A Rivalry in Letters: Mary and Elizabeth

Examining the two queens’ contest for power through the evolution of their quarter-century-long correspondence

Elizabeth I signature

Mary Queen of Scots signature

By Ryan Hunter

19 August 2016 – Setauket, Long Island, New York

I have dedicated this paper to the memory of the brilliant and ever-witty Dr Jenny Wormald FRSA, FRHistS, and HonFSA Scot (1942-2015) who departed this life in December 2015. Dr Wormald was an extraordinary historian of late medieval and early modern Scottish royal and ecclesiastical politics who re-evaluated the role of clan wars and noble feuds. She wrote and taught as well about Reformation-era religion, delighting in critiquing and demolishing the prevailing, established historical narratives on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border. She stood out during my spring 2012 semester at the University of Edinburgh as one of the most brilliant among so many brilliant scholars, and the few lessons I was honoured to have with her were always tremendously enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. While I expect that she’d have quite a few arguments with the conclusions of this paper, and despite some of my own reservations about her conclusions on Mary Queen of Scots, I have profound admiration for her scholarship, especially her efforts to offer a critical but overall positive reinterpretation of the legacy and accomplishments of James VI and I. Requiescat in pace.


Introduction and Context: Why their letters are worth examining

Video et taceo.

-Elizabeth I’s motto (“I see and keep silent”).

Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true Frenchwoman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end.

-Mary Queen of Scots’ parting words to her servants, 8 February 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I’s letters to each other were their only direct sources of communication. They remain to this day historians’ most insightful and formative sources on the quarter century-long rivalry between the two queens, as they show how Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship changed and their enmity developed over time. They reveal fascinating insights into the two cousins and rivals’ personalities, and above all else, their fundamentally different approaches to their respective positions as two queens regnant living on the same isle with a contested claim to the same throne. The manner in which they wrote to each other, especially their choice of words and language, reflects the profoundly different and evolving approaches these two women employed in communicating to each other over time and, more broadly, in seeking to control the circumstances in which they found themselves. Above all, their letters serve as invaluable evidence of the shift in the queens’ attitudes toward each other: from youthful rivalry, to a brief period of sisterly solidarity, to increasing estrangement and profoundly hostile confrontation toward the end of their quarter century-long correspondence. Without the evidence these letters provide, historians would have only the testimony of those who knew and served the queens, and not the crucial words of the queens themselves, to piece together a contextual framework for Mary and Elizabeth’s evolving rivalry.

A Rivalry in Letters 1

Mary, Queen of Scots painted around the age of 18 or 19 during her first widowhood following Francis II of France’s 1560 death.

Elizabeth I Clopton portrait 1560

Elizabeth I, aged 26, in this 1560 portrait by Clopton. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London.

Whereas Mary (1542-1587), the more passionate of the two women, is direct, emotional, and often uses either pleading or accusatory language depending on the situation, her cousin Elizabeth (1533-1603) is more circumspect, usually dispassionate in tone, and often gives admonishing words of caution or paternalistic, almost sisterly advice. The two queens’ rivalry emerges in four distinct stages. The first key turning point in their correspondence was 1567, when Mary’s second husband – she and Elizabeth’s mutual cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – was murdered and Mary soon after married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the man the Scots public suspected of killing Darnley. Mary’s subsequent overthrow and forced abdication by the Scottish Protestant lords and her impetuous flight to England to seek Elizabeth’s assistance in 1568 marks the second turning point, and summer 1586—when Mary’s son James VI betrayed his mother and entered into an official alliance with Elizabeth, her captor—the third. By the end of their quarter century-long correspondence in fall of 1586, with Mary informed that her cousin would soon likely sign her death warrant, the tone of their exchange takes on a remarkably hostile direction, which is the fourth turning point.

