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End of Mary Queen of Scots

End of Mary Queen of Scots

When Mary Queen of Scots crossed the Scottish border and placed herself on the mercy of the English Queen Elizabeth, it was a last desperate throw of the dice.

After having already lost public support, suffered imprisonment and borne the indignity of having her throne seized from her by the Scottish people, Mary felt she had nothing left to lose by fleeing the country.

But there was still one thing that could be taken from her - her life. And by leaving Scotland and crossing the Solway, that is exactly what the tragic Mary eventually ended up surrendering.

Mary was still only 25 years old when she made for Carlisle with a small party of attendants to seek support from the English Queen, who was also her cousin.

By that age, Mary had already suffered three disastrous marriages, been implicated in the murder of one of her husbands, and caused so much scandal in Scotland that much - though by no means all - of the nation had risen up against her.

Mary's presence in England presented Elizabeth with an immediate dilemma. The Queen of Scots' own Tudor blood gave her a strong claim to the English throne. There was also another problem: Mary was a Catholic, while Elizabeth was a Protestant.

Elizabeth quickly realised that Mary could not be allowed her freedom in England - it would have been too potentially disruptive. So she arranged for her to be held in captivity.

At the start, Mary's imprisonment was so subtle that she may not even have realised she was being held. She was kept in considerable comfort at Carlisle Castle and afforded every luxury while Elizabeth pondered what to do with her.

The English Queen quickly realised that she had to have an excuse for holding Mary in captivity for any length of time. So she used the murder of the Scottish Queen's second husband, Lord Darnley, in which Mary may have been implicated, as an excuse.

Elizabeth, who was far shrewder politically than Mary ever was, decided to hold a formal inquiry into her removal from the Scottish throne and the installation of her infant son James VI under the guardianship of the Earl of Moray. It appeared as if she was concerned about the rebellion, but in reality she was giving Moray and the others to opportunity to state their case against Mary.

The inquiry began in York but later moved to London to allow Elizabeth and her advisers more access to it. Mary was not allowed to speak in person, which infuriated her, and eventually she walked out.

This was the excuse Elizabeth needed. The inquiry swung away from Moray and towards Mary and her involvement in Darnel's death, and the so-called Casket Letters - passionate correspondence written by her to the Earl of Bothwell, her hugely unpopular third husband who was the most likely candidate to have murdered Darnley - were introduced as evidence.

The letters were copies, and highly dubious ones at that. But they appeared to suggest that Mary was involved in the plot to kill Darnley. However, nothing could be proved and, in any case, the hearing was not a legal trial, since Mary was still arguably the Queen of Scots and could not be subjected at this stage to English justice.

She was, nevertheless, kept in custody, first at Tutbury castle in Staffordshire and then in Wingfield Manor, the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was her guardian in captivity. A plan was also hatched by some English nobles to marry Mary off to Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk.

Norfolk is said to have been genuinely in love with Mary, but Elizabeth would not hear of a marriage and kept her firmly locked up. Mary was then shuffled around the country, though she continued to be kept in comfort and at times was even allowed out riding and hunting.

Unsurprisingly, she grew tied of being kept in captivity and began to plot her own escape. She had not given up hope both of reclaiming the Scottish crown and getting hold of the English one, and managed to persuade the Catholic earls of Cumberland and Westmorland to mount an incursion into Scotland on her behalf. The invasion was a disaster and petered out almost before it had begun.

Other sympathisers plotted an invasion from Holland which would encourage Catholics in England to rise up in favour of Mary and overthrow Elizabeth. But one of Elizabeth's closest advisers, Francis Walsingham, heard of the scheme and the Duke of Norfolk, who was also implicated, was taken to the Tower, tried for treason and executed.

The plot caused fury at the highest levels of the English establishment. Parliament called for Mary to be tried, though Elizabeth refused this. However, she did agree to the passage of a bill removing Mary's claim to the English throne and making her liable for trial if further attempts to undermine her were discovered.

However, some of Elizabeth's felt their Queen had not gone far enough with Mary. They attempted to persuade her that while she remained alive, a Catholic threat to the English throne would always remain.

The result was that, after hearing their arguments, Elizabeth agreed to let them set a trap for Mary. A false conspiracy was established, with a rebel called Anthony Babington set up to form a plan for the murder of the Elizabeth and Mary's release.

Coded messages to and from Mary were sent in beer barrels but, unknown to her, were intercepted and read. Walsingham again then moved in, arrested Babington and his allies, and had them tried and executed at Lincoln.

Mary was not told of their deaths, but was then herself challenged while out hunting at Chartley in Staffordshire. She was accused of encouraging Catholics to overthrow the English Queen and her secretaries were arrested and questioned and her papers examined. Mary was then herself arrested and charged with trying to harm the life of Elizabeth.

The Queen of Scots was then taken to Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, where her trial took place. She insisted on defending herself, claiming that as a monarch she was only answerable to God. Mary refused to disclaim her right to the English throne, but said that she had not intended to harm Elizabeth's life.

However, the arguments didn't matter, as the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Mary was found guilty, though the sentence was left to Elizabeth to pass. Her cousin prevaricated over striking the killer blow and another five months passed before the death sentence was finally handed out.

Once the deed was done, sentence was carried out quickly. A week later, In February 1587, Mary was told she was to be beheaded the very next day. She decided she was going to die a Catholic martyr, even though the authorities refused to let her see a priest to receive the last sacraments of the church.

On the day of her execution, 44-year-old Mary dressed herself in black satin with a petticoat of crimson velvet. She wore a maroon shirt - the Catholic colour of martyrdom, and was led into the Great Hall of Fotheringhay, where dozens of people had gathered to watch the execution.

Giving her prayer book and rosary to her ladies in waiting, she stepped towards the block quietly and with great dignity. Placing her head on the block, she stretched her arms out and said in a strong voice in Latin: "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit."

Then the axe fell, and one of the most romantic and tragic eras in Scottish history was finally over.

Meanwhile around the world...

  • 1572 The Dutch use pigeons to carry letters during the Spanish siege of Haarlem
  • 1572 The Fourth War of Religion begins in France
  • 1587 The Rialto Bridge is constructed in Venice
  • 1612 The German mathematician, Bartholomew Pitiscus uses the decimal point in his trigonometrical tables

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