Thursday, October 14, 2010

On This Day in Tudor History

On October 14, 1586, Mary Queen of Scots was put on trial for treason after being implicated in the Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I by her own letters, which Sir Francis Walsingham had arranged to come straight to himself.

From the letters Walsingham intercepted it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth, despite her denials and spirited defense. Her case also rested on the fact that she was denied the opportunity to review the evidence or her papers that had been removed from her, that she had been denied access to legal counsel, and that she had never been an English subject and thus could not be convicted of treason.

The extent to which the plot was created by Sir Francis Walsingham and his English Secret Services remains open to conjecture. However, this was not the only time Mary was implicated in treasonable offenses.

Mary was ultimately convicted of treason and sentenced to beheading.
Although Mary was found guilty and sentenced to death, Queen Elizabeth hesitated to order the execution of her own cousin and an anointed queen. She was fearful of the consequences, especially if Mary's son, James of Scotland, took revenge by forming an alliance with Catholic powers, France and Spain, and invaded England.

Elizabeth did eventually sign the death warrant. The privy council, having been summoned by Lord Burghley without Elizabeth's knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence before she could change her mind.

When the news of the execution reached Elizabeth she was furious. She took it out on the privy councillor to whom she gave the warrant, saying he had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant. The secretary was arrested and thrown into the Tower. He was later released, after paying a heavy fine, but his career was ruined.
It was Mary Queen of Scots' execution that is often remembered for its gory and theatrical events. First, the executioners and her two servants helped remove a black outer gown, two petticoats, and her corset to reveal a deep red chemise — the color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church.

Biographer Antonia Fraser writes that it took two strikes to decapitate Mary: The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head, at which point the Queen's lips moved. (Her servants reported they thought she had whispered the words "Sweet Jesus.") The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew that the executioner severed by using the axe as a saw.

Afterward, the executioner held her head aloft and declared, "God save the Queen." At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand came apart and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had had very short, grey hair.

Another well-known execution story was about one of the queens small dogs, which is said to have been hiding among her skirts, unseen by the spectators. Following the beheading, the white dog refused to be parted from its owner and was covered in blood. It was finally taken away by her ladies-in-waiting and washed.


  1. I read your post,thanks for this contribution.

  2. Part of the story is that Mary's lips writhed up and down for ten minutes after the beheading. Not sure of the source for that, and I don't see it in the wikipedia article.