Astonishingly, by the end of their correspondence, Elizabeth would directly and explicitly accuse Mary of plotting against her life, while Mary would hauntingly remind Elizabeth that she would face a dreadful eternal reckoning should she choose, as Elizabeth ultimately did, to sign the death warrant and execute her cousin and fellow queen. Ultimately, as in their lifelong rivalry, the two queens’ letters to each other reveal no clear winner, but instead, through the medium of these letters, we are left to wonder at the complex personalities of these two rival monarchs and just how and why their relationship deteriorated so significantly. What is certain is that, without these letters, we would have only the conjecture and potentially prejudiced opinions of the two queens’ senior advisors and ministers to attempt to piece together a fuller picture, a picture the letters are thus indispensable in constructing. The letters confirm and solidify the oft-repeated historical record that Mary was first and foremost a woman and only then a monarch, morphing during her English captivity from a desperate femme fatale into a would-be-martyr, while Elizabeth emerges as first and foremost a calculating monarch who only then allowed herself to be a woman, always subordinating her personal wishes to her political instincts.


Elizabeth I painted in her coronation robes on 15 January 1559. She ascended to the English throne on 17 November 1558 upon her half-sister Queen Mary I Tudor’s death. Artist unknown. She was crowned, as all English monarchs had been since the Hundred Years’ War, as monarch of England and France — but, while Elizabeth took great umbrage at Mary’s claim to the English throne, she never addressed the fact that she was, til her death, a titular claimant to the throne which has belonged to Mary’s first husband.

Part I: A Dance of Youthful Rivalry: Two claimants to the same throne

Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry begins over a confrontation between the two queens in the seminal year 1558, rooted in the two different destinies their lives took when in May the fifteen-year-old Mary—already queen regnant of Scotland from her infancy – married her first husband, Dauphin François of France, at Notre Dame de Paris, and the unmarried twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth became Queen of England on 17 November upon her childless Catholic half-sister Mary I Tudor’s long-expected death. The initial conflict between the Scottish and English queens was one of status and title centring on Mary’s passive acceptance of her father-in-law’s decision to claim the thrones of England and Ireland in her name, a decision that both outraged and disconcerted Elizabeth. Upon learning of Mary I of England’s death, Henri II of France immediately proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law King (consort) and Queen (regnant) of England and Ireland, since, in the eyes of Catholic Europe, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII by ‘the whore’ or ‘witch’ Anne Boleyn, was illegitimate, and Mary, Queen of Scots was now the rightful monarch of England. [1]

A Rivalry in Letters 4.jpg.png

Mary’s altered royal coat of arms from 1559-1560 outraged Elizabeth I: they projected her titles as Queen consort of France (the blue and gold fleur-de-lis pattern to the left), Queen regnant of Scotland (the Stuart red lion on the yellow background) and her claim to be the rightful Queen regnant of England (the three English lions quartered with the fleur-de-lis).


The young Mary seems not to have understood how deeply she offended her older cousin Elizabeth by allowing her father-in-law King Henri II and her powerful Guise uncles, François le Duc de Guise and Charles, Cardinal de Lorraine, “to claim the title Queen of England and Ireland for the house of Valois, and quarter Mary’s arms with those of France, Scotland and England.” [2] Although, Jane Dunn points out, “this act of acquisitiveness was not initiated by Mary, her acceptance and overriding pursuit of it altered her destiny forever” [3] and made Elizabeth view her from her accession as a serious rival for her throne. Dunn notes that Mary’s assumption of the royal arms of England in November 1558 “gave her a compelling idea of herself as rightful heir to the English throne, an aspiration she maintained throughout her life.” [4] From the moment Mary first imagined herself as Queen of England, the two cousins and sister queens were set upon an inevitable rivalry that ultimately would end only with Mary’s death.

What is rather ironic and not a little hypocritical is that while Mary was never actually crowned as Queen of England in the September 1559 ceremony which saw her crowned as queen consort of France beside François II, at Elizabeth’s coronation on 15 January 1559, she was proclaimed and crowned as monarch of both England and France, as all English monarchs before her had been since the Hundred Years’ War. While Elizabeth took great umbrage at Mary’s claim to the English throne, she never addressed the fact that she was til her death a titular claimant to the French throne which had belonged to Mary’s first husband.


