Gateway to the Classics: Mary Queen of Scots by Jacob Abbott
Mary Queen of Scots by  Jacob Abbott

The End

Mary did not always discourage the plots and intrigues with which her name was connected. She, of course, longed for deliverance from the thraldom in which Elizabeth held her, and was ready to embrace any opportunity which promised release. She thus seems to have listened from time to time to the overtures which were made to her, and involved herself, in Elizabeth's opinion, more or less, in the responsibility which attached to them. Elizabeth did not, however, in such cases, do any thing more than to increase somewhat the rigors of her imprisonment. She was afraid to proceed to extremities with her, partly, perhaps, for fear that she might, by doing so, awaken the hostility of France, whose king was Mary's cousin, or of Scotland, whose monarch was her son.

At length, however, in the year 1586, about eighteen years from the commencement of Mary's captivity, a plot was formed in which she became so seriously involved as to subject herself to the charge of aiding and abetting in the high treason of which the leaders of the plot were proved to be guilty. This plot is known in history by the name of Babington's conspiracy. Babington was a young gentleman of fortune, who lived in the heart of England. He was inspired with a strong degree of interest in Mary's fate, and wished to rescue her from her captivity. He joined himself with a large party of influential individuals of the Catholic faith. The conspirators opened negotiations with the courts of France and Spain for aid. They planned an insurrection, the assassination of Elizabeth, the rescue of Mary, and a general revolution. They maintained a correspondence with Mary. This correspondence was managed very secretly, the letters being placed by a confidential messenger in a certain hole in the castle wall where Queen Mary was confined.

One day, when Mary was going out to ride, just as she was entering her carriage, officers suddenly arrived from London. They told her that the plot in which she had been engaged had been discovered; that fourteen of the principal conspirators had been hung, seven on each of two successive days, and at they had come to arrest some of her attendants and to seize her papers. They accordingly went into her apartments, opened all her desks, trunks, and cabinets, seized her papers, and took them to London. Mary sat down in the scene of desolation and disorder which they left, and wept bitterly.

The papers which were seized were taken to London, and Elizabeth's government began seriously to agitate the question of bringing Mary herself to trial. One would have thought that, in her forlorn and desolate condition, she would have looked to her son for sympathy and aid. But rival claimants to a crown can have little kind feeling to each other, even if they are mother and son. James, as he gradually approached toward maturity, took sides against his mother. In fact, all Scotland was divided and was for many years in a state of civil war: those who advocated Mary's right to the crown on one side, and James's adherents on the other. They were called king's men and queen's men. James was, of course, brought up in hostility to his mother, and he wrote to her, about a year before Babington's conspiracy, in terms so hostile and so devoid of filial love, that his ingratitude stung her to the heart. "Was it for this," she said, "that I made so many sacrifices, and endured so many trials on his account in his early years? I have made it the whole business of my life to protect and secure his rights, and to open before him a prospect of future power and glory: and this is the return."

The English government, under Elizabeth's direction, concluded to bring Mary to a public trial. They removed her, accordingly, to the Castle of Fotheringay. Fotheringay is in Northamptonshire, which is in the very heart of England, Northampton, the shire town, being about sixty miles northwest of London. Fotheringay Castle was on the banks of the River Nen, or Avon, which flows northeast from Northampton to the sea. A few miles below the castle is the ancient town of Peterborough, where there was a monastery and a great cathedral church. The monastery had been built a thousand years before.

They removed Mary to Fotheringay Castle for her trial, and lawyers, counselors, commissioners, and officers of state began to assemble there from all quarters. The castle was a spacious structure. It was surrounded with two moats, and with double walls, and was strongly fortified. It contained numerous and spacious apartments, and it had especially one large hall which was well adapted to the purposes of this great trial. The preparations for the solemn ordeal through which Mary was now to pass, brought her forth from the obscurity in which she had so long been lost to the eyes of mankind, and made her the universal object of interest and attention in England, Scotland, and France. The people of all these nations looked on with great interest at the spectacle of one queen tried solemnly on a charge of high treason against another. The stories of her beauty, her graces, her misfortunes, which had slumbered for eighteen years, were all now revived, and every body felt a warm interest in the poor captive, worn down by long confinement, and trembling in the hands of what they feared would be a merciless and terrible power.

