Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots 8 February 1587


Today marks the anniversary of the execution of Mary Stuart Queen of Scotland (8 December 1542 – 8 February 1587) known as Mary Queen of Scots.
She was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland. She was 6 days old when her father died and she was crowned nine months later. In 1558, she married Francis, Dauphin of France, who ascended the French throne as Francis II in 1559. Mary was not Queen of France for long; she was widowed on 5 December 1560. Mary then returned to Scotland, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561. Four years later, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Their union was unhappy and in February 1567, there was a huge explosion at their house, and Darnley was found dead, apparently strangled, in the garden.
She soon married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was generally believed to be Darnley's murderer. Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle on 15 June and forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son, James VI. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, Mary fled to England seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England, whose kingdom she hoped to inherit. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth's throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics, including participants in the Rising of the North. Perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her arrested. After 19 years in custody in a number of castles and manor houses in England, she was tried and executed for treason for her alleged involvement in three plots to assassinate Elizabeth. (RE: Babington Plot & The Casket Letters):

NOTE In defense of Elizabeth I because she really is portrayed in such bad light for signing Mary Queen of Scots death warrant, this was not a decision Elizabeth I comes to easily. Here is how it happened:
Although Mary had been found guilty and sentenced to death, Elizabeth hesitated to actually order her execution. She was fearful of the consequences, especially if, in revenge, Mary's son James of Scotland formed an alliance with the Catholic powers, France and Spain, and invaded England. She was also concerned about how this would affect the Divine Right of Kings. Elizabeth did ask Mary's final custodian, Amias Paulet, if he would contrive some accident to remove Mary. He refused on the grounds that he would not allow such "a stain on his posterity."
She did eventually sign the death warrant and entrusted it to William Davison, a privy councillor. Later, the privy council, having been summoned by Lord Burghley without Elizabeth's knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence at once before she could change her mind.

The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

At Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, on 7 February 1587, Mary was told that she was to be executed the next day. She spent the last hours of her life in prayer and also writing letters and her will. She asked that her servants be released and that she be buried in France. The scaffold that was erected in the great hall was three feet tall and draped in black. It was reached by five steps and the only things on it were a disrobing stool, the block, a cushion for her to kneel on, and a bloody butcher's axe that had been previously used on animals. At her execution, on 8 February 1587, the executioners (one of whom was named Bull) knelt before her and asked forgiveness. According to a contemporaneous account by Robert Wynkfield, she replied, "I forgive you with all my heart". The executioners and her two servants helped remove a black outer gown, two petticoats, and her corset to reveal a deep red chemise — the liturgical colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, the profession of which constantly endangered her life in the face of the rise of Protestantism. As she disrobed she smiled faintly to the executioner and said, "Never have I had such assistants to disrobe me, and never have I put off my clothes before such a company." She was then blindfolded and knelt down on the cushion in front of the block. She positioned her head on the block and stretched her arms out behind her. Before she died, Fr. John Laux relates in his Church History that her last words were, "My faith is the ancient Catholic faith. It is for this faith that I give up my life. In Thee I trust, O Lord; into Thy hands I commend my spirit."
In Lady Antonia Fraser's biography, Mary Queen of Scots, the author writes that it took two strikes to decapitate Mary: The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head, at which point the Queen's lips moved. (Her servants reported they thought she had whispered the words "Sweet Jesus.") The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew that the executioner severed by using the axe as a saw. Robert Wynkfield recorded a detailed account of the moments leading up to Mary's execution, also describing that it took two strikes to behead the Queen. Afterward, the executioner held her head aloft and declared, "God save the Queen." At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand came apart and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had had very short, grey hair. The chemise that Mary wore at her execution is displayed at Coughton Court near Alcester in Warwickshire, which was a Catholic household at that time.
It has been suggested that it took three strikes to decapitate Mary instead of two. If so, then Mary would have been executed with the same number of axe strikes as Essex. It has been postulated that said number was part of a ritual devised to protract the suffering of the victim.
There are several stories told about the execution. One already mentioned and thought to be true is that, when the executioner picked up the severed head to show it to those present, it was discovered that Mary was wearing a wig. The headsman was left holding the wig, while the late queen's head rolled on the floor. It was thought that she had tried to disguise the greying of her hair by wearing an auburn wig, the natural colour of her hair before her years of imprisonment began. She was 24 when first imprisoned by Protestants in Scotland, and she was 44 years of age at the time of her execution. Another well-known execution story related in Robert Wynkfield's first-hand account concerns a small dog owned by the queen, which is said to have been hiding among her skirts, unseen by the spectators. As her dress and layers of clothing were so immensely regal, it would have been easy for the tiny pet to have hidden there as she slowly made her way to the scaffold. Following the beheading, the dog refused to be parted from its owner and was covered in blood. It was finally taken away by her ladies-in-waiting and washed.
When the news of the execution reached Elizabeth she was extremely indignant, and her wrath was chiefly directed against Davison, who, she asserted, had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant. The secretary was arrested and thrown into the Tower. He was later released, after paying a heavy fine, but his career was ruined.

