Elizabeth I: Life Story

Chapter 21 : The Execution of Mary

With the threat from Spain increasing, and no hope of an amicable settlement that might allow her to return to Scotland, the severity of the Scottish queen’s confinement was increased. The Earl of Shrewsbury, whose marriage to Bess of Hardwick had been destroyed by his role as Mary’s gaoler, was replaced first by Sir Ralph Sadleir and then by Sir Amyas Paulet, a dour Puritan, impervious to Mary’s charm. He showed his power with petty restrictions on the freedoms of her servants, and even forbade her to give alms.

In December 1585, Walsingham hatched a plot to draw supporters of Mary, and perhaps the queen herself, into a conspiracy, using a double-agent named Gilbert Gifford. Gifford persuaded the French embassy, where correspondents would direct any letters they hoped could be sent on to Mary, to trust him with her post, assuring them he had found a fool-proof way to smuggle it to the queen, now imprisoned at Chartley. He carried the letters to Walsingham’s decoder, Thomas Phelippes before they were slipped into the bungs of beer barrels supplied to Chartley by a local brewer. Mary’s responses were then also intercepted and read.

Meanwhile, in Paris, a priest named John Ballard asked the Spanish ambassador there, Bernardino Mendoza, what help might be available to finance a Catholic rising. Having received warm assurances, Ballard persuaded a wealthy young Catholic gentleman from Derbyshire, Anthony Babington, to gather a band of men to rescue Mary from Chartley, as soon as one John Savage had assassinated Elizabeth.

In July 1585, using the route set up by Gifford, Babington informed Mary of the plot. It was clear that it depended on the murder of Elizabeth. Mary’s immediate reply was that she was considering the matter. Shortly after, she wrote her approval of the plan, without making any objection to the despatch of Elizabeth. Walsingham had caught his woman – to make doubly sure of all the conspirators, he authorised Phelippes to forge a post-script purporting to be from Mary, asking for the names of Babington’s colleagues.

Babington smelt a rat, and urged Savage to act, but the latter refused, saying he could not approach Elizabeth until his court dress was finished – not such a ludicrous reason as it sounds to modern ears – only those appropriately dressed had access to the queen.

Ballard was taken up, and confessed all. Babington and Savage were also arrested. Convicted of treason, the full force of the death sentence was carried out on them - they were hanged, drawn, and quartered, suffering terribly.

Mary had been kept in ignorance that the plot had been uncovered. When she was out on an approved hunting expedition, her rooms were searched, and she was conveyed to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Thirty-six commissioners were summoned to try her under the Act of Association. The French ambassador requested Elizabeth to allow Mary counsel for her defence but was brusquely rejected. The trial had no basis in law – Mary was not a subject of the English queen, and thus, as she frequently repeated, not subject to English law. Elizabeth was aware of this, and of the risks inherent in permitting a sovereign to be tried at all. Nevertheless, the threat of Spanish invasion and Catholic resurgence was so feared that she permitted the trial to proceed.

The commission did not pass sentence. Instead, it was left to Parliament to pronounce that, the case having been proven against Mary, she must be sentenced to death. Elizabeth hesitated over signing the death warrant, as she had done over that of the Duke of Norfolk – in part for fear that such an action would drive James into the arms of France. Reassured that James was not in the slightest degree likely to intervene on his mother’s behalf, Elizabeth eventually signed, the warrant being interleaved amongst other documents (although she was aware of it being there). Her secretary, Davison, then took it to the council.

Presumably remembering that Elizabeth had rescinded the warrant for Norfolk several times, Burghley and his colleagues gave her no opportunity to do the like again, but sent it forthwith to Fotheringhay alongside instructions to the earls of Shrewsbury and Kent on how the execution was to be conducted. On the evening of 7th February 1587, Shrewsbury read the warrant and informed Mary that she would die the following morning. She was refused the comfort of a Catholic priest and her request to be buried alongside her mother or her first husband in France. She wrote her will and a last letter to her brother-in-law, Henri III of France, requesting that he succour her servants.

Early the next day the earls escorted Mary, dressed in black and carrying her ivory crucifix and a book of hours, to the Great Hall. She mounted the hastily-erected scaffold, then, removing her gown, revealed a kirtle of blood-red, the colour of martyrdom. Before kneeling to receive the blow from the axe, she sent a last message to her friends that she ‘died a true woman of her religion and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman’.

Mary’s remains were wrapped in lead and left at Fotheringhay until July when she was interred in a Protestant ceremony at Peterborough Cathedral, under the royal banner of the Scottish lion. The Countess of Bedford was chief mourner. James, more filial in death than in life, later had her reinterred in Westminster Abbey, spending double the amount on her tomb that he spent on Elizabeth’s.