V. EXPIATION: 1568–87

From Carlisle she dispatched another message to Elizabeth, asking for an interview in which she might explain her behavior. Elizabeth, on principle averse to supporting rebellion against a legitimate sovereign, was inclined to invite her, but her Council confused her with cautions. If Mary were allowed to proceed to France, the French government would be tempted to send an army to Scotland to restore her and make Scotland again a Catholic ally of France and a thorn in England’s rear; Mary’s claim to the throne of England would then be supported by French arms as well as by English Catholics. If Mary remained free in England she would always be a possible source and center of Catholic revolt, and England was at heart still predominantly Catholic. If England should force the Scottish nobles to re-enthrone their Queen, their lives would be endangered and England would lose her Protestant allies in Scotland. Cecil would probably have agreed with Hallam that the forcible detention of the Queen of Scots violated all law, “natural, public, and municipal,”47 but he felt that his overriding responsibility was to protect England.

As one function of diplomacy is to dress realism in morality, Mary was told that before her request for an interview with Elizabeth could be granted she must clear herself of various charges before a trial commission. Mary replied that she was a queen and could not be judged by lay commissioners, especially of another nation, and she demanded freedom to return to Scotland or go to France. She asked to meet Morton and Lethington in Elizabeth’s presence, and promised to prove them guilty of Darnley’s death. The English Council ordered her removed from Carlisle (as too near the border) to Bolton Castle, near York (July 13, 1568). Mary submitted to loose imprisonment there on Elizabeth’s promise, “Put yourself in my hands without reserve; I will listen to nothing which shall be said against you; your honor shall be safe, and you shall be restored to your throne.”48 So mollified, Mary consented to appoint representatives to an examining commission. She tried to please Elizabeth by pretending to accept the Anglican faith and creed, but she assured Philip of Spain that she would never abandon the Catholic cause.49 From that time onward Mary and Elizabeth ran an equal race in duplicity, the one excusing herself as a betrayed and royal prisoner, the other as an endangered queen.

The trial commission met at York October 4, 1568. Mary was represented by seven men, chiefly John Leslie, Catholic Bishop of Ross, and the Catholic Lord Herries of the western marches of Scotland; Elizabeth had appointed three Protestants: the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Sussex, and Sir Ralph Sadler. Before them appeared Murray, Morton, and Lethington, who privately showed the Englishmen the Casket Letters. If, they said, Mary would recognize Murray as regent and agree to reside in England on a large pension from Scotland, the letters would not be made public. Norfolk, who dreamed of marrying Mary and thereby becoming King of England on Elizabeth’s death, refused, and Sussex wrote to Elizabeth that Mary seemed likely to prove her case.50

Elizabeth ordered the trial transferred to Westminster. There Murray laid the Casket Letters before her Council. Opinion remained divided as to the authenticity of the documents; but Elizabeth ruled that she could not receive Mary until the authenticity had been disproved. Mary asked to be shown the letters, either originals or copies; the commissioners refused, and Mary never saw either copies or originals.51 The commission disbanded without announcing a decision (January 11, 1569); Murray was received by Elizabeth and then returned to Scotland with the letters; Mary, angry and defiant, was removed to stricter custody at Tutbury on the Trent. Foreign governments protested; Elizabeth replied that if they saw the evidence that had been presented to the commission they would consider her treatment of Mary rather lenient than severe.52 The Spanish ambassador advised Philip to invade England and promised the collaboration of Catholic north England. Philip was skeptical of such aid, and Alva warned him that Elizabeth might order Mary’s death at the first sign of invasion or revolt.

