Scotlands History

Elizabeth I signs the death warrant

After the Babington Plot was revealed, Mary Queen of Scots was taken to Fotheringhay Castle to stand trial. She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

It is often said that Queen Elizabeth agonised over signing the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth told the French Ambassador that she had been in tears over the ‘unfortunate affair’.

She was worried that if a rightful monarch condemned another rightful monarch to death it would set a terrible precedent. She was worried that Mary’s son King James VI of Scotland or the Catholic Spanish would seek revenge. She was worried about her reputation.

Elizabeth was not concerned about having Mary killed - she just didn’t want to sign the order herself. When the sentence was published on 2 December 1586 the people of London celebrated with bonfires and psalms as church bells rang. William Cecil drew up a death warrant for Elizabeth to sign.

Mary wrote a letter to Elizabeth, signing it, ‘Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner.’ She asked Elizabeth to send her body to France and sent the English queen a warning:

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you will one day to give account of your charge in like manner as those who preceded you in it... my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered...

Eventually, on 1 February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

Elizabeth then suggested that Mary could be quietly murdered by her jailors. The request that Mary’s life should be ‘shortened’ was taken to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary’s jailor. Paulet replied to Sir Francis Walsingham:

I am so unhappy to have liven to see this unhappy day, in the which I am required, by direction from my most gracious Sovereign, to do an act which God and the law forbiddeth... God forbid that I should make so fowle a shipwracke of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my posteritie, or shed blood without law and warrant...  thus I commit you to the mercy of the Almightie.

From Fotheringay, the 2nd of February, 1586

The stage was set for Mary’s execution.

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