On 8 February 1587, Marie Stuart (Queen of Scots) was executed at Fotheringhay Castle for her supposed treasonous acts against Elizabeth I, Queen of England.
From the moment Mary was informed of her impending execution (the following morning) she felt the world lifted from her shoulders. This prison that she had been kept in for nearly two decades would soon close and she would be free at last.
In Margaret George’s novel, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, she speaks of how Mary looked forward to death as an end to her misery. When she was informed of her sentence she was inspired to write (originally in latin):
O Lord God,
I have hoped in Thee.
Now set me free.
In cruel chain,
In bitter pains,
I have longed for Thee.
In sorrow sore,
Upon my knees,
I Thee implore
That Thou wilt
Grant me liberty.
Mary had requested access to her chaplain, but she was denied. The English feared Mary becoming a martyr. Even going so far as to say that her life would be the end of their religion, and her death it’s preservation. Words such as those gave Mary the strength she needed to go on, for they proved she was to be martyred by her execution – that she was one of God’s chosen servants. This gave Mary great strength and comfort to carry on in her last hours.
A scaffold was being erected in the Great Hall (of the castle) in preparation of her execution. Mary would hear the faint banging of it being build. The sound of her impending freedom.
Imagine knowing that your end was near – that there is nothing you could do to stop it. Would you be as brave as the Queen of Scots? Would you embrace your last few hours by savoring every piece of what it is to be human? To breath. To smile. To laugh.
After giving a speech to those who had served her in her prison she said prayers. We can imagine: Strengthen me. Thank you for this life.
When the Sheriff came for Mary, at just past eight in the morning, they left her room and made their way down the great oak staircase of the castle. When they reached the foot of the stairs the Earl of Kent refused to allow Mary’s servants to proceed any further. She was to die alone by the request of the Queen of England.
After many words exchanged, the Queen was granted six persons to follow her into the Great Hall. Jane, Elizabeth, Melville, her master of household, physician, apothecary and surgeons. Yet again she was denied her priest.
With all the confidence she could muster (for a person about to die) she walked into the Great Hall with her head held high. She refused to have anyone say that she was afraid at the end.
The scaffold was only two feet high and was draped in black.
The Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent were there to witness her execution and to report back to Queen Elizabeth.
The executioners asked the Queen of Scots for her forgiveness (which is customary) and she replied with, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now I hope you shall make an end of all my troubles.”
Once she was disrobed of her outer garments it was revealed that she was dressed in red – the color a catholic martyr would wear.* This fact would be one that Kent and Shrewbury would hate to report back to the Queen of England.
Her servant, Jane (Kennedy) blindfolded Mary. The Queen of Scots was assisted to the block where she proceeded to kneel on a cushion that was placed there for her. She positioned her head on the block and stretched out her arms. Her last words were, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”).**
The executioner’s first swing missed Mary’s neck and struck her in the side of the head. Mary groaned and said in a whisper, “Sweet Jesus.” The spectators in the Great Hall gasped and screamed.
The second swing severed her neck, except for a small piece of ligament. The executioner, embarrassed at his botched execution cut through it with his axe.
After he removed her head he grabbed her head by the hair and declared, “God save Queen Elizabeth!” Upon saying those words Mary’s head fell from the wig she had been wearing and Mary’s head fell to the ground.
This was the end to a life lived the way Mary wanted to live it. From the age of six days old she was Queen. Her life had been laid out for her, but she would inevitably live it the way she wanted.
Mary, Queen of Scots would love much in her short life. She was chastised for making the choices she did, but she did not care. She may not have had the best of luck when it came to men but she always did things her way.
In the end, the “fight” between Elizabeth and Mary was won by Mary. We remember her as a victim and a martyr.
Rest in peace Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots. (8 December 1542 – 8 February 1587)
**Guy, John (2004). “My Heart is my Own”: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: Fourth Estate. pg 7-8
George, Margaret (1992). Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles