Friday, 8 February 2013
Catholic Martyr or Scottish Traitor? The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
On this day in history, 426 years ago, Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and formerly Queen of France as the wife of Francis II, was beheaded for allegedly plotting to assassinate her second cousin and fellow queen, the English monarch Elizabeth I. This charismatic, alluring and complex woman was praised, adored, scorned, despised and vilified throughout her lifetime, but her controversial execution shocked Catholic Europe - despite the fact that they had, in essence, neglected her as nothing more than a nuisance - and led to the portrayal of Mary as a martyr in Catholic sources which violently condemned her cousin.
Mary's short reign as the French queen was brought to a rapid end by her husband's premature death while still a youth, leaving her a widow aged just eighteen. A well-dressed, highly intelligent and cultured woman, Mary has been described by Julian Goodare as being 'unusually tall', her beauty 'universally and fulsomely praised', while her 'charm, wit and grace' were extolled by those who knew her. Returning to Scotland as its queen following her husband's death, Mary had, undoubtedly and unfortunately, concluded the most satisfactory and peaceful period of her life. A Catholic queen viewed as more French than Scottish in a land eagerly embracing austere Protestantism, Mary was regarded with ambivalence at best and hostility at worst by her Scottish subjects, who viewed her as a foreigner, despite having been born in Scotland as the daughter of the Scottish King James V.
Despite her later poor reputation, Mary's conduct during her queenship in Scotland can be praised, for despite her sincere Catholic religion she tried fulsomely to maintain peaceful relations with the Protestant Scots, endeavouring to work with the regime following an agreement with her illegitimate half-brother Lord James Stewart. As Retha Warnicke notes: 'negative assessments of Mary's qualities as ruler have virtually ignored the dispatches of Thomas Randolph, the English ambassador, who, although sometimes misled by Mary's statements, usually was aware of her whereabouts'.
Failed marital negotiations eventually catalysed political unrest and dissatisfaction at Mary's court, with Mary falling in love with her cousin Henry Lord Darnley. Mary's feelings for him were apparently sincere, but most historians have concluded that the vain teenager Darnley only wooed the queen out of an ambitious desire to become king of Scotland and achieve political and material glory. However, Mary refused to permit her husband to attain regal hegemony, and he was never crowned or titled King of Scotland. It appears that the queen belatedly discovered that Darnley was vain, petulant, selfish, and an entirely unsuitable husband for a queen. This marriage alienated Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who arguably modelled her own cautious actions in opposition to the disastrous policies of her cousin.
The queen faced increasing political conflict at her court, caused largely by differences in religion, political beliefs, and hostility towards the new consort. The Moray-Hamilton conflict severely threatened Mary's authority, although she was ultimately successful in suppressing it. Darnley became alarmingly jealous of his wife, believing that her failure to crown him king of Scotland resulted from her favour to other noblemen at court, who had poisoned her mind against him. Warnicke has suggested that 'contemporaries worked to undermine female rules with accusations that they were involved in sexual relationships with their advisers'. In view of this, the shocking events of 1566 which saw the violent murder of Mary's French secretary David Riccio make sense. One day at supper, the Scottish lords burst uninvited into Mary's private chambers where she was in the company of Riccio, seized the unfortunate secretary, and stabbed him fifty times in a brutal and violent death. Mary, who was actually pregnant at this time, was apparently threatened with a similar death. Notwithstanding, she soon afterwards gave birth to her only child, the future king of England and Scotland, James.
However, despite the removal of Riccio from the political scene, Darnley continued to face hostility and contempt from other prominent Scots. Having departed for Glasgow after apparently suffering from a disease - perhaps smallpox or syphilis - Darley's house was blown up in Kirk o'Field, in Edinburgh. Although he managed to escape, he was shortly afterwards smothered in the garden. Mary was residing nearby at Holyrood. Those who disliked her believed that she had ordered her husband's murder, although there is no evidence of this. Following this, the ambitious Earl of Bothwell concocted a scheme to entrap the vulnerable Queen, seduce her, and then marry her. What followed was an abhorrent act of sexual violence, with the earl raping her. Mary married him, probably against her will, following this. Mary became increasingly unpopular with her already resentful subjects, because many believed that Bothwell had been the culprit for Darnley's murder, and because of her speedy and entirely unsuitable marriage to him soon afterwards, believed that Mary was complicit in Darnley's murder. She was therefore vilified as a murderess and a whore.
What followed, of course, is well known. 1567 saw Mary being deposed as Queen of Scotland and her son, James, ascended to the throne in her place, although as a toddler he did not in reality rule. The queen later escaped into England in 1568, apparently cutting her hair short and discarding her lavish costume in order to escape being detected. This desperate action following Mary being paraded publicly through the streets of Edinburgh, condemned as a 'whore' by hostile citizens. She was, at this point, 25 years old.
Twenty years later, in February 1587, Mary was sentenced to death at the castle of Fotheringhay, where she had been imprisoned since the previous year. The preceding decade had seen the former Scottish queen implicated in a variety of plots, including the 1571 Ridolfi Plot and eventually the Babington Plot of 1586. Whether Mary was involved in these plots, to depose her cousin and become Queen of England, is uncertain; she frequently denied so and asserted her innocence, but contemporary evidence convincingly suggests that she was implicit in plots to assassinate Elizabeth. Catholic rulers in France and Spain vigorously supported Mary, hoping to extend Catholic rule into England; unsurprisingly, they viewed the English Queen as a Protestant heretic, daughter of a whore and traitor. Elizabeth's principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, ensured that Mary's correspondence entrapped her. Believing that her letters were secure, when they were in fact deciphered and read by Walsingham, Mary continually wrote to Sir Anthony Babington, the mastermind of a murky plot in 1586 to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. The plot also involved the Spanish king, who was personally hostile to Elizabeth, who promised to provide a Spanish army to seize Mary, crown her as queen, and do away with her cousin.
