Eyewitness Account of the Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary’s Death Mask
Report of the death of that rare and princely martyr Mary Stuart, late Queen of Scotland, executed for her conscience at Fotheringay Castle, the 8th of February, 1587.
First in the hall of the said castle was a stage, raised of seven feet square every way, and about five feet in height. At the two upper corners were two stools set, one for the Earl of Shrewsbury, another for the Earl of Kent; directly between the said stools was placed a block one foot high, covered with black, and before that stood a little cushion stool for the queen to sit on while her apparel was taken off. Round about the stage stood the high sheriff, with others appointed for the purpose.
About nine a.m., came that sweet saint and martyr, led like a lamb to the butchery, attired in a gown of black satin embroidered with a French kind of embroidery of black velvet; her hair seemly trussed up with a veil of white lawn, which covered her head and all her other apparel down to the foot. Being come into the hall, she stayed, and with a smiling countenance asked Shrewsbury why none of her own servants were suffered to be present. He answered that the queen his mistress had so commanded. “Alas, ” quoth she, “far meaner persons than myself have not been denied so small a favour, and I hope the queen’s majesty will not deal so hardly with me.” “Madam,” quoth Shrewsbury, “it is so appointed to avoid two inconveniences, the one that it is likely your people will shriek and make some fearful noise in the time of your execution, and so both trouble you and us, or else press with some disorder to get of your blood and keep it for a relic and minister offence that way.” “My lord,” answered she, “I pray you for my better quietness of mind let me have some of my servants about me, and I will give you my word that they shall not offend in any sort.”
Upon which promise two of her women and five of her men were sent for, who coming into the hall, and seeing the place of execution prepared and their sovereign mistress expecting death, they began to cry out in most woeful and pitiful sort; wherewith she held up her hand, willing them for her sake to forbear and be silent, “for,” quoth she, “I have passed my word to these lords that you shall be quiet and not offend them:” and presently there appeared in them a wonderful show of subjection, and loyal obedience, as to their natural prince, whom even at the instant of death they honoured with all reverence and duty. For though their breasts were seen to rise and swell as if their wounded hearts would have burst in sunder, yet did they to their double grief forbear their outward plaints to accomplish her pleasure.
As soon as she was upon the stage, there came to her a heretic, called Doctor Fletcher, dean of Peterborough, and told her how the queen his sovereign, moved with an unspeakable care of her soul, had sent him to instruct and comfort her in the true words of God. At which she somewhat turned her face towards him, saying, “Mr. Doctor, I will have nothing to do with you, nor your doctrine;” and forthwith kneeled down before the block, and began her meditation in most godly manner. Then the doctor entered also into a form of new-fashioned prayers; but the better to prevent the hearing of him, she raised her voice, and prayed so loud, as he could not be understood.
The Earl of Shrewsbury then spoke to her, and told her that he would pray with her, and for her. “My lord,” quoth she, “if you will pray for me I thank you; but, in so doing, pray secretly by yourself, for we will not pray together.” Her mediations ended, she arose up and kissed her two gentlewomen, and bowed her body towards her men, and charged them to remember her to her sweet son, to whom she sent her blessing, with promise to pray for him in heaven; and lastly to salute her friends, and so took her last farewell of her poor servants.
The executioners then began, after their rough and rude manner, to disrobe her, and while they were so doing, she looked upon the noblemen, and smilingly said, “Now truly, my lords, I never had two such grooms waiting on me before!” Then, being ready for the block, one of her women took forth a handkerchief of cambric, all wrought over with gold needlework, and tied it about her face; which done, Fletcher willed her to die in the true faith of Christ. Quoth she, “I believe firmly to be saved by the passion and blood of Jesus Christ, and therein also I believe, according to the faith of the Ancient Catholic Church of Rome, and therefore I shed my blood.” She finished her happy and blessed martyrdom to the comfort of all true Catholics, and to the shame and confusion of all heretics.
AFTER THE EXECUTION
Mary’s servants were commanded to return to their quarters. Henry Talbot a son of the Earl of Shrewsbury, was immediately sent to London with the certificate of execution.
Henry Gorman wrote the following description of what took place in London and the world upon hearing of the death of Mary Queen of Scots:
“In London, pealing church bells and blazing bonfires and wild demonstrations of joy in the streets while a haggard-eyed queen cursed Burghley, heaped obloquy on Davison and cried out that Marie had been executed against her will.
In Scotland, furious raids across the Border into England by nobles half-mad with grief while a young king ‘moved never his countenance at the rehearsal of his mother’s execution nor leaves not his pastime and hunting more than before.’
In Paris, deepest sorrow and chanting priests in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and sulphurous threats from Henri III as he refused audience to the English ambassador and arrested the couriers and despatches of Elizabeth at Dieppe and commanded an embargo on all English vessels in French ports.
In Spain, renewed activity as the spider of the Escurial gathered his fighting men and his high-powered galleons and his stores of cannon for the great blow intended to destroy Protestant England.
In Fotheringhay, “a dust-covered canopy of state lying neglected in a storeroom and upon its front in letters of fading gold: En ma fin est mon commencement.” (Translation: In my end is my beginning.)