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Prologue Around eight o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, when it was light enough to see without candles, Sir Thomas Andrews, sheriff of the county of Northamptonshire, knocked on a door. The place was Fotheringhay Castle, about seventy-five miles from London. All that remains there now beneath the weeds is the raised earthen rampart of the inner bailey and a truncated mound, or “motte,” on the site of the keep, a few hundred yards from the village beside a sluggish stretch of the River Nene. But in the sixteenth century the place was bustling with life. Fotheringhay was a royal manor. Richard III had been born at the castle in 1452. Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings, who had slain Richard at the battle of Bosworth, gave the estate as a dowry to his wife, Elizabeth of York, and Henry VIII granted it to his first bride, Catherine of Aragon, who extensively refurbished the castle. In 1558, Elizabeth I inherited the property when she succeeded to the throne on the death of her elder sister, Mary Tudor. Despite its royal associations, nothing had prepared Fotheringhay, or indeed the British Isles, for what was about to happen there. Andrews was in attendance on two of England’s highest-ranking noblemen, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Henry Grey, Earl of Kent. The door on which he knocked was the entrance to the privy chamber of Mary Queen of Scots, dowager queen of France and for almost nineteen years Elizabeth’s prisoner in England. The door opened to reveal Mary on her knees, praying with her bedchamber servants. Andrews informed her that the time was at hand, and she looked up and said she was ready. She rose, and her gentlewomen stood aside. She was only forty-four. Born and brought up to be a queen, she walked confidently through the doorway as if she were once more processing to a court festival. Almost six feet tall, she had always looked the part. She had been feted since her childhood in France for her beauty and allure. “Charmante” and “la plus parfaite” were the adjectives most commonly applied to her singular blend of celebrity. Not just physically mesmerizing with her well-proportioned face, neck, arms and waist, she had an unusual warmth of character with the ability to strike up an instant rapport. Always high-spirited and vivacious, she could be unreservedly generous and amiable. She had a razor-sharp wit and was a natural conversationalist. Gregarious as well as glamorous, she could be genial to the point of informality as long as her “grandeur” was respected. Many contemporaries remarked on her almost magical ability to create the impression that the person she was talking to was the only one whose opinion really mattered to her. As a result of premature aging caused by the inertia and lack of exercise of which she had so bitterly complained during her long captivity, her beauty was on the wane. Her features had thickened and she had rounded shoulders and a slight stoop. Her face, once legendary for its soft white skin and immaculate, marble-like complexion, had filled out and become double-chinned. But captivity did not alter all things. Her small, deep- set hazel eyes darted as restlessly as ever, and her ringlets of auburn hair seemed as lustrous. Mary had been awake for most of the night and had carefully prepared herself. This was to be her grandest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail. Her clothes set the tone. She appeared to be dressed entirely in black apart from a white linen veil. Lace-edged and as delicate as gauze, it flowed down from her hair over her shoulders to her feet in the French style. Fastened to the top of the veil was a small white cambric cap. It just touched the tip of her forehead and was also edged with lace, leaving room for her curls to peek out at the sides. Her gown of thick black satin reached almost to the ground, where it was attached to her train. Trimmed with gold embroidery and sable, it was peppered with acorn buttons of jet, set with pearl. A closer look revealed an outer bodice of crimson velvet and an underskirt of embroidered black satin, both visible where the gown was fashionably cut away. To bedeck it, Mary wore long, richly embroidered slashed sleeves in the Italian style, under which could be seen uncut inner sleeves of purple velvet. Her shoes were of the finest Spanish suede. Later someone observed that she wore sky-blue stockings embroidered with silver thread and held up by green silk garters, these on top of soft white stockings < that she used to protect her skin from chafing. She carried a crucifix of ivory in one hand and a Latin prayer book in the other. A string of rosary beads with a golden cross hung from a girdle at her waist. Around her neck lay a silver or gold chain on which hung a pendant, a medallion bearing the image of Christ as the Lamb of God. Led by Andrews and followed by the two earls, Mary walked along the corridor and into a larger room where her household was waiting to greet her