13 February 2022
Mr Beale and the death warrant
Some writings burn with anger even after more than four centuries. Two such are memoranda by Robert Beale, Clerk to the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I. Anger, but also astonishing bluntness from a leading — and loyal — functionary of the state. Beale was furious at Elizabeth’s attempts to foist the blame for the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, on to others: first, by asking her subjects to murder Mary, and then by blaming Secretary of State William Davison and the Privy Council over the delivery of the death warrant that the Queen had signed. Beale was the man who had carried the death warrant to Fotheringhay and had read it at Mary's execution.
Mary, Queen of Scots, loomed large in Beale’s career. Since at least 1572, he had been convinced that Mary’s death would be for the good of the Queen of England and of the Protestant religion. On four occasions he was sent to negotiate with the imprisoned Scottish queen. He noted the personal messages that Elizabeth added to the formal letters that he carried to Mary: ‘Your dearest Sister if it had pleased you so to have kept her El. R’ (27 May 1583); ‘Your Cousin even so is one as by desertes you might have had affectionate unto you El R’ (4 May 1584).
A note in Beale’s hand of one of Elizabeth’s personal messages to Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48049, f. 199r
Beale collected originals or copies of many of the most important papers and polemics about Mary over the years. Much of his collection on Mary is now preserved in one volume (Add MS 48027), from which three items are displayed in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. The first is a copy of the Bond of Association — the oath of loyal Englishmen in 1584 to unleash lynch law against those who attempted to harm Elizabeth or for whose cause they acted — as signed by Mary herself, with an attempt to mimic her signature: ‘This have I Robert Beale seen under the hand and seale of the Scotish Queen hade remaining with Mr Secretary Walsingham’. The second is his copy of the proclamation pronouncing Mary’s guilt, with his note of its reading in the City of London. The third is Beale’s own drawing of her execution. This blogpost discusses other documents in the same volume.
Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587): Add MS 48027/1, f. 650*r
In the aftermath of Mary's execution on 8 February 1587, Secretary Davison had been imprisoned in the Tower of London and tried before the Star Chamber. Beale wrote a full account of his own part in delivering the commission for the execution, restating its lawfulness and stressing that it was, as far as he knew, the Queen’s will. This account was perhaps written about the time of Davison’s trial, when it was unclear if he would not share Mary's fate. Beale kept a copy of the Queen’s warrant, adding in his own hand ‘Elizabeth R’ and specifying ‘Her Maiesty hand was also in the toppe’.
The first page of Beale’s copy of the commission for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Queen’s signature and the note at the top are in his hand: Add MS 48027, f. 645r
One memorandum provides Beale's fiercest criticism of Elizabeth. Written on the back of an account of Davison’s trial, he records how a copy of the proceedings was sent to the Scottish Ambassador to show the English Queen’s innocence. Beale disapproved of the Council’s self-incriminating submission provided for the same purpose: ‘Imprudenter: To take soche a matter uppon them: being of so great a moment. It may serve as an Evidence to condemne.’
Beale’s reflections on Elizabeth I’s responsibility, in his own hand: Add MS 48027, f. 690v
Beale went even further. He compared Elizabeth to the French King, Charles IX, whose plan to murder Admiral Coligny triggered the Massacre of St Bartholomew in Paris, in which thousands of Protestants were murdered: ‘Anno 1572: Immediately uppon the Massacre of the Admirall &c the king wold have layed it uppon the house of Guise: and so were his lettres. But they wold not beare yt: and so he was faine to advowe yt himself.’ Beale’s account here is pretty accurate: Charles had indeed initially tried to lay the blame on the Duke of Guise for what he himself had ordered, but quickly had to admit the truth. It is remarkable to see a loyal subject and committed Protestant comparing Elizabeth I to the king responsible for such a notorious atrocity. Hardly less surprising is Beale's implicit parallel between both the Queen’s dutiful servants and the ultra-Catholic Duke of Guise as being victims of royal duplicity.
Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
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