By the mid 1580’s Mary was at her wits’ end – feeling betrayed by her son, 18 years of incarceration, beset by a unsympathetic jailer. She would listen to anything to escape – and then came Gilbert Gifford and Anthony Babbington
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Thomas Pellippes decoding and the gallows
Have I told you about our music teacher at school? I’m getting a feeling of deja vue, so maybe I have, but look since my family have heard all my anecdotes a coupe of hundred times, I see no reason why you lot shouldn’t suffer as well. Anyway, our music teacher was a very proud Scot, of ‘the English will all burn in hell’ persuasion, and in fact of the ‘actually they are already living in hell anyway because they are English’ level. Honestly, we didn’t really care because Mr Smith – his real name, not a pseudonym, which was disappointing to us – had one great characteristic, indeed the best characteristic any teacher can have to a schoolchild such as me – he was easily distracted. ‘Tell us about Mary Queen of Scots, sir’ one of us would pipe up, and then we’d have nothing to do for the rest of the lesson except get some kip in, or do that homework we’d failed to do because it’d been Porridge on the Telly last night.
Anyway this frankly feeble anecdote of my lost years is by way of re-introducing you to a topic that we really need to deal with, which I have been avoiding a bit – Mary Queen of Scots. In fact I think it was August of last year, 2020, when we last really talked about Mary; so howzabout a quick refresher so that we are all on the same page? You will recall that Mary Had been forced to abdicate by some of her Scottish lords in favour of her two year old son, James. Mary was never someone to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with a whimper, so she escaped, got an army together – but lost. So, she’d fled across the border to Workington’s, probably to the Working Men’s Club.
Mary had been forced to face the indignity of an enquiry in England as to whether or not she was responsible for the crimes of which she’d been accused in Scotland including the famous casket letters – to which process she furiously objected, and although Burghley pursued her at the enquiry, and pursue her he did all her life, Elizabeth closed the enquiry down without conclusion, because Elizabeth was not keen to be forced into a specific course of action where other royals were concerned, and so Mary started her long incarceration in the care of the earl of Shrewsbury, otherwise known as limbo land. .
By fleeing to England, Mary had lobbed a ton of dynamite into English politics, a permanent source of pain, panic, paranoia, plotting – and planks. We had already heard of the Rising of the North in 1569 which had Mary as a key plank in their planning, Mary restored as a rightful Catholic Queen. And we’d heard of the Ridolphi plot – the plotting of international enemies again to raise rebellion among English Catholics and bring Mary to the throne of England. It was quite clear to many on Elizabeth’s Privy Council that Mary needed to be cancelled and cancelled as quickly as possible.
But Elizabeth’s attitude was much more complicated, and gives the lie to the idea that Mary was mad to leg it to the Workington’s Mens Club; because Elizabeth did not take to the idea of anointed monarchs being cancelled – not one little bit. None the less she recognised the dangers Mary represented; so she did, multiple times, try to persuade the Scots to ‘take back their queen please!’. But without success; Mary’s party in Scotland did not last long before coming to terms with those who had used her son James to get rid of her, though English support for the Regents was important too; Moray was assassinated in 1569, and after him until Morton became regent, the Scots moved through regents like a packet of Tunnocks caramel wafers, but the last of Mary’s party surrendered in 1573, and in May of that year Edinburgh Castle fell to English artillery.
From the moment she arrived in England, Mary was a prisoner. It was a gilded prison it has to be said, but prison it most certainly was. Mary’s movements were watched, her letters intercepted, her person guarded, though with a varying range of rigor according to her gaoler. However, she was also treated as a queen, Elizabeth could not have it any other way – since if you could just lob one anointed monarch in the chokey and forget about them, no monarch was safe, not even those with names beginning with E. So Mary maintained a substantial household of up to 100 staff, though at times of rigorous cut down it could be as little as 16. At Tutbury, she had two main rooms which she organised as a presence Chamber and a privy chamber, and would sit under a cloth of state; and her surroundings were almost always comfortable and well appointed. She was attended by armed Gentlemen, which the English relatively armless, and in her chamber by her Gentlewomen; and indeed one of the four Maries, her closest confidentes in France and Scotland, Mary Seton, was with her in England.
