Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Eva March Tappan

The Queen of Scots

T HE councilor's words that Elizabeth was more queen than woman were shown to be true whenever matters came to the proof. She gave her favorite Leicester everything that he asked save her own royal hand, but on occasion she could be as severe with Leicester as if he had been her enemy.

It was the custom for the general of an English army to serve without salary and to contribute generously to his own expenses and those of his troops. The general, then, must be a rich man, and in order to have the most perfect control over his soldiers he must be a man who was known to be in the confidence of the queen. No one was better qualified in these important respects to lead an army than Leicester, and he was put at the head of the forces that were sent to the aid of the Dutch states then revolting against Philip. Their leader had been assassinated, and they asked to be annexed to England. Elizabeth saw clearly that to grant their request would bring on war with Spain at once, and she refused. When Leicester was appointed commander, she gave him the most positive orders to accept no such position for her as ruler of the Low Countries. News soon came that Leicester had been made governor general.

"Your Majesty," said her informer, "it is said that Lord Leicester is shown great honor in the Low Countries."

"That is well," said the queen. "The commander of an army should ever be treated with deference."

"The Dutch states prove by the respect given to Lord Leicester what honor they would show to your Majesty if you were with them."

"In what fashion do they show their respect?" asked the queen so gently that Leicester's enemy took courage and ventured to go a step further.

"He is called governor-general, and they say that men kneel before him to kiss his hand, and that he has already a court as brilliant as that of England."

"Is that true?" asked Elizabeth with a feigned indifference. "Do you know more of this court of his?"

"Little now, but there will be more and greater news, for it is said that Lady Leicester is about to go to Holland and that with her will go such a train of ladies and gentlemen and such rich coaches, litters, and sidesaddles, that your Majesty has none such in England."

Mary, Queen of Scots.

Then Elizabeth's wrath broke forth. "I will let the upstart know," said she, "how easily the hand that has exalted him can beat him down." She wrote an angry letter to her absent favorite which said:—

"I have raised you from the dust and shown you favor above all others, and I should never have imagined you would dare to break my express commandment to accept any such title."

It was a hard position for Burleigh, since he himself and the rest of the council had wished Leicester to accept the title and so force the queen to become sovereign of the Dutch states, whether she would or not. The queen's rage was visited upon even her old friend and adviser, and to Burleigh himself she declared, "You are nothing but a presumptuous fellow."

The great test of Elizabeth's character was soon to come, for the year 1587 was at hand. Would she be woman or queen? A stern question must be decided. Jesting with Raleigh, exasperating King Philip, storming at Leicester and then forgiving him, amusing herself with Leicester's handsome stepson, the Earl of Essex, bedecking herself in gorgeous attire that flashed with jewels and gold, dreaming over new routes to India and new English nations in Virginia—all these had to be put away for the time. What should be the fate of the Queen of Scots could no longer be left undecided.

Mary had been a captive in England for nearly eighteen years, and those years had been almost as full of peril to Elizabeth as to her prisoner. If Mary was dead, the Catholics who were plotting against Elizabeth would have no object in trying to take her life, for Mary's son James was the next heir to the throne, and he was as strong a Protestant as Elizabeth. On the other hand, if Elizabeth were no longer alive, Mary would become queen of England, and Protestants would be obliged to be loyal to her as their lawful sovereign. They would be the more content knowing that her Protestant son would succeed her. Thus, if either Mary or Elizabeth were dead, England would be free from the plots and conspiracies that had been revealed, one after another, during the captivity of Mary.

At the discovery of each of these plots, Mary's imprisonment became more rigorous. It was claimed that she was at the bottom of every conspiracy.

"The Queen of Scots and her friends will yet have my life," said Elizabeth, and she added jestingly to her councilors, "I'll come back after I am dead and see her make your heads fly."

Walsingham, one of Elizabeth's ministers, had been most watchful of these plots. His spies were ever on the lookout, and in the summer of 1586 he found sure proof of a conspiracy to take the life of the queen. Was Mary connected with this plot? Sworn testimony declared that she was. Her papers were seized, and among them were found letters from many leading nobles of England expressing sympathy in her troubles. Mary was at once removed to Fotheringay Castle, where she was much more closely guarded than ever before. Thirty-six commissioners were appointed to try her on the charge of plotting against the life of the English queen. She was cited to appear before them.

"That will I never do," she declared. "I have a right to be tried by my peers. I am a queen, and only sovereigns are my peers, but I will defend myself before the queen of England and her council or even before the English Parliament."

Then a letter was given her from Elizabeth which read:—

"You have attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you, but have protected and maintained you like myself. It is my will that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. Act plainly, without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favor from me."

"Is it wise to make these refusals?" asked one of her friends. "You are in the power of the English queen, is it not better to rouse her no further by hopeless demands?"

"True, it is hopeless," answered Mary, "it is all hopeless. I am a sovereign kept here unlawfully as a prisoner by the royal cousin to whom I fled for help in my trouble. Her laws have not protected me, why then must I be sentenced under them?"

