Mary, Queen of Scots, is famous for being executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Since childhood, Mary had been engaged to Francis, heir to the French throne. She was briefly Queen of France, but her husband died after about a year. After possibly being involved in a plot to murder her second husband, James Stuart, Lord Darnley, Mary quickly married her third husband, James Hepburn, Earl Bothwell. That too was short-lived, and Mary was soon forced to abdicate in favor of her son.
She fled to England, where her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, imprisoned her. As Mary was a close relative of Elizabeth, and technically next-in-line to the throne, there were many plots to replace Protestant Elizabeth with Catholic Queen Mary.
After nineteen years of captivity, Queen Elizabeth’s secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, found evidence of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, yet another plot against Elizabeth. Elizabeth reluctantly signed the death warrant. The evening before her execution, she was told that she would be dead by the next morning. She wrote this letter to Francis’s brother, King Henry III of France before she died:
8 February 1587
Royal brother, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honor to be queen, your sister and old ally.
Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve*: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.
Your most loving and most true sister, Mary R
*It would be Philip II of Spain who ended up paying her servants instead of King Henry III.
When the next morning arrived, Mary was led to the scaffold. The executioner asked for forgiveness, and Mary granted it, saying, “For now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.”
Her servants helped her take her outer garments off. Mary was blindfolded, and she obediently put her head on the chopping block. Once she had said “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”, the executioner missed the first time. He instead hit Mary’s head, which must have hurt.
The executioner tried again. He missed.
The third time, he finally did it right.
This time, the axe struck Mary’s neck, and the Queen was dead. The executioner picked up Mary’s severed head and held it up so that the crowd could see. After just a second, Mary’s head fell, leaving her red wig in the executioner’s hand, and Mary’s white-haired head on the ground. Finally, the event was over.