Mary I, Queen of Scots, was executed on the 8th of February, 1587.
Mary I, Queen of Scots, remains one of the most fascinating characters in Scotland’s history. Along with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, she continues to share a certain notoriety. At the time of her death, she was just forty-four, but she’d crammed more into her life than most folks could’ve had they been granted twice as long. She was the daughter of the fifth of Scotland’s Jameses. James V bemoaned the news of her arrival whilst he lay dying in Falkland Palace, reputedly with the words, “It cam’ wi’ a lass and it’ll gang wi’ a lass.” Mary Stewart was born on the 8th of December, 1542, at Linlithgow Palace, a feast day in honour of the Virgin Mary, which many saw as a good omen. James didn’t see it that way and, if his fatalistic words were indeed his last, you might wonder at the news having taken the best part of seven days to get across the Forth to Falkland.
John Knox, who wasn’t a fan, when later writing about her father’s death, commented thus on her birth, “the Quein… was deliverit the aucht Day of December, in the Yeir of God 1542 Yeiris, of Marie that then wes borne, and now dois reigne for a Plague to this Realme, as the Progres of hir haill Lyif had to this Day declars.” Nine months after her dad’s death, on the ninth day of the ninth month of 1543, before she was even a year old and nothing to do with the gestation period for a new Monarch, Mary was crowned Queen of Scots at Stirling Castle. Mary Stewart wasn’t crowned Mary I, but years later, in 1689, when William (of Orange) and his wife, another Mary Stuart (Stewart), became joint Sovereigns of both England and Scotland, the earlier Mary became Mary I of Scotland, whilst the latter became, by default, Mary II of both England and Scotland.
Mary I had a tempestuous reign as Queen of Scots and if her father’s presentiment had any bearing, it was on her life and tragic death, rather than the fate of his dynasty. Mary’s fate was closely tied up with her lineage as her claims to the throne of England were pretty strong. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, Mary was next in line to the throne of ‘Gloriana’, the ‘Virgin Queen’. Earlier, Mary had been betrothed to the future Edward VI by the Treaty of Greenwich; signed on the 1st of July, 1543, when she was a mere six months old. However, the Catholics opposed the plan, thus kicking off the ‘Rough Wooing’. Mary fled to France, where she ended up marrying the Dauphin, on the 24th of April, 1558. She became Queen of both France and Scotland in 1559.
To suit French convention, Mary gallicised her surname to Stuart, but that didn’t prevent the death, on the 5th of December, 1560, of her first husband, King Francis II, who died of an unconventional ear infection, which led to “an absence of the brain” – nah; it was an abscess. Mary’s absence from Scotland didn’t last as, in 1561, she landed back in Scotland at Leith, on the 19th of August, despite the Protestants having gained the ascendancy. Later, on the 29th of July, 1565, after a “whirlwind courtship,” she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. On the 26th of August, 1565, Mary, dressed in a helmet and carrying pistols, led an army out of Edinburgh to pursue the rebel Earl of Moray in what became known as the ‘Chaseabout Raid’ and which resulted in Moray begin chased across the border. When Mary became pregnant, Darnley said, “I’ll be darned!” He then morphed into ‘Dastardly Darnley’ on the 9th of March, 1566, when he participated in the very murder, in front of his pregnant wife, of her secretary, ‘Fiddling Davie’ Riccio. He then became ‘Dead Darnley’ on the 10th of February, 1567, when he was murdered at Kirk o' Field.
In the meantime, on the 19th of June, 1566, Mary had given birth to the future James VI & I whom many suspected was Riccio’s child. Many also suspected that Mary was implicated in Darnley’s murder and her marriage, a few months later, to the Earl of Bothwell, who was accused, but acquitted, of the crime, didn’t help her case. Her Protestant Nobles were suitably scandalised and, after her defeat at the Battle of Carberry Hill on the 15th of June, 1567, Mary was scandalously imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, but she famously escaped, only to be defeated at the Battle of Langside, on the 13th of May, 1568. Bothwell fled to Scandinavia and Mary escaped to England and the mercy of her Protestant cousin, who was merciful enough at first to merely imprison she whom her Lords saw as rival.
Subsequently, Mary became a focus for Catholic plots, including the ‘Ridolfi plot’ and the ‘Babington Plot’, which were, allegedly, aimed at making her Queen through the assassination of Elizabeth. In addition, there had been the ‘evidence’ of the ‘Casket Letters’ and what the Catholic Encyclopaedia calls “a thousand filthy charges …embodied in Buchanan’s ‘Detectio’”. Elizabeth’s Ministers demanded Mary’s execution, with provocative words; “so long as there is life in her, there is hope; so as they live in hope, we live in fear.” Nineteen years after she was brought into captivity, “Mary Stuart, commonly called Queen of Scotland” was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle, in Northamptonshire, on the 8th of February, 1587.
In her last ever letter, written at two o’clock in the morning, six hours before her execution, Mary wrote to her brother-in-law, Henry III of France. She wrote, “I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime… The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs.” Robert Wynkfielde’s first-hand account of her execution describes Mary groping for the block, over which she placed her chin “with both her hands, which, holding there still, had been cut off had they not been espied.” It took two strokes of the executioner’s ace to administer the sentence, but even then “one little gristle” had to be sawn through before Mary’s head was fully severed from her body. It was then held up to view and, to the astonishment of the assembly, it was apparent that the former raven haired beauty had been entirely grey.
Mary’s wee dog that had accompanied her to her death hidden under her skirts, was then espied and had to be separated from his mistress by force. He had lain “between her head and her shoulders” and as they were “imbrued with her blood” the dog had to be taken away and washed. Mary’s body was taken away and buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Much later, in 1612, no doubt suffering from a wee bit of remorse at not having done anything to save his mother’s life, her son, James VI & I, had her body exhumed and placed in the vault of the Chapel of King Henry VII, in Westminster Abbey.