Friday, February 8, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

'Mary, Queen of Scots being led to execution', by Laslett John Pott, 1871. Image courtesy of Marilee Cody.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1587, Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. After being implicated in the Babington Plot the previous year, Mary Stuart was tried and found guilty of treason. Mary and her co-conspirators had planned to have Queen Elizabeth I killed, and with the help of a Spanish army and disgruntled English Catholics, place Mary on the throne. (You can read more about the Babington plot, the trial, and the conviction, as well as Elizabeth's reaction, here.)

A Babington Plot letter. Image from Barb Alexander's (the TudorTutor) Pinterest page.

On February 7th, Mary Stuart had learned of her fate via Sir Amyas Paulet, who informed her that she would be executed almost immediately on the following day. A pious Catholic to the end, Mary spent her last night on earth in prayer. When Mary Stuart mounted the scaffold that had been erected within the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, she forgave her executioner for taking her life, as was customary. It was recorded that she uttered to him, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end to all my troubles." (quoted in Guy, 7)

In a last act of defiance, Mary Stuart's servants removed her overdress, revealing her undergarments, all in crimson red, the color of a Catholic martyr. After being blindfolded by one of her attendants, Mary knelt before the block and placed her head in the groove intended for her neck. With outstretched arms, she recited in Latin the phrase, "Into thy hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit."

Despite Mary's willing involvement in the Babington Plot, one cannot help but be outraged by her grisly end; it took not one, but three strokes of the executioner's axe to remove the Scottish Queen's head from her body. To make matters worse, when Mary's severed head had been held aloft and the executioner cried, "Behold the head of a traitor, God save the Queen!", another horrid scene occurred; Mary's hair was revealed to be merely a wig, when her head tumbled to the floor, revealing her natural grey hair, and leaving the curled wig in the executioners grasp. One of Mary's little terriers, who had been hiding under her voluminous skirts revealed himself, but would not leave his deceased owners body. Mary's loyal pet, who one could argue was more loyal to her than any of her own friends and relations, had to be forcibly removed. 

A 1613-14 depiction by an unknown Dutch artist of the execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Though there are articles of clothing in existence that different institutions claim were worn by Mary, Queen of Scots at her death (a certain chemise comes to mind) these claims are likely dubious. There were strict orders to destroy all of the material goods associated with Mary's execution, including the scaffold and the block, to prevent them from being fashioned into relics by Catholic adherents. A 1613/14 depiction of the execution shows the Queen of Scot's clothing being burnt in the background.

This Chemise shown at Coughton Court is purported to have been worn by Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution; this is almost certainly false, but the myth still prevails. Image from Erika Christine via Wendy Price on Pinterest.

When Queen Elizabeth learned that it had taken not one, but three strokes of the axe to remove Mary's head from her body, she flew into an uncontrollable rage, followed by a deep depression. 

A copy of Mary Stuart's death mask, on display at Falklands Palace. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Despite Mary Stuart's last will and testament, she was not buried in France, the land where she had been carefree and happy in her youth. Her body was embalmed and placed in a lead coffin to await burial, which did not come until July of that year. Mary was first buried at Peterborough Cathedral, and later interred in Westminster Abbey by her son James VI, who became James I of England. 

The marble tomb effigy of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots in Westminster Abbey. Mary's tomb provocatively lies in a chamber directly across from the final resting place of her great rival, Queen Elizabeth I. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons, shared for public use by Kim Traynor.

In a case of historical irony, the Scottish Stuarts succeeded to the throne of England, despite Henry VIII banning the Scottish Tudor line from the English succession. The marriage arranged by Henry VII between his eldest daughter Margaret Tudor and James IV gave birth to a dynasty that the Virgin Queen would select to succeed the illustrious Tudors upon her death. The Tudors had reigned successfully for almost 100 years, after decades of dynastic struggle and strife in England during the series of conflicts posthumously known as the 'Wars of the Roses'.

The family tree of James VI/James I of Scotland and England. Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Guy, John. My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: Fourth Estate, 2004. Print.