Mary’s decision to flee to England in May 1568 is often seen as a disastrous one, with the hindsight which is so useful to shed-bound history Podcasters, desperately podcasting about another nation’s history. And as it turns out well, you know maybe it did have all the clear thinking of this podcaster’s decision to switch footballing allegiance from Leeds United to the Rams at the age of 15. I’ve never really recovered any credibility since then. But from Mary’s point of view; she’d just been defeated in battle after months of confinement and could expect more of the same. This was not her first attempt to re-assert control – maybe a new approach was needed. In her mind’s eye she saw the prospect of a loving meeting with her fellow queen, followed by a suitably triumphant return at the head of an English army.
And although things weren’t going to turn out quite like that, it was not absurd for Mary to think in 1568 that they might – Elizabeth was to support a return to Scotland for Mary on multiple occasions and try to achieve that. But Mary had figured without the relentless opposition of Cecil and the Scottish lords.
And to be fair to Cecil, Mary also did not appreciate just what an Exocet her arrival in the land of heroes was. With the continuing crisis over the English succession, the queen’s marriage or lack of it, and Mary’s Catholicism there were panicking pigeons all over the place when the cat landed in Workington. Cecil acted quickly – incarcerating Mary in Carlisle castle. Objective no 1 for him was to stop the queens meeting, and he played shamelessly on Elizabeth’s worry for the stability of her reign; while Elizabeth may well have also reflected that if Mary was guilty of what the Confederate lords were accusing her of, it would surely reflect on the ability of all Queens to ruler. Elizabeth wished to support a fellow monarch, she recognised the shameless plotting of the Confederate lords and her own advisers; and consistently felt sympathy towards Mary. But in the end, she could never bring herself to show the level of support by meeting her, given the questions that hung over her head.
Fleeing to England had the rather obvious consequence of landing Mary in the royal equivalent of the clink. But it also chopped the legs off her supporters in Scotland – they could hardly re-instate a queen they couldn’t actually produce in person. Because Mary’s support proved remarkably resilient.
Before we go on, Bothwell, by the way, had his own remarkable story, which I am not going to tell you in the depth it deserves. But just briefly, from Carberry Hill, he legged it to Huntly’s hangouts in the north, then to the Orkneys where he received the cold shoulder. After buckling his swash he escaped toward Denmark but ended instead at Bergen in Norway. There to suffer the wrath of Anna Throndsen, a woman he had promised to marry and then…well, hadn’t. From there he was sent to Denmark, where Frederick II soon decided he was irrelevant with no prospects and he was literally chained to a post for the final 10 years of his life until he died in 1578.
But as I was saying, in Scotland, Mary’s cause was far from dead. We are in familiar territory in a way, in a royal minority of James VI, which as we have seen has always been fertile soil for political factionalism; often times, the political nation had pulled together pretty well, but James Vths minority had not been a hopeful barometer; and then there’d been none of the confusion of the rights of a deposed monarch to deal with – for despite Mary abdicating, no one believed it was anything other than a deposition. Moray had many talents – but his regime was based on a very narrow constituency, and a Queen’s party soon arose in opposition to his King’s party, and the result was civil war. It was a civil war without set piece battles, except possibly in Edinburgh; but in the localities there was increasing violence as central control faltered.
It has to be said that Moray had played a blinder by making himself scarce while Mary and her rebels had fought it out. Now he had returned slightly less tainted, and while he was in the driving seat there was some level of acquiescence to his rule, let us call it no more than that. Huntly and the Hamiltons were the main opposition, driven at least in part by old feuds against Moray as much as support for Mary – an illustration of a central problem of minority regents, an inability to rise above factionalism and therefore use the tried and trusted methods for feud resolution. None the less he had sufficient support to keep a lid on things, particularly from the kirk.
Meanwhile Moray and George Buchanan led a propaganda war against Mary’s reputation, compiling a dossier of information and magically discovering a series of letters supposedly in Mary’s hand; these papers were designed to prove that Mary was complicit in the murder of her husband, Darnley. She was also accused of adultery with Bothwell, and colluding with Bothwell in her abduction. The papers were put together because Elizabeth and the Privy Council in England had chosen a way forward – the claims against Mary would be investigated in front of an independent tribunal at York. The format was to find a way through the differing views of Cecil and Elizabeth – Cecil’s apocalyptic view of the dangers Mary presented were not shared by his mistress, who was more horrified at the idea of rebels deposing a monarch, a most distressing precedent. So the trial would hopefully establish Mary’s innocence, or if Cecil had anything to do with it, her guilt. In Cecil’s plans, if Mary was guilty, then she might be allowed to go into exile, though Cecil would probably prefer prison. If she was innocent, Cecil recognised a return to Scotland would be required, but planned to make sure Mary was bound around with hoops and ribs of whale – a nominal queen.