Mary also sat at the heart of a diplomatic network. As a queen, she was allowed official diplomatic representation almost to the very end, and her networks were of two types, a bit like Walsingham and Burghley, she had an official network and an unofficial one; her official representative in Paris, for example, was James Beaton, the ex Archbishop of Glasgow. The unofficial network we’ll hear about a bit later. She was paid for from pockets other than her own…which should have been from the state, but Elizabeth I was definitively not the kind of person you expected to pay for her round at the local when the time came; so her gaolers often ended up paying from their own pocket. Meanwhile, Mary still received her payments as Queen Dowager of France and refused to contribute to the costs of her own imprisonment, which seems fair; and therefore had money to buy herself nice things – which she did, and money to pay people and agents to keep her in touch with the outside world.
Although Mary represented herself as we have heard, as a catholic Martyr to try and drum up support in Spain and France, in her household she maintained that rather attractive toleration for which it seems to me the Stuarts were notable; in her household and to her Scottish audience she maintained a position as a politique; her servants were mainly Catholic, but some were protestant, and she attended Protestant services throughout her imprisonment.
For the most part for 15 of the 18 years she was in prison, her gaoler was George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. George braved the royal tusk and walked a thin line – between treating Mary with respect and consideration, and not risking being accused of going native. By and large Mary respected Shrewsbury, despite his role. Fortunately, Shrewsbury had plenty of houses, as you do – Wingfield House, Chatsworth, and his principal house, Sheffield Castle. He was married to a rather more famous wife, Bess of Hardwick, and that was a relationship and a half. Shrewsbury moved from describing her in 1568 as ‘my jewel’ and ‘my own sweetheart’ to land at ‘my wicked and malicious wife’ or even’ my professed enemy’. Part of that was the fault of his role – Bess became convinced her husband was having an affair with Mary, which is unlikely. Mary is ceaselessly impressive in trying to use every single gram of leverage she possessed; so at one point she killed two birds with one stone, by writing to Elizabeth with a lexicon of all the terrible things Bess had said about her queen, including the accusation that she’d had an affair with Dudley, and Mary offered to give her more of the dirt if she’d allow her meet face to face. Elizabeth resisted the temptation of indulging in the goss.
Mary therefore tried to use whatever leverage she got get hold of in her restricted circumstances – corresponding with Spain and France where she could, but her French relatives had effectively abandoned her. The Spanish were more helpful; the Ridolphi plot in 1571 had been one example; and one of the Governors Dom Juan of Austria also tried to persuade Philip to launch an army to put Mary on the throne of England – but to no avail. None the less, Mary worked at it. She hoped one day that her son, James, to whom she wrote constantly, would one day remember his filial duty; but James was still not yet in control in the 1570s; though the rise of a French favourite at court, Esme Stuart suggested for a while that James would escape the influence of the regents; but in 1582, a group of Protestant Scottish Lords executed a short lived palace coup – the next result of which was the removal of Esme.
But whatever the comforts of her imprisonment, Mary burned with a sense of injustice all her life; never for a moment did she drop her sense of majesty, or her conviction that she was Elizabeth’s equal. Never did she drop her efforts to get back to where she belonged – to be queen of Scotland. She pulled every lever she could, including her famous wit, charm and influencing skills. Mary was ill quite frequently, and felt she was aging before her time; she suffered from one stage from gastric flu that looked to be about to kill her; she had severe problems with her legs as she got older too. One theory was that she had a disease called porphyria, but more likely it was a combination of lack of exercise and of constant mental distress. She was rarely allowed to go riding or hunting, and often when allowed, as by Ralph Sadler once, the gaoler was reprimanded. She missed her son badly, and yearned to know of him – though it took until he was 18 for him to write. It tortured Mary
Is this just and right that I, a mother, shall be forbidden not only to give counsel and advice to my oppressed son, but also to understand what distressed state he is in?
