A little after ten o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 18 February 1587, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, entered the great hall of Fotheringay, preceded by the Sheriff, bearing the white wand of his office, and escorted by the Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury. Her retinue of six followed behind. She had already kept her audience waiting for three hours as she made her prayers, read her will aloud to her servants, gave them final instructions, and finished last letters to be smuggled with her “principal notes and papers” to her cousin the Duc de Guise and to Henri of France. “I must die like a criminal at seven in the morning,” she wrote, but even on the day of her execution none had dared to hurry the preparations of a queen, until at last soldiers were ordered to break down the door to her quarters if she delayed any longer. Over two hundred knights and gentlemen were present, hastily summoned to witness her end. Some had ridden all night; their boots were mud-splashed and the smell of damp wool from their rain-soaked cloaks hung in the air, for the logs blazing in the great stone hearth did little to lessen the chill of a bitter winter’s day. A much larger crowd had gathered outside the castle, some holding placards depicting Mary as a mermaid—the symbol of a prostitute. They were watched over by a troop of cavalry, and musicians assembled in the courtyard played a dirge, “an air commonly played at the execution of witches.”
The crowd stirred, men jostling and craning their necks to see the most notorious woman in Europe, tall, beautiful and sexually voracious, but also a constant treacherous conspirator against their own queen and, if rumour were true, a murderess twice over. Many must have been disappointed; there was no hint of such scandals in the modest demeanour of the woman in front of them that cold morning. Mary’s gait was slow and measured, and her eyes downcast “like a devout woman going to her prayers.” A chain of scented beads with a golden cross hung around her neck, she had a rosary at her waist, and she carried an ivory crucifix in her hand. Age had dimmed her beauty but her eyes, in a face almost as pale as the white lace at her throat, remained clear and keen. The auburn hair showing beneath her kerchief was the only flash of colour in the room. She was clad from head to foot in black velvet, echoing the drapes on the dais in front of her. Hurriedly constructed after the arrival of the death warrant signed by Queen Elizabeth on Sunday evening, the platform was twenty feet by twelve and little more than three feet high, topped by a rail like a picket fence, low enough to allow the spectators an uninterrupted view. It was a modest stage for the last act of a drama that had been played out for almost thirty years.
The murmur of voices died away and a silence fell on the room as Mary mounted the steps of the platform and walked slowly towards the single high-backed, black-draped chair at the far end. In front of it was a kneeling cushion and then the scalloped shape of the executioner’s block, both also draped in black serge. As she sank into the chair, Mary raised her eyes, dark as the velvet she wore, and surveyed her audience. The firelight reflected from the breastplates and helmets of the row of guards facing her, sheriff’s men, each holding a halberd in his right hand. Her expression betrayed no emotion as her gaze moved from them to two powerfully built, masked and black-clad figures, one of them resting his hands on the haft of his double-headed axe, “like those with which they cut wood.” Robert Beale, the Clerk to the Privy Council and brother-in-law to the principal Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, unrolled the parchment bearing the Queen’s seal and began to read from it. The warrant cited Mary’s “stubborn disobedience and incitement to insurrection against the life and person of Her Sacred Majesty.” The crime was high treason and the sentence was death.
Mary was nine years younger than Elizabeth—“the Virgin Queen” or “the English Jezebel,” depending on the observer’s religious persuasion. Daughter of James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise of France, she had become Queen of the Scots in 1542 at just one week old, following the death of her father, who collapsed and died after hearing that his invading army had been slaughtered by Henry VIII’s troops at Solway Moss. At the age of six, she was betrothed to the Dauphin of France, the future Francis II of the royal house of Valois, and became a ward of Catherine de’ Medici at the French court. She duly married at the age of fifteen and within a year was Queen of France, but she soon showed her talent for intrigue by passing secret information to her uncles the de Guises, the enemies of the Valois kings.
The granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary felt herself, not Elizabeth, to be the rightful heir to his throne. Monarchs were not constrained by the same laws as their subjects in civil or ecclesiastical matters; many inconvenient marriages had been dissolved with the compliance of the Vatican, and many bastard offspring, including the Emperor Charles V’s son, Don Juan of Austria, and daughter, Margaret, Duchess of Parma, had been declared legitimate. But Henry VIII had gone too far ever to be forgiven, even posthumously. He had not only divorced a woman of the imperial blood—Catherine of Aragon was Charles V’s aunt—he had also wrenched his populace from the Church of Rome, and confiscated its assets. There was no possibility that Elizabeth would ever be seen in Paris, Madrid or Rome as anything but the bastard daughter of Henry’s bigamous marriage to Anne Boleyn, and moreover one whose self-proclaimed virginity hid a score of scandals: “Wife to many and to many daughter-in-law, oh foul queen, nay no queen, but lustful, beastly whore.” Even among Englishmen, the title the “Virgin Queen” may well have been entirely ironic when first bestowed.
After Mary Tudor’s death in 1558, Francis II declared himself and his wife to be “rulers of France, Scotland, England and Ireland” and quartered the English coat of arms with his own, but following Mary’s bloody reign of terror few Englishmen could stomach the idea of another Catholic monarch, and Elizabeth began to consolidate her hold on power. The immediate threat to her throne was removed when Francis died suddenly on 6 December 1560, having reigned for only sixteen months, leaving Mary, Queen of Scots, a widow at just eigh-teen. She accepted the Scottish crown, but scandal surrounded her from the first. She took a string of lovers, was implicated in the murder of Rizzio and of her second husband, Lord Darnley, and then compounded the outrage by marrying her husband’s murderer, the Earl of Bothwell. Imprisoned and forced to abdicate, she escaped from her captivity and rallied forces loyal to her, but they were defeated at the battle of Langside in 1568 and she then fled to England, seeking the protection of Elizabeth. She spent the remainder of her life under confinement, but it was a gilded cage—she was allowed a retinue of forty and was permitted to hunt and visit spas to take the waters—and she was the constant focus and sometimes the wellspring of intrigues and plots.
Mary’s son, the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England, “a sickly, backward lad, shambling, awkward and unattractive,” had been taken from his mother at the age of ten months and raised as a Protestant, and by her will of 1577 Mary made plain her intention to bequeath her rights to the English throne not to her son but to Philip II of Spain. The former husband of Mary Tudor, Philip had also once been a suitor of Elizabeth, albeit for purely pragmatic and dynastic reasons: “Nothing would make me do this except the clear knowledge that it might gain the kingdom.” He had constructed a tenuous claim to the English throne in his own right through his descent from Constanza of Castile’s marriage to John of Gaunt, son of Edward III. Some saw Mary’s gesture as an invitation for Philip to invade and place her on the throne, though it might equally have been a calculated attempt to stay Elizabeth’s hand, for fear of unleashing an even greater danger.
Elizabeth had dithered over the fate of Mary since she took up the crown. Her father, Henry VIII, would not have hesitated for a moment; he would have had Mary executed as soon as she came into his hands and defied all of Europe’s popes and princes to do their worst. He had done as much by divorcing Catherine of Aragon and breaking with Rome, and had built the most powerful navy in Europe to defend his shores against his enemies. Elizabeth had already been given ample grounds for executing Mary. In 1569, the Rising of the North, a rebellion led by the northern Catholic earls, was an immediate reminder of the dangers posed by a rival for the throne. It was crushed with great brutality, but no action was taken against Mary, even when she was then implicated in a plot against Elizabeth in 1572. Funded by the Florentine banker Roberto di Ridolfi, the conspirators included the Spanish ambassador, the Pope, the Duke of Norfolk and the privateer John Hawkins. Hawkins sent a message to Philip professing to be weary of Elizabeth’s “fickle and tyrannical rule,” and when asked for proof, he sent a letter “cunningly procured” from Mary, Queen of Scots. Philip then sent gold “to be used by him in making traitors of other Englishmen and in preparing some English ships for Spanish service.” Hawkins pocketed the money, but passed information on every move that the plotters made to Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran a chain of 500 agents operating as far afield as Constantinople. He liked to remark that “knowledge is never too dear” and “might well have been compared to him in the Gospel that sowed his tares in the night; so did [he sow his] seeds in division, in the dark.”
