Before the sixteenth-century, executing a queen would have been virtually unthinkable in pre-modern Europe. By 1587, however, executing queens in England was not a strange concept. On 8 February that year, Mary I of Scotland - or Mary, Queen of Scots as she is more commonly known - was executed at Fotheringhay Castle. She was the fourth queen to be executed in England since 1536, following Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Jane Grey, but unlike her headless predecessors, Mary was a Scottish queen regnant.
Mary's life following her abdication from the Scottish throne in 1567 had been difficult. Although she has frequently been disparaged as a foolish, inept queen who placed too much emphasis on matters of the heart, more recently Mary has been reappraised as a conscientious and efficient monarch who was, nonetheless, undermined by contemporary expectations of gender. In a kingdom that was, at best, ambivalent to female rule, Mary was compelled to navigate not only the political and factional rivalries that held sway at the Scottish court, but also the religious tensions unleashed by the Reformation. It was to her credit that, as a Catholic monarch, Mary attempted to reach some form of compromise with her unwavering Protestant subjects.
Mary had also previously been queen consort of France as the wife of Francois II, but her young husband's death meant that Mary was compelled to return to her native kingdom to commence the business of ruling. Like her cousin Elizabeth I, the Scottish queen was expected to marry and produce an heir to ensure the continuation of the Stewart dynasty. Eventually, in 1565, she married Henry, Lord Darnley, the eldest son of Lady Margaret Douglas and a grandson of Margaret Tudor. The marriage caused a degree of controversy and was not received well by Elizabeth I, but the collapse of the marriage and Darnley's murder in 1567 fatally undermined Mary's position. Whether or not she was involved in her husband's death - and most historians generally believe she was not - Mary made a gross misjudgement by marrying the chief suspect, the earl of Bothwell, shortly afterwards. Her decision was most likely due to Bothwell's rape of her, which meant that marriage to him was the only means of protecting her honour. While this decision can, from a modern perspective, be sympathised with, it was condemned by her furious subjects, and Mary's enforced abdication followed shortly afterwards. She was succeeded by her young son James, her child by Darnley.
Above: Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle.
During her marriage to Francois II, Mary had publicly stated her belief that she was the rightful queen of England, by quartering the royal arms of England with those of France and Scotland. This declaration was probably viewed with apprehension by Elizabeth I, who was generally regarded in Catholic Europe as a bastard and usurper. From a Catholic perspective, Mary Queen of Scots was the rightful queen of England, both because of her religion and because she was undoubtedly legitimate. After the abdication in 1567, Mary journeyed across the border into England in a bid to secure protection from her cousin and fellow queen, and perhaps hoped that Elizabeth would assist in her restoration to the Scottish throne. This decision, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably the worst that Mary ever made. Elizabeth made no attempt to restore her cousin to the Scottish throne and effectively had her placed under house arrest.
Mary's situation became more difficult over the years, as Catholicism became more closely associated with political insurrection and foreign intrigue, especially in the context of deteriorating Anglo-Spanish relations and escalating religious tensions, resulting in bloodshed, in France. The papal bull of 1570, which effectively released Elizabeth's subjects from their bonds of allegiance to her and actively encouraged them to kill her, could be viewed as something of a turning point in the queen's attitude to her Catholic subjects. During the 1570s and 1580s, a series of increasingly harsh laws were promulgated with the intent of enforcing conformity and ensuring obedience to the Protestant queen. Harbouring priests was made a capital offence, and priests who entered the realm with the intent of ensuring conversion could be executed, and many were. Perhaps acting out of desperation, Mary became involved in a series of conspiracies aimed at deposing Elizabeth and replacing her with the Scottish queen. Mary always believed that she was the rightful queen of Scotland, anointed by God, and only death could prevent her from enjoying that honour. By this point, however, she also coveted the English crown. So seriously were these conspiracies taken by the English government that in 1584 a document known as the Bond of Association was issued. It obliged all those who signed it to execute any person who attempted to usurp the English throne or assassinated Elizabeth. It was clearly aimed at Mary.
In 1586, Mary was judged to have actively colluded in the Babington Plot, for her correspondence was said to indicate her consent to Elizabeth's assassination - an act that would lead to her succession to the English throne. In October, the Scottish queen was tried at Fotheringhay Castle, and defended herself with dignity and courage; she also questioned the right of the court to try her, a divinely anointed queen regnant. However, the verdict was never in doubt. On 25 October, Mary was found guilty. Elizabeth hesitated to proceed with her cousin's execution, perhaps because she feared the response of Catholic Europe. Mary's son, King James, diplomatically sought Elizabeth's mercy for his mother, but in reality he took very little action to assist Mary.
Above: The tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots at Westminster Abbey. Copyright Westminster Abbey.
On the day of the execution, Mary proclaimed that she was dying for her Catholic religion, as a true woman of Scotland and France, the two kingdoms that she had governed. It took three blows of the axe to sever her head, but she was subsequently revered on the continent as a Catholic martyr, murdered by the ruthless and immoral Elizabeth. Although she was initially interred at Peterborough Abbey, when her son became king of England he had her reburied at Westminster Abbey. The iconography of her tomb, as Anne McLaren has stressed, celebrated her as the rightful heiress of Henry VII and, therefore, as the rightful queen of England. Her fertility and fecundity, as the mother of James I of England, was contrasted with the barrenness of her cousins, Mary I and Elizabeth I, who lay nearby. It is ironic that, shortly before her death in 1603, Elizabeth elected the son of her enemy to succeed her. In doing so, the English queen ignored the wishes of her father, Henry VIII, that the Suffolk line should succeed his children, if they all died childless, rather than the Scottish line, which he had barred completely.