and bid her farewell. An eyewitness (perhaps the Earl of Kent himself) wrote that she exhorted her servants to fear God and live in obedience. She kissed her women servants and gave her hand to her menservants to kiss. She asked them not to grieve for her, but “to rejoice and pray for her.” One of them afterward reported that she showed no fear and even smiled. Mary then descended the stairs toward the great hall on the ground floor. Her legs were so swollen and inflamed by rheumatism, she leaned for support on the arms of two soldiers. When the procession reached the anteroom of the hall, they encountered Andrew Melville, her steward, who knelt and fighting back tears cried out, “Madam, it will be the sorrowfullest message that I ever carried, when I shall report that my queen and dear mistress is dead.” Mary answered, also weeping, “You ought to rejoice rather than weep for that the end of Mary Stuart’s troubles is now come.” “Carry this message,” she continued, “and tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman.” As Mary recovered her composure, her mood abruptly changed. She glanced back up the stairs and exclaimed that she was “evil attended.” She demanded “for womanhood’s sake” that her own servants should escort her. She harangued the earls, who became fearful that she would cause an even bigger scene and have to be dragged violently into the great hall. Shrewsbury feebly claimed that he and Kent were simply following orders. Hearing this, Mary bridled: “Far meaner persons than myself have not been denied so small a favor.” “Madam,” replied Kent, “it 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 . . . or seek to wipe their napkins in some of your blood, which were not convenient.” “My lord,” said Mary, “I will give my word and promise for them that they shall not do any such thing.” She could not stop herself adding, “You know that I am cousin to your queen, and descended from the blood of Henry VII, a married queen of France and the anointed queen of Scotland.” The earls huddled together, whispering inaudibly, then gave in to Mary, who was used to getting her own way. Her two favorite gentlewomen, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, and four of her gentlemen, including Melville, were allowed to join the procession. “Allons donc,” said Mary, smiling again — “Now let us go.” She spoke in French because this and Lowland Scots were her native tongues; English she had learned only with difficulty in her captivity. Her retinue now made ready, she strode purposefully into the great hall with Melville carrying her train. It was self-consciously a royal entry; Mary walked before the hundred or so spectators straight toward the focal point, a wooden stage that had been hastily constructed over the previous two days beside an open fireplace in which a great pile of logs blazed. She mounted the two steps that led up to the platform and sat down on a low stool that was offered to her, after which the earls seated themselves on her right while the sheriff stood on her left. There was of course no throne. The stage was a scaffold two feet high and twelve feet square, shrouded with black cotton sheets that hung low over the sides to camouflage the rough joinery, with a rail eighteen inches high around three sides and the unenclosed fourth side in full view of the spectators in the lower end of the hall. There was a cushion for Mary to kneel on, this beside an execution block also swathed in black. Two masked men stood in readiness on the platform, one “Bull,” the headsman of the Tower of London, and his assistant. They were dressed in long black gowns with white aprons, their ax laid casually against the rail. In the lower end of the space, the knights and gentlemen of Northamptonshire and its neighboring counties looked toward the stage flanked by a troop of soldiers, their view unrestricted because the platform had been set at the right height. Outside in the courtyard, beyond the passageway at the main entrance to the great hall, a large crowd of another thousand or so waited for news. The sheriff called for silence, after which Robert Beale, the clerk of Elizabeth’s Privy Council and the man responsible for delivering the execution warrant to Fotheringhay, read it out. As he spoke —the warrant would have taken about ten minutes to read — Mary sat completely still. She showed no emotion, listening, as Robert Wingfield of Upton, Northamptonshire, who was within ten yards of her, reported, “with as small regard as if it had not concerned her at all; and with as cheerful a countenance as if it had been a pardon.” Her nerve was to be tested, however, when Dr. Richard Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough, and at this time one of Elizabeth’s favorite preachers, stepped forward at the Earl of Shrewsbury’s signal. Fletcher, the father of the dramatist John Fletcher, who was Shakespeare’s collaborator on Henry VIII, had been brought in to deliver a setpiece “admonition” to Mary that strictured her for her traitorous Catholicism, and to lead the assembly in