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10 posts from February 2022

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

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

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. 

A portrait of Sir Amias Paulet

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

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.

Robert Beale’s concluding note regarding the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

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.

 

Tim Wales

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05 February 2022

The Gallows Letter

On 17 July 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from captivity at Chartley Hall (Staffordshire) to the English catholic gentleman Anthony Babington. Beginning innocuously enough, ‘Trustie and welbeloved. According to the zeale and entier affection which I haue knowen in you towardes the common cause of relligion and mine’, her letter to Babington is one of the most famous written in the 16th century. Now known as the ‘Gallows Letter’, it is the key document in the 1586 Babington Plot, which is explored in the British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens

A contemporary copy of the ‘Gallows Letter

A contemporary copy of the ‘Gallows Letter’, the closest version to the original letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Anthony Babington on 17 July 1586: The National Archives, SP 53/18/53, on display in the exhibition

As she dictated her letter, Mary was unaware that her words would entrap her. But Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, knew of the plot from the outset, even before Mary did. His spies intercepted Mary’s letter, passing it on to his cryptographer Thomas Phelippes, who had been waiting patiently for his opportunity to strike. Upon deciphering it, Phelippes drew a gallows on the address leaf, indicating that its content would condemn Mary to death for plotting against her cousin Elizabeth.

a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots, known as the Blair Reliquary

The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22): © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)

Back in autumn 1581, Mary had proposed a scheme whereby she would be freed to return to Scotland in order to reign jointly with her son James VI. By then she had been imprisoned in England for 13 years, ever since fleeing her homeland. James, who had just overthrown his last regent and begun exerting his independent authority as king, had no desire to share power with his mother or with anybody else. Nonetheless, Mary periodically renewed the scheme. In September 1584, she told Elizabeth that, if granted her freedom, she would openly support Elizabeth’s right to rule, while opposing papal interference in both England and Scotland. ‘Then none … will dare tooche thone Realme for religion without offending both’ (Add MS 33594, ff. 52v–53r).  Elizabeth ‘shall never fynd [me] false to her’, Mary reassured her. Mary even offered to relinquish her claims to the English and Irish successions, if Elizabeth would let her either live freely in England or return to Scotland. The Queen of England proved open to this idea, but in spring 1585, James, who was then almost 19, finally rejected his mother’s scheme outright. Mary was devastated.

It was after this bitter disappointment that Mary turned in earnest to plotting against Elizabeth as her only hope of escaping. In spring 1585, her keeper, Sir Ralph Sadler, was replaced by Sir Amias Paulet. Whereas Sadler had treated her honourably, Paulet took a harder line, keeping her more closely guarded and restricting her correspondence severely. Mary began fearing for her life, which made her seek out desperate courses. Therefore, when Anthony Babington proposed ‘the dispatch of the vsurper [Elizabeth] by six noble gentlemen, who for the zeale they beare to the Catholick cause and your Maiesties service will vndertake that tragicall execution’, Mary was ready to listen (The National Archives, SP 53/19/12).

In spring 1586, Babington had been recruited to a catholic plot against Elizabeth. With Spanish support, a rebellion would break out simultaneously with the queen’s assassination, and Mary would be crowned in her place. Walsingham had long regarded Mary as Elizabeth’s greatest threat. Learning of the conspiracy from one of his double agents, he saw an opportunity and opened a channel of communication between Mary and Babington, using ciphered letters hidden in beer barrels. These letters were intercepted, unsealed, and deciphered by Phelippes, before being resealed and carried to their intended addressee. In this way Walsingham read all Mary’s correspondence.

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, by an unknown artist after John de Critz the elder, 1589: private collection, on loan to the exhibition

Mary wrote the ‘Gallows Letter’ on 17 July 1586, authorising the plot and making recommendations. Fatefully, she agreed to Elizabeth’s assassination: ‘sett the six gentlemen to woork’. Mary also desired the overthrow of her son James VI and ‘some sturring in Ireland’. She warned Babington that, if he failed, Elizabeth would, ‘catching mee againe, enclose mee for ever in some hole, forth of the which I should never escape, yf shee did vse mee no worse’. He burned the ‘Gallows Letter’ after reading it.

Seeking to draw Babington out, before it was sent Walsingham had several passages to the ‘Gallows Letter’ amended and a postscript added, asking Babington to name the six assassins and to say ‘how you proceed and as soon as you may’. Hearing nothing further, on 3 August he ordered Babington’s arrest, but feared that this postscript had tipped him off. He wrote to Phelippes the same day, confessing ‘you wyll not beleve howe mych I am greved with the event of this cavse and feare the addytyon of the postscrypt hathe bread the iealousie [suspicion]’.

Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Phelippes

Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Phelippes, 3 August 1586: Cotton MS Appendix L, f. 143v

Evading arrest for some days by hiding in St John’s Wood (Middlesex), Babington was eventually caught. Mary’s secretaries were also arrested and interrogated. They confessed to writing the ‘Gallows Letter’ at her command, while Babington confessed to the plot. 

Cipher bearing Anthony Babington’s signed confession

Cipher bearing Anthony Babington’s signed confession that ‘this last is the alphabet by which only I have written vnto the Queene of Scotes or receaved letteres from her’, July 1586: The National Archives, SP 12/193/54, on loan to the exhibition

Evidence of Mary’s complicity could not be suppressed, as it was needed to convict Babington and his co-conspirators, who were found guilty of treason. Babington himself was hanged, drawn and quartered on 20 September 1586. After that everyone watched and waited to see what the queen would do next: would she commit regicide by bringing Mary to justice?

 

Alan Bryson

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