The Tudor Society

8 February 1587 – Mary, Queen of Scots is executed at Fotheringhay

Execution_of_Mary,_Queen_of_Scots,_created_1613,_artist_unknown.dutchOn this day in history, Wednesday 8th February, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, following the arrival of her death warrant at the castle the day before.

Mary had been tried in October 1586 for her involvement in the Babington Plot, a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, and had been found guilty. Elizabeth I put off signing her death warrant, struggling with the idea of killing an anointed monarch, but finally signed the warrant on 1st February 1587, although Elizabeth claimed later that she ordered her secretary, William Davison, not to do anything with it for the time being. As I mentioned in my article on the death warrant, Elizabeth's Privy Council met and agreed to send the warrant to Fotheringhay without the Queen's knowledge. It is impossible to know exactly what happened. Did Davison misunderstand the Queen's instructions and intentions? Probably not. Some historians believe that William Cecil, Lord Burghley, chose Davison to be a scapegoat because he realised that Elizabeth needed someone to take the responsibility for Mary's death away from her, but others believe that it was Elizabeth who chose Davison as the scapegoat.

Although London rejoiced at the news of Mary's execution, Elizabeth did not. According to William Camden, when she was given the news at 9am the next day, "she heard it with great indignation, her countenance and her words failed her, and with excessive sorrow she was in a manner astonished, insomuch as she gave herself over to grief, putting herself into mourning weedes, and shedding abundance of tears". She then "sharply rebuked" her council and "commanded them out of her sight." So great was Elizabeth's fury that Sir Francis Walsingham fled to his home, pretending to be ill, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Lord Burghley were banished. Poor Davison, the scapegoat, was arrested, tried and sentenced to imprisonment in the Tower and heavily fined. Burghley managed to rescue the poor man from being hanged.

Elizabeth then had to deal with the aftermath of Mary's execution, which included the Pope calling for Philip of Spain to invade England as soon as possible and Henry III of France calling Elizabeth "this bastard and shameless harlot". By April, though, things had calmed down and there seemed that there were to be no reprisals from Catholic Europe.

Mary, Queen of Scots was laid to rest at Peterborough Cathedral with the royal honours deserving of a queen. In 1612, Mary's son, King James I, ordered that his mother should be moved from Peterborough to Westminster Abbey. It is at the Abbey that she can be found today, in a chapel opposite that of the woman who signed her death warrant, Elizabeth I.

You can read a primary source account of her execution in my article 8 February 1587 – The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: A Primary Source Account

Also on this day in history, 8th February 1601, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, his supporters and two hundred soldiers gathered at Essex House. Essex then marched into the city crying "For the Queen! For the Queen! The crown of England is sold to the Spaniard! A plot is laid for my life!". This was Essex's Rebellion - members can click here to read more.

Notes and Sources

Image: Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, unknown Dutch artist, 1613.

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