Mary was absolutely livid, for so many reasons. She utterly rejected the very idea that anyone could sit in judgement on a queen; she was pretty miffed at the implication that Elizabeth was in some way superior to her status to insist on an investigation for crying allowed. And she gagged at the very idea that she should be required to answer accusations from rebels. So she refused to attend the tribunal, though sent commissioners to act for her.
There’s little way around it – the whole process was a bit of a farce. Cecil was not prepared to let an innocent verdict creep in through the backdoor. Mary was not allowed to see the incriminating Casket letters. I had to decide about whether or not to go into detail on the letters, and have chosen not to – if you want a proper analysis, John Guy’s biography of Mary ‘My Heart is my Own’ is probably the best place to go. But suffice it to say that even one-eye as he was, Cecil could hardly have failed to see how thoroughly doctored they were. But he let them go forward.
The tribunal at York was not impressed with Moray’s arguments and papers though, and the process was stopped and re-started with a bigger panel of judges – now nicely packed with Cecil and his brother in law Nicholas Bacon, just in case the judges forgot their instructions. In turn, Elizabeth nixed this plan and packed the panel with some folks like the Duke of Norfolk likely to be favourable to Mary. It gives the word farce a bad name.
In the interim, Mary did her cause little good when she responded with some enthusiasm to a feeler put out that she should marry the Duke of Norfolk, and indeed a secret visit from the good duke. ‘My Norfolk’ she wrote, ‘I trust that none shall say I have ever mind to leave you.’ Warm words, and of course Elizabeth got to hear of it and warmed Norfolk’s backside with the hottest of coals, while he stoutly denied everything.
In the end Elizabeth told the trial to stop, go home, and swore them to secrecy on the contents of the Casket letters. Moray was given scant reward for his support for the England, sent home with just a loan £5,000 to show for it. It was essentially limbo land – a ‘case not proven’ verdict.
Mary was appalled. She well knew her most relentless opponent to be in Cecil, and berated Elizabeth for it
You say you are counselled by persons of highest rank to be guarded in this affair. God forbid I should be the cause of dishonour to you when it was my intention to seek the contrary
Mary could see her future getting bleaker, and had lost faith that Elizabeth would help her regain her freedom and throne. So, she tried to call in some other chips – and wrote to Phillip II
‘I am deprived of my liberty and closely guarded
She wrote. She told the leading prince of Catholic Europe that she wanted all Catholic leaders to know that she was
An obedient, submissive and devoted daughter of the holy Catholic and Roman Church
By so doing, she notched up Cecil’s blood pressure a little more – here was proof, did he need it, that Mary was as dangerous as he had always claimed her to be.
When Moray arrived back in Scotland, it was to find his stock ever lower. His accusations against Mary in an English process, and his capture and return of English rebel the Earl of Northumberland, opened charges against him that he was a lapdog of the English. His aggressive treatment of Maitland meant that Maitland had moved closer to the Queen’s party. Although warned about his unpopularity, on 19th January 1570, Moray rode in Linlithgow directly under the window of the house of Archbishop Hamilton. From where he was shot by one of the Hamilton clan. So when you are next putting a pub quiz together on the history of Scotland, try the question ‘who was the victim of the first political assassination in Scotland using a firearm?’ and I figure you’ll have yourself a good quiz. Moray’s mother, Margaret Erskine, was a Douglas, and from that point forward the Hamiltons and Douglas were in feud.
Moray’s assassination was a good career move for him, much more popular dead than alive, especially Knox who moved a congregation of 3000 to tears at his funeral. In death, he became something of a propaganda football; those opponents of Mary like George Buchanan who described him as the Good Regent, and Mary’s friends such as James Melville, likened him as an inept tennis player, forever failing to read the game and chasing the ball. Neither author are terribly reliable or objective, but certainly Moray can hardly be called inept. But he could be described as cold and calculating, and Mary never forgave him for what she considered her betrayal, by her brother.
