|Elizabeth I, target of Papal Plots|
Well, back to the unfolding story of Mary, Queen of Scots—a pawn in this drama—the would be Catholic replacement for Protestant Elizabeth. When we left our saga, Mary had been deposed from the Scottish throne by her Protestant barons, ostensibly for having married the Earl of Bothwell, the man suspect in the death of her previous husband, Lord Darnley. Of course, the reasons were far more complex than that and the religious tensions of Scotland in the 1560’s and ‘70’s played a major part in the dissatisfaction of the Protestant barons and populace with the Catholic Queen. Even more to the core of the issue, however, was Mary’s failure to know how to rule and the consequent civil unrest. In any event, in May the deposed Queen fled south across the border to England.
Mary’s hope was that Elizabeth of England would help her regain her Scottish throne. They were, after all, both anointed monarchs and it served neither that the idea should spread that an anointed Sovereign should be forced to abdicate by the nobility of the realm. Elizabeth was sympathetic to the argument but was caught in a difficult position herself. Mary was her nearest relative and consequently the heir apparent to her own throne. It did not serve Protestant Elizabeth’s welfare to have her heir, a Catholic, in England where Mary could be a rallying point for rebels against Elizabeth. And of course, a letter to English Catholics from the Pope—Saint Pius V (notice the “Saint” part) and the Bull, Regnans in Excelsis—commanding English Catholics to withhold their loyalty to Elizabeth did not make Mary any the more welcome to Elizabeth. It would be much better for Elizabeth if Mary were back in her own kingdom and busy with her own problems there. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s Council—all Protestant—didn’t favor England helping a Catholic Queen regain control over and against the Protestant rulers of a neighboring country. Moreover, Elizabeth was troubled by rumors of Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s murder. So Elizabeth convened an inquest to investigate Mary’s role in the murder.
The Earl of Moray, regent for the infant James VI and thus chief opponent of Mary’s return to Scotland, produced a silver jewel-box with the monogram of Francis II of France, Mary’s first husband, containing love letters and poems from Mary to Darnley’s suspected killer, the Earl of Bothwell. If the letters were genuine they could be construed as proof of a plot between Mary and Bothwell to do away with Darnley and marry his murderer. Historians even today are undecided if the letter were genuine. As the original letters were destroyed by Mary’s son, James VI, in 1584, they cannot be examined for evidence. Most contemporary historians believe they were forgeries but while their authenticity might indicate their conspiracy, their being forgeries proves nothing either way. Mary may or may not have been party to Darnley’s murder, but she certainly was a more than willing partner to marriage with his alleged (and probable) murderer. Elizabeth’s inquest ended, as Elizabeth had planned, with no verdict. Mary was kept in England, far from the Scots border lest her allies rescue and rally around her and yet distant enough from London to be no threat to Elizabeth.
Well, one can’t say no-threat to Elizabeth as Mary became the focus of several plots by English Catholic nobles and gentry to do away with Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Elizabeth’s council became increasingly anxious to be rid of Mary and wanted her executed but Elizabeth saw that it would not set a good precedent to executed an anointed monarch.
Mary’s imprisonment was far from severe. She maintained her own household with usually about twenty retainers including Catholic chaplains. She was permitted Catholic worship in her chapel. She had her own cooks and ate as befits a Queen. She received visitors seated on a chair of state under a royal canopy. Her possessions filled over 30 wagons. She never let those responsible for her oversight forget that she was a Queen. She would spend nineteen years in captivity.
Elizabeth’s advisors wanted to be rid of Mary and while Elizabeth herself was reluctant to move against a fellow Queen, members of her Council began to actively seek reasons to do away with the Catholic threat to the Crown—and threat to their influence over that Crown. In 1584, after several Catholic plots against Elizabeth in Mary’s favor, Mary’s imprisonment became more restrictive under the oversight of Sir Amias Paulet, a rabid anti-Catholic Calvinist. Yet Mary still maintained her own household and chaplains and compromised not at all about her style and rank as a Queen. In response to the Ridolfi plot and the Throckmorton plot—both Catholic led plots to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary—Parliament passed ever more severe laws against those who might plot against Elizabeth to put Mary on the throne. Mary herself would eventually be caught in the web of those laws.