"The court is convened," said the commissioners, "and if you refuse to appear, you will be at once declared guilty without a trial. Queen Elizabeth has said many times that nothing would please her so much as to have proof of your innocence. Is it wise to refuse to give proof?"

Finally Mary yielded. Her trial would not be legal to-day, for she was allowed no counsel, she was not even permitted to see her own papers or to hear and question those persons who testified against her, but it was according to the laws of the time, and she was tried with no greater severity than was shown to all prisoners accused of treason.

"Your letters prove that you have allowed your correspondents to address you as queen of England," declared the crown lawyers, "that you have tried to induce King Philip to invade our country, and that you have been knowing to the late plot to assassinate the lawful queen of the realm."

"With the plot against the life of my cousin Elizabeth I had nothing to do," declared Mary. "That I have sought to gain my freedom by the aid of my friends I do not deny. My lords, I am unjustly and cruelly deprived of my liberty. Do you blame me for trying by every means in my power to recover it? Could anyone do otherwise?"

So the charges and the denials went on, and when the trial was over, the judges left Fotheringay Castle. Again they met, and everyone voted that Mary was guilty of high treason in plotting against the life of the English queen. She was sentenced to death. This was the report made to Parliament, and that body solemnly agreed to the verdict. It was proclaimed in London, and the whole city gave itself up to rejoicing. Bells were rung, bonfires blazed in every square, shouts of joy and psalms of thanksgiving resounded throughout the town.

"Think you that the queen will ever carry out the sentence?" asked one Londoner of another.

"It is many years," was the reply, "that the hand of Elizabeth alone has saved the life of the Scotch queen. Parliament decreed her death fifteen years ago and they say that Elizabeth was the angriest woman in England. 'Would you have me put to death the bird that, to escape the hawk, has fled to me for protection? I'll never sign such a bill,' and she never did."

"The constant dropping of water will wear away stone," said the first, "and yet I hear that she has sent a message to Parliament commanding them to find some other way."

"Until the axe falls, nothing will persuade me that the child of Henry VIII. will consent to see the blood of one of her own proud race flow at the hand of the executioner," declared the second, "and what is more, she will not do a deed that will arouse the scorn and hatred of Europe. Mary's head is safe."

"Not so fast, my friend. Who are the supporters of Mary? Who is the 'Europe' whose scorn will check the pen of Elizabeth when she is about to sign the death warrant?"

"Philip, the Pope, the king of France, and Mary's own son James. They are a powerful company."

"Are they? Philip is really almost at war with us now, but it is not in Mary's interest. The Pope cares nothing about putting a Catholic woman of forty-four on the throne when in a few years she will be succeeded by a Protestant son. The king of France can do nothing for her but plead, for if he strikes one blow at England, it is a blow in favor of Spain."

"Her own son—"

"Has made a treaty with Elizabeth. He will do anything to make sure of the English throne, and indeed, can he be blamed for lack of affection when he knows that his mother planned to leave her claim not to him but to Philip?"

Elizabeth was most unwilling that Mary should be put to death. Her ministers were eager for the execution, for it was their business to secure the peace of England and the welfare of their queen. They believed that only Mary's death would bring this about. Then, too, as Elizabeth had said jestingly, if Mary were once on the throne, she would "make their heads fly." Surely they had a right to care for their own safety, they reasoned. Elizabeth could not bear the thought that a princess of the Tudor blood should die on the scaffold. She was always careless of her personal danger, and she knew that the death of Mary would be ascribed to her own fear or jealousy. It is no wonder that she hesitated.

"What shall we do," queried the ministers. "Elizabeth must be induced to sign the death warrant, of course, but who will order it carried out?"

"The queen will never do such a thing," said one.

"We must do it ourselves," said another. "There are ten of us, and ten cannot well be made to suffer for carrying out a written order of the queen's."

For many weeks Elizabeth hesitated. She often sat buried in deep thought. "Shall I bear with her or smite her?" the ladies of the bed-chamber heard her say to herself. At last she bade the secretary Davison bring her the warrant.

"What have you in your hand?" she asked as he entered the room.

"Sundry papers that await your Majesty's signature," answered Davison. Elizabeth took up her pen and signed the warrant. Then she pushed it away from her and it fell upon the floor.


Elizabeth signing the death warrant of Mary Stuart.—
From painting by Liezen-Mayer.

"Are you not heartily sorry to see this done?" she asked.

"I should be far from rejoicing in any one's calamity," replied Davison, "but the life of the Queen of Scots is so great a threat to the life of your Majesty that not to sign the paper would be a wrong to your whole realm as much as to yourself."

"I have done all that either law or reason could require of me," said the queen, "and now let me hear nothing further."

Davison reported the scene to the council.

"She means the deed to be done," said one, "but she has given no orders to carry out the warrant."

"That is her way of dealing with her sea-captains," said another. "Does she not provide them with ships and guns and soldiers, and does she not most willingly take a share of Spanish gold? But if a commander gets into trouble with Spain, she will say, 'Did I not give orders to do no harm to my good friend Philip?' "

"Then must all ten of us give the final order," said another. This was done. The warrant and the letter commanding the execution were sent.