When he had gone, things rather fell apart. Mary had, however reluctantly, at least formally accepted Moray as Regent; now there weas no process for creating one. The feeling in 1570 was one of political lawlessness, and a breakdown of national governance, with bloodfeuds unchecked. When the Burgh and Cathedral of Dornach was burned by the Sinclair and Mackay, as part of their feud with the Gordons, there was no response from national government, and in Perthshire the feuding between Gregor and Campbell went unchecked, the Earl of Cassilis literally roasted the commendator of Crossraguel Abbey to get his hands on their lands.
The king’s party was by now leaking support, and on its uppers. At this point Elizabeth allowed Lennox to return, with 1,000 English troops under the command of the Earl of Sussex. As Regent, Lennox concentrated on the friendless Hamiltons – who conveniently held land near to his own in the western Clyde. He took war to the Queen’s party in the north east also, executing a company of Huntly’s men who took refuge in Brechin steeple by burning the steeple with them still in it.
Lennox failed signally to create any semblance of national, non aligned government at the head of his English soldiers. And given the falling popularity of the king’s party, English intervention at this point probably saved the party from defeat. As it was, in 1570 Huntly and Argyll set up a rival government, along with a rival parliament and council and all. Maitland meanwhile controlled Edinburgh castle so when the king’s party tried to hold their own parliaments, they had to scurry along to avoid shot from the castle – earning themselves the unheroic name of the ‘Creeping Parliament’. Edinburgh itself was the scene of constant fighting and rivalry, split between the two parties and Maitland in the castle; somehow, trade continued, but spare a though for the poor who were constantly having to rebuild after the latest chaos.
Lennox died in 1571 as part of a raid, and the Earl of Mar was elected in his place, a man with a reputation for peace – sympathetically described subsequently as a man of peace who could find no peace. But by the following year, October 1572, Mar also was dead. He was succeeded as Regent by the Douglas Earl of Morton.
By 1573, then, Scotland was largely sick to death of the civil war. With English assistance, the King’s party had just managed to cling on, and when Argyll and the Campbells were lured back to the king’s party, it became clear that the Queen’s men needed support from France. But France was not interested, because she had problems of her own, in the chaos following the massacre of St Bartholomew Day in Paris in 1572. In February 1573, then, most of the Queen’s party agreed to settle, in the agreement known as the pacification of Perth. Edinburgh castle, however, refused to yield, and had to be reduced with the help of the English army. Two commanders of the castle were hanged, but Maitland escaped the public humiliation by dying in the Leith Tollbooth where he was being held prisoner. Now at this point a Henry VIII or a Somerset would have probably set up a permanent English garrison, but Elizabeth and indeed Cecil were having none of this; Elizabeth liked to take a high moral tone, and anyway was sick of the bills. So, after paying any Edinburgh locals a few pence for returning any bullets, she then ordered the army home, and Regent Morton was left with a free-ish hand.
There is a sense of the dust and smoke from explosions and gunfire slowly clearing to leave Morton standing alone in command of it all. In a way Morton was a strange man to re-establish stability – deeply rapacious, well versed in making as much profit as he could from his position of power. He had a habit of arrogance, and of falling out with those he considered to be beneath him, which was most people frankly; his castle of Dalkeith was known as the Lion’s Den. But the thing is, that most of the names we have been referring to, the major players of the 1550s and 60’s, were now dead – Moray, Mar, Maitland, Lennox; in 1573 Argyll died, and in 1575 the Earl of Huntly collapsed and died after a game of footie, further warning that footie is bad for you; Chatellerault and the Hamiltons were broken, and the Duke soon died too.
Morton’s focus was on enforcing justice, the primary responsibility of all good monarchs and regents of course, the sign of a well managed society; but also incidentally a jolly good way of making a dew quid. Which was important. Firstly, for the condition of Morton’s pockets, which constantly needed filling, but secondly because Scotland was now in the grip of the same crisis that had started all over Europe – population growth, fuelling inflation; and combined with the fall in trade and customs revenues as a result of the chaos of the civil war just ended. It did not help that Morton also debased the coinage, fuelling more inflation, encouraging more lining of Morton’s pockets, but hitting the poor hardest as always. In 1574, though, Morton passed a Poor Law on the English model, to try to deal with the mass of ‘Masterless men’ appearing in Scottish society. The law made the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor; the latter were to be branded and expelled from the parish, the former to be supported with a local tax. In general, only towns really had the wherewithal to collect the tax, and elsewhere poor relief fell on the kirk session – who frequently linked support to religious conformity. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Morton also encouraged reform of Scottish universities, under the leadership of Andrew Melville, a move towards teaching by subject specialists, and meanwhile, the tradition of studying abroad, so strong in Scotland carried on, though more and more affected by the confessional divide – so beginning to focus more on countries like the Netherlands.