Revolt came. On November 14, 1569, the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland led a rebel army of 5,700 men into Durham, overthrew the Anglican Communion board, burned the Book of Common Prayer, restored the Catholic altar, and heard Mass. They planned a dash into Tutbury to release Mary, but Elizabeth balked them by transferring Mary to Coventry (November 23, 1569). The Earl of Sussex, with an army largely composed of Catholics, rapidly suppressed the rebellion. Elizabeth ordered all captured insurgents and their conniving servants to be hanged, and “the bodies were not to be removed, but remain till they fell to pieces where they hung.”53 Some six hundred men were so disposed of, and their property was confiscated by the Crown. Northumberland and Westmorland escaped to Scotland. In February 1570 Leonard Dacres led another uprising of Catholics; he too was defeated and fled across the border.

In January 1570 Knox wrote to Cecil advising him to order Mary’s death at once, for “if ye strike not at the root, the branches that appear to be broken will bud again.”54 He had now finished his History of the Reformation of Religioun within the Realme of Scotland—a book making no pretense to impartiality, a narrative inaccurate but vivid and vital, a style quaint and idiomatic, sharp with the tongue of a preacher who called a whore a whore. A bitter man but a great man, building his dream to power more complete than Calvin’s, hating heartily, fighting bravely, consuming to the last flicker the incredible energy of a tenacious will. By 1572 he had worn himself out. He could no longer walk unsupported, but he had himself aided every Sunday to his pulpit at St. Giles’s. On November 9, 1572, he preached for the last time, and the entire congregation escorted him to his home. He died on November 24, aged sixty-seven, almost as poor as he had been born; he “had not made merchandise of the Word of God.” He left posterity to judge him. “What I have been to my country, albeit this unthankful age will not know, yet the ages to come will be compelled to bear witness to the truth.”55 Few men have had so decisive an influence upon the beliefs of a people; few of his time equaled him in encouragement given to education, fanaticism, and self-government. He and Mary divided the soul of Scotland between them: he was the Reformation, she was the Renaissance. She lost because she did not know, like Elizabeth, how to marry them.

Mary, like some restless tiger caged, tried every corner and possibility of escape. In March 1571 Roberto di Ridolfi, a Florentine banker active in London, made himself an intermediary between Mary, the Spanish ambassador, the Bishop of Ross, Alva, Philip, and Pope Pius V. He proposed that Alva should send Spanish troops into England from the Netherlands, that a Catholic force should simultaneously invade England from Scotland, that Elizabeth should be dethroned, that Mary should be made Queen of England and Scotland, and that Norfolk should marry her. Norfolk was told of the plan, did not clearly approve of it, did not reveal it. Mary tentatively consented.56 The Pope gave Ridolfi money for the enterprise and promised to recommend it to Philip;57 Philip made his own approval conditional on Alva’s; Alva ridiculed the project as visionary, and nothing came of it but tragedy for Mary’s friends. Letters of Ridolfi and Norfolk were found on arrested servants of Mary and the Duke; Norfolk, Ross, and several Catholic nobles were imprisoned; Norfolk was tried for treason and convicted. Elizabeth hesitated to sign the death warrant of so prominent a noble, but Cecil, the English Parliament, and the Anglican hierarchy called for the execution of both Norfolk and Mary. Elizabeth compromised by sending Norfolk to the block (June 2, 1572). When news reached England of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 22), there were revived cries for the death of Mary,58 but Elizabeth still refused.

Only by remembering that Mary’s captivity lasted almost nineteen years can we understand her desperation and her sense of bitter wrong. Her place of imprisonment was repeatedly changed, lest the sympathy felt for her in the neighborhood and among her custodians should beget or abet new plots. The conditions of her confinement were humane. She was permitted to receive her French pension of £1,200 a year; the English government gave her a substantial sum for food, medical treatment, servants, and entertainment; she was allowed to attend Mass and other Catholic services. She tried to pass the long hours with embroidery, reading, gardening, and play with her pet spaniels. As her hope of freedom faded, she lost interest in caring for herself; she took less exercise and became flaccid and fat. She suffered from rheumatism; sometimes her legs were so swollen that she could not walk. By 1577, when she was only thirty-five, her hair had turned white, and thereafter she covered it with a wig.

