Heads Will Roll

On February 8, 1587, Mary, former Queen of Scotland, officially wore out her welcome in England. After an almost 20 year imprisonment, she was executed at Fotheringhay Castle after being implicated in the Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth’s life. She was 44 years old when she died.

Mary’s life has been much romanticized in the four centuries since her death, and while she wasn’t a bad person necessarily, she was a pretty good example of why an inherited monarchy isn’t always such a good idea. She tried, but she was flighty and giddy and very unsuited to her job. Though to be fair, the cards were pretty much stacked against her from the get-go.

Scotland, at the time, was a difficult country full of fractious nobles with too much power and all seeming to lay claim to the throne. It took a firm hand to rule them. Mary was six days old when she inherited the throne. As a child, she was betrothed to the eldest son of Henry II of France, and at the age of five she was sent to France to be raised alongside her fiance, Francois. By the time she returned to Scotland in 1561 (following Francois’s death), she was more French than Scottish; a stranger in her own land. Scotland, at that time, was undergoing some major religious upheaval, with many people turning from Catholicism to Protestantism. Mary was a devout Catholic. Mary tried to appease the Protestants by tolerating the new religion and inviting several Protestants to join her Privy Council. Many of her countrymen, however, still viewed her with suspicion.

In 1565, Mary managed to seriously annoy Queen Elizabeth (after already having upset her by laying claim to the throne of England after the death of Mary I in 1558) by marrying Henry, Lord Darnley, a member of the Stuart family who also had claims to the English throne. The marriage also infuriated Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, James Stuart, who rebelled against her. The rebellion was quelled, but Mary’s position was far from secure, even after the birth of her son, James, in 1566. By that time, Darnley’s arrogence and greed had driven a wedge between the couple. In February 1567, he was murdered–after the house he was staying in exploded in the middle of the night, his body was found, strangled, in the garden. Suspicion fell on James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was acquitted in a mock trial. In April, Bothwell abducted Mary (possibly with her acquiescence) and held her prisoner at Dunbar Castle just long enough to sully her reputation. The two were married on May 15.

At this point, the Scottish nobility had had enough. They turned on Bothwell and their queen, and imprisoned Mary in Loch Levan Castle in July. There, she abdicated the throne in favor of her infant son. She managed to escape almost a year later, and raised a small army in an attempt to take back her throne. The army was defeated, and Mary fled south, to England, mistakenly believing her cousin Elizabeth would welcome her as a kinswoman and fellow queen.

She was soooo wrong. Elizabeth (reasonably) saw Mary as a threat to her throne and had her placed under a sort of house arrest. This arrangement remained in place, though Mary was moved several times over the next two decades.

In 1585, a Catholic named Gilbert Gifford was arrested in Sussex and confessed to being involved in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. Gifford agreed to become a double agent for Sir Francis Walsingham. Together, the men intercepted messages between Mary and her supporters in Europe. One of these letters, in which Mary endorsed the plot to murder Elizabeth, would be her downfall. Like the others, it was sent to Walsingham, and one by one the conspirators were arrested, tortured, interrogated, and executed. At her own trial, Mary professed her innocence, but she was found guilty nonetheless. Elizabeth dithered for a while, reluctant to have the blood of a fellow queen on her hands, but at last she signed the death warrant, and Mary was executed by beheading in front of 300 witnesses.

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