Mary, Queen of Scots sketched by French royal portraitist Francois Clouet in 1558 shortly before her wedding to Francis, Dauphin (Crown Prince) of France, son of Henri II.

Elizabeth first refers to Mary politely in the first peace treaty she signed during her reign, a treaty with France and Scotland, which was then governed by Mary’s formidable French mother, the Scottish Queen Mother and Regent Marie de Guise, widow of James V and sister of France’s powerful Guise brothers. [5] In asserting that Mary was not Queen of England, Elizabeth deliberately chose diplomatic language in defending her own claim to be England’s rightful monarch. She tactfully accepted the provision “that the title to this kingdom injuriously pretended in so many ways by the Queen of Scotland has not proceeded otherwise than from the ambitious desire of the principal members of the House of Guise” [6], Mary’s uncles. Elizabeth, in an almost chiding tone, went on to patronize the young Mary and her husband François de France for their youthful error in claiming what she asserted was her rightful title: “the King, who by reason of his youth…the Queen of Scots, who is likewise very young…have [not] of themselves imagined and deliberated an enterprise so unjust, unreasonable, and perilous” [7] as to brazenly quarter their arms with England’s.

Thus, as early as 1558, we have evidence that Mary claimed to be the rightful Queen of England and that Elizabeth instructed her envoys to respond firmly but evenly in contesting her view. While her claims unnerved Elizabeth, at this stage the rivalry between the two queens seems more indicative of a youthful concern for status and image which, while not unserious, was a far cry from the verbal valedictory broadsides the queens would ultimately launch at each other before Mary’s execution.

When, in December 1560, Mary’s sixteen-year old husband King Francois II died, leaving her a widow and dowager queen of France at 17, the stage was set for Mary and Elizabeth’s first serious confrontation. [8] Within several months, after experiencing what seems to have been a profound depression and possible nervous collapse [9], the widowed Mary – ostracised from and unwelcome at the new royal court of Charles IX dominated by Henri II’s widow, her hostile, formidable former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, who governed in her young son’s name as Queen Regent – made up her mind to return to her native Scotland. This prospect alarmed Elizabeth, who was horrified and threatened at the idea of her Catholic cousin and rival suddenly arriving on her northern doorstep. Citing Mary’s refusal to ratify the recent Treaty of Edinburgh conducted after her mother and regent Marie de Guise’s sudden death – in which Scotland’s newly ascendant Protestant leaders both obliged French troops to leave the kingdom and acknowledged Elizabeth as rightful Queen of England –  Elizabeth refused her cousin a warrant of safe passage through English waters on her return from France to Scotland. [10]


Mary, Queen of Scots pictured in her first widowhood as the dowager Queen of France, 1560, by Clouet. White was, at this time, the standard colour for mourning, but Mary so deeply mourned Francois II that she became known at the French Court as “la reine blanche” — “the white queen”.

Mary responded with her first known letter in reference to her English cousin. Exhibiting what was to become a lifelong flair for self-dramatisation, the now dowager queen of France wrote to the English ambassador: “I am determined to adventure the matter, whatsoever come of it; I trust the wind will be so favourable that I shall not need to come on the coast of England; for if I do, then… the Queen your mistress shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure and make sacrifice of me.” [11]

Part II: Brief Sisterly Solidarity: The Darnley Affair and the forced abdication

By the early 1560s we see a more positive shift in the queens’ relations, with Mary ensconced in Scotland, having seemingly forgotten about Elizabeth’s refusal to grant her safe passage through England to Scotland. Both queens were now writing in “amenable, even affectionate” terms to each other. [12] Mary seems clearly to be the more emotional partner in their letters, once kissing a letter Elizabeth had written for her, saying to the English ambassador “I will kiss it also…for her sake it commeth from.” [13]


Mary, Queen of Scots painted as a young woman near the time of her first marriage.

