Thursday, October 25, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Mary, Queen of Scots is Convicted of Treason

A portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots by an unknown artist, c.1575. Glasgow Art Gallery. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this day in Elizabethan history, October 25th, 1586 Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was found guilty of treason, due to her involvement in the Babington Plot.

The Babington Plot was an elaborate Catholic plot, created by King Philip II of Spain and Don Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in England; Mendoza had recently been banished from the English court because Queen Elizabeth I was growing suspicious of his motives. There would never be another Spanish ambassador in England during Elizabeth I's reign. 

In England, the representative of the plot was Anthony Babington, a Catholic nobleman. Babington and his co-conspirators (of which there were few of any importance, since most powerful Catholics were loyal to the Queen, to whom they owed their fortunes) planned to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, a "heretic" Queen, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots as a Catholic monarch. King Philip II of Spain would invade England and help to restore Catholicism to the country, thus securing Mary's new regime.

A portrait of King Philip II of Spain, by Sofonisba Anguissola. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While Mary Stuart was not the instigator of this plot, once informed of Philip II's plan by Babington, she gave her consent in writing. An imprisoned Queen without a country, Mary was tempted by this offer of liberation and a kingdom to rule. Sir Francis Walsingham, who was tired of simply waiting for Mary to condemn herself through her other correspondances, orchestrated a ruse in order to obtain just cause to have her arrested. Under Walsingham's orders,  Mary Stuart was led to believe that her letters in support of the Babington plot were being smuggled out of the castle securely in wine barrels, when in reality the letters were delivered directly to Walsingham. Today, most modern legal systems would consider Walsingham's methods entrapment, but even so, Mary made the decision to commit her compliance to paper. Had she rejected Babington's plan entirely, she would have been clear of treason. 

A portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham by John de Critz, circa 1587. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.

Babington described to Mary Stuart his plans in such great detail that there would be know way that Mary could have misinterpreted the message:

"First, assuring of invasion: Sufficient strength in the invader: Ports to arrive at appointed, with a strong party at every place to join with them and warrant their landing. The deliverance of your Majesty. The dispatch of the usurping Competitor. For the effectuating of all which it may please your Excellency to rely upon my service.... Now forasmuch as delay is extreme dangerous, it may please your most excellent Majesty by your wisdom to direct us, and by your princely authority to enable such as may advance the affair; foreseeing that, where is not any of the nobility at liberty assured to your Majesty in this desperate service (except unknown to us) and seeing it is very necessary that some there be to become heads to lead the multitude, ever disposed by nature in this land to follow nobility, considering withal it doth not only make the commons and gentry to follow without contradiction or contention (which is ever found in equality) but also doth add great courage to the leaders. For which necessary regard I recommend some unto your Majesty as fittest in my knowledge for to be your Lieutenants in the West parts, in the North parts, South Wales, North Wales and the Counties of Lancaster, Derby and Stafford: all which countries, by parties already made and fidelities taken in your Majesty's name, I hold as most assured and of most undoubted fidelity." (Pollen)

He also explained his intent to rescue Mary and have Queen Elizabeth murdered:

"Myself with ten gentlemen and a hundred of our followers will undertake the delivery of your royal person from the hands of your enemies. For the dispatch of the usurper, from the obedience of whom we are by the excommunication of her made free, there be six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty's service will undertake that tragical execution." (Pollen)

After this letter was deciphered and read by Walsingham, it was re-sent to Mary, who received it on the 14th of July. Mary gave her enthusiastic consent:

"For divers great and important considerations (which were here too long to be deduced) I cannot but greatly praise and commend your common desire to prevent in time the designments of our enemies for the extirpation of our religion out of this realm with the ruin of us all. For I have long ago shown unto the foreign Catholic princes—and experience doth approve it—the longer that they and we delay to put hand on the matter on this side, the greater leisure have our said enemies to prevail and win advantage over the said princes (as they have done against the King of Spain) and in the meantime the Catholics here, remaining exposed to all sorts of persecution and cruelty, do daily diminish in number, forces, means and power. So as, if remedy be not thereunto hastily provided, I fear not a little but they shall become altogether unable for ever to rise again and to receive any aid at all, whensoever it were offered them. For mine own part, I pray you to assure our principal friends that, albeit I had not in this cause any particular interest (that which I may pretend unto being of no consideration unto me in respect of the public good of this state) I shall be always ready and most willing to employ therein my life and all that I have or may ever look for in this world." (Pollen)

The Babington Plot letter. Photo acquired through Pinterest courtesy of Barb Alexander. Image public domain.

This statement from Mary alone could have had her convicted of treason; there was no additional evidence needed. But, since Walsingham and his associates would leave no room for error in building their case to get Queen Elizabeth to believe in her cousin's guilt, Walsingham's man Phellipes made a copy of the original letter, adding an incriminating post-script. Phellipes than made another copy of the letter for Walsingham, doodling an ominous gallows on the paper. Mary was doomed.

The key to the Babington Plot cipher code, circa 1586. UK National Archives. Image public domain.

Despite Mary, Queen of Scots being convicted of treason and sentenced to death on October 25th, 1586, Queen Elizabeth I hesitated to sign her death warrant, despite pleas from Walsingham, her Privy Councillors and Parliament. To kill an annointed sovereign was taboo; monarchs were supposed to be subject to the laws of God, but not to the laws of one another. Furthermore, Elizabeth likely had an emotional reaction to the idea of killing a Queen; her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been callously disposed of in the exact same way.

A composite image of Queen Elizabeth I and her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn. Image courtesy Inor19.

Queen Elizabeth knew if she did not kill Mary, her life, her throne, and the security of her realm would always be in question. She also knew that when the axe fell on Mary's head, Philip II would invade England, though he had been planning to do that anyway.The next two years would be dark ones indeed for Queen Elizabeth I; on February 8th, 1587 Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, and in 1588, England faced the Spanish Armada.

A 17th century interpretation of the execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Pollen, J.H. "Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington plot," The Month, Volume 109. 1907. Online.