Mary was removed to the Castle of Fotheringay toward the end of September, 1586. The preparations for the trial proceeded slowly. Every thing in which kings and queens, or affairs of state were concerned in those days, was conducted with great pomp and ceremony. The arrangements of the hall were minutely prescribed. At the head of it a sort of throne was placed, with a royal canopy over it, for the Queen of England. This, though it was vacant, impressed the court and the spectators as a symbol of royalty, and denoted that the sovereignty of Elizabeth was the power before which Mary was arraigned.

When the preparations were made, Mary refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction. of the court. She denied that they had any right to arraign or to try her. "I am no subject of Elizabeth's," said she. "I am an independent and sovereign queen as well as she, and I will not consent to any thing inconsistent with this my true position. I owe no allegiance to England, and I am not, in any sense, subject to her laws. I came into the realm only to ask assistance from a sister queen, and I have been made a captive, and detained many years in an unjust and cruel imprisonment; and though now worn down both in body and mind by my protracted sufferings, I am not yet so enfeebled as to forget what is due to myself, my ancestors, and my country."

This refusal of Mary's to plead, or to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court, caused a new delay. They urged her to abandon her resolution. They told her that if she refused to plead, the trial would proceed without her action, and, by pursuing such a course, she would only deprive herself of the means of defense, without at all impeding the course of her fate. At length Mary yielded. It would have been better for her to have adhered to her first intention.

The commission by which Mary was to be tried consisted of earls, barons, and other persons of rank, twenty or thirty in number. They were seated on each side of the room, the throne being at the head. In the center was a table, where the lawyers, by whom the trial was to be conducted, were seated. Below this table was a chair for Mary. Behind Mary's chair was a rail, dividing off the lower end of the hall from the court; and this formed an outer space, to which some spectators were admitted.

Mary took her place in the seat assigned her, and the trial proceeded. They adduced the evidence against her, and then asked for her defense. She said substantially that she had a right to make an effort to recover her liberty; that, after being confined a captive so long, and having lost forever her youth, her health, and her happiness, it was not wonderful that she wished to be free; but that, in endeavoring to obtain her freedom, she had formed no plans to injure Elizabeth, or to interfere in any way with her rights or prerogatives as queen. The commissioners, after devoting some days to hearing evidence, and listening to the defense, sent Mary back to her apartments, and went to London. There they had a final consultation, and unanimously agreed in the following decision: "That Mary, commonly called Queen of Scots and dowager of France, had been an accessory to Babington's conspiracy, and had compassed the death of Elizabeth, queen of England."

Elizabeth pretended to be very much concerned at this result. She laid the proceedings before Parliament. It was supposed then, and has always been supposed since, that she wished Mary to be beheaded, but desired not to take the responsibility of it herself; and that she wanted to appear unwilling, and to be impelled, greatly against her own inclinations, by the urgency of others, to carry the sentence into execution. At any rate, Parliament, and all the members of the government, approved and confirmed the verdict, and wished to have it carried into effect.

It has always been the custom, in modern times, to require the solemn act of the supreme magistrate of any state to confirm a decision of a tribunal which condemns a person to death, by signing what is called a warrant for the execution. This is done by the king or queen in England, and by the governor in one of the United States. This warrant is an order, very formally written, and sealed with the great seal, authorizing the executioner to proceed, and carry the sentence into effect. Of course, Queen Mary could not be executed unless Elizabeth should first sign the warrant. Elizabeth would herself, probably, have been better pleased to have been excused from all direct agency in the affair. But this could not be. She, however, made much delay, and affected great unwillingness to proceed. She sent messengers to Mary, telling her what the sentence had been, how sorry she was to hear it, and how much she desired to save her life, if it were possible. At the same time she told her that she feared it might not be in her power, and she advised Mary, to prepare her mind for the execution of the sentence.

Mary wrote a letter to Elizabeth in reply. She said in this letter that she was glad to hear that they had pronounced sentence of death against her, for she was weary of life, and had no hope of relief or rest from her miseries but in the grave. She wrote, therefore, not to ask any change in the decision, but to make three requests. First, that, after her execution her body might be removed to France, and be deposited at Rheims, where the ashes of her mother were reposing. Secondly, that her execution should not be in secret, but that her personal friends might be present, to attest to the world that she met her fate with resignation and fortitude; and, thirdly, that her attendants and friends, who had, through their faithful love for her, shared her captivity so long, might be permitted to retire wherever they pleased, after her death, without any molestation. "I hope," said she, in conclusion, "you will not refuse me these my dying requests, but that you will assure me by a letter under your own hand that you will comply with them, and then I shall die as I have lived, your affectionate sister and prisoner, Mary Queen of Scots."