About a week after the signing of the warrant, bonfires blazed and bells rang.

"The bells ring as merrily as if there were some good news," said the queen. "Why is it?"

"It is because of the death of the Queen of Scots," was the answer. Elizabeth said not a word. A day or two later she was told that Mary had been executed at Fotheringay Castle. She turned pale, she burst into tears, she stormed at her councilors. "Never shall your crime be pardoned," she raged. "You well knew that I did not mean my kinswoman to be put to death. You have dared to usurp my authority, and you are worse traitors than my poor cousin. As for you, Burleigh, do you never dare show yourself in my presence again. I have made you and I can unmake you. That fellow Davison knew that I did not mean the warrant to be carried out. Take him to the Tower."

"He is very ill, your Majesty," said one.

"Then take his illness with him, for into the Tower he goes."

"Your Majesty," pleaded the councilors, "if your secretary Davison is imprisoned, the lords of your council will be regarded as plotters and murderers."

"What is that to me?" cried Elizabeth. "They who murder must expect to be called murderers."

Davison was imprisoned for some time and was fined so heavily that he was reduced to poverty. Elizabeth sent a copy of his sentence to King James and also a letter telling him that the execution of his mother was a "miserable accident." James was easily comforted. He had been taught to look upon her as a shame and disgrace to himself. If she had not been the murderer of his father, she had, at least, married the murderer, and within three months after the commission of the crime. He was lawful heir to the throne of England, but he knew that she had done all that lay in her power to deprive him of his birthright. He wrote an earnest letter to Elizabeth in the attempt to save his mother's life, but it was soon followed by a sort of apology and an intimation that all would be well if she would formally recognize him as her successor.

It is probable that there will always be two opinions in regard to the justice of Mary's execution.

"She fled to England for refuge," says one, "and should have been set free."

"To set her free would have been to deliver her up to the foes who would have taken her life," says the other, "or else to the friends who would have made war against England."

"A prisoner cannot be blamed for seeking liberty."

"But one may be justly punished for plotting treason."

"Mary was not a subject of the queen of England."

"He who commits treason is punished whether he is a subject or not."

"The testimony against her was false."

"It was sworn to by solemn oath. There was no other means of discovering the truth."

As to Elizabeth's real share in the execution of Mary there is quite as much difference of opinion.

"Because of her fear and jealousy she put to death the cousin to whom she had given every reason to expect protection," say the partisans of Mary.

"It shows little of either fear or jealousy to let her live for fifteen years," retort the supporters of Elizabeth.

"At least she signed the warrant with her own hand."

"Even a Tudor queen was not free to follow her own will. The English council had urged the deed for many years."

"Secretary Davison declared that she wished the warrant carried out."

"Davison told four different stories, and no one of them agreed with Elizabeth's version of the scene. Who shall tell where truth lies?"

"The warrant would have been worthless without her name."

"Walsingham's private secretary confessed many years afterwards that he forged the name at his master's command."

"Then why did she not deny the signature?"

"To whom? To James she did deny it as far as she dared. She wrote him that the execution was a 'miserable accident.' To her council she made no denial because the forger was the tool of the council, and had but carried out their will. Elizabeth could storm at her councilors, but, Tudor as she was, she had not the power to oppose their united determination." So the discussion has gone on for three hundred years.

The surest way for a wrongdoer to have his crimes forgotten and forgiven is to meet with dignity and resignation the death that his deeds have made his lawful punishment. Whether Mary deserved this penalty or not, her calmness on the scaffold and her gentle submission to the death from which there was no escape have won friends and admirers for her even among the sternest critics of her life and her acts.


Mary Stuart receiving her death sentence.—
From painting by Carl Piloty.

When the time was come for her execution, she went quietly to the hall of Fotheringay Castle, supported by two attendants, while a third bore her train. With a calm and cheerful face she stepped upon the low platform where lay the block. Platform, railing, block, and a low stool were heavily draped with black. She seated herself on the stool. On her right sat the two nobles to whom the charge of her execution had been committed, on her left stood the sheriff, and in front of her the two executioners, while around the railing stood many knights and other gentlemen who had come to see her die. Her robes belonged to the executioners, and when they began to remove her gown, as the custom was, she smiled and said she had never before been disrobed by such grooms. She had begged that some of her women might be with her to the last, and when they could no longer control themselves but began to weep and lament, she kissed them and said gently, "Do not weep, my friends, I have promised that you will not. Rejoice, for you will soon see an end of all your mistress's troubles." She repeated a Latin prayer, and then an English prayer for the church, for her son James, and for Queen Elizabeth, "that she might prosper and serve God aright." Her women pinned a linen cloth over her face. She knelt down upon the cushion and laid her head upon the block. "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," she cried, and so died Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and heir to the throne of England.


Last moment of Mary, Queen of Scots.—
From painting by an unknown artist.