Saturday, February 1, 2014

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Queen Elizabeth Signs the Execution Warrant of Mary Stuart

Queen Elizabeth I's signature and seal from Mary Stuart's warrant for execution. Image Marilee Cody.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1587, Queen Elizabeth I reluctantly signed the execution warrant of her cousin, Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scotland. She could no longer ignore her cousin's plots and schemes now that she had been convicted of treason. Though Elizabethacknowledged her cousin's guilt when she signed her name to the warrant, she gave strict instructions that the execution was not to be carried out without her express permission. There was an understanding between the monarchies of Europe that anointed sovereigns were not to be subject to the laws of one another; they were only expected to answer to God. Politically, the execution of Mary Stuart would set a dangerous legal precedent. And personally, for Elizabeth it would be a traumatic reminder of the death of her own mother. Henry VIII had executed Anne Boleyn who, not royal by birth, had been raised up from her status as a subject by being anointed and crowned Queen of England. Elizabeth loathed the idea of causing the death of a queen.


The evidence against Mary and the legality of the subsequent trial proceedings is still a subject that is hotly debated by 16th century historians. Whether or not you believe that she was "entrapped" by Walsingham and his men, it cannot be denied that Mary did, in fact, send correspondence to Anthony Babington which agreed to his sinister plan, and even offered her suggestions and personal messages of support.  It should be mentioned here that Mary’s conspiracies against Elizabeth and England date back farther than the Babington plot itself, which is one of the reasons why Elizabeth denied her asylum in England.

The cipher code of Mary, Queen of Scots from the Babington plot letters. Image via the UK National Archives. Image public domain.

But, the question of whether an anointed sovereign can be tried, convicted, and executed in a foreign land is a much more difficult thing to determine. Mary had foolishly entered England despite Queen Elizabeth telling her not to cross the border, and therefore she was technically trespassing. The way I see it, Queen Elizabeth’s hand was forced in the matter, (and admittedly, the impulsive and problematic Mary had conveniently delivered herself to Elizabeth on a silver platter) and she then had to detain Mary in England and keep her under surveillance for national security reasons. Mary had entered England willingly, thus putting herself under English law. 

A photo of one of the many pieces of embroidery completed by Mary, Queen of Scots during her captivity. Image Marilee Cody.


From careful analysis of the contemporary evidence, investigations into the related conspiracy theories, and debates with fellow historians and academics, I have come to the conclusion that Mary Stuart was indeed guilty of conspiring with Babington and his men to have Queen Elizabeth I killed, place herself on the throne with the help of a Spanish army, and restore Protestant England to the Roman papacy.


Elizabeth's council knew how dangerous Mary was not just as a traitor, but as a symbol, a figurehead for all Catholic rebellion in England. They were also incredibly frustrated at Queen Elizabeth’s in-action, even now that the warrant was signed. Queen Elizabeth was an expert at procrastination to force political change and to gain support, but her apprehension over the execution of her cousin was something else entirely. The council so desperately wanted Mary dead that they defied their sovereign’s wishes and agreed to endure her inevitable wrath together, all co-signing the legal documents that brought about the former Queen of Scotland’s end. Mary was privately executed on February 8th at Fotheringay Castle. Once it had been done, Queen Elizabeth was informed. She was first beside herself with grief and anguish, and the contemporary sources as well as the nature of Elizabeth’s complicated relationship with her cousin suggest that this reaction was genuine. She then became vengeful, throwing William Davison, the privy councillor who had taken defied Elizabeth's wishes by processing the warrant, in the Tower of London. That being said, Queen Elizabeth was a political genius, and it is entirely possible that the death warrant being processed without her knowledge was her plan all along. In orchestrating the execution in an indirect way, she would not have to take responsibility for the act, much like Henry II’s knights dealt with Thomas a’Becket for him when he cried out for someone to rid him of that “wretched priest”. Our strongest piece of evidence for this theory is that Mr. Davison, after cooling his heels in the Tower, was released. If this was, in fact Elizabeth’s idea all along, her grief over causing the death of her cousin should still be interpreted as genuine.

Elizabethan Privy Council manuscript concerning Mary, Queen of Scots that went up for auction recently. Photo via Paul Fraser Collectibles.

The execution of Mary Stuart provided an acceptable catalyst for Phillip II of Spain to invade England in 1588.

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