At the same time, she felt her friends had deserted her, especially the French; She wrote to her old contacts constantly but was distressed with the results – her letters were often ignored. Meanwhile, Catherine de Medici remained resolutely unhelpful, as did the Guise. When the Cardinal of Lorraine died in 1574 she had lost her personal contacts with the family. It is unsurprising that at times she suffered from depression. I was interested to read though, that she spent many summers at glorious Buxton, already a spa town in the 16th century, and where Shrewsbury built a secluded lodge for her use. I also do love Buxton, should you be thinking of visiting, though last time I was there I met a European tourist, understandably a little hacked off, who asked me why the English were so keen on coming to Buxton just so they could walk in the rain? I had no answer for her.
Now, I mentioned that Mary remained connected, and constantly looking for leverage and advantage to get herself back onto her throne. As luck would have it, in 1582 a conversation was going on once more about how to get rid of Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. Her agent in Paris under instruction from Mary, in letters smuggled out from a house in Paul’s Wharf in London, had made contact with the Duke of Guise, the Scottish Jesuit in Paris William Crichton and the Jesuit Robert Persons. I keep mentioning the Catholic league, by the way, so I should probably just explain that the league had been established by the Catholic Duke of Guise in France – and acquired support and funding from Spain and the Papacy; the League also sought political power in France, and formed the spearhead of the Catholic party in the French wars of Religion. So, the League had clout.
The plot spread, and indeed, thickened; a member of the English court was involved, Lord Henry Howard. He communicated secretly with one Charles Paget, another English catholic conspirator in Paris; by this time, Robert Persons had committed to getting Spanish commitment, and the Spanish Ambassador Mendoza was involved. Plans had started with an invasion of Scotland, but had now moved on to the invasion to England, once William Allen became involved in the plotting. Elizabeth would be removed, religious toleration for Catholics enforced.
Communication between Mary and the conspirators in France were carried out by a young man called Francis Throckmorton. He came from a wealthy family, and would seem at first glance to be an odd type for conspiracy and treason; his father John was in the government service and apparently a practicing protestant.
But in fact, John Throckmorton was probably a church papist, for he brought his children up as Catholics, including Francis. And when Francis Throckmorton visited Paris, he met of course with many English Catholics full of thoughts of rebellion. His language became much more aggressive in support of religion and politics when his father was ousted from his job as Chief Justice of Chester for corruption. One day then, in his house in Paul’s Wharf London, Throckmorton started to write in great secrecy to Mary herself; as he worked around him in his house, all around him were papers, the papers of rebellion – lists of catholic lords and possible supporters, information about the best places to land invading armies, plans to invade by Sussex and Cumbria – that sort of thing.
As he was working on his letter, he heard violent noises of forced entry and hurriedly destroyed his correspondence with Mary but had too little time to remove other evidence. Before long he was in the Tower, and was tortured to reveal what he knew – reluctantly and moderately tortured was the official line. Not sure what moderate torture would be, but don’t tell me.
So, how had Throckmorton been rumbled then? Well, the answer lies, inevitably, in the network of agents Walsingham had built up. He had managed to turn a priest in Paris, Henry Fagot; Henri knew of a London born clerk in the office of the French Ambassador, Castelnau, whose name was Lauren Feron. Laurent had also been turned – and supplied Walsingham with the contents of the Ambassador’s bag. Kipper, stitched, for the use of sir. Throckmorton was tried and executed, stubbornly refusing to beg forgiveness of the Queen. Throckmorton is a good example then of that other response of Catholics during the reign – not church papist, not hearth piety – but traitor. Walsingham had very cleverly caught him – but Mary Stuart remained free to continue to plot, and Walsingham knew he’d been lucky; and probably reflected that until Mary was removed, he had to be lucky every time – whereas would be assasains only had to be lucky just the once.
Burghley and the PC published a pamphlet all about the affair, called ‘A discoverie of Treasons practiced by Francis Throckmorton’. It raised a storm; and the fury it raised led to the Bond of Association, the bond signed by thousands of Englishmen to protect their queen and take vengeance if one of these plots succeeded.
In 1585, They changed Mary’s gaoler away from the humane Shrewsbury to the frankly less than humane Amyas Paulet. He was a harsh puritan who lacked Shrewsbury’s sympathy; ‘others, he said ‘shall excuse their foolish pity as they may.’ He considered treating Mary as a queen to be pandering, illustrated by the rather pitiful scene of Paulet constantly ripping down her cloth of estate, while a tearful Mary had her servants replace it. Any pretence of secrecy for Mary was now banished; Castelnau the French Ambassador was effectively in Walsingham’s pocket – unless he did exactly what he was told, Walsingham would expose his part in the Throckmorton plot. Mary’s letters were sent to Walsingham’s desk in Seething Lane before being sent on to their destination.
