The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary of Scotland had been Queen of France for a year. She also had a valid claim tp the English Crown, now worn by her cousin Elizabeth I. She was accused of treason and beheaded by Elizabeth,  who then left the English crown to Mary’s son James, who was James VI of Scotland, but James I of England.  He was King James of Bible fame. It is a great story.  

A Death:

Shrewsbury: ” … Madam you must die, you must die!…”

The executioner held up the severed head of the Queen of Scots for all to see — but horror as the hair separated from the head, and the head dropped to the floor. There was a stunned silence from the spectators — the Queen, once considered the most beautiful woman of her time, had lost her hair and vanity dictated the wearing of a wig.

The Dean of Peterborough stood over the corpse of the dead Queen and uttered the words all longed to hear: “So perish all the Queen’s enemies”.

The body of the dead Queen was stripped, in readiness to be received by the embalmers — but the dead Queen’s corpse held yet another surprise. Concealed within her skirts was a small terrier, which positioned itself betwixt the severed head and the body, and nothing could move it. It alone remained loyal to the Queen.

But the indignity of the execution of the Queen of Scots was not over. The execution block, her clothing and any other object which could be considered a relic was burned at Fotheringhay, which was in lock down.

It was not until approximately four in the afternoon that the Queen of Scots’ body was prepared for burial — but not the burial one would associate with a monarch. No — the Queen’s lead coffin was walled up within the precincts of Fotheringhay Castle. It was not until her son succeeded as James I of England, that the Queen was accorded a suitable and more Christian burial at Westminster Abbey.

A Life:

Mary was born 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow, Scotland, the daughter of James V of Scotland (d. 1542) and Mary of Guise (d. 1560). From the day of her birth, Mary was betrothed to the future Edward VI of England — the vetoing of this marriage led to war with England.

In the ensuing conflict, the Scots were defeated at Pinkie (10 September 1547) by forces of the Duke of Somerset. A French alliance was decided upon. Mary was sent to the French court aged 5 (1548), where she received a Catholic upbringing under her Guise uncles. Mary married the Dauphin Francis at Paris, France (24 April 1558). Her husband succeeded to the French throne as King Francis II (1559).

Mary became Queen of France but shortly after, Francis died (1560/1561). Mary was returned to Scotland (1561), and upon her arrival promptly proclaimed herself rightful Queen of England as the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor.

However, during her absence, things had changed in Scotland, and Mary had to adapt to the anti-monarchical, anti-Catholic, anti-French elements that now dominated Scotland. Then Mary embarked upon an ill-considered marriage to her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (29 July 1565) at Edinburgh, Scotland. Mary soon gave birth to a son, James VI (of Scotland) & I (of England) (1566).

The following year Mary was caught up in the scandal surrounding the murders of her Secretary David Riccio and her husband, Darnley (1567). From then on, Mary made mistake upon mistake. Soon after both deaths, Mary made a scandalous third marriage to James Hepburn, 4th Earl Bothwell (1567), who just happened to have been recently acquitted of Darnley’s murder. Mary claimed that this marriage was made under duress — but none were convinced. There was an immediate uprising of Scottish lords which resulted in military defeat for Mary at Carberry Hill and Langside (1568).

Mary fled Scotland for England and threw herself on the mercy of Elizabeth I, who kept her imprisoned in various strongholds. Following numerous intrigues to rescue her and place her on the throne of England, Mary was placed on trial (Oct. 1586). She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death (25 October 1586).

After delaying for as long as possible, Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary’s death warrant (1 February 1587) and Mary was executed at Fotheringhay (8 February 1587).

A Question of Legality:

Was the execution of a monarch of one country by a monarch of another lawful?

Mary was initially brought to trial under the English Act of Association (1585) — which in the eyes of the English made Mary just as guilty as those who conspired against the Queen of England, either with or without her knowledge. Guilt by association — a phrase I am sure we have all heard of.

Mary herself said: ” … as Queen and Sovereign, I am aware of no fault or offence for which I have to render account to anyone …”

In fact, just how was it legal for a Queen of a foreign country to be tried for treason by a Queen whose subject she was not; in fact, how could one then execute this foreign sovereign?

The sovereignty of any monarch, at this period in time, was taken with all solemnity. Elizabeth I herself was fully aware of the implications — if Mary could be treated and punished like an ordinary subject, then what could Elizabeth herself expect should she venture beyond the English Channel? In fact, Mary could only be judged by her peers — and to this end, only Elizabeth filled this position — not the privy councilors or nobility.

The English jurists pondered over this question — if Mary committed treason, she should have been expelled from English soil. But in the end, the legal minds of England came up with a suitable solution. King Henry VIII claimed suzerainty over Scotland; thus, Mary was a subject of the English Queen and could be tried (and executed) for treason under English law.

As author Antonia Fraser wrote: “In the case of the trial of Mary Queen of Scots the traditional blindfold across the eyes of Justice was ruthlessly torn aside by English commissioners so that the desired verdict might be reached.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s