In spring and summer 1565, the twenty-two-year-old Mary shocked her courtiers with the speed and intensity with which she fell in love with and impetuously married her first cousin and second husband, nineteen-year-old Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Tall, athletic, and charming, Darnley possessed the perfect lineage and pedigree to woo the young (and also exceptionally tall) queen, though he would shortly reveal himself to be utterly devoid of integrity, decency, tact, or much intelligence. The great-grandson of King Henry VII of England through his mother, Henry was the heir to his father’s earldom of Lennox, and his ambitious parents owned lands across Scotland and England. In a dizzying span of just over a month, Mary had abruptly created her suitor sui iuris Earl of Ross at Stirling on 15 May [14] and then the Duke of Albany only a week before their Catholic marriage at the Queen’s chapel in Holyrood Palace on 29 July. [15] Reflecting her impulsive nature during this period of profound infatuation, Mary actually ordered that the proclamation announcing her marriage and granting Darnley the royal style and title ‘His Grace the King of Scots’ be read from Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on 28 July, the day before their wedding. [16]

In the absence of any natural heirs of Mary or Elizabeth’s bodies at that time, Mary’s choice of Darnley for a husband was, in theory, a calculated political move designed to strengthen her claim to the English throne, since he was the nearest blood heir to both the Scottish and (after Mary herself) English thrones, and a cousin of Elizabeth through his mother, Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Lady Margaret was herself the daughter of Elizabeth’s paternal aunt Margaret Tudor from the latter’s stormy second marriage to Archibald Douglas, the sixth Earl of Angus. Margaret Tudor, Mary’s paternal grandmother, was the elder daughter of Henry VII of England, older sister to Henry VIII, queen consort to James IV of Scots from 1503 to his death ten years later, mother of King James V, and dowager queen of Scots from 1513 to her death in 1541.

Knowing something of Darnley’s darker side from his time at her court, Elizabeth had deliberately sent the “lang lad” north in the hopes of seducing Mary (and destabilising her reign) after the offended Queen of Scots had rejected Elizabeth’s scandalous offer of proposing her own rumoured paramour — the Protestant Robert Dudley, the only recently entitled Earl of Leicester and the son of an attainted and executed traitor — as a suitable husband for Mary. Elizabeth’s scheme to weaken Mary by having her marry Darnley worked far more than she likely ever anticipated. Within weeks of the Queen’s wedding, it became clear to all that Mary had rushed into a disastrous marriage; Darnley emerged as a drunk, a boor, and an intemperate womaniser rumoured to frequent Edinburgh’s brothels by night. [17]

The Queen’s husband was deeply unsatisfied with his largely empty and unprecedented role as the male royal consort of Scotland; he carried only the title, but not the monarchical authority of a true, reigning ‘King of Scots’. By marrying Scotland’s first reigning female monarch, Darnley did not become a co-reigning king de iure uxoris as Fulk of Anjou had with Queen Melisende in Jerusalem, Władysław II Jagiełło had in Poland-Lithuania (even retaining the crown, remarrying, and starting his own dynasty after Queen Jadwiga’s untimely death), or Fernando II had in Castile where he served as co-ruler with Isabel I, nor was Darnley a powerful force in the kingdom or royal council in his own right as Philip of Spain had become when he married Mary I Tudor and became king consort of England a decade earlier. While all acts of Parliament after their marriage bore both Mary and Darnley’s names, and he as king technically took precedence over his wife despite him being the consort, Darnley was peevishly outraged that his wife steadfastly refused to grant him the Crown Matrimonial, which would have left him as her heir had she died childless.

While Mary achieved perhaps her most important life’s goal, securing the future of the Stuart dynasty by giving birth to a son and heir, Prince James Charles, in June 1566 [18] – news which dismayed Elizabeth [19] – the Queen’s misery in her marriage led to a whirlwind of drama culminating in the February 1567 murder of her husband at Kirk o’ Field. Mary had not hidden her marital woes from Darnley’s enemies, even going so far as to apparently say to some of her attendant lords that “unless she were quit of [Darnley] by one means or another, she could never have a good day for the rest of her life”. [20]


1565 or 1566 painting of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, titular King consort of Scots until his February 1567 murder at Kirk o’ Field.