Some may be surprised to note that Elizabeth actually was highly reluctant to execute her cousin and rival. Elizabeth, who deeply respected and revered both the monarchy and public opinion abroad, was well aware of the unsettling consequences if she decided to execute not only her cousin, but a fellow queen, who none but God had the power to depose. Of course, Elizabeth's sister Mary Tudor had faced a similar issue in 1554, when faced with the execution of her cousin and queen Jane Grey, but Jane had been a usurper, whereas Mary Stuart was the legitimate ruler of Scotland, even if she had been deposed in favour of her son. Elizabeth's biographer, Wallace Maccaffrey, believed that 'Elizabeth was confident that with adequate safeguards the genie [ie Mary] could be kept in the bottle'. However, Elizabeth's councillors were adamant that Mary had to go. She had been implicated in horrifying plots to kill Elizabeth for the last 15 years, and many despaired at the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence, the Queen still prevaricated about getting rid of her cousin.
Elizabeth agreed to her cousin's trial, but as Maccaffrey notes, she was 'grudging', and employed deliberate delaying tactics in order to try and prevent what was, essentially, an inevitability. The trial began in October 1586 at Fotheringhay Castle, with Mary, apparently, defending herself strongly and convincingly. She was charged with plotting to assassinate the queen, and was sentenced to death accordingly. Mary, according to sources, welcomed death, viewing herself as a martyr for the Catholic faith. She apparently stated that her cousin should beware the terrible penalties she would face from God if she dared to kill a queen, anoited by God. This, of course, could not have made Elizabeth's life any easier.
Although Mary had been condemned in October, it was only four months later that Mary's execution proceeded, after Elizabeth had finally agreed to her cousin's execution in what has been termed 'the most painful decision of her life'. Of course, considering Elizabeth's personal history and her renowned aversion to violence of any sort, it is easy to understand why she prevaricated and was so reluctant to order Mary's death. Her own mother had been executed on false charges of adultery when Elizabeth was just 2, while Elizabeth's friend Robert Dudley reported that, following Katherine Howard's execution when Elizabeth was aged 8, Elizabeth had declared that she would never marry. Plainly, she abhorred execution, and must have dreaded, if not positively loathed, the idea of sending a queen to the scaffold, in what only reawakened painful memories. Elizabeth may also have remembered her cousin Jane Grey's execution. The 17-year old queen, following her beheading, was mourned by Protestants as a martyr for the Protestant faith, and Mary Tudor consequently reviled and despised. Elizabeth probably feared that the same - reversing the religions - would occur if she authorised Mary Stuart's execution.
Despite her hysterical reactions, Elizabeth finally agreed to Mary's execution. Mary received the news that she would die calmly, announcing to her attendants that she was dying for her Catholic religion, apparently ignoring the fact that she had been repeatedly implicated in plots to assassinate her rival over a 15-year period. Unlike the executions of three other English queens (Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Jane Grey), Mary was not beheaded outside, but inside the hall of Fotheringhay Castle. The scaffold had been erected in the Great Hall and was draped in black. Mary wore a gold crucifix, stressing her devotion to Catholicism, a gown of black satin which revealed a scarlet bodice and petticoat - highly significant, as red was the colour of Catholic martyrdom - and short sleeves of satin in purple. Mary turned to her ladies at the scaffold, and announced that her troubles would finally be at an end.
Mary had been denied a Catholic priest on the scaffold, and consequently ignored the Protestant Dean of Peterborough's prayers for her as he accompanied her. The executioner begged for the former queen's forgiveness, which she readily granted. Reciting her prayers, Mary was then beheaded with three strokes of the axe, an undoubtedly painful and brutal death caused by an inexperienced executioner - some have suggested that he was so overcome with grief that he was unable to carry out the deed effectively. Mary, whether people loved her or hated her, made a strong and lasting impression on all who knew her. Robert Wynkfielde, a contemporary, wrote following her execution:
...and so the executioner cut off her head... he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly... then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short... Tragically, Mary had been wearing a wig, and her true hair was grey, showing how shockingly she had aged during her 20-year imprisonment. She was, of course, still only 44 years old at her execution.
Then one of her executioners... espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse...
Mary Queen of Scots is one of the most controversial women to have lived in the Tudor period. A charismatic, cultured, intelligent and passionate woman, she was also highly reckless, rash, and at times incredibly foolish, in contrast with her cautious cousin Queen Elizabeth. Historians divide sharply in how they assess her - was she a martyr for the Catholic faith? Was she an idiotic woman who was ruled by her heart and let men dominate her? Or was she simply unlucky, the victim of Scottish religious politics and men of power? What cannot be denied is that Mary was repeatedly granted chance after chance by Elizabeth, who forgave her time and time again. Yet Mary repeatedly embroiled herself in treasonous plots to assassinate her cousin. It is surprising how long Mary actually lived, considering that Elizabeth had enough evidence to order her death many years previously. Mary certainly wanted to be Queen of England, and her disposition from the Scottish throne occurred in undoubtedly tragic and unlucky circumstances. But she was not politically astute, as her cousin was, and she failed to appreciate her good fortune in retaining her life at her cousin's jeopardy. As tragic as Mary's ultimate fate was, one cannot but feel, regretfully, that it was a logical consequence of her own actions.