One of the issues of course for the English state was the confusion about the succession. Under continual pressure from Cecil to provide an answer, in 1584 Elizabeth opened negotiations with James VI, who had now announced his own majority. James presented fewer problems than Mary – he was a bloke, but his principal advantage was that he was protestant. So Elizabeth dangled the prospect in front of him that maybe she’d recognise him as her successor to the English throne. It led to a painful exchange between mother and son. James wrote to his mother and he specifically rejected Mary’s latest plan that she would return to Scotland to be joint monarch with her son; but he informed her that he would always honour her with the title of queen mother;
If Mary had been by her son she’d have told him to wash out his mouth with soap and water and given him a clip round the earhole. As it was, she fell ill to a spasm of vomiting, and wrote back with fury
I am your true and only queen. Do not insult me further with this title of queen mother…there is neither king nor queen in Scotland except me
Mary’s pain is palpable all these years later; she wrote to Michel de Castelnau, insisting that he not use the title king when corresponding with James, and complaining bitterly
‘I think no punishment, divine or human, can equal such enormous ingratitude, if he is guilty of it, as to choose to possess by force and tyrannically that which justly belongs to me, and to which he cannot have any rights but through me.’
And yet despite her fury, the crown of England was every bit as attractive to James as it was to his mother. A year later, in 1585, a treaty of defensive alliance was signed between Elizabeth and James; it did not specifically name James as Elizabeth’s heir, but it was strongly implied. James’ treaty allowed for a stipend to be paid by Elizabeth each year to James, of a substantial sum. Standing back and looking at the treaty in the cold light of day, through it James had effectively turned his back on the Auld Alliance with France, and rendered England’s northern border safe. But he’d also rendered his mother disposable and irrelevant as far as the English were concerned – Elizabeth had all she needed from Scotland. Elizabeth remained resolutely opposed to Mary’s execution, but as far as her PC was concerned, it moved a step closer. For Mary it was the ultimate rejection, the ultimate betrayal. She was now genuinely desperate and willing to consider anything to break free and recover her freedom of action. Mary’s consistent response to crises and disaster was not to whimper or give up, but the very opposite – to renew her defiance, challenge them to do their worst and do her very best to triumph over them. So when a catholic cleric called Gilbert Gifford came to call and told Mary that he could offer her a secret route to getting messages to the outside world, Mary was interested.
Gifford came with the very best credentials – specifically with a recommendation from a Welshman currently stuck behind the walls of the Bastille, on the request of the English government; Thomas Morgan. Now Morgan was the spider who sat in the centre of the Catholic resistance in Paris, and Morgan was well known to Mary, because in 1568 he had joined the household of the Earl of Shrewsbury. He’d given multiple favours to Mary – tipping her off when a search was about to take place, and help in hiding suspect papers; in 1575 he’d been discovered using a stationers in London as a post office for Mary’s correspondence, and had been used by James Beaton as a cypher clerk for Mary’s letters. So when Morgan recommended Gifford, a young Staffordshire recusant and exile in France with impeccable credentials, Mary was ready to trust him.
Gifford set off from France and arrived in England at Rye, which although it has but one sea as far as I am aware is a thoroughly lovely place and on our bucket list for a visit after lockdown – see you there. Anyway, many centuries before COVID, or indeed the NHS, young Gifford came ashore, where he was met, by some lovely gentlemen, who kindly suggested that maybe perhaps possibly – or in fact certainly, Gifford would like to come with them to meet one Francis Walsingham, one of the most powerful men in the realm. Gifford said hmm, let me think about that…Francis who? Oh go on then, what’s the worst that can happen?