Hawkins was certainly a consummate double agent, Ridolfi may well have been, and Elizabeth’s ministers were so well informed about the plot that all the chief conspirators were arrested. Under interrogation that would certainly have included torture, the Bishop of Ross, Mary’s confessor, implicated her not only in the plot to depose Elizabeth but also in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, and, less plausibly, her first, Francis II. The Duke of Norfolk, who was to have married Mary on her assumption of the throne, was convicted of treason on 16 January 1572, and executed after much hesitation by Elizabeth on 2 June, but she stayed her hand from administering the same punishment to Mary herself. She vetoed a bill of attainder in favour of her own bill making Mary “unable to enjoy the Crown of this realm” and then vetoed that bill too. “A law to make the Scottish Queen unable and unworthy of succession to the Crown was by Her Majesty neither assented to nor rejected, but deferred.” After the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants the same year, Bishop Sandes advised Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, “forthwith to cut off the Scottish Queen’s head.” His advice was ignored and Mary remained alive, closely confined, but still the focus of a succession of plots and intrigues against Elizabeth.
In 1582, Walsingham, an expert linguist and cryptographer, had deciphered the codes used in secret messages passing between Mary and the French and Spanish courts. From then on, everything that Mary wrote was intercepted and read. The first fruit of it came that same year, when Walsingham revealed a plot involving Mary and her kinsmen the de Guises, the Pope, the Jesuits, Don Bernardino de Mendoza, then Spanish ambassador in London, and Philip II himself to restore Scotland to the old faith and then invade England. In the winter of 1583 Walsingham exposed the Throckmorton Plot, again involving Mendoza. The leading conspirators, including Francis Throckmorton, were arrested and tortured, and Mendoza was expelled in January 1584; no Spanish ambassador replaced him for the remainder of Elizabeth’s reign, but Philip continued to intrigue against her and fund the Queen of Scots.
Several Spanish plots against the Dutch leader William the Silent, of the House of Orange, had also failed, but his assassination in 1584, coupled with the exposure of a plan by John Somerville to shoot Elizabeth, caused terror in England, where it seemed all too likely that she might suffer a similar fate. Her crown was “not like to fall to the ground for want of heads that claim to wear it.” As a result, access to her wardrobe, laundry and kitchens was rigidly controlled and in October 1584 Burghley and Walsingham drew up a Bond of Association. Members swore to defend Elizabeth’s life with their own and “pursue as well by force of arms as by all other means of revenge all manner of persons of what estate so ever they shall be . . . that shall attempt . . . the harm of Her Majesty’s royal person . . . [and] never desist from all manner of forcible pursuit against such persons to the uttermost extermination of them . . . No pretended successor by whom or for whom any such detestable act shall be attempted or committed” would be allowed to take the throne.
The implication was clear: if a plot in which Mary, Queen of Scots, was either a co-conspirator or even the innocent beneficiary should succeed, the members of the Association swore to strike her down before she could claim the throne. This could also apply to James VI, Elizabeth’s putative heir, if the members of the Association so chose, a clear warning to him not to involve himself in plots and conspiracies in order to bring forward the time of his accession. As soon as Parliament reassembled in November, an “Act for the Queen’s Safety” was proposed and passed, including a provision that any attempt on the Queen’s life with the aim of advancing a claimant to the throne rendered any then supporting that claimant guilty of treason. However, the claimant’s heirs were exempted from any penalty unless they were “privy” to the crime, making it clear that the Act’s target was Mary, not her son James. The Act also authorized the persecution of Jesuits and Catholic priests, and laid down that Englishmen studying at Catholic seminaries abroad were to return home within six months or be found guilty in absentia of treason.