Sir Francis Walsingham
In this posting I want to pick up on Garrett Mattingly’s essay on the execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. I really am sorry that relatively few readers looked at that entry as it is, I believe and as I wrote in the introduction, the single best written piece of historical narrative that I have come across. Mattingly knows how to make serious history read like a dime-store novel. Mattingly honed his literary style writing sonnets. Supposedly he wrote a sonnet every day of his adult life. It taught him the discipline of saying as much as possible in as few words as were probable to the sonnet format. But it isn’t his style that I want to comment on today but his thesis that Mary was, alas, no Catholic martyr.
Yes she died in the faith but, despite her efforts to appear the martyr, she did not die for it. Her cousin, Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England and daughter of Henry VIII has a reputation for being a rabidly blood-thirsty Protestant hell-bent on exterminating English Catholicism by hunting down and judicially murdering each and every adherent to the “old faith” in England. But that simply was not the truth. Elizabeth had a number of Catholics in her court and employ. William Byrd, the composer and organist in her chapel, was a devout Roman Catholic and she granted him and fellow Catholic composer, Thomas Tallis, a monopoly on the publication of polyphonic music. Her attempts to secure her control over Ireland meant that she needed to have good relationship with the Irish nobles, most of whom remained in the “old faith.” Several of the foreign princes with whom she flirted about marriage were Catholics. Moreover many of the peers of her own realm, especially in the North, were Catholics as were many of the wealthier gentry families—it was fashionable to be Catholic to show you were an “old blood” family and not Tudor parvenus. Elizabeth had no interest in troubling the consciences of her subjects and was, by and large, willing to let sleeping dogs lie in the comfort of their own preferred religion as long as they were politically loyal to her. The problem was that many Catholics, instead of being content to remain in the background under a Protestant Queen, wanted to replace her with a Catholic one and regain the political ascendency. The Bull of Pius V, Regnans in Excelcis, which absolved English Catholics of their allegiance to their Protestant Queen, threw fuel on this fire. The convenience of Mary Stuart being both a Catholic and the next, by blood, in line to the English throne proved to be too great a temptation and in the 1570’s and 1580’ several plots were hatched to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Mary was foolish enough to get herself involved in some of these plots and it led to Elizabeth’s Council demanding Mary’s execution.
The final straw was a plot led by Sir Anthony Babington to murder Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. Mary wrote a letter explicitly condoning the assassination. The letter was intercepted by Thomas Phelippes, an agent of Sir Francis Walsingham who directed Elizabeth’s spy network. Unfortunately for the integrity of their case, Phelippes, who was a master forger, was also instructed to add a forged document to the letter, but Mary’s complicity in the plot was established (and for historians remains established) nonetheless.
Elizabeth asked Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s gaoler to dispose of Mary’s discreetly, but Paulet—a convinced Calvinist and a man of the highest integrity—refused to be involved in a murder. It forced Elizabeth to consider a trial, conviction, and judicial execution. Mary was tried and convicted in October 1586, but Elizabeth remained reluctant to sign the warrant for her execution. Mary was an anointed Queen and it would not be a good precedent for the Lord’s Anointed—even a Catholic Lord’s Anointed—to be put to death. Both Parliament and the Privy Council pushed Elizabeth to sign the warrant and yet she hesitated. Finally she was convinced to sign it but not to authorize its being carried out so that, should something untoward happen to her (Elizabeth), Mary would be executed and prevented from ascending the throne. On February 1, Elizabeth signed the death warrant. Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, summoned the Privy Counci without Elizabeth’s knowledge and the Council decided to have Mary executed. On February 7, 1587 Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle as Mattingly so well described in this blog’s entry of October 21st. Elizabeth claimed to be most angry that the warrant was carried out contrary to her instructions that it be held until such time that she should decide.
Was Elizabeth sincere or was she playing a double game? Most historians—as indeed thought also most of Elizabeth’s contemporaries—think that Elizabeth was attempting to play innocent in Mary’s execution. Yet, Elizabeth did have strong qualms about where this would lead. Mary’s grandson, Charles I of England and Scotland would end up being beheaded (1649) after being tried for treason by the Parliamentary party in the English Civil War. The French would bring to trial and execution their King and Queen in 1793. The Russian Imperial Family would be murdered in 1918. The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, would also bring danger to Elizabeth and to her England, but she would prevail and the Protestant faith would remain the established religion.