prayers. He was one of Elizabeth’s chaplains in ordinary, renowned for his “comely person” and “courtly speech.” But his admonition backfired spectacularly; the attempted sermon — for that is all it was —was the greatest faux pas of his career. When the moment came, he started to stammer nervously. “Madam,” he began, “the queen’s most excellent majesty”; “Madam, the queen’s most excellent majesty . . .” Three times he stumbled, but when he started for the fourth, Mary cut him off. In a clear and unwavering voice, she said, “Mr. Dean, I will not hear you. You have nothing to do with me, nor I with you.” Fletcher, somewhat abashed, countered, “I say nothing but that I will justify before the majesty of the mighty God.” He was not at first willing to give way to her, believing that God would never abandon the just, but would minister to them through his angels. If Mary had been condemned to die, it was God’s work and the preacher would be called to account for his sermon only before God. Hearing this, Mary got into her stride, as she always did in an argument. “I am settled,” she said, “in the ancient Roman Catholic religion, and mind to spend my blood in defense of it.” Fletcher unwisely responded, “Madam, change your opinion and repent you of your former wickedness, and settle your faith only in Jesus Christ, by him to be saved.” This was not the way to speak to a queen. Mary, visibly coloring, ordered him to be silent. There was an awkward pause. Then the earls gave way. Fletcher was told to omit the sermon, which in a fit of pique he insisted be transcribed from his notes into a report of the day’s proceedings. A bizarre, even farcical scene ensued. The Earl of Kent urged Fletcher to begin the prayers, but as the dean started speaking again, Mary prayed loudly and in Latin with her crucifix before her eyes. There followed a battle of wills, because as the knights and gentlemen in the hall joined Fletcher in his versicles and responses, Mary and her six servants shouted louder and louder until the queen, in tears, slipped off her stool, at which point she knelt and continued as before. Even after Fletcher had ceased praying, Mary carried on, in English now to cause maximum embarrassment. She prayed for the Church, for an end to religious discord, for her son, the twenty-year-old James VI of Scotland —whom her enemies had brought up as a Protestant —that he might be converted to the true Catholic faith. She prayed that Elizabeth might prosper and long continue to reign, serving 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 willingly shed her blood.” She petitioned the saints to pray for her soul, and that God would in his great mercy and goodness avert his plagues from “this silly island.” To the Earl of Kent, himself a staunch Protestant, this was highly offensive. “Madam,” he said, “settle Christ Jesus in your heart and leave those trumperies.” But Mary ignored him. Eventually she finished, kissing the crucifix and making the sign of the cross in the Catholic way. This was largely contrived. Mary had never truly been the ideological Catholic that she now wished to appear to the world. She was far too political for that. As a ruler in Scotland, she had sensibly accepted a compromise based on the religious status quo and the inroads made by the Protestant Reformation. Only after her imprisonment in England had she reinvented herself as a poor Catholic woman persecuted for her religion alone. What happened in the great hall at Fotheringhay was for show, and it worked. By humiliating Fletcher, Mary won a propaganda victory that resounded around Catholic Europe. Satisfied, she calmly turned to Bull, who meekly knelt and sought her forgiveness. She answered, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.” The executioners helped Mary’s gentlewomen to undress her down to her petticoat. As they unbuttoned her, she smiled broadly and joked that she “never had such grooms before to make her unready” nor did she “ever put off her clothes before such a company.” She laid her crucifix and prayer book on her stool, and one of the executioners took the medallion from around her neck, since custom allowed that such personal items were a perquisite. But Mary interposed, saying that she would give these things to her servants and that he would receive money in lieu of them. As Mary’s veil and black outer garments were removed, stifled cries of shock and astonishment reverberated around the hall. Her petticoat was of tawny velvet, her inner bodice of tawny satin. One of her gentlewomen handed her a pair of tawny sleeves with which she immediately covered her arms. A metamorphosis had occurred. For several minutes Mary stood stock still on the stage, clad in the color of dried blood: the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church. It was a sight so melodramatic, so abhorrent to the earls, that they omitted all reference to it from their official report to the Privy Council. The incident is known only from a contemporary French account based on the reports of Mary’s attendants, which is confirmed