The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
Posted By Claire on February 8, 2010
On this day in history, the 8th February 1587, Mary Stuart, also known as Mary Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay Castle without the knowledge of Queen Elizabeth I, although she had signed the death warrant.
Mary Stuart’s death was the result of the Catholic Mary being implicated in plots to overthrow and assassinate Elizabeth I, plots such as the Ridolfi Plot and the Babington Plot. Although the Babington plot had been uncovered in summer 1586 and Mary had been under house arrest for many years, Elizabeth I could not bring herself to sign the death warrant until February 1587 and then she she claimed that she had not wanted it acted upon.
Why the “dilly-dallying” and indecision? After all, you can imagine her father, Henry VIII, taking Mary’s head off after the first plot! Well, it was because Mary was Elizabeth’s own flesh and blood, being the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, but it was also because Mary was a monarch. Elizabeth believed, like many monarchs before her, that Kings and Queens were divinely appointed by God and it was against everything she believed in to take the life of a fellow sovereign.
This was brought home to me by last night’s episode of the BBC TV series “The Seven Ages of Britain” where David Dimbleby looked at The Wilton Diptych (see below), a beautiful painting of King Richard II kneeling before the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.
In this diptych of two painted panels, King Richard II is flanked by St Edmund, St Edward the Confessor and St John the Baptist and is receiving a gift from Christ, the gift of the standard/pennant of England. What you can’t see clearly in the painting below is that the angels are all wearing Richard’s badge or emblem, the white hart, and that the orb set at the top of the standard (above the flag) contains an image of an island with a white castle, the island of England. This diptych shows Richard’s belief in his divine right to rule England, his belief that he was God’s chosen ruler. This was something that Elizabeth believed too and she would have believed that Mary was also divinely appointed by God, hence her dilemma, her inability to make a decision about Mary’s fate.
You can read more about the Babington Plot, Mary’s fall, Elizabeth’s dilemma and Mary’s trial and execution, in:-
Over at The Elizabeth Files.
The Seven Ages of Britain
This wonderful series is on the UK’s BBC One on Sunday nights and you can also catch up with it on BBC iPlayer or buy “The Seven Ages of Britain”, written by David Dimbleby. The first episode was “The Age of Conquest” and looked at Britain, through its art and treasure, from the Roman Invasion up to the Norman Invasion. Last night’s episode, “The Age of Worship” examined Medieval Britain, from the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170 to the death of Richard II in 1400.
Highlights of last night’s epsiode were the Wilton Diptych, the beautifully illuminated Bury Bible, seeing the only surviving medieval crown (the one that belonged to Anne of Bohemia, Richard’s wife) and also the bit when David Dimbleby was in Canterbury Cathedral looking at the candle on the floor which marked the spot where Thomas Becket’s huge and ornate shrine had once stood, before it was destroyed by Henry VIII. Methinks that Henry VIII was responsible for a huge amount of history and art being destroyed!
Upcoming episodes are:-
- Age of Power 1509-1609 – The 100 years between Henry VIII’s accession to the throne and the first performance of William Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” – a must-see episode for Tudor fans!
- Age of Revolution 1603-1708 – Civil War, a reinvented monarchy and scientific revolution.
- Age of Money 1700-1805 – Commerce, the emergence of the middle class and a golden age of painting.
- Age of Empire 1770-1911 – Exploration (Captain Cook and William Penn), the British Empire, India and the Victorian African campaigns.
- Age of Ambition 1914-Now – The First World War, a change in values, democratisation of culture and art becoming a form of self-expression.
17 thoughts on “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots”
It’s unfortunate that Mary Queen of Scots was executed because she was such a threat to Elizabeth’s throne, and ironic that in the end it was Mary’s son, James, who would succeed Elizabeth. I have always felts a connection to Mary Queen of Scots, as my family are descendants of the Royal Stuart Clan. To be imprisoned for 19 years, not knowing what was going to happen till the end…poor Mary. I believe that there is a death mask of her somewhere, and I remember her looking quite pretty and serene.
I hope the special you mentioned shows on BBC America!
Senna,The movie Mary Queen Of Scots is on Dish Channel 345 at 2:30 in the states a great movie,great actresses very factual. Hope you can see this movie. THX Baroness.
Iv seen the death mask what intrigues me is she looks nothing like her portraits, the death mask appears to belong to that of a woman with an oval face short nose wide mouth , yet in the paintings she’s seen as having a long nose with a bump and a small pursed mouth with a long chin, the death mask is of a very attractive woman, if that was indeed Mary I can understand why she was always described as beautiful.
You can see photos of her death mask at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/edinburgh_and_east/5236154.stm and, yes, she does look rather serene.
Hi Claire and all AB friends,if you have the time today 2:30 In the states on Dish channel 345 Mary Queen of Scots in going to be on this afternoon,this is a great movie,also very factual aswell.Claire if you watch this movie you won’t have to sream at the telly or pull out your hair. I really recommend that is well worth watching. THX Barones x
Elizabeth grow up pretty much without a loving family.
She went from one step mother to another.
I thing she value the meaning of family because of it.