The scene of Darnley's murder

Portrait of Darnley’s murder at Kirk o’ Field on 10 February 1567, commissioned for Mary’s nemesis, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and chief of the English Royal Privy Council, William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley. Mary’s soon-to-be third husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was widely believed to be responsible for the murder. Many of Mary’s supporters would ultimately blame Elizabeth I herself, since she had encouraged Mary to receive back into her favour Moray and the other rebellious Lairds of the Congregation who, Mary believed, were behind Darnley’s murder.

On February 24, 1567, Elizabeth wrote the following impassioned letter to Mary, using what G.B. Harrison describes as “great frankness without any of the usual circumlocutions common in her diplomatic correspondence”. [21] It marks the first major turning point in relations between the two queens. The letter is remarkable in that the usually prescribed Elizabeth pointedly eschews the usual formalities, urging Mary in extremely direct language to act immediately to preserve her reputation and distance herself from her husband’s alleged killer, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell:

Madame: My ears have been so deafened and my understanding so grieved and my heart so affrighted to hear the dreadful news of the abominable murder of your mad husband and my killed cousin that I scarcely have the wits to write about it… I cannot dissemble that I am more sorrowful for you than for him… I will not at all dissemble what most people are talking about: which is that you will look through your fingers at [ignore] the revenging of this deed… However, I exhort you, I counsel you, and I beseech you to take this thing so much to heart that you will not fear to touch even him [Bothwell] whom you have nearest to you if the thing [the murder] touches him, and that no persuasion will prevent you from making an example [of justice] out of this to the world: that you are both a noble princess and a loyal wife. . . [22]

As Elizabeth’s words here illustrate – “you will look through your fingers at the revenging of this deed” – gossip was already rife that Mary would not punish her estranged husband’s murderer. This letter is remarkable in that Elizabeth speaks plainly to Mary as her equal, as a fellow queen, and also, on an emotional and direct level, as a fellow woman. Her unusually direct and emotional words, full of solidarity and sympathy for Mary, nevertheless contain heartfelt and practical advice to defend her honour and distance herself from Bothwell, the man at the centre of Darnley’s murder. It is in this letter that Elizabeth revealingly observes that “I am not ignorant that you have no wiser counsellors than myself” [23], casting herself as Mary’s chief advisor and defender against her enemies’ machinations. Despite receiving Elizabeth’s letter, Mary, seemingly under Bothwell’s control, took the worst route possible, ensuring her own downfall and the premature end of her reign.

Almost as soon as Darnley was dead, Bothwell began to establish a strong emotional and psychological hold over Mary, to the point that Mary arranged a show trial in April 1567 which acquitted Bothwell of all charges in Darnley’s murder. [24] Prior to hearing about the outcome of the show trial, Elizabeth wrote again to Mary, writing in uncharacteristically emotional, motherly terms: “Madam, I treat you as my daughter, and assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you… the one for whom one wishes the greatest good that may be possible in this world.” [25] There is no evidence that Mary, by then completely in thrall to Bothwell, responded to this warm letter of sympathy from Elizabeth.

Disturbed by Mary’s silence, soon after, Elizabeth wrote touchingly yet again to Mary in her own hand, in French, Mary’s mother tongue, in anticipation of the hearing against Bothwell: “For the love of God, Madame, use such sincerity and prudence in this matter [the hearing], which touches you so nearly, that all the world may feel justified in believing you innocent of so enormous a crime, which, if you were not, would be good cause for degrading you from the rank of princess, and bringing upon you the scorn of the vulgar.” [26] Once again, Elizabeth showed herself to be concerned above all else for Mary’s honour as her fellow queen and cousin; she knew that by associating publicly with the man all of Edinburgh blamed for Darnley’s murder, Mary delegitimised herself before her many enemies and only furthered the scandalous rumours that she had been involved in the murder. As a fellow queen regnant, Elizabeth was acutely aware that all of Europe was closely watching Mary’s actions, and she was concerned that Mary not act in any emotional or impulsive way that would denigrate female rulers’ perceived capabilities in the eyes of men.