Gifford proved easy to turn as it happens; his weak spot was his brother, as it so often is, who was stuck in France and desperate to be allowed to return. The job Walsingham gave to Gifford was to provide Mary with a seemingly secure route for letters, a route as safe as houses – or at least, as safe as the houses in Pudding Lane in London in 1666. The idea was that they’d put Mary’s papers in a watertight package, and then pop them into the barrels of beers regularly carted in and out of Mary’s household, though the bung. Obviously the papers might smell a bit of Old Speckled Hen by the time they got to London, but hey, they’d be none the worse for that. When Gifford visited Mary in January 1586, she was delighted. Ooh, the spying game is a nasty business ladies and gentleman, a dirty business; the route, of course, had been set up by Walsingham and his chumps. Over the next few months, the system was used, and it seemed proven to Mary that it was all working fine.
Well, Mary used her all important new route to play the game for the highest possible stakes – which was Mary’s way of course. Not just chips, but cheesey chips, and oh yes please, I’ll take the lardons as well. So her Paris agent Charles Paget had a plan; he was in touch with an English priest called John Ballard, and Ballard was convinced the thumbs of English Catholics were itching with enthusiasm for rebellion – and at the moment, Elizabeth’s armies were tied up in the Netherlands, so now was the time to strike. Mary was enthusiastic – yes, yes yes she cried, and get my son involved too! She got in touch too with Mendoza the Spanish ex-ambassador.
Well, that seemed to be that; after all Mary had signed the Bond of Association in 1584 promising to defend Elizabeth’s life so bang to rights, surely, off with her head. And yet Walsingham hesitated. Because really the plot so obviously had rubbish chances of success, Walsingham was worried it would not get everyone excited enough to entoast Mary permanently. He wanted more.
Enter Anthony Babbington, a young scion of a Derbyshire gentry family. Quite why you’d want to mess about with rebellion when you could be walking the Peak District and eating Bakewell pudding I have no idea, but young Babbington had different priorities to me – and they lay in loyalty to Catholicism rather than a mere pudding. Babbington had been a page in Shrewsbury’s household as it happens, but was recruited to the cause by Thomas Morgan in 1580 when Babbington visited Paris; he was then persuaded to sneak a package of letters to Mary Stuart, and he was part of the team.
From there, Babbington was radicalised by John Ballard, who was now making sure everyone was quite clear that come the revolution, brothers, anyone who had not risen against the hated tyrant would be first up against the wall; and introduced him to John Savage. Savage was already a card carrying member of the regicide society, and indeed had sworn an oath to assassinate Elizabeth. Around Babbington grew a group of Catholics, lured by the prospect of power or martyrdom; Edward Jones swore he would raise the Catholics of Wales come the moment, Robert Barnewell claimed he could raise Ireland; and Robert Poley suggested that both Burghley and Walsingham could be neutralised by being poisoned – and he should know, because he was the plotters agent within the household of the Devil himself, Francis Walsingham. Babbington actually used Poley to get an interview with Walsingham, seeking to become a double agent and gain more advantage, though Walsingham was not to be fooled.
Walsingham was not to be fooled because he already had the plotters much vaunted secret agent Poley in his pocket. So Walsingham the old devil knew exactly what was going on. So he watched, and he waited. Never interrupt your enemy when making a mistake.
Thomas Morgan, the chief catholic agent in Paris you might remember, now got in touch with Mary, and asked her to write to Babbington assuring him of her favour; she did so, and Babbington, immediately flattered, dumped any remaining inhibitions. In his reply he referred to Elizabeth as the ‘Usurping Competitor’. He outlined the plan to raise rebellion and remove Elizabeth – all Mary had to do was say the word. In Seething Lane, Walsingham held his breath.
Walsingham held his breath for nine days – which is impressive – while Mary carefully considered her reply; a bit like a mouse, sniffing at a piece of stilton on a traditional cheese trap. They can see there’s an odd metal contraption – but my does that cheese smell good – and is that a glass of port?
Eventually she wrote – asking for details, making suggestions; she didn’t actually say ‘do the deed on that witch Elizabeth’ but it is implied. And she thoroughly and comprehensively endorsed rebellion. Into the barrel went the package, out of the barrel came the package to walsinghams cryptologist Thomas Phelippes in Seething lane, smelling faintly of Old Speckled Hen, where the code was decrypted. Phelippes knew what he had got here and what it meant; in a postscript he added for Walsingham’s benefit, he drew a little tiny image of a gallows with a body hanging from it, I kid you not; the document still survives and I have popped it on the website.
