On this day in history, 14th October 1586, the trial of Mary Queen of Scots began at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Historian John Guy, author of “My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots”, has written a brilliant chapter on Mary’s downfall, “Nemesis”, and I have him to thank for the information in this article.
Mary Queen of Scots had, at first, refused to appear before Elizabeth I’s commission, but had been told by William Cecil that the trial would take place with or without her. She appeared in front of the commission at 9am, dressed in a black velvet gown and a white cambric cap and veil. Mary then protested against the commission, arguing that the court was not legitimate and arguing against the fact that she was not allowed legal defence and was not able to call any witnesses. Mary was also not permitted to examine any of the documents being used against her. Her protests were in vain and the prosecution went ahead and opened the trial with an account of the Babington Plot, arguing that Mary knew of the plot, had given it her approval, agreed with it and had promised to help. Mary protested her innocence:-
“Mary: I knew not Babington. I never received any letters from him, nor wrote any to him. I never plotted the destruction of the Queen. If you want to prove it, then produce my letters signed with my own hand.
Counsel: But we have evidence of letters between you and Babington.
Mary: If so, why do you not produce them? I have the right to demand to see the originals and copies side by side. It is quite possible that my ciphers have been tampered with by my enemies. I cannot reply to this accusation without full knowledge. Until then, I must content myself with affirming solemnly that I am not guilty of the crimes imputed to me…”1
Unfortunately for Mary, Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, had collected a great deal of evidence:-
- A confession made by Sir Anthony Babington who had also pleaded guilty at his own trial.
- A deciphered transcript in English of Mary’s reply to Babington.
- A reciphered copy of Mary’s original letter to Babington which looked exactly like the original.
- Confessions from Mary’s secretaries.
When the prosecution produced all of this evidence, Mary burst into tears but still denied her involvement, claiming that the documents were counterfeit. Walsingham proclaimed his innocence, stating that the documents were real. A distraught Mary proclaimed that “I would never make shipwreck of my soul by conspiring the destruction of my dearest sister.”2 The court was then adjourned for lunch.
After lunch, the secretaries’ confessions were read out, much to Mary’s shock and horror. Mary argued that her letters must have been tampered with after she had seen them, and then argued:-
“The majesty and safety of all princes falleth to the ground if they depend upon the writings and testimony of their secretaries… I am not to be convicted except by mine own word or writing.”3
The trial continued the next day with the prosecution accusing Mary of consenting to Elizabeth’s assassination in her reply to Babington. Mary tried to argue that although she had written “then shall it be time to set the gentlemen to work taking order upon the accomplishing of their design”4, she had not specified what the “work” was. However, as the prosecution pointed out, Mary had also appealed for foreign help and although she argued that an act of war, even if it resulted in Elizabeth’s death, was legitimate if it allowed her, a queen, to be free at last, the commission saw her actions as an act of treason.
As the trial closed, Mary demanded that she should be heard in front of Parliament or the Queen, but she was fighting a losing battle. Sentence was delayed as long as possible, by order of Elizabeth, but on the 25th October the commission reconvened and found Mary guilty. On he 29th October, Parliament met to discuss Mary Queen of Scots, the Babington Plot and her role in Lord Darnley’s murder, and it was decided that they should petition Elizabeth to execute Mary. This put Elizabeth in a difficult position as she did not want to be accused of regicide. On the 4th December, Mary was publicly proclaimed guilty and finally, on the 1st February 1587, Elizabeth called her secretary, William Davison, asking him to bring Mary’s execution warrant to her to sign. Elizabeth signed it but told Davison to ask Walsingham to write to Sir Amyas Paulet, in his own name, asking him to kill Mary. This would enable Elizabeth to be rid of her nemesis without taking any responsibility for it, instead Paulet would be acting privately under the Bond of Association*. Paulet was understandably horrified, protesting that “God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience.”5 Meanwhile, Sir William Cecil called a secret meeting of Elizabeth’s Privy Council which agreed to send the signed warant to Fotheringhay. Cecil appointed the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent to direct the execution and the council agreed to keep Elizabeth in the dark until the deed was done.
On the 8th February 1587 Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle. Although Elizabeth was furious with her Council, so much so that Cecil fled to his home and Davison was thrown into the Tower, John Guy points out that whatever happened to Mary, whether she was assassinated or executed, Elizabeth could deny any responsibility:-
“She had carefully contrived things so that she would win whatever happened. If Mary was killed under the Bond of Association, Elizabeth could disclaim responsibility. If Cecil covertly sealed the warrant and sent it to Fotheringhay behind her back, she could claim she had been the victim of a court conspiracy.”6
* The Bond of Association – p474 John Guy describes the Bond of Association as “a licence to kill”. Anyone signing the Bond, which was drawn up by Cecil and Walsingham in 1584 after the 1583 Throckmorton plot, was swearing to “pursue as well by force of arms as by all other means of revenge” anyone plotting to cause harm to the Queen.
Notes and Sources
- My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, John Guy, p490.
- Ibid., p492
- Ibid., p483
- Ibid., p496
- Ibid., p497
- State trials of Mary, Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Captain William Kidd, Condensed and copied from the state trials of Francis Hargrave, esq., London, 1776, and of T. B. Howell, London, 1816, with explanatory notes, p1-57