When Elizabeth heard in late May 1567 that Mary had – after being kidnapped and allegedly raped by Bothwell – first made him Duke of Orkney and then on 15 May married the man publicly held responsible for Darnley’s murder [27], she wrote yet another impassioned, incredibly direct letter to her cousin, warning her in no uncertain terms that Mary’s actions had scandalised Europe and threatened the future of her reign in Scotland:

How could a worse choice be made for your honour than in such haste to marry such a subject, who besides other and notorious lacks, public fame has charged with the murder of your late husband, besides the touching of yourself also in some part, though we trust in that behalf falsely. [28]

By marrying Bothwell, in Elizabeth’s view and all the world’s, Mary showed herself incapable of ruling independently and asserting her own will. Worst of all, by marrying the man “public fame has charged with the murder of” Darnley, Mary showed a fatal, utter indifference to public opinion and a deafeningly reckless refusal to heed her cousin and fellow queen’s impassioned pleas for caution and deliberation. Elizabeth, used to speaking to Mary like an older to a younger sister, makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she thinks Mary’s decision was the worst possible choice.

Elizabeth was clearly horrified that, not only had Mary married the man publicly charged with murdering her late husband, but that Bothwell “hath another lawful wife alive, whereby neither by God’s law nor man’s yourself can be his leeful wife, nor any children betwixt you legitimate.” [29] Elizabeth wrote explicitly of the threat Mary’s new marriage posed to her continued rule in Scotland, urging Mary “to be careful how your son the prince may be preserved, for the comfort of yours and your realm, which two things we have from the beginning always taken to heart…” [30] Elizabeth signed herself, emphatically, “a good neighbour, a dear sister and a faithful friend.” [31]

Mary’s response to Elizabeth marks an equally poignant turning point in the cousins’ relations. In the following letter, defending her marriage to Bothwell, Mary revealed her own belief that she could not rule Scotland alone as Elizabeth ruled in England. Unlike Elizabeth, Mary now had neither the political authority nor the personal willpower to govern Scotland unaided:

Destitute of a husband, our realm not truly purged of the factions and conspiracies that for a long time has continued therein, which occurring so frequently, had already in a manner so wearied and broken us, that by our self we were not able for any long continuance to sustain the pains and travail in our own person… for their satisfaction, which could not suffer us long to continue in the state of widowhood, moved by their prayers and requests, it behoves us to yield unto one marriage or other. [32]

Mary fails to give a convincing defence of her marriage; all she can muster in response to Elizabeth’s horror and outrage is a defeated “it behoves us to yield unto one marriage or other”. These are hardly the words of a capable, confident queen making a deliberate, strategic marriage to solidify her power or manoeuvre against her enemies; one develops a clear sense that the Queen is not only “wearied and broken”, as she revealingly writes, but nearing another one of her oft-noted episodes of severe melancholy and depression. She openly admits to her fellow female monarch that she cannot rule alone, as Elizabeth does; Mary needs a husband by her side, and, as one reads between the lines, she did not even eagerly or even freely choose Bothwell, but rather, as she writes rather dejectedly, was obliged to “yield” to remarrying.

The collapse of Mary’s reign came swiftly. By 11 June, most of her supporters – horrified that she had married Bothwell – had deserted her, and Bothwell’s enemies openly took to the streets of Edinburgh, calling on the Queen to repudiate him and pledging in a printed proclamation to deliver her from his thrall, preserve Prince James, and avenge the King’s murder. [33] Inexplicably, Mary did not desert Bothwell – something her entire kingdom would have praised her for doing. Only four days later, with a mere 2,000 men supporting them, Mary and Bothwell faced an equally-sized force of confederate lords at Carberry Hill – led in absentia by Moray and Knox – who were determined that she divorce him. Mary’s soldiers bore the royal banners with the red and gold Lion of Scotland – the ancient Stuart symbol – while the rebels bore an improvised banner replicating the murder scene, depicting Darnley dead under a tree with the infant James, with the motto, “Judge and Revenge my cause, O Lord. [34]


