1587 - Mary Queen of Scots beheaded

Mary's Execution

Despite the attempts of her supporters to seize power in Scotland and to help her, Mary remained a prisoner in England and a focus for Catholic plots against Elizabeth. The last straw came in 1586, when she was found to have given her consent to the Babington Plot - a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and to rescue Mary and place her on the English throne. Elizabeth's spy-master Walsingham had set up everything so that Mary in effect signed her own death warrant when she replied to the plotters, approving of their scheme. She was tried and executed at Fotheringay castle on the morning of 8 February 1587. Here is a contemporary English account of her death.

A report of the manner of execution of the Scottish Queen performed the eighth day of February anno 1586 [1587 by modern dating] in the great hall within the castle of Fotheringham with relation of speeches uttered and actions happening in the said execution from the delivery of the said Scottish Queen unto Mr Thomas Andrewes, Esq., Sheriff of the country of Northampton unto the end of the same execution.

First, the said Scottish Queen, being carried by two of Sir Amias Pawlett's gentlemen and the Sheriff going before her, came most willingly out of her chamber into an entry next the hall; at which place the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Earl of Kent, commissioners for the execution, with the two governors of her person and divers knights and gentlemen, did meet her; where they found one of the Scottish Queen's servants, named Melvin, kneeling on his knees; who uttered these words with tears to the Queen of Scots, his mistress, 'Madam, it will be the sorrowfullest message that ever I carried when I shall report that my Queen and dear mistress is dead.' Then the Queen of Scots shedding tears, answered him, 'You ought to rejoice and not to weep for that the end of Mary Stuart's troubles is now done. Thou knowest, Melvin, that all this world is but vanity and full of troubles and sorrows. Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end. And He that is the true Judge of all secret thoughts knoweth my mind, how it hath ever been my desire to have Scotland and England united together. And commend me to my son, and tell him that I have not done any thing that may prejudice his kingdom of Scotland. And so, good Melvin, farewell.' And kissing him she bade him pray for her.

Then she turned her unto the Lords and told them that she had certain requests to make unto them. One was for a sum of money (which she said Sir Amias Pawlett knew of) to be paid to one Curle, her servant. Next, that all her poor servants might enjoy that quietly which by her will and testament she had given unto them. And lastly, that they might be all well entreated and sent home safely and honestly into their own country. 'And this I do conjure you, my Lords, to do.' Answer was made by Sir Amias Pawlett. 'I do well remember the money your grace speaketh of, and your grace needeth not to make any doubt of the not performance of your request, for I do surely think they shall be granted.' 'I have (said she) one other request to make unto you, my Lords, that you will suffer my poor servants to be present about me at my death, that they may report when they come into their countries how I died a true woman unto my religion.' Then the Earl of Kent, one of the commissioners, answered, 'Madam, that cannot well be granted, for that it is feared lest some of them would with speeches both trouble and grieve your grace and disquiet the company; of which already we have had some experience, or seek to wipe their napkins in some of your blood, which were not convenient.'

'My Lord (said the Queens of Scots), I will give my word and promise for them that they shall not do any such thing as your Lordship hath named. Alas, poor souls, it would do them good to bid me farewell, and I hope your mistress, being a maiden Queen, in regard of womanhood will suffer me to have some of my own people about me at my death; and I know she hath not given you so straight a commission but that you may grant me more than this if I were a far meaner woman than I am.' And then feigning to be grieved, with some tears uttered these words: 'You know that I am cousin to your Queen and descended from the blood of Henry the viith., a married Queen of France and the anointed Queen of Scotland.' Whereupon after some consultation they granted that she might have some of her servants according to her grace's request, and therefore desired her to make choice of half a dozen of her men and women. Who presently said that of her men she would have Melvin, her apothecary, her surgeon, and one other old man besides; and of her women those two that did use to lie in her chamber. After this she, being supported by Sir Amias's two gentlemen aforesaid and Melvin, carrying her train, and also accompanied with Lords, knights, and gentlemen aforenamed, the Sheriff going before her, she passed out of the entry into the hall with her countenance careless, importing therby rather mirth than mournfull chere, and so she willingly stepped up to the scaffold which was prepared for her in the hall, being two foot high and twelve foot broad with rails round about, hanged and covered with black, with a low stool, long cushion and block, covered with black also. Then having the stool brought her, she sat down, by her, on her right hand the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Earl of Kent, and on the left hand stood the Sheriff, before her the two executioners; round the rails stood knights, gentlemen, and others.

Then silence being made the Queen's Majestie's commission for the execution of the said Queen of Scots was opened by Mr Beal, clerk of the council, and these words pronounced by the assembly, 'God save the Queen', during the reading of which commission the Queen of Scots was silent, listening unto it with as small regard as if it had not concerned her at all; and with as cheerfull countenance as if it had been a pardon from her majesty for her life; using as much strangeness in word and deed as if she had never known any of the assembly or had been ignorant of the English language.