In a way then, this all sounds good – I mean corrupt and venal but hey, this is the 16th century what the heck, and there’s the semblance of a restored national government, so snaps to Morton. But it doesn’t do to get carried away. First of all, Morton was a victim of the ending of the church-state alliance used to such effect by James IV and V – the kirk wanted nothing to do now with being overseen by and part of state administration. In addition, Morton’s power, the power of the Douglases, was very much centred in the East and Lowlands. In the more remote parts of the kingdom, Morton did little to quell feuds and the growth of the more successful clans was with associated with violence – such as the Ross of Balnagown, the Mackenises on Black Isle, and even the Campbells in Angus, which emphasised the growing supremacy and invulnerability of the Campbells.
Morton had made many enemies during his period as regent; and in 1578 the combination of Argyll and Atholl with the support of the Erskines created a serious challenge in the Convention of Estates; civil war threatened again; but on this occasion, English support and the work of the English Ambassador managed to avert war. For a while, Morton was back in control and temporarily managed to create unity by launching an anti-Hamilton campaign. It all sounds a bit school yard – distracting your enemies by identifying a different enemy to go and beat up. Morton’s regency still rested on insecure foundations, but it took a new factor to bring him down. In 1579, a new character turned up at the court of young James VI, now 13 – this was Esme Stuart, a French nobleman of Scottish descent, who at the age of 37 moved to Scotland. He was an exotic new addition to the court, and James was smitten – and showered him with preferments, including promoting him to the Council, and creating him Duke of Lennox.
By 1581, most of Morton’s support was gone and Lennox moved against him, putting him on trial for the murder of Darnley – and this time support from England was not forthcoming. Morton was executed in June 1581, the end of a political generation.
But of course we should return to Mary. We left her in the land of limbo. Limbo is an odd word, so I referred to the OED for help; apparently it originates in the 14th century as an area on the edge of hell for the, and I quote, ‘abode of the just who died before Christ’s coming, and of unbaptized infants’. I do not know what I am now going to do with that information, so maybe I should forget it before my brain becomes full.
Anyway, Mary’s particular version of limbo was created in a sense when Elizabeth stopped her trial, on the certain knowledge that Cecil had rigged it, and to prevent it finding Mary guilty and putting Elizabeth in a hole. But it might be more accurate to say that it was the Pope, Pius V who shut the door on Mary’s prison when in February 1570 he published the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis
Since that guilty woman of England rules over two such noble kingdoms of Christendom and is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith and loss of so many million souls, there is little doubt that whosoever sends her out of this world with the pious intention of doing God’s service, not only does no sin but gains merit
So there we go, religious endorsement of political assassination. Cecil’s head exploded of course, but actually there were exploding heads all over the places, reds being spotted under every bed, parliament passed several acts for the Queen’s safety, and as time would tell, plots did materialise. The bull changed the dynamic; Catholics were not simply disobedient, they were traitors, and protestant were loyalists, or that is how it appeared to Cecil and many others. Mary was an obvious object for any Catholic attempts to replace Elizabeth as queen – and any chance of Mary being released and sent back to Scotland with a friendly wave was now gone. I hope I am not offering up any plot spoilers her when I say that Mary will spend the next 18 years effectively in prison.
It was a gilded prison it has to be said, although prison it most certainly was. Mary’s movements were watched, her letters intercepted, her person guarded, though with a very varying range of rigor according to her gaoler. However, she was treated as a queen – she maintained a substantial household of up to 100 staff, though at times of rigorous cut down it could be as little as 16. At Tutbury, she had two main rooms which she organised as a presence Chamber and a privy chamber, and would sit under a cloth of state. She was allowed official diplomatic representation almost to the very end, and her surroundings were almost always comfortable and well appointed. She was paid for from pockets other than her own…which should have been from the state, but Elizabeth I was definitively not the kind of person you expected to pay for her round when the time came; so her gaolers often ended up paying from their own pocket. Meanwhile, Mary still received her payments as Queen Dowager of France and refused to contribute to the costs of her own imprisonment, which seems fair; and therefore had money to buy herself nice things – which she did.
