Historical background

Mary Queen of Scots completed her last letter at 2am on Wednesday 8 February 1587. Six hours later she was to mount the scaffold at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. The letter is addressed to Henri III, King of France. He was the younger brother of her first husband, Francois (Francis) II, who had died of an ear infection in 1560 at the age of 16.

Reign and abdication

Mary's short reign in Scotland, from 1561 to 1567, was at first characterised by stable policy and government. This was in spite of clashes with the Protestant reformer John Knox over Mary's right to worship according to her Catholic beliefs. But her emotional involvements with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and later with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, led to the breakdown of this stability. They brought about the rebellion of the Protestant lords, and Mary's abdication and flight into England.

England's throne

Elizabeth, the English Queen, was faced with a dilemma. Instinctively she wanted to protect her cousin Mary against the Scottish reformers, seeing their action as striking at the roots of all monarchy. On the other hand Mary, dowager Queen of France, and Queen of Scots, was also heiress to the English throne.

In fact, to Catholics throughout Europe, Mary was rightful Queen of England, since Elizabeth herself was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. To maintain her own position as head of the English state, Elizabeth could not afford to allow Mary to remain at liberty.

Catholic hopes

Throughout the 18 years of her imprisonment, Mary symbolised the aspirations of the English Catholics hoping for the restoration of their country to Catholicism. In addition, the rival Catholic Kings of France and Spain each hoped to bring England within his own sphere of political and diplomatic influence by placing Mary on the English throne.

Plots and threats

Directly or indirectly, Mary was involved in plots against the English Queen, in plans for Catholic risings in England, and in diplomatic intrigues on the continent. The Ridolfi plot (1571), the Throckmorton plot (1583), and the Babington conspiracy (1586) all involved the threat of foreign invasion. The English government was persuaded that, to ensure the political stability of England, Mary could not be allowed to live.

Mary's end

Although disturbed at the thought of executing her cousin, a monarch in her own right, eventually Elizabeth agreed.

The English government insisted that the death of Mary was purely a political matter. However, as she conveys in her last letter, Mary herself believed she was dying a religious martyr.

But what concerned her equally when she wrote to the King of France, with whom she had corresponded regularly while in captivity, was the well-being of her household servants after her execution. In effect, few of these servants returned to their native lands of France and Scotland.

Letter reaches France

Not until late in 1587 was Bourgoing, Mary's physician, able to make his way to France and give his report to Henri III, presumably delivering this letter at the same time. It was, however, left to Philip II of Spain to authorise, through his ambassador Bernardino Mendoza, the payment of wages and pensions to Mary's servants.

The letter itself no doubt remained in the French royal archives. Later, at some unknown date, it was given to the Scots College in Paris, a Catholic seminary for Scottish priests, probably as a relic of the martyred Queen. There it remained until the French Revolution, when the College was dissolved, and its archives dispersed.

Presented to Scotland

Mary's letter then passed through the hands of various owners, and eventually became part of the celebrated collection of autographs formed by the great 19th-century collector Alfred Morrison.

In 1918 the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots was bought by a group of subscribers and presented to the Scottish nation through the National Art Collections Fund. It was held by the Advocates Library, until 1925, when the National Library of Scotland was created.