In honor of the life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, here are two versions of her last letter written while imprisoned in Forthingay Castle in Scotland, hours before her execution.
One letter is in her own words in her native language French and the transcribed English translation taken from Marie Stuart Society

English Translation
To Henri III, the Most Christian King of France.
8 February 1587.
Monsieur mon beau-frère, estant par la permission de Dieu...

Royal brother, having by God's will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English throne are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and, although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister brought here for that purpose.

The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due to them-this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him.

I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feelings for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instruction, if it please you, that for my soul's sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

Wednesday at two in the morning.

Your most loving and most true sister.

Queen of Scotland

The second version of this letter comes from author Margaret George's novel, 'Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles'. It is her fictionalized scene of Mary's final hours.
I am closing with this version because her novel is the first I read about Mary Queen of Scots and it has remained with me always!

In My End Is My Beginning
England, 1587

In the deepest part of the night, when all the candles save one had been put out and everyone lay quiet, the woman crossed silently to her desk and sat down. She put that one candle at her right hand, and spread out a piece of paper as slowly as possible across the desktop, so as to make no noise. She held its left side down with her hand-a white hand with long, slender fingers, which the French poet Ronsard had once described as “a tree with uneven branches.” The hand looked young, as if it belonged to a virgin of fifteen. From across the room, with only one candle for illumination, the woman’s face looked as young as the hand. But up closer, although the outlines of the beauty were still there, within the frame of the old loveliness there were lines and bumps and sags. The skin no longer stretched taut against the high cheekbones, the long, imperious nose, the almond-shaped eyes. It lay softly against them, tracing and revealing every hollow.
She rubbed her eyes, which were heavy-lidded and had traces of exhaustion under them, with that incongruously slender-fingered, elegantly ringed hand. Sighing, she dipped her pen in ink and began to write.

To Henri III, the Most Christian King of France.
8 February 1587.

Monsieur mon beau frere, estant par la permission de Dieu–
Royal brother, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.
‘Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English throne are the two issues on which I am condemned.
She stopped and stared ahead, as if her mind had suddenly ceased to form words, or she had run out of them. The French language was soothing, lulling. Even terrible things did not sound so heinous in French. Her mind could not, dared not, form them in Scots.
“Ce porteur & sa compaignie la pluspart de vos subiectz . . . “
The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-inlaw and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them-this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian Queen of France, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions.
I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feelings for you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

Wednesday, at two in the morning.

Your most loving and most true sister,
Mary Queen of Scotland



Thank you for stopping by! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog and I enjoy reading your posts. This was very interesting to read. I don't know much about Mary Queen of Scots, but you made me want to learn more about her :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed. And well done. gigigirl

a touch of Grace said...

I think your post on Queen Mary of Scots is wonderful, interesting, and professional...With your permission I used a snippet of your post to increase my info with a "thank you" to you leading back to your blog.
Grace...a new follower;)

Kimberly Eve said...

Welcome to my blog Grace.
Thanks for following,commenting and leaving such kind words.

Thank you and Farewell

This will be my last and final blog post. Due to my work schedule and private life, I sadly must bring this blog to a close. It is no...