Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The beheading of a Queen


Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, England on February 8, 1587. The last of five Stewart/Stuart monarchs of Scotland who all died a violent death, she was 44 years old and had spent the last nineteen years of her life imprisoned in various English castles. 

·         James I, crowned at 12 years old, was a prisoner of the English for 18 years and once back in Scotland he was interrupted while undressing for bed, chased and then assassinated.
·         James II, crowned at 6, was killed aged 30 by an exploding cannon.
·         James III, crowned at 9, escaped from a battle, went into hiding but was discovered and murdered in cold blood by a passing priest.
·         James IV was at least 15 when crowned but was killed at Flodden Field, aged 40, fighting the English.
·         James V was just a year old when crowned. He died of illness and despair, so they say, a few days after the rout of Solway Moss in 1542.
·         Mary, queen from six days old, the youngest of them all, was executed aged 44, by the English after 19 years in captivity in England. To Roman Catholics everywhere she was the Dowager Queen of France, Queen of Scotland and the true Queen of England.

Mary Stewart returned to Scotland at 18 years of age after her French husband, King Francis, died. Given the violent end of recent kings, the inevitable regencies and increasing ruthlessness among the nobility, Scotland was very different to England, where Henry Tudor and his son had ruled for 62 years.

The beheading of the Queen of Scots was the first legal execution of an anointed European monarch and would change forever the ancient tradition of the Divine Right of Kings. An anointed Queen had been executed by law; royalty was no longer untouchable. Thrones became increasingly less secure.

Many accounts of Mary’s death are hearsay reports, for Elizabeth wanted no Catholic martyr once the deed was done. Perhaps 20 or 30 people were present to witness the axe fall.

links to Google books which cites the report written to Lord Burghley and the Council. (Cottonian MS.Calig.C.ix.fol.163 )

 Later Reports multiplied and differed according to personal and religious loyalties, but facts we can be reasonably sure of include the representatives of the English Queen arriving at Fotheringay between two and three o'clock in the afternoon on February 7, 1587. The Earl of Shrewsbury, Earl Marshal of England, the Earl of Kent, and Thomas Androwes, Sherriff of Northamptonshire, presented their commission which informed the Queen of Scots that she was to be beheaded between seven and eight next morning. Sir Amias Paulet, the jailer, was ordered to have everything in readiness.

The Queen of Scotland reputedly thanked them for their good news, saying that nothing could be more welcome to her, since she longed for an end to her miseries and had been prepared for death ever since she had been sent as a prisoner to England.
However, she begged the envoys to give her a little time in which to make herself ready, write her will, and place her affairs in order. It was within their power and discretion to grant these requests, but the Earl of Shrewsbury replied: “No, no, Madam, you must die, you must die! Be ready between seven and eight in the morning. It cannot be delayed a moment beyond that time.”


According to Robert Beale (1541-1602) Clerk of the Privy Council, Mary then ordered her supper and spent the rest of the day and the early hours of the next morning writing her will, and farewell letters to friends and relatives. One of them was Henri III, King of France and brother of her first husband, Francis. The letter is kept at National Library of Scotland and you can read an English and French translation here

Rising early, Mary gathered her servants and read her will to them. Accompanying her to the great hall were Andrew Melville, gentleman steward of her chamber, Dominique Bourgoing, physician, her apothecary Pierre Gorion, her surgeon, Jacques Gervais and an aged male servant. Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle were also present.

The Clerk to the Council, Beale, read the Commission. Standing on the scaffold, Mary asked for her chaplain, but this was refused. The Earl of Kent told her that he pitied her greatly to see her thus the victim of the superstition of past ages and advised her to carry the cross of Christ in her heart rather than in her hand.

Fletcher, the Dean of Peterborough was offered instead, and being Protestant, Mary rejected him. He prayed for a long time, and Mary and her Scots servants ignored him and prayed in their own way.

The executioner knelt before her and begged her forgiveness. The Queen told him that she willingly forgave him and alI who were responsible for her death, as freely as she hoped her sins would be forgiven by God.

Her outer garments were removed by the executioner and his assistant, assisted by Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle. The women blindfolded her and then backed away. Mary knelt down, uttering her last words: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’).


The executioner made two strokes with the axe and then had to detach a thread of gristle before he could hold up the head. When he did so, her wig fell off and revealed short grey hair. As the executioner tried to remove her stockings he discovered her little dog, which settled where her head should have been and had to be washed clean of blood.
The executioners were paid in fees; the normal “perks” such as garments and trinkets were forbidden them. Nothing that belonged to the queen was removed by them, such was the fear that relics would circulate after her death. Anything that was blood covered was taken from the hall with the body.

There were perhaps 30-35 people ringing the platform or standing nearby to witness her death. Everyone except the sheriff and his men were commanded to leave the hall while the queen’s body was carried up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.

Afterwards the body was taken to Peterborough Cathedral, but was exhumed on the orders of her son James VI (I) and reburied in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantome, was a member of the French nobility who accompanied Mary during her internment. Being a fellow Catholic, he provides a sympathetic account:~
“Her prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, 'I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.' Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner, he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.

All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, 'that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company.'

Then she, being stripped of all her apparel saving her petticoat and kirtle, her two women beholding her made great lamentation, and crying and crossing themselves prayed in Latin. She, turning herself to them, embracing them, said these words in French, 'Ne crie vous, j'ay prome pour vous', and so crossing and kissing them, bad them pray for her and rejoice and not weep, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress's troubles.

Then she, with a smiling countenance, turning to her men servants, as Melvin and the rest, standing upon a bench nigh the scaffold, who sometime weeping, sometime crying out aloud, and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, crossing them with her hand bade them farewell, and wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.

This done, one of the women have a Corpus Christi cloth lapped up three-corner-ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scots' face, and pinned it fast to the caule of her head. Then the two women departed from her, and she kneeling down upon the cushion most resolutely, and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this Psalm in Latin, In Te Domine confido, non confundar in eternam, etc. Then, groping for the block, she laid down her head, putting her chin over the block with both her hands, which, holding there still, had been cut off had they not been espied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms cried, In manus tuas, Domine, etc., three or four times. 

Then she, lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen. Then, her dress of lawn [i.e. wig] from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short, her face in a moment being so much altered from the form she had when she was alive, as few could remember her by her dead face. Her lips stirred up and a down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off.

Then Mr. Dean [Dr. Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough] said with a loud voice, 'So perish all the Queen's enemies', and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it, with a loud voice said, 'Such end of all the Queen's and the Gospel's enemies.'

Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her cloths, which could not be gotten forth by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having any one thing that belonged unto her. And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.”

Pierre de Bourdeille's account was originally published in 1665 and republished many times thereafter. Antonia Fraser claims that 300 people were in the Great Hall at Fotheringay Castle to watch the proceedings. Another account claims about four or five hundred people were present.

A contemporary account by Sir Robert Wynkfield, nephew of Cecil, who was present that day, described what he remembered of the events following the execution.

Official news of Mary’s execution arrived in Paris 1st March by special courier from Elizabeth who had to explain the true reasons for ordering her death. In France there was anger and sorrow – Mary was a Queen of France and all Catholic hopes had been dashed. The French saw her as French Dowager Queen, beautiful and a RC martyr.

The French Ambassador in London was not present at the execution and relied on hearsay. His letter arrived in Paris on 6th March – claiming Mary welcomed her execution after so long in prison though she never believed Elizabeth would go so far.

The English embargoed the execution as far as they could. Then the Maries returned to France with eyewitness accounts that naturally glorified the Catholic aspects. The Catholic Press conjectured and imagined what happened.

Philip II regarded her as a safely dead martyr plus a useful additional reason for the Armada to attack England.

Mary’s son James had many problems – he believed in his right to rule England but did not wish to align with the Roman Catholic factions of Spain and France. He also wished to reduce the clout of Scots nobles and the strong and growing Presbyterian influence, so he risked an alliance with England though it caused a rift with his mother, imprisoned in England. Outraged Scots saw her startling red underskirt as a blood’s cry for vengeance.

(Pictures from Eyewitness to History.com)

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