08 February 2020
Facts about the execution of Mary Queen of Scots on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire.
Mary Queen of Scots was executed by beheading at the age of 44 on the orders of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. Mary had been in Elizabeth’s custody for 18.5 years, after she fled from Scotland to England in 1567, following her forced abdication of the Scottish throne.
She was accused of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and sentenced to death.
The trial of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary’s trial took place from 14-15 October 1586, shortly after she had been implicated in the Babington Plot, a plot led by Roman Catholic nobleman Anthony Babington, when letters said to be from Mary were intercepted. These letters sanctioned the assassination of Elizabeth I, allowing Mary to be put on trial for treason.
Mary put up a spirited defence during her trial, arguing that she had not had access to legal representatives, and as she was not a subject of England’s queen, could surely not be accused of treason. Nevertheless she was pronounced guilty of treason on 25 October, and sentenced to death.
Despite the finality of the sentence, it would be months before Elizabeth could bring herself to sign the death of her cousin – a fellow queen. The warrant was signed on 1 February 1587 and the execution was carried out a week later.
The execution of Mary Queen of Scots
The execution of Mary Queen of Scots took place in the Great Hall at Fotheringay Castle. The night before her death, Mary had written her will and a letter to Henri III King of France (the brother of her first husband Francis), which she penned at 2am. The letter (NLS reference: Adv.MS.54.1.1) is kept at National Library of Scotland and you can read an English and French translation here.
The final portion of the letter reads:
Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul's sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.
This Wednesday, two hours after midnight.
Your very loving and most true sister, Mary R
Mary's will was read out after her execution and in it, she had asked that provision might be made for her faithful servants.
In the minutes before her death, Mary was led to a scaffold in the Great Hall, watched by witnesses the Earl of Shrewsbury and Earl of Kent. Her servants Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle helped her to remove her outer garments and she was then blindfolded and knelt down, uttering her last words: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’).
A contemporary account by Robert Wynkfield described what he remembered of the events following the execution:
Then Mr. Dean [Dr. Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough] said with a loud voice, 'So perish all the Queen's enemies', and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it, with a loud voice said, 'Such end of all the Queen's and the Gospel's enemies.'
Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her cloths, which could not be gotten forth by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having any one thing that belonged unto her. And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.
After Mary’s body was embalmed it was taken to Peterborough Cathedral, but was exhumed on the orders of her son James VI (I) and she was reburied in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey.
Image: Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Great Chamber at Fotheringay Castle, co. Northants., 14-15 October 1586, copyright British Library