September 26 – Sir Amias Paulet, gaoler of Mary, Queen of Scots

On this day in Tudor history, 26th September 1588, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, administrator, diplomat and Governor of Jersey, Sir Amias (Amyas) Paulet died. He was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster.

Sir Amias Paulet was also one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ gaolers. While he was in that position, Queen Elizabeth wanted him to abide by the Bond of Association and assassinate Mary. This would relieve Elizbeth of having to sign her death warrant.

But what was the Bond of Association and what did Paulet do?


On this day in Tudor history, 26th September 1588, Sir Amias (Amyas) Paulet, administrator, diplomat, Governor of Jersey and gaoler of Mary, Queen of Scots died. He was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster.

Paulet served Elizabeth I as her resident ambassador in France and a Privy Councillor, and was present at the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. When he was acting as Mary’s gaoler, Elizabeth I had suggested that it would be easier if Paulet quietly murdered her. Let me tell you a bit more about that…

Mary, Queen of Scots had been tried for treason in October 1586, found guilty and condemned to death, but Queen Elizabeth I just could not come to terms with the idea of executing a fellow anointed queen. Mary may have been found guilty of plotting to kill her, but Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to sign her death warrant. Parliament petitioned her, but Elizabeth just kept delaying.

As John Guy points out in his excellent book on Mary, Elizabeth wanted a private citizen to act under the Bond of Association and assassinate Mary, rather than her having to commit regicide.

But what was this Bond of Association?

This bond was drafted by Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil in October 1584 to protect Queen Elizabeth I. It followed the assassination of William of Orange in 1584 and the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and to replace her with Mary.
As “The Encyclopedia of Tudor England” explains, “the first clause of the bond pledged all who signed it to obey the queen’s commands and to stand ready to resist, pursue, and destroy any persons who sought her life.”

Signatories also had to agree that any attempt on Elizabeth’s life would bar that person from the succession. They also had to agree to kill that person by any means available – “to prosecute such person or persons to the death… and to take the uttermost revenge on them… by any possible means… for their utter overthrow and extirpation.” The bond was also interpreted to include “not only those directly involved in murder attempt but also “any that have, may or shall pretend title to come to this crown by the untimely death of her Majesty so wickedly procured.”, and it was also taken to include the heirs of anyone benefitting from the assassination. So, if there was a plot to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, signatories could kill both Mary and her son, King James VI of Scotland.

A sacred oath sealed the bond and every member of Elizabeth’s council signed it, with the exception of William Davison, and the bond was sent out around England and signing ceremonies were devised by local officials. Thousands of people signed it, including funnily enough, Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1585, the Act for the Queen’s Safety was passed by Parliament. It declared that anyone supporting a claimant to the throne who sought to advance his or her claim by the assassination of the queen was guilty of treason and it authorised loyal subjects to pursue and kill both those who had attempted the murder and the claimant on whose behalf they acted. However, it did not empower those loyal subjects to seek out and kill the claimant’s heirs. So, in the case of plots seeking to replace Elizabeth with Mary, only the plotters and Mary would suffer and James VI would be safe unless he was involved in the plot. A special commission would be appointed to investigate the deed and to determine the identity of the guilty parties.

A special commission did indeed investigate the 1586 Babington Plot and the plotters were caught and executed. Mary was, of course, the claimant in question and evidence was provided proving that she had also given her consent and support for the plot. Hence she was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Elizabeth wanted one of her loyal subjects to kill Mary under the terms of the act and bond, after all, her councillors had signed the Bond, they had taken that sacred oath to hunt down and kill someone like Mary. However, her chief advisor, William Cecil, Baron Burghley, wanted Elizabeth to sign the death warrant and to execute Mary like any other traitor. He attempted to scare the queen into action with rumours of threats to her life, and Elizabeth called her secretary William Davison to her, instructing him to bring her Mary’s death warrant. She then signed it. Elizabeth claimed later that she told Davison not to do anything with it, but, of course, it was sent to Fotheringhay and Mary was executed.

Historian John Guy believes that Elizabeth didn’t intend for the warrant to be used and that this is why she also told Davison to get Walsingham to write a letter to Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s gaoler, asking him to do away with Mary without a death warrant. She expected Paulet, as one of the first signatories of the Bond of Association to do what he had pledged to do and to have Mary killed. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Paulet was shocked. He wrote “God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience.” When it came down to it, he just couldn’t do it. Killing a queen, even of the Queen of England wanted it done, was just too big a risk.

Elizabeth sent for Davison again, telling him of how she’d dreamt of Mary’s death. She was making it known that she wanted Mary assassinated.

Guy points out that Elizabeth “had skilfully contrived things so that she would win whatever happened. If Mary was killed under the Bond of Association, Elizabeth could disclaim responsibility. If Cecil covertly sealed the warrant and sent it to Fotheringhay behind her back, she could claim she had been the victim of a court conspiracy.”

The warrant arrived at Fotheringhay on 7th February 1587 and it was Sir Amias Paulet who then set about arranging Mary’s execution. Then Paulet, his assistant Sir Drue Drury, and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent, barged into Mary’s room, Paulet tore down her cloth of state, and then he read out the warrant. She was executed by beheading the following day.

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