The King of France, and James, Mary's son in Scotland, made somewhat vigorous efforts to arrest the execution of the sentence which had been pronounced against Mary. From these and other causes, the signing of the warrant was delayed for some months, but at length Elizabeth yielded to the solicitations of her ministers. She affixed her signature to the instrument. The chancellor put upon it the great seal, and the commissioners who were appointed by it to superintend the execution went to Fotheringay. They arrived there on the 7th of February, 1587.

After resting, and refreshing themselves for a short time from their journey, the commissioners sent word to Mary that they wished for an interview with her. Mary had retired. They said that their business was very important. She rose, and prepared to receive them. She assembled all her attendants, fourteen or fifteen in number, in order to receive the commissioners in a manner comporting, so far as circumstances allowed, with her rank and station. The commissioners were at length ushered into the apartment. They stood respectfully before her, with their heads uncovered. The foremost then, in language as forbearing and gentle as was consistent with the nature of his message, informed her that it had been decided to carry the sentence which had been pronounced against her into effect, and then he requested another of the number to read the warrant for her execution.


View of Fotheringay, in its present state.

Mary listened to it calmly and patiently. Her attendants, one after another, were overcome by the mournful and awful solemnity of the scene, and melted into tears. Mary, however, was calm. When the reading of the warrant was ended, she said that she was sorry that her cousin Elizabeth should set the example of taking the life of a sovereign queen; but for herself, she was willing to die. Life had long ceased to afford her any peace or happiness, and she was ready to exchange it for the prospect of immortality. She then laid her hand upon the New Testament, which was near her, of course a Catholic version, and called God to witness that she had never plotted herself, or joined in plots with others, for the death of Elizabeth. One of the commissioners remarked that her oath being upon a Catholic version of the Bible, they should not consider it valid. She rejoined that it ought to be considered the more sacred and solemn on that account, as that was the version which she regarded as the only one which was authoritative and true.

Mary then asked the commissioners several questions, as whether her son James had not expressed any interest in her fate, and whether no foreign princes had interposed to save her. The commissioners, answered these and other inquiries, and Mary learned from their answers that her fate was sealed. She then asked them what time was appointed for the execution. They replied that it was to take place at eight o'clock the following morning.

Mary had not expected so early an hour to be named. She said it was sudden; and she seemed agitated and distressed. She, however, soon recovered her composure, and asked to have a Catholic priest allowed to visit her. The commissioners replied that that could not be permitted. They, however, proposed to send the Dean of Peterborough to visit her. A dean is the ecclesiastical functionary presiding over a cathedral church; and of course, the Dean of Peterborough was the clergyman of the highest rank in that vicinity. He was, however, a Protestant, and Mary did not wish to see him.

The commissioners withdrew, and left Mary with her friends, when there ensued one of those scenes of anguish and suffering which those who witness them never forget, but carry the gloomy remembrance of them, like a dark shadow in the soul, to the end of their days. Mary was quiet, and appeared calm. It may, however, have been the calm of hopeless and absolute despair. Her attendants were overwhelmed with agitation and grief, the expression of which they could not even attempt to control. At last they became more composed, and Mary asked them to kneel with her in prayer; and she prayed for some time fervently and earnestly in the midst of them.

She then directed supper to be prepared as usual, and, until it was ready, she spent her time in dividing the money which she had on hand into separate parcels for her attendants, marking each parcel with the name. She sat down at the table when supper was served, and though she ate but little, she conversed as usual, in a cheerful manner, and with smiles. Her friends were silent and sad, struggling continually to keep back their tears. At the close of the supper Mary called for a cup of wine, and drank to the health of each one of them, and then asked them to drink to her. They took the cup, and kneeling before her, complied with her request, though, as they did it, the tears would come to their eyes. Mary then told them that she willingly forgave them for all that they had ever done to displease her, and she thanked them for their long-continued fidelity and love. She also asked that they would forgive her for any thing she might ever have done in respect to them which was inconsistent with her duty. They answered the request only with a renewal of their tears.