And Mary Queen of Scots was family..
When I first become interested in Tudor history Mary was one of my favourite characters.She still is along with Anne Boleyn.
Mary had been imprisioned and put under house arrest in several places in England and Scotland.Firstly she had been imprisioned in her native country for conspiring to have her husband Henry Stuart,Lord Darnley killed.Though it had been her current lover at the time James Hepburn,Earl of Bothwell who had murdered her husband she had been implicated in the plot somehow.Accordin to sources Mary had made an excuse that evening and said that she had be somewhere and that is when the dreadful incident took place.Bothwell and a man servant went to Holyrood house and once there killed Darnley and his servant by strangulation,dragged the bodies out into the yard and then poured gunpowder in the interior of the house and struck a match then the whole house went ablaze and up in flames.
Mary Stuart was then arrested along with Bothwell and his accomplice,then put on trial and then imprisioned.There had been letters found in a casket that implicated Mary in the murder of own husband.These letters where shown to the jury at the trial.As a result Mary had to abdicate her throne and leave it to her son James.The scottish people did not like Bothwell,it was probably due to the fact of what they had heard and knew about Darnley being murdered.
Mary had escaped imprisionment whilst Bothwell stayed locked up until his death,there it is said he wnet mad.Mary on the other hand had took the boat to flee to England on Queen Elizabeth’s mercy.Once there she made several attempts with other nobles,men and masters to plot against Elizabeth.Upon hearing and being informed of her plotted attempts she was taken to Fotheringhay castle where she would stay for eighteen years.Her plots included The Ridolfi plot.The Throckmorton Plot and The Babbington plot.It was Queen Elizabeth of Englands private secretary and spy master Francis Walsingham that exposed the plots against Queen and crown.
When it came time for Mary’s death warrant to be signed Elizabeth would not sign and would keep pending on the matter as she was one to take a long time to make up her mind.It was her minister who urged her to sign and seal the warrant and after constant pressurisation she still would not sign.So her minister signed the document without her knowledge.When she heard of this she was not happy but aggreed that in the end it was the right thing to do.I can truthally say that if this had been her father he would have signed an executionee’s death warrant with haste but I suppose Elizabeth had been different in that retrospect when it came to executions.I am presuming that because Mary had been a distant relative and a queen in her own right she dealt with the situation differently.Also she was probably thinking of the succession line to the throne,future refference.I also think that Elizabeth took her time and a long time to make up her mind on other things aswell as executions.She probably found it hard to decide upon things and make decisions for herself so she had the other people arround her to do so for her like any monarch would have had.This was probably part of her own distinctive nature.
From what I understand, it was seriously taboo for royals to outright kill each other unless in battle. The reason being was Divine Right or the anointing by God of Kings and Queens through coronation. God had hand chosen a particular person to be a royal thereby making them sacred which of course was symbolized by the religious coronation of the Queen or King. So when Elizabeth I was faced with the decision to execute another anointed by GOD through coronation Queen was she not only sinning against God with the very serious possibility of retribution by God but also could she, too, be executed by another King or Queen for what they deemed a transgression? She was setting precedence.
Elizabeth signing the death warrant then trying to claim she didn’t expect them to act on it, seriously, are you kidding me. I thought Elizabeth was smarter than that. If it had been carried out without her knowledge I’m sure Elizabeth would have had those responsible executed too. Shame on her.
Just like her father, she refused to take responsibility for killing a Queen.
Poor Anne Boleyn. It was probably a blessing that she wasn’t around to see how her daughter turned out.
I’m not sympathetic to Mary, myself, but the discussions here and on The Elizabeth Files made me go looking for images, and I found this book, “Notes on the authentic portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, based on the researches of the late Sir George Scharf; (1903)”, that can be read online here:
There are lots of portraits, engravings, and prints of Mary, a lot of which I’d never seen before. It also includes primary accounts of her trial and execution. I was able to download a 255 page PDF file at this link:
Hope that works for anyone who wants to see it!
I also found another picture of her death mask from a more flattering (and serene) angle here:
Thanks for those links, I can get the first two to work but not the second one, however, if it’s the same book as the first then you can download a full PDF at http://www.archive.org/download/notesonauthentic00custuoft/notesonauthentic00custuoft.pdf. Think that’s the right one!
Thanks, Claire. The link you provided does indeed go to the same place!
That death mask was a bit of an eye-opener… – And as grotesque as I sound, wouldn’t it be astounding if Elizabeth or Anne had something similar? Then we would know for sure how beautiful, (or indeed ugly) they were!
Are there any other death masks? Wasn’t this a tradition of the time?
She left behind many children whom also inherited her diseases too. Varicose veins. Blue blood is no fun. The medical condition is a ugly curse to live with especially when it strikes in your 20s.
I am also a descendent of Queen Mary of Scotland. We come in at the Roy Stuart line and my Great-Grandmother was a Stuart. My mother who is in her 90’s says that we were actually related to Princess Diana as well I am not sure of all the details. I do know that there is a Stuart graveyard in either Virgina or West Virgina
What happened to all of the medieval crowns?