Anyway, Walsingham decided to act, by arresting John Ballard the radical priest. Hearing Ballard had been pulled in, the conspirators looked at their supply of buttons and firmly pressed the one called ‘Panic’. Savage was told to get on with it, put his dagger where his mouth was and go and kill Elizabeth, while Babbington took two courses of action – firstly he sent a message via Poley to Walsingham saying that if his life was guaranteed he could tell him about a plot to kill the queen; on receipt of which Walsingham may well have chuckled, in an evil sort of way and twiddled his mustachios while he did it; and secondly Babbington legged it, and hid out in St Johns Wood, sleeping in barns, dressed as a farm labourer – which you wouldn’t see in St Johns Wood these days, I can tell you. But after 10 days he was caught. As he and his fellow conspirators were paraded through the streets of London, the City corporation lit bonfires, and church bells rang. By 21st September, in a blizzard of body parts, all the conspirators had been executed. A souvenir pamphlet was produced so that people could remember the occasion, with the words
Now mayest thou see what fruitless gain, from Antichrist doth spring.
And how to shamefull wretched end the pope his people bring
A rhyme worthy of Keats, or MacGonnagal maybe, but which kind of made the point.
Now then, the arguments have been long and hard – Walsingham was guilty of entrapment, Phelippes copy of the letter and postscript includes forgeries; maybe Morgan himself was an English spy, and he was indeed imprisoned in France for suspicion of that very thing. But the facts remain that Mary, although provided by Walsingham with every available ell of rope by which to hange herself, did indeed wrap the rope around her neck and condemn herself, and clearly gave approval for rebellion and murder of the woman she described as her ‘good sister and friend’. I suspect that after 18 years of incarceration, the death of all her hopes, her betrayal by her son, that Mary saw little point in caution.
Going back to Mary though in captivity not knowing Babbington had been arrested, she was excited, re-energised by Babbington’s plot while it was going on – maybe freedom was finally coming her way. And on 11th August 1586, Paulet actually allowed her to go hunting; things were looking up. When she saw a body of horsemen ride into sight while she was out in the fields, for a moment maybe Mary believed that the rebellion had taken place, that she was about to be rescued – hurrah, cry Harry…o, no, cry Fergus and St Andrew! But no; it had all been a trick; they were come to take her for closer confinement prior to a trial.
Elizabeth meanwhile was in a complete pother; at the trials of the conspirators, she did her very best to keep Mary’s name out of it. It may be that Elizabeth really did not want to execute Mary anyway for personal reasons, but just logically she was against the idea of subjects deposing and chopping off their monarch’s head, she believed the world to be a monarch chopping free zone. Her PC relentlessly pursued the logic of the situation, and forced it on Elizabeth – she kicked and screamed and dragged her heels at every step of the way. But the logic was inescapable – she would not be safe until Mary died.
Mary was taken to Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, where she was to be tried by a panel of 24, including Cecil. Mary resisted with all in her power, though she held no cards; but she furiously denied the jurisdiction of the court – firstly, she was a queen, responsible to no court but God. Secondly, how could she be accused of treason – Elizabeth was not her queen. But in the end, unlike Charles I, she agreed to plead.
In the hearing, Cecil was relentless; Mary fought tooth and nail but had all the disadvantages of those accused of treason through the ages – no access to legal advice, no sight of the evidence. Still she fought with wit and ingenuity; the papers were forged, she claimed. At one point as Cecil hammered away Mary turned to him and said ‘Ah I see you are my adversary’ ‘Yes’ replied Cecil ‘I am adversary to Queen Elizabeth’s adversaries’. The following day the verdict was handed down – guilty.
But Elizabeth refused to allow the sentence to be proclaimed. Elizabeth was in a desperate quandary, Mary would be executed under the parliamentary acts for the queen’s protection. Allowing Mary to be executed by act of parliament set a hideous precedent especially for a monarch – not just the green light to any monarch killers out there, but also an extraordinarily high level of power resting with parliament.