In June 1583 she offered, if released, to withdraw all claim to the English crown, never more to communicate with conspirators, to live anywhere in England according to Elizabeth’s choice, never to go more than ten miles from that residence, and to submit to surveillance by neighboring gentlemen. Elizabeth was advised not to trust her.

Mary resumed her schemes for escape. By a variety of desperate devices she managed to correspond secretly with the French and Spanish ambassadors and governments, with her adherents in Scotland, and with representatives of the Pope. Letters were smuggled in and out, in the washing, in books, in sticks, in wigs, in the lining of shoes. But the spies of Cecil and Walsingham uncovered every plot in time. Even among the students and priests at the Jesuit college in Reims Walsingham had an agent who kept him informed.

The romantic aura of the captive Queen touched the sympathy of many young Englishmen, and aroused the ardor of Catholic youths. In 1583 Francis Throckmorton, Catholic nephew of Elizabeth’s late ambassador to France, organized another plot to release her. He was soon detected; tortured into confession, he moaned, “I have disclosed the secrets of her who was the dearest to me in all the world.”59 He died under the executioner’s ax at the age of thirty.

A year later William Parry, a spy in Cecil’s service, induced a papal nuncio in Paris to forward to Gregory XIII a request for a plenary indulgence on the ground that he was entering upon a dangerous attempt to free Mary Stuart and bring England back to the Catholic Church. The papal secretary of state replied (January 30, 1584) that the Pope had seen Parry’s petition, rejoiced at his resolve, was sending him the desired indulgence, and would reward his efforts.60 Parry took this reply to Cecil. Another English spy, Edmund Neville, accused Parry of urging him to assassinate Elizabeth. Parry was arrested, confessed, was hanged, and, still alive, was cut down and dismembered.61

Angered by a long succession of conspiracies, and frightened by the assassination of William of Orange, Elizabeth’s Council drew up (October 1584) a “Bond of Association” pledging the signers never to accept, as successor to their Queen, any person in whose behalf Elizabeth’s life had been attempted, and to prosecute to the death any person involved in such an enterprise. The bond was signed by the Council, by most members of Parliament, and by prominent men throughout England. A year later Parliament gave it the sanction of law.

It did not deter further plots. In 1586 John Ballard, a Roman Catholic priest, induced Anthony Babington, a rich young Catholic, to organize a conspiracy for the assassination of Elizabeth, the invasion of England by armies from Spain, France, and the Low Countries, and the enthronement of Mary. Babington wrote to Mary about the plot, told her that six Catholic nobles had agreed to “get rid of the usurper of the throne,” and asked her approval of the plan. In a letter of July 17, 1586, Mary accepted Babington’s proposals, gave no explicit consent to the assassination of Elizabeth, but promised rewards for the success of the undertaking.62 The messenger to whom her secretary entrusted this reply was a secret agent of Walsingham; he had the letter copied and sent the copy to Walsingham and the letter itself to Babington. On August 14 Babington and Ballard were arrested; soon three hundred prominent Catholics were jailed; the two leaders confessed, and Mary’s secretary was induced to acknowledge the authenticity of Mary’s letter.63 Thirteen of the conspirators were executed. Bonfires were lighted throughout London, bells rang, and children sang psalms, in thanksgiving for the preservation of Elizabeth’s life. All Protestant England cried out for Mary’s death.

Mary’s rooms were searched and all her papers were seized. On October 6 she was transferred to Fotheringay Castle. There she was tried by a commission of forty-three nobles. She was not allowed a defender, but she defended herself resolutely. She admitted complicity in the Babington plot, but denied having sanctioned assassination. She protested that, as a person unjustly and illegally imprisoned for nineteen years, she had a right to free herself by whatever means. She was unanimously condemned, and Parliament asked Elizabeth to order her death. Henry III of France made a polite plea for mercy, but Elizabeth thought that such a plea came with poor grace from a government that had massacred thousands of Protestants without trial. Most of Scotland now defended its Queen, but her son made only a halfhearted intercession, for he suspected that, because of his Protestantism, she had disowned him in her will. His agent in London suggested to Walsingham that James VI, though anxious that his mother should not be beheaded, might be reconciled to much if the English Parliament would confirm his title to succeed Elizabeth, and if Elizabeth would increase the pension she had been sending him. The very canny Scot dallied so greedily that the citizens of Edinburgh hooted him in the streets.64 Nothing remained between Mary and death but Elizabeth’s hesitation.