The occasion to use those laws to get rid of Mary came with the 1586 Babington Plot, named for a twenty-five year old Catholic Nobleman, Sir Anthony Babington, who conspired with agents of Philip II of Spain and members of Mary’s household to assassinate Elizabeth and, with the aid of an invasion army from Spain, put Mary on the English throne and restore Catholicism. Philip II was motivated in this by the 1570 Bull of Pius V, Regnans in Excelsis, which declared Elizabeth an usurper and admonished Catholics not to recognize her as Monarch. Philip had declared his willingness to work with English rebels who would put the “rightful” monarch—Mary—on the throne. Now Philip was a devout, indeed fanatical, Catholic but his purposes were not to implement a Papal Bull but rather to use that bull as the occasion to exercise Spanish influence over England. Spain was the greatest power of the day with its vast American colonies and the titanic amount of gold those colonies were producing, but England was the up and coming power that would soon challenge Spain and which, indeed, by the late 17th century replace Spain as the greatest naval power and expand its Empire way beyond that of Spain. In other words, Philip wanted to crush the English serpent while it was still in the egg and before it could be a threat to his empire. Putting Mary on the throne of England would make England a client-state of Spain rather than a potential rival. If it advanced the Catholic faith—all the better, but that was a benefit not a motivation.
The Babington Plot failed miserably. It had been infiltrated by Elizabeth’s security system under Sir Francis Walsingham. Moreover, despite Pius’ injunctions in Regnans in Excelsis, the majority of English Catholics among the nobility and gentry were loyal subjects of Elizabeth and Babington found nowhere near the support he needed. The end result was that Babington and thirteen coconspirators were executed for treason. More seriously, Mary herself was accused of treason and brought to trial. She was convicted on October 25, 1586 and sentenced to death for treason.
Even then, Elizabeth was slow to act. Parliament and Council insisted Mary be put to death. Elizabeth didn’t like the idea. Kill one queen, you can kill any queen and Elizabeth did want to show that Monarchs were liable to execution. She had a point. Her execution of Mary would be used as a precedent when Parliament executed Mary’s grandson Charles I in 1649. Charles’ execution in turn would be the precedent for the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France in 1793. Their execution would set the model for the murder of the Russian Imperial family in 1918. You see how these ideas spread?
Under pressure Elizabeth reluctantly signed a death warrant but she entrusted it to her secretary William Davison, a privy-councilor, with instructions not to part with it—in other words, to make sure it was not used. Now it wasn’t that Elizabeth didn’t want to see Mary dead, she just didn’t want a public execution. Elizabeth tried to use her influence to have Mary secretly poisoned—as if that wouldn’t be suspicious under the circumstances. No assassins could be found, however—Sir Amias Palet, Mary’s gaoler (jailer) being a rabid evangelical was one who refused to do such a dastardly deed. Elizabeth kept dragging her feet about allowing the execution. William Cecil, Lord Burleigh—Elizabeth’s first councillor—convened a meeting of the Privy Council without Elizabeth’s knowledge and mandated the execution.
Mary was beheaded on the morning of February 8th 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. Executions of this sort were state occasions and done amidst elaborated ritual. It was, after all, a death and so black was the color of the day. The Hall was draped in black, the scaffold erected in the middle of the room was draped in black, and all present wore black. Three stools, all draped and cushioned in black were provided—one for the victim until such time in the ceremony she was to kneel at the chopping block, and two for the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent, the official witnesses of the Queen.
Mary was a Queen and she determined to control the scene—which she did. She had been informed the night before that she was to be executed in the morning and after writing her will and a letter to her brother-in-law Henri III of France, spent the night in prayer in the castle chapel. She emerged in the morning into the Hall of the Castle carrying her rosaries, tall, strong, and with determination. She was dressed, as was the protocol, from head to foot in black. The axemen knelt and asked her pardon, which she graciously and with a smile granted. Before kneeling at the block she had to disrobe of her veil and gown to give the headsman a clear chop, and as her dress fell to the ground the crowd gasped as she was left in her under-bodice and petticoats which were of scarlet red—the color of martyrs. The point was lost neither on her executioners nor on historians. Her maids blindfolded the Queen with a gold-embroidered kerchief and she knelt and the block, extending her arms like the crucified. Her last words were “in manuas tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit).
Mary’s most dramatic moment and the one in which she trumped her executioners came after the beheading. As the executioner held up her head by its auburn tresses and cried out the traditional “Behold, the head of a traitor; God Save the Queen,” Mary’s bald head fell free of what had been but a wig and rolled to the edge of the stage, leaving the headsman holding but a wig and the audience shaken by the display.
Mary’s remains were conveyed to nearby Peterborough cathedral where they were interred after a Protestant service. When her son James VI of Scotland acceded to the English Throne as James I of England, he had his mother’s body moved to Westminster Abbey and entombed in the chapel of Henry VII, across the aisle from the tomb of Elizabeth. Just as a historical note, her original gravesite in Peterborough Cathedral was directly across the Quire from the resting place of Katherine of Aragon, first wife to Henry VIII, the remote and indirect perpetrator of so much of this misfortune. A Saint—no. A marty, no. A politician and an actress—Mary Queen of Scots was among the best.