Mary spent the evening in writing two letters to her nearest relatives in France, and in making her will. The principal object of these letters was to recommend her servants to the attention and care of those to whom they were addressed, after she should be gone. She went to bed shortly after midnight, and it is said she slept. This would be incredible, if any thing were incredible in respect to the workings of the human soul in a time of awful trial like this, which so transcends all the ordinary conditions of its existence.

At any rate, whether Mary slept or not, the morning soon came. Her friends were around her as soon as she rose. She gave them minute directions about the disposition of her body. She wished to have it taken to France to be interred, as she had requested of Elizabeth, either at Rheims, in the same tomb with the body of her mother, or else at St. Denis, an ancient abbey a little north of Paris, where the ashes of a long line of French monarchs repose. She begged her servants, if possible, not to leave her body till it should reach its final home in one of these places of sepulture.

In the mean time, arrangements had been made for the last act in this dreadful tragedy, in the same great hall where she had been tried. They raised a platform upon the stone floor of the hall large enough to contain those who were to take part in the closing scene. On this platform was a block, a cushion, and a chair. All these things, as well as the platform itself, were covered with black cloth, giving to the whole scene a most solemn and funereal expression. The part of the hall containing this scaffold was railed off from the rest. The governor of the castle, and a body of guards, came in and took their station at the sides of the room. Two executioners, one holding the axe, stood upon the scaffold on one side of the block. Two of the commissioners stood upon the other side. The remaining commissioners and several gentlemen of the neighborhood took their places as spectators without the rail. The number of persons thus assembled was about two hundred. Strange that any one should have come in voluntarily, to witness such a scene!

When all was ready, the sheriff, carrying his white wand of office, and attended by some of the commissioners, went for Mary. She was at her devotions, and she asked a little delay that she might conclude them: perhaps the shrinking spirit clung at the last moment to life, and wished to linger a few minutes longer before taking the final farewell. The request was granted. In a short time Mary signified that she was ready, and they began to move toward the hall of execution. Her attendants were going to accompany her. The sheriff said this could not be allowed. She accordingly bade them farewell, and they filled the castle with the sound of their shrieks and lamentations.

Mary went on, descending the stair-case, at the foot of which she was joined by one of her attendants, from whom she had been separated for some time. His name was Sir Andrew Melville, and he was the master of her household. The name of her secretary Melville was James. Sir Andrew kneeled before her, kissed her hand, and said that this was the saddest hour of his life. Mary began to give him some last commissions and requests. "Say," said she, "that I died firm in the faith; that I forgive my enemies; that I feel that I have never disgraced Scotland, my native country, and that I have been always true to France, the land of my happiest years. Tell my son—" Here her voice faltered and ceased to be heard, and she burst into tears.

She struggled to regain her composure. "Tell my son," said she, "that I thought of him in my last moments, and that I have never yielded, either by word or deed, to any thing whatever that might lead to his prejudice. Tell him to cherish the memory of his mother, and say that I sincerely hope his life may be happier than mine has been."

Mary then turned to the commissioners who stood by, and renewed her request that her attendants, who had just been separated from her, might come down and see her die. The commissioners objected. They said that if these attendants were admitted, their anguish and lamentations would only add to her own distress, and make the whole scene more painful. Mary, however, urged the request. She said they had been devotedly attached to her all her days; they had shared her captivity, and loved and served her faithfully to the end, and it was enough if she herself, and they, desired that they should be present. The commissioners at last yielded, and allowed her to name six, who should be summoned to attend her. She did so, and the six came down.

The sad procession then proceeded to the hall. Mary was in full court dress, and walked into the apartment with the air and composure of a reigning queen. She leaned on the arm of her physician. Sir Andrew Melville followed, bearing the train of her robe. Her dress is described as a gown of black silk, bordered with crimson velvet, over which was a satin mantle. A long veil of white crape, edged with rich lace, hung down almost to the ground. Around her neck was an ivory crucifix—that is, an image of Christ upon the cross, which the Catholics use as a memorial of our Savior's sufferings—and a rosary, which is a string of beads of peculiar arrangement, often employed by them as an aid in their devotions. Mary meant, doubtless, by these symbols, to show to her enemies and to the world, that though she submitted to her fate without resistance, yet, so far as the contest of her life had been one of religious faith, she had no intention of yielding.

