The EXECUTION of Mary, Queen of Scots

Janet Kennedy blindfolding Mary, Queen of Scots. Painted by Abel de Pujol. 19th century.
Janet Kennedy blindfolding Mary, Queen of Scots. Painted by Abel de Pujol. 19th century.

Mary Queen of Scots was executed on the eighth of February at Fortheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Mary had been found guilty of the famous “Casket Letters” in which she allegedly conspired to kill her royal cousin, Elizabeth, thus committing regicide. She was also guilty in the eyes of many of killing her second husband and cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. However it is important to note that her mother in law who initially believed she was guilty, no longer did and before her death, nine years before Mary’s execution, she wrote to Elizabeth and Cecil asking for clemency. Margaret Douglas was buried with royal honors, as a Princess. One of the last jewels she commissioned featured her grandson (Mary’s son) with his hands raised out to the sun and two crowns being placed on him which symbolized the crown of Scotland which he already had after his mother had been forced to abdicate on July 1567, and the other was of England, which he would eventually inherit after Elizabeth’s death.

MQS pink young

“This was the last captive princess of romance, the dowager queen of France, the exiled queen of Scotland, the heir to the English throne and (there must have been some among the silent witnesses who thought so), at this very moment, if she had her rights, England’s lawful queen. This was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. For a moment she held all their eyes, then she sank back into the darkness of her chair and turned her grave inattention to her judges, She was satisfied that her audience would look at no one else.” (Mattingly)

There have been many movies and historical fiction about Mary, but none have come any closer to understanding the real Queen of Scots. Mary was a very tragic figure, born in a turbulent time when the wars of religion were starting to tear her country apart, she was orphaned when she was less than two months old and crowned less than a year later with many Regents, including her mother. Marie de Guise was from the prominent de Guise family who many saw as “upstarts” and eyed with suspicion. At one point they conspired to marry their widowed daughter to the King of England who showed a strong interest in her. Mary’s mother had given birth to two healthy baby boys, and that was enough to attract the King of England, her uncle. But the King of France wisely chose to stall their ambitions and instead turn them to another suitor. The King of Scots. Scotland is seen as a backwards country in contrast to the greater countries of England, France and Spain but this can’t be further from the truth. Under the last three Stewarts, Scotland prospered greatly and became a center of culture, architectural greatness and a beacon of patronage for intellectuals. Mary’s parents always traveled the countryside. James V like his ancestors, made sure that the people knew him and had personal contact with him. This was a great contrast to the Kings of England who would normally processed and greet their people on important occasions and then go back to their usual routines. Mary, being her father’s daughter, followed the same protocol, but she was less successful. By the time that Mary returned to Scotland, shortly after Francois II’s death, she returned to a different country. The political and religious landscape had changed. Scotland had been overtaken by new religious and radical thinkers who advocated for a separate church, and national unity, forsaking Scottish identity in favor of an English one. Although Elizabeth and her councilors are credited to using religion to create dissent in Mary’s kingdom; she was not the first one. Henry VIII was the first one to pursue this policy, so did his son under the Protectorate of his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Then his sister ascended the throne and although she was Catholic, she still used religion as a way to undermine Mary’s mother’s regency and coax many of the country’s Catholics, including those that were undecided to rebel against Marie de Guise’ rule. When Elizabeth I came to the throne, the work had been half-done for her, she was just there to finish what the others started.

Mary and Darnley’s marriage was disastrous and although she had reasons to get rid of him, so did others whom he had angered with his brash behavior. Both she and Danrley were descendants of Henry VII through their eldest daughter, Margaret Tudor, Queen Dowager of Scotland. Mary descended from her first marriage to James IV of Scotland and Darnley through her second to the Earl of Angus. The only saving grace was their son, James VI who was born in June 1566. Her decision to marry her captor, the Earl of Borthwell has puzzled historians for centuries. Some have used it as proof that she was incapable of ruling, and that she thought of herself a woman more than she did a Queen. This mirrors closely the film that was done about her where she was played by Vanessa Redgrave, which portrayed her as exactly that –as a vulnerable and indecisive individual. And yet, these historians and producers ignore the many other tragic events in her life that led her to make such a decision. In an age where female virtue was everything, Queens could not afford to admit they had been raped. If they had, this could be used against them by their enemies who would use it to discredit them. Unfortunately for Mary, it soon became common knowledge. Everyone had spread the word that when she sought to escape, Bothwell had routed her and with an army bigger than her own, she had limited choices. She could defy him and she and her women would die, or likely be raped, or she could agree to his terms.

MQS Black

“Bothwell’s views on female rulers were, like those of some of his fellow nobles, much closer in private to the bigoted public utterances of John Knox. Bothwell’s rape of Mary proved her weakness and her agreement to marry him, as many Scottish and Northern English heiresses who had been similarly kidnapped and raped could attest, was inevitable … His marriage to Mary took place according to Protestant rites in a muted and brief ceremony in Holyrood House, conducted by the bishop of Orkney on 15 May … the French ambassador du Croc noted her deep depression.” (Porter)

Given how many of her friends described their marriage, it was likely that he had taken her by force first and ashamed of her condition, she was forced to wed him. Not long after she also found that she was pregnant. Had she not done this, she would have been worse treated by a society where already condemned her for being a female monarch. Mary eventually escaped and won some victories but decided to go back to England, naively thinking that her royal cousin would help her regain her throne. That decision sealed her fate and the rest as they say is history.

On Wednesday morning, on the eighth of February, Mary walked out from her small chambers to the private Hall.

“Elizabeth had instructed that Mary die in the privacy of the hall …. But Elizabeth ordered that the Queen of Scots be denied her request for her servants to accompany her.” (Lisle)

Elizabeth did not want to make a martyr out of her royal cousin. She had been reluctant to sign her death warrant; she did not want others to talk about her death and make her out to look like a victim because that would have made her feel guiltier. Yet Mary was not going to give her fellow monarch that satisfaction. She chose to wear as (ironically) Elizabeth’s mother had done for her execution, a red petticoat which symbolized martyrdom. “Far meaner persons than myself have not been denied so small a favor” she told the Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury before they led her to the Hall.

Samantha Morton as Mary, Queen of Scots in Elizabeth the Golden Age.
Samantha Morton as Mary, Queen of Scots in Elizabeth the Golden Age.

Her last words after she was blindfolded were: “In te Domine confide, nonconfundar in aeternum” (In you Lord is my trust, let me never be confounded). The executioners were largely inexperienced and also crude, and roughly pushed her head against the block and then the Earl of Shrewsbury gave the signal. In the words of her physician, they “butchered her like those with which they cut wood”. Thus ended the life of the Queen of Scots, as tragically as when it began.

Sources:

  • Tudors vs Stewars: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • On this Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
  • The True Life of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scots by John Guy
  • Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser
  • Tudor. Passion. Murder. Manipulation by Leanda de Lisle
  • Armada by Garrett Mattingly
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