Then Mr Doctor Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough, standing directly before her without the rails, bending his body with great reverence, began to utter this exhortation following: 'Madam, the Queen's most excellent Majesty', etc; and uttering these words three or four times she told him, 'Mr Dean, I am settled in the ancient Catholic Roman religion, and mind to spend my blood in defence of it.'

Then Mr Dean sayd, 'Madam, change your opinion and repent you of your former wickedness, and set your faith only in Jesus Christ, by Him to be saved.'

The she answered again, 'Mr Dean, trouble not yourself any more, for I am settled and resolved in this my religion, and am purposed herein to die.'

Then the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Earl of Kent, perceiving her so obstinate, told her that since she would not hear the exhortation begun by Mr Dean, 'We will pray for your grace that if it standeth with God's will you may have your heart lightened even at the last hour with the true knowledge of God, and so die therein.'

Then she answered, 'If ye will pray for me, my Lords, I will thank you, but to join in prayer with you I will not, for that you and I are not of one religion'.

Then the Lords called for Mr Dean, who kneeling on the scaffold stairs began his prayer, 'O most gracious God and merciful Father', etc., all the assembly, saving the Queen of Scots and her servants, saying after him: during the saying of which prayer the Queen of Scots, sitting upon a stool, having about her neck an Agnus Dei, in her hand a crucifix, at her girdle a pair of Beads with a golden Cross at the end of them, a Latin book in her hand, began with tears and loud voice to pray in Latin, and in the midst of her prayers she slided off from the stool and kneeling said divers Latin prayers. And after the end of Mr Dean's prayer she kneeling prayed to this effect in English; for Christ, His afflicted Church, and for an end of their troubles, for her son and for the Queen's Majesty, that she might prosper and serve God aright. She confessed that she hoped to be saved by and in the blood of Christ, at the foot of whose crucifix she would shed her blood. Then said the Earl of Kent, 'Madam settle Christ Jesus in your heart and leave those trumperies.' Then she, little regarding or nothing at all his honor's good counsel, went forward with her prayers; desiring that God would avert His wrath from this Island, and that He would give her grace and forgiveness of her sins. These with other prayers she made in English, saying she forgave her enemies with all her heart that had long sought her blood, and desired God to convert them to the truth; and in the end of prayer she desired all Saints to make intercession for her to Jesus Christ, and so kissed the crucifix, and crossing of herself, said these words, 'Even as Thy arms, O Jesus, were spread here upon the cross, so receive me into Thy arms of mercy and forgive me all my sins.'

Her prayer ended, the executioners kneeling desired her grace to forgive them her death. Who answered, 'I forgive you with all my heart, for now I hope you shall make an end of all my troubles.' Then they with her two women helping of her up, began to disrobe her of her apparell. Then she laying her Crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she laying hands of it gave it to one of her women and told the executioner that they should be answered in money for it. Then she suffered them with her two women to disrobe her of her apparell, of her chain, of her pomander beads, and all other her apparell most willingly; and with joy rather than with sorrow helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.

All this while they were pulling off her apparell she never changed her countenance, but with smiling chere she uttered these words that she had never such grooms to make her unready, and she never put off her clothes before such a company.

Then she being stripped of all her apparell saving her petticoat and kertell her two women beholding her made great lamentation and crying and crossed themselves prayed in Latin. Then she turning herself to them embracing them, said these words in French, 'Ne criez vous, j'ay promis pour vous'; and so crossing and kissing them, bade them pray for her, and rejoice and not mourn, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress's troubles.

Then she with a smiling countenance, turning to her men-servants, as Melvin and the rest standing upon a bench nigh the scaffold, who sometimes weeping, sometimes crying out, and loudly and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, crossing them with her hand, bade them farewell, and wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.

This done one of her women, having a Corpus Christi cloth lapt up the corner ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scot's face and pinned it fast to the caul of her head. Then the two women departed from her, and she kneeling down upon a cushion most resolutely and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this Psalm in Latin, 'In te Domine confido, non confundat in eternum' [the ending of the Te Deum, 'I trust in thee Lord, I shall never be counfounded'], etc. Then groping for the block she laid down her head, putting her chin on the block with both her hands, which holding there still had been cut off had they been not espied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretched out her arms and legs, cryed, 'In manus tuas, Domine', etc., three or four times.

Then she lying very still on the block, one of the executioners holding of her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay; and so the executioners cut off her head saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder he lifted up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen. Then her dressing of lawn falling off from her head it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, and polled very short, her face in a moment being so much altered from the form she had when she was alive as few could remember her by her dead face. Her lips stirred up and down almost a quarter of an hour after her head was cutt off. Then Mr Dean said with a loud voice, 'So perish all the Queen's enemies', and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it with a loud voice said, 'Such be the end of all the Queen's and the Gospel's enemies.'

Then one of the executioners pulling off her garters espied her little dog, which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force. It afterwards would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and laid between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were, that had any blood, was either burned or clean washed, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees; not having any one thing that belonged unto her. And so every man being commanded out of the hall except the Sheriff and his men she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.

Hon. Mrs Maxwell Scott, The Tragedy of Fotheringay, Edinburgh, 1905.

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