The harassed Queen allowed almost three months to drag by before she made up her mind, and then she did not. She was capable of generosity and mercy, but she was tired of living every day in fear of assassination by the adherents of a woman who had claimed her throne. She considered the danger of invasion from France, Spain, and Scotland in protest against the execution of a queen; and she calculated the possibility that she herself might suffer a natural or violent death in time to let Mary and Catholicism inherit England. Cecil urged her to sign the death warrant and promised to take full responsibility for the results. She thought to avoid decision by intimating that Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s keeper, could clear up the confusion by ordering Mary’s execution on a merely verbal understanding that the Queen or her Council desired it; but Paulet refused to act without a written order from Elizabeth. Finally she signed the warrant; her secretary, William Davison, delivered it to the Council, which at once dispatched it to Paulet before Elizabeth could change her mind.

Mary, who during this long delay had begun to hope, met the news at first with unbelief, then with courage. She wrote a touching letter to Elizabeth, asking her to “permit my poor desolated servants … to carry away my corpse, to bury it in holy ground, with the other queens of France.” On the morning of her execution, we are told, she wrote a little Latin poem having all the grace and fervor of a medieval hymn:

O Domine Deus! speravi in te.

O care mi Jesu! nunc libera me.

In dura catena, in misera poena, desidero te;

Languendo, gemendo, et genu flectendo,

Adoro, imploro, ut liberes me.II65

She asked to be allowed to confess to her Catholic chaplain; she was refused. Her jailers offered her an Anglican dean instead; she rejected him. She robed herself royally to meet death, arranged her false hair carefully, and covered her face with a white veil. A golden crucifix hung from her neck, an ivory crucifix was in her hand. She inquired why her attendant women were forbidden to be present at her execution; she was told that they might make a disturbance; she promised that they would not, and she was allowed to take two of them and four men. Some three hundred English gentlemen were admitted to the scene in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle (February 8, 1587). Two masked executioners asked and received her forgiveness. When her women began to cry she checked them, saying, “I promised for you.” She knelt and prayed, then laid her head upon the block. The wig fell from her severed head and disclosed her white hair. She was forty-four years old.

Pardon is the word for all. Pardon for Mary, who labored bravely to be a just as well as a joyful queen; we cannot believe that she who tended her husband so long and brought him back to health had consented to his murder; we can forgive the young woman who gave up everything for a love however foolish; we must pity the desolate woman who came to England for refuge and found, instead, nineteen years of imprisonment; and we can understand her wild attempts to regain her liberty. But we can also forgive the great Queen, whose councilors insisted on Mary’s confinement as vital to England’s security, who saw her life and policy continually threatened by plots to free and enthrone her rival, and who prolonged that cruel captivity only because she could not bring herself to end it with a warrant for Mary’s execution. They were both noble women: one noble and hastily emotional, the other noble and hesitantly wise. Fitly they lie near each other in Westminster Abbey, reconciled in death and peace.


I. Critical opinion inclines to describe the letters as mostly genuine, with some interpolations. Lord Acton, informed, Catholic, and honest, thought four of the letters genuine, the second forged.40 Their text can be read in Andrew Lang’s Mystery of Mary Stuart, 391–44.

II. O Lord God! I have hoped in Thee.

O my dear Jesus! now free me.

In cruel chains, in bitter pain, I desire Thee.

Longing, moaning, and bending the knee,

I adore, I implore, that you set me free.

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