08 February 2022
Murder most foul: how Mary, Queen of Scots, almost avoided the chop
The circumstances of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 8 February 1587, are well known. There is a detailed eye-witness drawing of Mary entering the hall at Fotheringhay Castle (Northamptonshire), disrobing, and placing her head on the block — you can see it in person in the British Library's major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, which is on in London until 20 February.
But were you aware that, on the same day that Queen Elizabeth I signed her cousin's death warrant, she instructed Mary's keepers to assassinate her?
A contemporary drawing by Robert Beale of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1 (f. 650a recto)
On 1 February 1587, after weeks of prevarication, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and handed it to Secretary Davison. She commanded him to have the warrant passed immediately under the Great Seal and despatched. Within a day Elizabeth was developing cold feet, making ambiguous noises about the warrant, complaining about haste and keeping her distance from the business at hand. It was at this point that Lord Burghley, acting with a group of Privy Councillors, pressed ahead with despatching the warrant. They entrusted it to Robert Beale, Clerk to the Privy Council, swearing a mutual oath that they would tell no-one, including the queen, of their proceedings. Beale and the two noblemen to preside at the execution — the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent — arrived at Fotheringhay on 7 February. Mary was executed the following day.
In his notes and memoranda (Add MS 48027), Beale tells another story of how Mary might have died. At the same time as Queen Elizabeth gave the death warrant to Secretary Davison, she ordered him and his fellow Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, to write to Mary’s keepers, Sir Amias Paulet and Sir Dru Drury, asking them as good subjects to assassinate Mary.
The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22): © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)
Davison and Walsingham wrote to the keepers that Elizabeth found a ‘lack of care and zeal’ in them for not yet finding ‘some way to shorten the life of that Queen’. She took it ‘most unkindly towards her, that men professing that love towards her that you do, should in any kind of sort, for lack of the discharge of your duties, cast the burthen upon her, knowing as you do her indisposition to shed blood, especially of one of that sex and quality, and so near to her in blood as the said Queen is’.
‘God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my posterity, to shed blood without law or warrant’, was Paulet’s prompt response. Walsingham acknowledged Paulet’s reply ‘wrytten effectuallie & to good purpose’ in a letter about expediting the process of Mary’s execution with as much secrecy as possible (Add MS 48027, f. 644v). It transpired that the men whom Elizabeth approached had no problems with arranging Mary’s death — far from it — indeed, there was a case to be made that killing her was justified under the Bond of Association against those who sought Elizabeth’s death. But in their mind Mary's death should be by due form following the sentence at her trial, not common murder. For Elizabeth's part, assassination would have allowed her a rather desperate degree of (not very convincing) deniability.
Portrait of Sir Amias Paulet (c. 1533–1588), 1576–78, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard: Rothschild Family collection
Beale takes up the story. Paulet and Drury ‘dislyked that course as dishonorable and dangerous: And so did R[obert] B[eale] and therfore thought it convenient to have it don according to lawe in suche sorte as they might justifie their doinges by lawe’ (f. 639v). Beale reports elsewhere (ff. 640r-641r) how, when he came to Fotheringhay, Paulet and Drury told him ‘that they had been dealt with by a lettre if they could have been induced her to have been violently murdered by some that should have been appointed for that purpose’. Beale named a potential assassin, ‘one Wingfeld (as it was thought)’ – presumably Robert Wingfield, a Nothamptonshire gentleman who would write an eye-witness account of the execution. Beale reported that the Queen ‘wold have had it done so rather then otherwise’ and ‘would fayne have had it so’: she claimed that it was a course advised by the Scottish Ambassador.
It was thought that the Earl of Leicester most supported assassination, but that both Walsingham and Davison ‘misliked’ it. The matter was talked over whilst Beale was at Fotheringhay, but ‘by the example of Edward the 2d. or Rychard the 2d.: it was not thought convenient or safe to proceed covertly: but openly, according to the statute of 27’ — that is, the Act of 1585 by which Mary had been tried and condemned. Edward II and Richard II were powerful and damning precedents to conjure with, stories of the hole-in-the-wall murder of kings, whose resonances are captured in the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare just a few years later. The keepers were also understandably doubtful about carrying out this action even with the promise of a pardon from Elizabeth.
Robert Beale’s account of the circumstances of the warrant for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, written after August 1588: Add MS 48207, f. 640r
Beale’s notes expand on the illegitimacy of assassination. First, he described the formal and lawful processes of the execution itself. He then gave examples of those who had since said that it would have been better to have had Mary assassinated. In August 1588, he was told by an English diplomat that the Count of Arenberg had said ‘that it had bin better don to have poisond her or choked her with a pillowe, but not to have putt her to so open a death’ (f. 640v). Another diplomat, William Waad, who had been sent to explain the execution to the French court, reported that the King, Henri III, and others were of the same mind.
Finally, Beale’s notes circled back to Fotheringhay on the night before the execution. As Paulet and Drury plucked down her cloth of state, and having been told to prepare to die, Mary ‘mentioned the murder of King Rychard the second. But Sir Dru answered that she needed not to feare yt, for that she was in the charge of a Christian gentleman’ (f. 641r). The honour of a Christian gentleman, but not, as Beale’s notes leave hanging in the air, such an honourable queen.
Detail showing Robert Beale’s concluding note: Add MS 48027, f. 641r
The fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, is featured in our exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be purchased either in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
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