were actually deciphered and read by Walsingham.

From these letters in particular, it was indeed clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. She was moved to Fotheringay Castle in a four-day journey that would end on the 25th September, and in October, Mary 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”.

Her attention was mainly drawn to the facts that she was denied the opportunity to review the evidence, that her papers had been removed from her, and that she was denied access to a legal counsel, and that as a foreign anointed Queen she had never been an English subject, and thus she could not be convicted of treason.

Mary, Queen of Scots was convicted on the 25th October and was also sentenced to death with just one commissioner, Lord Zouche, who expressed any form of dissent. Despite this, Elizabeth had hesitated to order her execution, even in the face of pressure from the English Parliament to carry out the sentence. She was mainly concerned that the killing of a Queen set a discreditable precedent, and she was fearful of the consequences, especially if, in retaliation, Mary’s son, James, formed an alliance with the Catholic powers and invaded England.

Elizabeth had 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 prosterity”. On the 1st February 1587, Elizabeth had signed the death warrant, and had entrusted the death warrant to William Davison, a privy councillor. On the third, ten members of the Privy Council of England, having been summoned by William Cecil without Elizabeth’s knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence at once.

At Fotheringhay on the evening of the 7th February 1587, Mary was told that she was to be executed the next morning, so she spent the last hours of her life in prayer, distributing her belongings to her household, and writing her will and a letter to the King of France. The scaffold that was erected in the Great Hall was two feet high and was also draped in black. It was reached for by two or three steps and was also furnished with the block, a cushion for her to kneel on and three stools, for her and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent, who were there to witness the execution.

The executioners, one of which was named Bull, and his assistant, knelt before her and asked for forgiveness. She replied: “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.” Her servants, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, and the executioners helped Mary to her outer garments, revealing a velvet petticoat and a pair of sleeves in crimson-brown, the liturgical colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, with a black satin bodice and black trimmings.

As she disrobed, she smiled and had also said that she “never had such grooms before … nor ever put off her clothes before such a company”. She was then blindfolded by Kennedy with a white veil embroidered in Gold, knelt down on the cushion in front of the block, on which she had positioned her head and stretched out her arms. Her last words were: “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”).

Mary was not beheaded with a single strike, as the first blow had missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow, however, had severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew, which the executioner had cut through by using the axe. Afterwards, he had held Mary’s head aloft and had also declared: “God save the Queen.” At this moment, the auburn tresses in his hand had turned out to be a wig and Mary’s head fell to the ground, revealing that she had very short, grey hair.

A small dog that was owned by the Queen, a Skye terrier, was said to have been hiding among her skirts, which was unseen by the spectators. Following the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Skye terrier refused to part from her, with the result of the dog being covered in her blood, until it was forcibly taken away to be washed. The items that were supposedly worn or carried by Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution are of a doubtful provenance; the contemporary accounts stated that all of her clothing, the block, and everything else that was touched by her blood was burnt in the fireplace of the Great Hall in order to obstruct any relic-hunters.

Mary, Queen of Scots’ Legacy

When the news of the execution had reached Elizabeth I, she had become indignant and had also asserted that Davison had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant, and that the Privy Council had acted without her authority. Elizabeth’s vacillation and deliberately vague instructions gave her plausible deniability, to attempt to avoid the direct stain of Mary’s blood. Davison was arrested, and he was also thrown into the Tower of London, being found guilty of misprison. He was eventually released a year and 7 months later (19 months) after William Cecil and Francis Walsingham had interceded on his behalf.

Mary’s request to be buried in France was refused by Elizabeth, and her body was embalmed and left unburied in a secure lead coffin until her burial, in a Protestant service, at Peterborough Cathedral in late July 1587. Her entrails, which were removed as part of the embalming processed, were buried secretly within Fotheringay Castle. Her body was exhumed in 1612 when her son, King James VI and I, ordered that she be re-interred in Westminster Abbey, in a chapel opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I.

In 1867, her tomb was opened, to try and ascertain the resting place of James I; he was ultimately found with Henry VII, but many of her other descendants, including Elizabeth of Bohemia, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the children of Anne, Queen of Great Britain, were interred in her vault.

The assessments of Mary in the 16th Century were divided between the Protestant reformers, such as George Buchanan and John Knox, who had vilified her mercilessly, and the Catholic apologists, such as Adam Blackwood, who had praised, defended and eulogised her. After the accession of James I in England, the historian, William Camden, wrote an officially sanctioned biography that would draw from the original documents. It had condemned Buchanan’s work as an invention, and had also “emphasized Mary’s evil fortunes rather than her evil character”.

The differing interpretations had persisted into the 18th Century: William Robertson and David Hume had argued that the casket letters were genuine, and that Mary was guilty of adultery and murder, while William Tytler had argued the reverse. In the later half of the 20th Century, the work of Antonia Fraser was acclaimed as “more objective … free from the excesses of adulation or attack” that had characterised on older biographies, and her contemporaries, Gordon Donaldson and Ian B. Cowan had also produced more balanced works.

The historian, Jenny Wormald, had concluded that Mary was a tragic failure, who was unable to cope with the demands that were placed on her, but hers was mainly a rare dissenting view in a post-Fraser tradition that Mary was a pawn in the hands of scheming noblemen. There is currently no concrete proof of her complicity in Darnley’s murder or of a conspiracy with Bothwell. Such accusations still rest on assumptions, and Buchanan’s biography is today often discredited as an “almost complete fantasy”. Mary’s courage at her own execution had helped to establish her popular image as the heroic victim of a dramatic tragedy.

Case Study #4 finally comes to a close, but over the gradual course of February, Case Study #5 will focus on the man himself, Sir Winston Churchill, known as the Greatest Briton, who was famously known as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Alex Smithson

4 thoughts on “Case Study #4: Mary | Queen of Scots

    1. Thank you so much for reading this case study. As always, I like to make sure I make these case studies perfect for everyone that’s interested in History, soon, I will be doing a case study on the former president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

      Again, thanks so much for dropping by and reading this case study :-).

      Alex Smithson

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      1. You’re welcome and I would love to read that as well. His life is quite an interesting topic and he’s probably one of the most iconic personalities I’ve met in American History. I would love to read it. Just notify me. 🙂

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      2. Will do. He led a very interesting life up until his assassination, and he was assassinated exactly 10 days after my dad was born, and the day after JFK’s assassination occurred, BBC broadcasted the first ever episode of Doctor Who, which had most recently celebrated it’s 51st Anniversary :-).

        Alex Smithson

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