01 January 2023
Discover the story of the loyal canine companion to Mary Queen of Scots, a Skye terrier which stayed with her during her execution.
When Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1559 on the death of her sister, she was to reign for forty-four years and ultimately bring the Tudor period to an end. She restored Protestantism as the religion of the nation and became head of the Church of England, as her father Henry VIII had been before her.
For a significant portion of her reign, Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a cause for concern and a figurehead of Catholic resistance to Elizabeth.
Mary was a widow and had spent most of her life in France, despite being heir to the Scottish throne. It was feared that if she married a figure in a strong Catholic nation she would have the power necessary to invade England and depose Elizabeth. However, Mary’s choice in husbands proved unpopular: first to her cousin, Lord Darnley, who later died mysteriously (with Mary herself under suspicion) and then to Lord Bothwell, a man disliked by the Scottish nobility.
This marriage subsequently led to her resigning the Scottish throne in favour of her infant son, James, and fleeing to England, throwing herself on the mercy of Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth I was unable to help Mary, supposedly due to her possible involvement in Darnley’s death, so therefore kept her cousin captive in a series of castles and fortified houses in England for the next nineteen years.
Mary’s continuing imprisonment made her a figurehead for factions conspiring against Elizabeth, and Mary, despite her incarceration, continued to be involved in various plots and conspiracies.
The final stroke that sealed her fate was her involvement in the Babington Plot of 1586. This scheme, headed by Anthony Babington, ultimately failed due to the leaders being exposed by double agents. Letters were found from Mary to Babington encouraging the plot, which led to her being tried for treason. She was ultimately found guilty. Her execution took place on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.
Mary had always been fond of dogs. Her time in France was reportedly spent in the company of twenty-two lapdogs, so it is only fitting that at the end of her life one of her companions would be by her side. When Mary was led to the hall where her execution would take place, unbeknownst to those present her Skye terrier was hiding underneath the large skirt of her dress. After she was beheaded, her dress began moving, almost as if her body were trying to stand.
Upon closer examination, her beloved dog was found shaking and clinging to his mistress’s garments. The dog, covered in Mary’s blood and sitting between her body and head, refused to leave. Eventually it was forcibly removed, washed and given food, but it refused to eat and, pining for its mistress, died shortly afterwards.
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Extracted from A History of Britain in 100 Dogs by Emma White, The History Press, £20. The book tells the story of Britain from Roman times to the present and looks at our native British breeds and the extraordinary roles they played in society, from providing entertainment to herding livestock to guiding the visually impaired.
 K. MacDonogh, Reigning Cats and Dogs: A History of Pets at Court since the Renaissance (Fourth Estate
Limited, 1999), p. 46
Image: A black Skye terrier puppy. Mary’s was found hiding underneath her skirts after her execution. (Tuck DB Postcards)
Originally published January 2017. Reviewed January 2023.