Hans Eworth portrait of James Stewart (Stuart) (1531-1570), illegitimate son of James V by Lady Margaret Erskine, and one of the leaders of the Protestant Lairds of the Congregation. James’ half-sister Mary created Earl of Moray shortly after returning to Scotland, where he worked to undermine her reign especially after her marriage to Darnley. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary’s son, from shortly after her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Following the 15 June defeat of their forces at Carberry Hill – in which Bothwell ignominiously fled the field and escaped for the heavily fortified Dunbar Castle and the Queen surrendered herself to her enemies’ custody after receiving a solemn oath from the rebel lords promising to uphold her safety and inviolability [35] –  the Protestant lords violated their word and took the Queen captive. The captured, heavily pregnant Mary was then led dishevelled through the streets of Edinburgh, all illusions of royal authority gone, her husband having fled the battlefield leaving her utterly without support or defence. [36] Crowds of her Protestant subjects – who uncritically bought into Knox’s propaganda depicting her as a Jezebel and idolater – verbally assaulted their captive queen as she passed, shouting “Burn the whore!” and holding up placards depicting Mary as a mermaid—a then-universal symbol for a prostitute and female adulterer. [37] None of her assassinated or forcibly deposed male predecessors among the Stuart kings had ever been so publicly degraded or humiliated, nor any king of England. A prisoner of her Protestant enemies, who now controlled her son the infant prince James, Mary’s reign was effectively over. This was her life’s nadir.

Despite her horror at Mary’s reckless behaviour, Elizabeth was first and foremost concerned with Mary’s security and status as a fellow monarch. Dedicated to the absolute majesty and divine right of kings, Elizabeth was outraged that Mary had been so outrageously treated by her own subjects. She furiously argued that “it does not appertain to subjects so to reform their prince, but to deal by advice and counsel, and failing thereof, to recommend the rest to Almighty God”. [38] Incensed that the Scottish lords would dare assault their God-anointed sovereign, Elizabeth “threatened war” [39] against them and talked of sending an armed force to relieve Mary. She talked, yet, in keeping with her motto, besides offering written encouragement to Mary, she did nothing to liberate her cousin from her enemies.

Upon hearing of her cousin’s capture by the rebellious Protestant lords in mid-June 1567, Elizabeth wrote to Mary “We assure you that whatsoever we can imagine meet for your honour and safety that shall lie in our power, we will perform the same…you [shall not] lack our friendship and power for the preservation of your honour in quietness.” [40] Elizabeth told her ambassador to Scotland that she “would not suffer her [Mary], being by God’s ordinance the prince and sovereign, to be in subjection to them that by nature and law are subjected to her” [41]; simply put, Elizabeth viewed with alarm Mary’s outrageous treatment by her rebellious subjects, identifying it as a threat that might undermine the entire concept of monarchy and the sacred inviolability of the person of the sovereign. While Elizabeth continued to rail in support of her beleaguered cousin, she tellingly did not send troops to free Mary from the Protestant lairds or restore her to her throne.

On 24th July 1567, while she was imprisoned at Loch Leven castle immediately after miscarrying Bothwell’s twins, Mary’s gaolers forced her to sign a pre-written letter of abdication. [42] Mary would contend for the rest of her life that she had been compelled to sign the abdication under physical duress, and that Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her old friend and Elizabeth’s ambassador to Mary since before her marriage to Darnley – a man who somehow retained the goodwill and confidence of both queen – had advised her that an abdication signed under such duress could not be counted as legally valid. [43] Led by John Knox and her hated half-brother the Earl of Moray, the Protestant lords who had engineered her unlawful “demission” from the throne duly installed her infant son as James VI, crowning him less than a week after the crown was so brazenly taken from his mother. Fearing that recognising James as king would demean the authority of monarchs generally, and female ones in particular, but also wary of driving the Scottish lords away from English support and back into the arms of France, Elizabeth acted mildly, simply forbidding Throckmorton from attending the infant prince’s coronation [44].

