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February 8, 1587: Mary Queen of Scots Is Beheaded

February 8th marks the date on which Queen Mary I of Scotland – more commonly known as Mary, Queen of Scots – was executed at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire in 1587. As the only surviving heir to James V of Scotland, Mary became Queen on the 15th of December, 1542. Having only been born six days prior to this, however, Mary would be Queen in name only and the administration of Scotland would fall to a series of Regents such as James Hamilton, the Earl of Arran, and finally to Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise.

In 1548, Mary was betrothed to the heir-apparent of France, the Dauphin, the future Francis II of France. Scotland was invaded by English forces in the same year, in what was known as ‘the Rough Wooing’ or ‘Eight Years’ War’, and so Mary was sent to live in France. In 1558, she would marry Francis and in 1559 would become Queen Consort of France when Francis took the throne as King. However, Francis would die prematurely in 1560 and Mary would return to Scotland on the 19th of August 1561.

Having lived her life in France, Mary was unfamiliar with the messy and confusing world of Scottish politics, which when combined with her devout Catholic faith made her a target for Protestant reformers and figures such as John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and her half-brother, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. Despite this, Mary proved to be a capable Queen, presiding over a typically extravagant Renaissance-era court. At the same time, her focuses were further afield, specifically England, where she pushed her claims to the English throne.

Mary’s grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was a sister of Henry VIII who had married James IV of Scotland and as such Mary held legitimate claims to the throne. In addition to this was Queen Elizabeth I’s lack of an heir, something Mary knew too well and so Mary pushed Elizabeth to make her the next heir.

However, Mary’s refusal to marry Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and her marriage instead to her controversial half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Danley, proved to be her undoing. Elizabeth was threatened by this marriage, as both figures were descendants of her aunt and so held stronger claims to the throne than her. The Earl of Moray, having advised Mary against the marriage, openly rebelled on the 26th of August, 1565.

However, the failure of Moray’s rebellion resulted in Moray’s refuge in England. Mary’s marriage to Darnley, despite resulting in the birth of a son, James (Future King James VI and I of Scotland and England), would continue to be strained as a result of Darnley’s behaviour. Darnley would later die in suspicious circumstances on the 10th February 1567 when his lodgings were destroyed by gunpowder; the bodies of Darnley and a servant, however, were found unharmed by the blast and instead showed evidence of death by strangulation.

Suspicion fell upon both Mary and her supposed lover, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, as Mary went on to marry him three months after Darnley’s murder. Bothwell was indicted for treason and acquitted, however. This marriage would mark Mary’s decline and loss of power in Scotland, as it was on the way back from visiting her son at Stirling in mid-July 1567 that Bothwell and his men abducted Mary and took her first to Dunbar Castle and then to Holyrood Palace. Bothwell would marry Mary, though a rebellion by twenty-six Scottish Peers and their armies led to Bothwell’s flight to Denmark and Mary’s forced abdication.

Mary was imprisoned first in Scotland and then, after escaping, fled to England where she was then imprisoned by Elizabeth I for nearly 19 years. The discovery of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot of 1586, a plan to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, sealed Mary’s fate and she was moved to Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire. In early October 1586, she was put on trial for treason and was found guilty by all but one of 36 noblemen presiding over the trial. She was sentenced to death.

On the night of the 7th of February 1587, Mary was informed that she would be executed the next day. She spent the last hours of her life in prayer, giving her belongings to her servants and followers, before writing her will and a letter to the King of France. The executioner and his assistant knelt before her and asked forgiveness, as the executioner normally asked this before executing someone. Mary replied, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”.

Mary was not beheaded with a single strike. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow severed the neck, except for a small piece, which the executioner cut through using the axe. The executioner picked up her head, held it high and announced “God save the Queen.” At that moment, Mary’s auburn hair fell to the floor, revealing it to be a wig and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had very short grey hair. It was reported by one onlooker that “Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off” and that a small dog owned by the queen emerged from hiding among her skirt.

Mary’s request to be buried in France was refused by Elizabeth. Her body was embalmed and left in a secure lead coffin until her burial in a Protestant service at Peterborough Cathedral in late July 1587. Her entrails, removed as part of the embalming process, were buried secretly within Fotheringhay Castle. Her body was exhumed in 1612 when her son, King James VI and I, ordered that she be reinterred in Westminster Abbey in a chapel opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I.


Written by: Ryan Hearn, Volunteer Researcher and Archivist