Historians are strange creatures, we enjoy looking at the lives of those before us, we indulge in these peoples triumphs and misfortunes, their loves and their losses and their birth, deaths and marriages. Voltaire had it right when he said he said “Historians are gossips that tease the dead”. I for one will be frank, I see it as an academic version of Heat or Hello magazine. I would never be seen dead reading or buying such material but I love to know about how people lives and find people of the past more fascinating than my contemporaries.
One such figure from the past, who has bewitched historians, has myth and conspiracy theories surrounding her, packed more into her life than many and divides historians today is Mary, Queen of Scots.
Today is the 425th anniversary of her execution at Fortheringhay Castle. There are few people that have faced their death with so much passion, show, class and bravery as poor Mary did 425 years ago.
The story that leads her to the scaffold is for another post; for today I want to salute her final hours.
After being found guilty of High Treason against her Cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, in the autumn of 1586 the sentence of death had hung over her for several months. Mary would have guessed that her cousin Elizabeth would have been in moral agony and struggling to sign the death warrant of her kin and fellow Queen. Elizabeth had in fact signed and destroyed 2 previous warrants on the grounds that Mary like her self was an anointed queen and that she was therefore appointed by God and God alone should end her life.
Finally on 4th February 1587, Elizabeth signed the warrant and Cecil was able to retrieve it before she destroyed it again. He had the warrant dispatched by Robert Beale who was first to take it to the Earls of Shewsbury and Kent before going to Fotheringhay Castle; the last prison of the convicted exiled Queen; on the 7th February. Once there the men told Paulet her gaoler before going to Mary’s quarters.
Once in the queens quarters the Earls and Beale informed Mary that she was to go to the block the following morning. After listening to the warrant she is said to have asked if she was to meet the same fate as Richard II, who had been murdered in Pontefract Castle. After being reassured that this was not what was intended for her, she calmly said
“I thank you for such welcome news. You will do me a great good in withdrawing me from this world, out of which I am very glad to go.”
Her mind then started planning her final hours and moments. If this was going to be her fate then she was going to go out with dignity and style; she was after all brought up within a French court and was more French than Scottish in many ways. Now in her final hours she had a purpose, she knew what she had to do, she explains in her own words:
“I am quite ready and very happy to die, and to shed my blood for Almighty God, my Saviour and my Creator, and for the Catholic Church and to maintain its rights in this country.”
She asked for her Chaplin to comfort her and this was callously denied her by her gaoler Paulet. She had also requested to be buried with her first husband Francis or her mother both of whom were buried in France. Shrewsbury who had been one of her jailors in the 18 years she had been Elizabeth’s prisoner, said that she was being unreasonable to expect Elizabeth to send her executed body to France to be buried.
When the men finally left her she refused to weep with her gentlewomen. She spent a couple of hours in prayer and ate very little at supper but her prayers must help her plan her final hours, as she did not waste a moment. First she wrote her will. Then she went through her wardrobes and processions and distributed them to her servants. Then she wrote her last letter, to her brother in law, King of France Henri III. It is recorded that she didn’t sit down to write this letter until 2 am on 8th February. The saddest lines of this tear stained letter to her brother in law for me are in reference to her son, James. They read
“Concerning my son, I commend him to you inasmuch as he deserves it, as I cannot answer for him”
Once that last task was completed she lay on her bed very still and doozed until 6am when she got up to be prepared by her serving women for the very last time. On first appearances she looked like she was dressed all in black except for a while veil that went down her back to the floor and was held in place with a small white cap. Her gown was of thick black satin, trimmed with gold embroidery and sable. Her outer bodice was crimson and her sleeves were Italian in style slashed and revealed glimpses of purple velvet. Her shoes for this final walk were of Spanish suede and her stockings were the colour of sky blue, embroidered with silver thread and kept up with green garters. But she still had a secret close to her skin not to be revealed until moment before she met her maker. Her make up and wig were made up to complete the look trying to turn back the effects of 18yrs in prision. She may have been 44 but she looked considerably older.
She then gathered her household and bid them farewell before having her will read for them all to hear and witness. Then they all knelt in prayer. They had only just started when there was a knock at the door and she was told her time has come. Upon leaving her chamber for the last time Mary accessorized her self to project the image of the Catholic martyr. She carried an ivory crucifix and Latin book of prayer while a rosary adorned with gold cross hung at her waist from her girdle.
En route to the grand hall she met, Andrew Melville, who was weeping. Mary is said to have said the following to the distraught man:
“You ought to rejoice rather than weep for that the end of Mary Stuart’s troubles is now come… tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman.”
She entered the hall with two of her Gentlewomen and the weeping Melville holding her train. She mounted the black draped platform that had been erected. It held a cushion for Mary to kneel on, the block and 2 masked men from the Tower.
The warrant was read then the prayers were supposed to have started. The minister of who was chosen for this grim task was Dr Richard Fletcher, Dean of Peterbourgh and favourite of Elizabeth. He stumbled over the opening of his prayers and Mary quickly put him in his place saying:
“Mr Dean, I will not hear you. You have nothing to do with me, nor I with you… I am settled in the ancient Roman Catholic religion and mind to spend my blood in defence of it.”
The Dean was said to have asked her to reject her faith and die in the Protestant faith of the Queen of England. Mary was colouring with anger and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent told the Dean to refrain from saying his sermon and get on with the prayers.
Then as the prayers started, the Dean in English, while Mary loudly started her final prayers in Latin, clutching her crucifix before her face. The two were in battle the witnesses in the hall responding to the Deans prayers while Mary and her servant continued in Latin. She is said to have slipped to her knees and continued after the Dean had finished. Her final insult to him was that she changed from Latin to English asking that there be an end to the religious unrest in England, for her son James to find the Catholic faith, that Elizabeth continue to reign before finally asking for the saints to pray for her soul before kissing her crucifix and making the sign o the cross in the Catholic fashion. Mary now turned to her executioner who was begging her forgiveness to whom she said:
“I forgive you with all my heart for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”
Now Mary performed her last act, an ultimate insult to this Protestant audience. Mary’s gentle women undressed her down to her petticoat which was Red the colour of Catholic martyrdom. We only know this from the accounts of her French servants as the Protestant recorders were told to omit it from the official report.
The moment was neigh as she thanked and blessed her servants before she went to kneel on the cushion by the block. Her eyes were covered with the white Corpus Christi cloth. After reciting Psalm In te Domino confido In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, she laid down her head on the block; stretched out her arms and legs before saying In manus tutas, Domine commendo spititum meum – Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit.
The axe was raised but poor Marys ordeal was not over, for the executioner’s nerves must have caught up with him, he missed her neck hacking into the back of her head, the second strike hit the target, however did not completely remove her head. This meant that the executioner had to use the axe to as a clever. This was hardly a dignified end for an anointed queen.
Reading this account one can not but be in awe of the bravery and courage of a woman who in my view lived her life with passion, hope, in fear and under the belief that she was divinely anointed to her role in life. I hope she continues to haunt and bewitch historians and her story lives long after we have gone.