by two independent English accounts, one by Shrewsbury’s servant, who was writing to a friend and had no reason to lie. Mary kissed her gentlewomen, who burst into uncontrolled fits of sobbing. “Ne criez vous,” she said, “j’ai promis pour vous.” Or as one of the English eyewitness accounts renders it, “Peace, peace, cry not, I have promised the contrary, cry not for me but rejoice.” She raised her hands and blessed them, and turning to her other servants, Melville especially, who were weeping aloud and continually crossing themselves, she prayed in Latin and blessed them too, bade them farewell, and asked them to remember her in their prayers. She knelt down “most resolutely” on the cushion while Jane Kennedy covered her eyes with a white Corpus Christi cloth embroidered in gold that Mary had chosen the previous night. Jane kissed the cloth, tied it around Mary’s face in the shape of a triangle and pinned it securely to her cap. The two gentlewomen then left the platform. As Mary knelt, she recited in Latin the psalm In te Domino confido, “In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust.” Reaching out for the block, she laid down her head, positioning her chin carefully with her hands and holding them there, so that if one of the executioners had not moved them, they would have been cut off. She stretched out her arms and legs and cried, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” — “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” She repeated these words three or four times until, with one executioner holding down her body, the other severed her head. Except it was the headsman’s turn to blunder. It should have taken only a single blow, but the strain was too great even for England’s most experienced executioner. His first strike was misaligned, and the blow fell on the knot of the blindfold, missing the neck and hacking into the back of the head. One account says Mary made a “very small noise,” but another says she cried out in agony, “Lord Jesus receive my soul.” A second strike severed the neck, but not completely, and the executioner sliced through the remaining sinews, using the ax as a cleaver. At length he raised the head, shouting “God save the queen.” An audible gasp went up from the hall, because Mary’s lips were still moving as if in prayer, and continued to do so for a quarter of an hour. And then the final twist. As the executioner lifted up the head, Mary’s auburn curls and white cap became detached from her skull. The illusion of monarchy dissolved as the executioner found himself clutching a handful of hair while the head fell back to the floor, rolling like a misshapen football toward the spectators, who saw that it was “very grey and near bald.” Suddenly everything was clear. The Queen of Scots had worn a wig. The assembly was struck dumb, until the Earl of Shrewsbury could stand it no longer and burst into tears. As the executioner retrieved the skull, Dr. Fletcher recovered his wits. He bellowed, “So perish all the queen’s enemies,” to which the Earl of Kent, standing over the corpse, echoed, “Such be the end of all the queen’s and the gospel’s enemies.” But it was a gruesome finale, a harrowing catharsis. Even in the London theaters, where revenge plays and tragedies were newly in vogue, no one had seen anything quite like this. Mary’s distraught servants were led from the scene and locked in their rooms. The executioners were disrobing the corpse when one of them saw that her favorite pet dog, a Skye terrier, had hidden itself in the folds of her petticoat and sneaked onto the stage. When detected, it ran about wailing miserably and lay down in the widening pool of blood between her severed head and shoulders. Since it could not be coaxed away, it was forcibly removed and washed, whereupon it refused to eat. One of Mary’s servants claimed it soon died, but this is not corroborated. In the afternoon, by order of the earls, the black cotton sheets, the execution block and cushion, Mary’s clothes and ornaments, and anything else with blood on it were burned in the open fireplace so that no relics of the “martyrdom” she had so conspicuously sought to evoke could be obtained by her Catholic supporters. Still present in the great hall to observe these cleansing operations were the knights and gentlemen of the county, and when the earls wrote their official account of the execution, these men signed their names to the report as solemn witnesses. The Earl of Shrewsbury’s fourth son, Henry Talbot, was sent posthaste to London to deliver the report to the Privy Council that same night. When he had departed, the mortal remains of the dead queen were put on a stretcher and carried back upstairs to be embalmed. The scaffold was demolished and everyone except the sheriff, who had the job of burying the heart and inner organs in a secret place within the foundations of the castle, was sent home. Some of Mary’s ornaments must also have been buried in the deep recesses of the castle, because the ring she was given at her betrothal to her second husband, Henry Lord Darnley, was later unearthed in the ruins and exhibited at Peterborough in 1887. No one who had witnessed Mary’s last day could ever have forgotten it. Whatever view is taken of her character, whatever credence is given to the stories told about her as a way of justifying her forced abdication and execution, the business on that day was regicide. Mary was an anointed queen. Elizabeth, her fellow sovereign as much as her rival for the past thirty years, was herself all too anxious to defend the ideal of monarchy: the principle that rulers were accountable to God alone. She had done everything possible to prevent Mary’s execution until she felt it could no longer be avoided, and then to shift the blame for it onto the shoulders of others. Elizabeth had a firm grasp of the issues. She knew that Mary’s death would alter the way that monarchy was regarded in the British Isles. A regicide would give a massive boost to Parliament, diminishing forever the “divinity that hedges a king.” It would help to propagate the theory of popular sovereignty —the belief that political power lies in the people and not in the ruler — and the idea that the representatives of the people were those they elected to Parliament. This was the ideology invoked by Mary’s rebel lords in Scotland to depose her. And the same theory would be instilled there, and more subversively in parts of France, for 250 years after her death, finally to cross the Atlantic when Dr.William Small, a Scot, taught ethics and political science to the young Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. How did so versatile a queen as Mary, one so beautiful and intelligent, so convivial and down-to-earth, so full of life and irresistible, end up disgraced and deposed? One of the reasons is that Elizabeth’s chief minister and leading adviser for forty years, William Cecil, was her antagonist. More than anyone else, he was her great nemesis. Unlike Elizabeth, Mary was a Catholic, and Cecil’s overriding ambition was to remold the whole of the British Isles into a single Protestant community. He had little room for an independent Scotland, hence his intermittent clashes with his Scottish allies over the extent of English domination. Whereas Elizabeth did all she could to protect the ideal of divine-right monarchy irrespective of the religion of its incumbent, Cecil believed that Parliament had the right to settle the succession to the throne on religious grounds, meaning that Mary’s dynastic claim had at all costs to be discounted. In death as in life, Mary always aroused the strongest feelings. To her apologists she was an innocent victim. She was mishandled and traduced: a political pawn in the hands of those perfidious Scottish lords and ambitious French and English politicians who found her inconvenient and in their way. To her critics she was fatally flawed. She was far too affected by her emotions. She ruled from the heart and not the head. She was a femme fatale, a manipulative siren, who flaunted her sexuality in dancing and banqueting and did not care who knew it. Her enemies largely won the argument. Mary has come down to us not as a shrewd and charismatic young ruler who relished power and, for a time, managed to hold together a fatally unstable country, but rather as someone who cared more about her luxuries and pets. She knew how to play to the gallery. One of the accounts of her execution dismissed her as “transcending the skills of the most accomplished actress.” But a sense of theater was essential to the exercise of power in the sixteenth century, and there was far more to Mary than so cynical a judgment implies. This book tries to get to the truth about her, or as close to the truth as possible: to see her not merely as a bundle of stereotypes or as a convenient and tenuously linked series of myths, but as a whole woman whose choices added up and whose decisions made sense. The rationale relates closely to the method: to write Mary’s life and tell her story using the original documents rather than relying on the familiar printed collections or edited abstracts, themselves often compiled to perpetuate rather than to engage with the legends. It may come as a surprise to learn that such documents survive in voluminous quantities, preserved in archives and research libraries as far apart as Edinburgh, Paris, London, the stately homes of England, and Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Some of them have not been read by a historian since 1840.Many have not been freshly examined since the 1890s, and among these are unrecognized handwritten transcripts of two of the famous Casket Letters. The aim is to tell Mary’s story, where possible letting her speak for herself in her own words, but also to consider why the stories of others about the very same events are often so strikingly different. Only when this is done can the myriad of facts be properly sifted, the sequence of events be explained and understood, and a searchlight cast on a turbulent life. Copyright © 2004 by John Guy. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.