Whatever the comforts of her imprisonment, Mary burned with a sense of injustice all her life; never for a moment did she drop her sense of majesty, or her conviction that she was Elizabeth’s equal. Never did she drop her efforts to get back to where she belonged – to be queen of Scotland. She pulled every lever she could, including her famous wit, charm and influencing skills.
For the most part for 15 of the 18 years, her gaoler was George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. George trod a tight line – between treating Mary with respect and consideration, and not risking being accused of going native. By and large Mary respected Shrewsbury, despite his role. Fortunately, Shrewsbury had plenty of houses, as you do – Wingfield House, Chatsworth, and his principal house, Sheffield Castle. He was married to a rather more famous wife, Bess of Hardwick, and that was a relationship and a half. Shrewsbury moved from describing her in 1568 as ‘my jewel’ and ‘my own sweetheart’ to land at ‘my wicked and malicious wife’ or even’ my professed enemy’. Part of that was the fault of his role – Bess became convinced her husband was having an affair with Mary, which is unlikely. Mary is ceaselessly impressive in trying to use every single gram of leverage she possessed; so at one point she killed two birds with one stone, by writing to Elizabeth with a lexicon of all the terrible things Bess had said about her queen, including the accusation that she’d had an affair with Dudley, and Mary offered to give her more of the dirt if she’d allow to her meet face to face. Elizabeth resisted the temptation.
Mary was ill quite frequently, and felt she was aging before her time; she suffered from one stage from gastric flu that looked to be about to kill her; she had severe problems with her legs as she got older. One theory was that she had a disease called porphyria, but more likely it was a combination of lack of exercise and of constant mental distress. She was rarely allowed to go riding or hunting, and often when allowed, as by Ralph Sadler once, the gaoler was reprimanded. She missed her son badly, and yearned to know of him – though it took until he was 18 for him to write. It tortured Mary
Is this just and right that I, a mother, shall be forbidden not only to give counsel and advice to my oppressed son, but also to understand what distressed state he is in?
At the same time, she felt her friends had deserted her, especially the French; She wrote to her old contacts constantly but was distressed with the response – her letters were often ignored. Meanwhile, Catherine de Medici remained resolutely unhelpful, as did the Guise. When the Cardinal of Lorraine died in 1574 she had lost her personal contacts with the family. It is unsurprising that at times she suffered from depression. I was interested to read though, that she spent many summers at glorious Buxton, already a spa town in the 16th century, and where Shrewsbury built a secluded lodge for her use. I also do love Buxton, should you be thinking of visiting, though last time I was there I met a European tourist, understandably a little hacked off, who asked me why the English were so keen on coming to Buxton just so they could walk in the rain?
In 1585, Mary’s gaoler changed to Amyas Paulet, whose kettle was designed differently to the Shrewsbury fish. He was a harsh puritan who lacked Shrewsbury’s sympathy; ‘others, he said ‘shall excuse their foolish pity as they may.’ He considered treating Mary as a queen to be pandering, illustrated by the rather pitiful scene of Paulet ripping down her cloth of estate, while a tearful Mary had her servants replace it.
None the less Mary remained defiant. She never gave up her claim to the English throne, and by the 1580s, despairing of help from Elizabeth, she began to re-invent herself as a martyr victimised for her faithful Catholicism; she began to turn to Spain rather than France, trying to link herself to Philip II’s European strategy. None of this was calculated to make Cecil, and the queen’s new principal secretary Walsingham any happier. Walsingham was of course, famously in control of a sophisticated network of spies; all Mary’s correspondence came by him, her codes were well known, and Walsingham’s spies kept him well informed about Mary’s own secret agents.