Mary ascended the platform and took her seat in the chair provided for her. With the exception of stifled sobs here and there to be heard, the room was still. An officer then advanced and read the warrant of execution, which the executioners listened to as their authority for doing the dreadful work which they were about to perform. The Dean of Peterborough, the Protestant ecclesiastic whom Mary had refused to see, then came forward to the foot of the platform, and most absurdly commenced an address to her, with a view to convert her to the Protestant faith. Mary interrupted him, saying that she had been born and had lived a Catholic, and she was resolved so to die; and she asked him to spare her his useless reasonings. The dean persisted in going on. Mary turned away from him, kneeled down, and began to offer a Latin prayer. The dean soon brought his ministrations to a close, and then Mary prayed for some time, in a distinct and fervent voice, in English, the large company listening with breathless attention. She prayed for her own soul, and that she might have comfort from heaven in the agony of death. She implored God's blessing upon France; upon Scotland; upon England; upon Queen Elizabeth; and, more than all, upon her son. During this time she held the ivory crucifix in her hand, clasping it, and raising it from time to time toward heaven.

When her prayer was ended, she rose, and, with the assistance of her attendants, took off her veil, and such other parts of her dress as it was necessary to remove in order to leave the neck bare, and then she kneeled forward and laid her head upon the block. The agitation of the assembly became extreme. Some turned away from the scene faint and sick at heart; some looked more eagerly and intensely at the group upon the scaffold; some wept and sobbed aloud. The assistant executioner put Mary's two hands together and held them; the other raised his axe, and, after the horrid sound of two or three successive blows, the assistant held up the dissevered head, saying, "So perish all Queen Elizabeth's enemies."

The assembly dispersed. The body was taken into an adjoining apartment, and prepared for interment. Mary's attendants wished to have it delivered to them, that they might comply with her dying request to convey it to France; but they were told that they could not be allowed to do so. The body was interred with great pomp and ceremony in the Cathedral at Peterborough, where it remained in peace for many years.

Now that the deed was done, the great problem with Elizabeth was, of course, to avert the consequences of the terrible displeasure and thirst for revenge which she might naturally suppose it would awaken in Scotland and in France. She succeeded very well in accomplishing this. As soon as she heard of the execution of Mary, she expressed the utmost surprise, grief, and indignation. She said that she had, indeed, signed the death warrant, but it was not her intention at all to have it executed; and that, when she delivered it to the officer, she charged him not to let it go out of his possession. This the officer denied. Elizabeth insisted, and punished the officer by a long imprisonment, and perpetual disgrace, for his pretended offense. She sent a messenger to James, explaining the terrible accident, as she termed it, which had occurred, and deprecating his displeasure. James, though at first filled with indignation, and determined to avenge his mother's death, allowed himself to be appeased.

About twenty years after this, Elizabeth died, and the great object of Mary's ambition throughout her whole life was attained by the union of the Scotch and English crowns on the head of her son. As soon as Elizabeth ceased to breathe, James the Sixth of Scotland was proclaimed James the First of England. He was at that time nearly forty years of age. He was married, and had several young children. The circumstances of King James's journey to London, when he went to take possession of his new kingdom, are related in the History of Charles I., belonging to this series. Though James thus became monarch of both England and Scotland, it must not be supposed that the two kingdoms  were combined. They remained separate for many years—two independent kingdoms governed by one king.

When James succeeded to the English throne, his mother had been dead many years, and whatever feelings of affection may have bound his heart to her in early life, they were now well-nigh obliterated by the lapse of time, and by the new ties by which he was connected with his wife and his children. As soon as he was seated on his new throne, however, he ordered the Castle of Fotheringay, which had been the scene of his mother's trial and death, to be leveled with the ground, and he transferred her remains to Westminster Abbey, where they still repose.


Mary's Tomb at Westminster Abbey.

If the lifeless dust had retained its consciousness when it was thus transferred, with what intense emotions of pride and pleasure would the mother's heart have been filled, in being thus brought to her final home in that ancient sepulcher of the English kings, by her son, now, at last, safely established, where she had so long toiled and suffered to instate him, in his place in the line. Ambition was the great, paramount, ruling principle of Mary's life. Love was, with her, an occasional, though perfectly uncontrollable impulse, which came suddenly to interrupt her plans and divert her from her course, leaving her to get back to it again, after devious wanderings, with great difficulty and through many tears. The love, with the consequences which followed from it, destroyed her;  while the ambition, recovering itself after every contest with its rival, and holding out perseveringly to the last, saved her son;  so that, in the long contest in which her life was spent, though she suffered all the way, and at last sacrificed herself, she triumphed in the end.

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