What Elizabeth really wanted, was for Mary now to be killed by a private citizen, in secret, a pillow over the mouth at night job, so that she could deny her guilt, and parliament’s right. The delay dragged on for weeks while Elizabeth hoped against hope that Mary would die, or someone would take the Thomas Becket gambit, who will rid me of this turbulent ex-queen of Scotland?!. Meanwhile James in Scotland was in a right hole too; if he allowed his mother to be executed, his subjects would be furious. But what could he do? He could ask for French help, but still France had problems of their own and would be unlikely to give it. And meanwhile the succession to the English throne sat there like a succulent, shimmering fruit.
Cecil knew no doubts nor did Walsingham. They were determined to finish it. In February 1587 Burghley panicked the Elizabethan horses by inventing rumours of plots, even a landing a mythical troop of Spanish soldiers in England for the gallery – in the mayhem Elizabeth signed a warrant for Mary’s execution – but gave instructions to Walsingham to write to Paulet ordering him to kill Mary without a warrant. Paulet was shocked, for all his lemon sucking puritanism was a man of principle and refused to do any such thing
God forbid I should make so foul a shipwreck of my reputation
he said. Cecil was implacable; he convened a secret meeting of the PC, and had the warrant sent on to Fotheringhay without Elizabeth’s permission, and without telling Elizabeth so that she could not countermand the execution. He would have his victim, and it would be public.
The day before her execution was due, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent came to tell her of her fate. Mary replied
I am quite ready and very happy to die, and shed my blood for Almighty God, my saviour and Creator, and for the Catholic church, and to maintain its rights in this country
Mary’s personal re-invention as a Catholic martyr was completed in a letter she wrote to Henry III of France, staying up until 2 O’Clock in the morning to finish it
I am to be executed like a criminal at eight o’clock in the morning…the catholic faith and the defence of my God-given right to the English throne are the reasons for which I am condemned, and yet they will not say it is for the catholic faith that I die…
Mary slept little that last night and at six rose and prepared with her gentlewomen. When all was ready, she entered the hall, where the dais, almost 6 foot high, stood before her with the block covered in black. Mary kept her composure, and commanded the scene with the majesty she so powerfully possessed. She made a speech asking those present to
‘tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion and like a true Scots woman and like a true French woman.
She walked to the block, and refused to yield to the protestant dean asking to pray with her – ‘I will have nothing to do with you or your doctrine’ – and drowned out his prayers with her own, tears now running down her face as she prayed for the church, her son, and Elizabeth. When it was time, she removed her dress and veil and was revealed in shocking scarlet, the colour of blood and of her martyrdom. She put her head to the block and her head was severed in two blows. 3 bits of legend surround the execution; her lips were said to move for 15 minutes afterwards; it is said that the executioner didn’t realise that she wore a wig, and so when he lifted the head by the hair the head fell and rolled across the dais, which is awkward. And finally, that when her body was moved her small dog was found quivering next to her body under her skirts.
So perish all the queen’s enemies
said the dean.
Well good golly Miss Molly, there’s an end to it. Mary’s death did indeed lead to an end to plots to assassinate Elizabeth, but can hardly be said to have made anyone’s life safer, since war was round the corner, which is traditionally bad for the health. And what of Mary, one of the most famous figures in Scottish and indeed in British history. Her reputation recently has been on a bit of a high; John Guy for example in his really good biography, My Heart is My own, describes her as the unluckiest prince in history, with all the talents and yet facing a simply impossible situation; he’s almost in tears by the end of it, which would have made Mr Smith cheer loudly in agreement.
Kate Williams paints a picture of a talented ruler who was the victim of the sexual politics of her time, betrayed by the men around her and the relentless misogyny of John Knox. I wouldn’t disagree with either of them; her approach to religious toleration was far superior to the Tudors, she was charismatic and positive, and she faced extraordinary problems at a time of viciously factional politics in Scotland, a time of enormous social and religious change, a toxic diplomatic environment in which she led a small nation in a large pond full of fish with large pointy teeth, and most certainly she faced misogny and betrayal. But she was also naive, impulsive and made some stonkingly poor decisions at crucial moments; her motto ‘My Heart is My Own’ is rather suitable for her, so much of Mary’s decisions seemed to have so much to do with heart rather than head; and it’s a bit difficult to avoid Jenny Wormald’s unforgiving conclusion that when all the shouting is done, she was a failure.