Of course, it is true to say that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you. Evidence kept reinforcing English obsession with the danger Mary presented to the Queen’s safety. In 1571, Mary was implicated in the Ridolphi plot, a plan approved by Phillip II to capture and assassinate Elizabeth, encourage a rising from English Catholics to free Mary who would then marry the Duke of Norfolk. A Spanish army would then land and put Mary on the throne. The plot was well covered by Walsingham, uncovered, and Norfolk executed. A letter from Mary was found and deciphered – but it spoke in generalities, suspicious, but no smoking gun. Cecil none the less pursued Mary with grim determination, with this further confirmation that she was a magnet for plots; he circulated anti Mary propaganda under a different name, and persuaded MPs to debate and propose bills for Mary’s execution, or failing that to remove her from the succession. But Elizabeth vetoed every one of the bills.
Under continual pressure from Cecil, in 1584 Elizabeth opened negotiations with James VI, who had now announced his own majority. James presented fewer problems than Mary – he was a bloke, but his principal advantage was that he was protestant. So Elizabeth dangled the prospect in front of him that maybe she’d recognise him as her successor to the English throne. It led to a painful exchange between mother and son. James wrote to his mother and informed her that he would always honour her with the title of queen mother; but he specifically rejected Mary’s latest plan that she would return to Scotland to be joint monarch with her son.
If Mary had been by her son she’d have told him to wash out his mouth with soap and water. As it was, she fell ill to a spasm of vomiting, and wrote back with fury
I am your true and only queen. Do not insult me further with this title of queen mother…there is neither king nor queen in Scotland except me
And yet a year later a treaty of defensive alliance was signed between Elizabeth and James, and England’s northern border was safe. With his agreement, James rendered his mother disposable and irrelevant – Elizabeth had what she needed. For Mary it was the ultimate rejection, the ultimate betrayal. She was now genuinely desperate and willing to consider anything.
The anything came in the form of Gilbert Gifford and Anthony Babbington. Gifford was an agent recruited by Walsingham and Cecil to act as a double agent – and to establish an apparently secret chain of communication with the French embassy for Mary. This was duly done – secret messages were sent by Mary by inserting a watertight box in through the bung of beer casks. I say secret – they of course went to Walsingham to be copied before they went to their super secret destination.
Into this then came Anthony Babbington with his plan. He was a rich Catholic gentleman, with a plan, a plan hatched with the Spanish envoy in France, Mendoza. They proposed the assassination of Elizabeth by a group of six gentlemen, and to put Mary on the throne. Walsingham and Cecil could have nipped this plan in the bud – they did not. This time they wanted that smoking gun.
And a smoking gun was what they got. Mary was desperate – she had got to the stage where death was preferable to hopelessness and inaction. So she agreed to endorse Elizabeth’s assassination, and had her encoded letter put in the cask. Of course it was intercepted. The unknown agent who deciphered the letter sent his copy to Walsingham with a little set of gallows drawn on the outside. Finally, Cecil and Walsingham had what they had been looking for.
Mary was excited, re-energised by Babbington’s plot – maybe freedom was finally coming her way. And on 11th August, Paulet actually allowed her to go hunting. But it was a trick – a body of horsemen soon rode into sight. For a moment Mary thought the moment of her freedom had indeed come, loyal Catholics come to free her. But no; they were come to take her for closer confinement prior to her trial.
Mary was taken to Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, where she was to be tried by a panel of 24, including Cecil. Mary resisted with all in her power, though she held no cards; but she furiously denied the jurisdiction of the court – firstly, she was a queen, responsible to no court but God. Secondly, how could she be accused of treason – Elizabeth was not her queen. But in the end, unlike Charles I, she agreed to plead.
In the hearing, Cecil was relentless; Mary fought hard but had all the disadvantages of those accused of treason through the ages – no access to legal advice, no sight of the evidence. Still she fought hard with wit and ingenuity; the papers were forged, she claimed. At one point as Cecil hammered away Mary turned to him and said ‘Ah I see you are my adversary’ ‘Yes’ replied Cecil ‘I am adversary to Queen Elizabeth’s adversaries’. The following day the verdict was handed down – guilty.
But Elizabeth refused to allow the sentence to be proclaimed. Elizabeth was in a desperate quandry, Mary would be executed under the parliamentary acts for the queen’s protection. Allowing Mary to be executed set a hideous precedent especially for a monarch – firstly it rather gave the green light to any monarch killers out there; secondly it suggested a high level of power rested with parliament. What Elizabeth really wanted, was for Mary now to be killed by a private citizen, in secret, a pillow over the mouth at night, so that she could deny her guilt, and parliament’s right. The delay dragged on her weeks while Elizabeth hoped against hope that Mary would die, or someone would take the Thomas Becket hint. Meanwhile James in Scotland was in a right hole too; if he allowed his mother to be executed, his subjects would be furious. But what could he do? He could ask for French help, but still France had problems of their own and would be unlikely to give it. And meanwhile the succession to the English throne sat there like a succulent, shimmering fruit.
