February 1st 1587
Elizabeth I signed the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots
With a heavy heart Elizabeth I signed the death warrant of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, on February 1st 1587. After the Babington Plot to assassinate her, in which Mary was implicated, Elizabeth had little choice. However, as she is reported to have said to the French Ambassador, she signed it with tears in her eyes. She even asked Mary’s final gaoler, Paulet, to see if he could arrange for her guards to kill her quietly. However he refused by saying he would not make a “Shipwreck of my conscience.” Although Mary was undoubtedly a threat to her as heir to the throne (Her great grandfather was Henry VII) Elizabeth was worried that she was setting a dangerous precedent by condemning a rightful monarch to death. She was also concerned that the Scots under Mary’s son, James VI and the Catholic Spanish might attack. Indeed Mary wrote a letter to Elizabeth saying “My blood and the misery of my country will be remembered.” She signed it “Your sister and cousin, wrongfully a prisoner”
Mary had been put on trial for treason after letters smuggled out of Chartley, where she was staying, were deciphered by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Thomas Walsingham. Mary was taken to Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire for her trial, found guilty and sentenced to death. After Elizabeth had signed the warrant on the 1st February, William Cecil, her chief advisor and Secretary of State, convened a meeting of the Privy council on the 3rd February attended by 10 members, without her knowledge. They ordered that the execution be carried out as soon as possible. They saw the danger Mary posed as heir to the throne from the Catholics.
Thus on 8th February 1589 Mary wearing a velvet petticoat and a pair of sleeves in crimson-brown, the colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, with a black satin bodice and black trimmings walked up the two or three steps to the platform. There was a block and a cushion for her to kneel on. Unfortunately the executioner was not the most skilled. The first blow of the axe missed her neck and hit the back of her head. The second blow severed the neck except for a piece of gristle which left the head dangling. The executioner sawed through this with his axe. He then lifted the head in the air with the words; “God save the Queen.” At this point the head fell to the floor and bounced as the axeman was left holding Mary’s wig. It is also said that her Skye terrier dog was hidden under her clothes during the execution and refused to leave the body. Eventually, covered in blood, the dog was removed and taken away to be washed.
Thus ended the tragic life of Mary. Born on December 8th 1542 she became Queen just six days later when her father James IV died. After marrying the Dauphin of France, Francis, she became Queen consort in 1559 but he then died the following year. Her second husband, Lord Darnley was murdered in his garden after an explosion at his house and after her marriage to her third and final husband, the Earl of Bothwell, the Scots rebelled and she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate her throne in favour of her son, James VI (and later James I of England). After escaping to England she asked for protection from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, but was put under house arrest for over eighteen years until her execution in 1587.
Elizabeth’s worries about causing Spanish ire was correct and the following year a mighty Armada was launched against England. This was probably going to happen anyway but Mary’s execution did not help the peace. The outcome of that however is for another time.