Meanwhile Cecil was determined to finish it. In February 1587 he panicked the Elizabethan horses by inventing rumours of plots, even a landing of Spanish troops – in the mayhem. Elizabeth signed a warrant for Mary’s execution – but gave instructions to Walsingham to write to Paulet ordering him to kill Mary without a warrant. Paulet was shocked and refused to do any such thing
God forbid I should make so foul a shipwreck of my reputation
he said. Cecil was implacable; he convened a secret meeting of the PC, and had the warrant sent on to Fotheringhay without Elizabeth’s permission, and without telling Elizabeth so that she could not countermand the execution. He would have his victim, and it would be public.
The day before her execution was due, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent came to tell her of her execution. Mary replied
I am quite ready and very happy to die, and shed my blood for Almighty God, my saviour and Creator, and for the Catholic church, and to maintain its rights in this country
Mary’s personal re-invention as a Catholic martyr was completed in a letter she wrote to Henry III of France, staying up until 2 O’Clock in the morning to finish it
I am to be executed like a criminal at eight o’clock in the morning…the catholic faith and the defence of my God-given right to the English throne are the reasons for which I am condemned, and yet they will not say it is for the catholic faith that I die…
Mary slept little that last night and at six rose and prepared with her gentlewomen. When all was ready, she entered the hall, where the dais, almost 6 foot high, stood before her with the block covered in black. Mary kept her composure, and commanded the scene with the majesty she so powerfully possessed. She made a speech asking those present to
‘tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion and like a true Scots woman and like a true French woman.
She walked to the block, and refused to yield to the protestant dean asking to pray with her – ‘I will have nothing to do with you or your doctrine’ – and drowned out his prayers with her own, tears now running down her face as she prayed for the church, her son, and Elizabeth. When it was time, she removed her dress and veil and was revealed in shocking scarlet, the colour of blood and her martyrdom. She put her head to the block and her head was severed in two blows. 3 bits of legend surround the execution; her lips were said to move for 15 minutes afterwards; it is said that the executioner didn’t realise that she wore a wig, and so when he lifted the head by the hair the head fell and rolled across the dais. And finally, that when her body was moved her small dog was found quivering next to her body.
So perish all the queen’s enemies
said the dean.
Well there we go we have reached the end of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and who could deny that it is tragic? Obviously John Guy is a historian whose crumbs I am not worthy to pick up and so I’m not sure I would argue with his conclusion that Mary was the unluckiest Princess alive. You can see that she was faced by the most poisonous factionalism; and together with the religious component faced by powerful men prepared to do the unthinkable, and depose her in defence of their power and their religion. And the fact that they were prepared to go so far, there has to be some impact of Mary’s gender – the two men she married in Scotland both wanted to subject her to their will. The saddest thing in a way was the ultimate betrayal by a son who could have no memory of her. Despite Elizabeth’s constant efforts to save her, it was never enough and in the end the winner was her nemesis, in the form of William Cecil.
However, to my frankly less well-informed view, John Guy goes a little far – because it’s possible to agree with Jenny Wormald that ultimately Mary was a failure. There was nothing new in the factionalism of the Scottish court, and for a few years Mary’s skills and talents managed to control and direct their force, and the magnates were prepared to accept her; Mary consistently showed herself to have the self-belief and strength expected of a monarch, and used pageants and events to reinforce the aura of her majesty. But she made mistakes, and her lords themselves were taken on a journey to the point where they could contemplate her betrayal; she was impulsive, naive and over trusting; she lacked her mother’s ability to know when to push, and when to let go. Her choice of Darnley was a disaster; her playing with a return to Catholicism deeply destabilising, and her swapping of favourites more so. In the end, she was forced to accept rebels back into her council fatally showing her weakness, until almost none of her greater magnates had been consistently loyal. When the end came, most of them had already been there.
None the less it is a tragedy; Mary’s instincts were all about conciliation and the creation of harmony, she had wit, courage, energy and mission. A successful Mary and a long reign would surely have been something to remember.