A retroactive December 1567 Act of the Scottish Parliament –  of dubious legality as it was held at the behest of her Protestant enemies – confirmed that Mary had freely abdicated of her own volition on her son’s behalf, therefore making her son’s accession and coronation, in their view, entirely valid. [45] Despite managing to harness all her considerable charm, scheming abilities, and physical energy to eventually escape from her prison at Loch Leven and ultimately flee to England in 1568, where she sought Elizabeth’s direct material assistance to help her win back her throne, Mary never again ruled Scotland. [46] For the next nineteen years, despite Mary’s naïve expectation that Elizabeth would make good her promises of loyalty and support and help restore her to the Scottish throne, the exiled queen would be imprisoned on her cousin’s orders.


The young James VI of Scots (de facto King of Scots from July 1567, de jure from February 8, 1587 with his mother’s death). James was raised by strict Presbyterian Calvinists who encouraged him to hate his mother, whom he had no memory of since he had been separated from her shortly before her forced abdication. The Dutch painter Arnold van Brounckhorst painted then 7 or 8-year old James in 1574.

Part III: “The Daughter of Debate”: Increasing mutual estrangement, resentment, and suspicion

In keeping with her impulsive and highly emotional nature, Mary wrote to Elizabeth as soon as she had crossed into England. From Workington, Mary wrote to Elizabeth on 17 May, only a day after crossing the Solway Firth via a tiny fishing boat with a handful of her most loyal supporters. She addressed Elizabeth courteously and as her equal, as “Madame my good sister”, urging her to “send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can, for I am in a pitiable condition, not only for a Queen, but for a gentlewoman; for I have nothing in this world, but what I had on my person when I made my escape, travelling across the country…”, pointedly signing the letter “Mary R”, for ‘Regina’. [47] This letter is one of the most remarkable in the two queens’ exchange, as, in it, Mary relays at length the ordeals she suffered in Scotland, beginning with David Rizzio’s murder (which, curiously, she does not blame on her now-dead second husband) and continuing up through what she claims was her generous granting of clemency to her rebellious Protestant lairds at Elizabeth’s request in the aftermath of the Chaseabout Raid. She then goes on to detail her forced abdication at Loch Leven, and argues that Darnley’s murder was contrived by her Protestant enemies as a pretext for attempting to overthrow her:

You know how they purposed to seize me and the late king my husband [Darnley], from which attempt it pleased God to protect us, and to permit us to expel them from the country, where, at your request, I again afterwards received them; though, on their return, they committed another crime, that of holding me a prisoner, and killing in my presence a servant of mine [Rizzio], I being at the time in a state of pregnancy. It again pleased God that I should save myself from their hands; and… I not only pardoned them, but even received them into favour. They, however, not yet satisfied with so many acts of kindness, have, on the contrary, in spite of their promises, devised, favoured, subscribed to, and aided in a crime [Darnley’s murder] for the purpose of charging it falsely upon me, as I hope fully to make you understand. They have, under this pretence, arrayed themselves against me… [After Bothwell escaped from Carberry Hill] I, feeling myself innocent, and desirous to avoid the shedding of blood, placed myself in their hands, wishing to reform what was amiss. They immediately seized and imprisoned me. . . I demanded to be heard in council, which was refused me. . . They threatened to kill me, if I did not sign an abdication of my crown, which the fear of immediate death caused me to do, as I have since proved, before the whole of the nobility, of which I hope to afford you evidence. [48]

This letter stands out for its immense attention to detail, and the obvious difference in tone between it and Mary’s earlier defeated, dejected letter to Elizabeth from May 1567 when she had so resignedly accepted Bothwell as her husband in the wake of Darnley’s murder and the public furore that ensued. In this letter, Mary seeks to recount in vivid, forceful terms to Elizabeth – as her kinswoman fellow monarch –  a chronological account of all the wrongs done her by her rebellious subjects. She flatly denies any responsibility for Darnley’s murder, instead directly accusing the rebellious confederate lords led by her brother Moray of perpetrating the crime in an attempt to discredit her and legitimise rebellion. What Mary does not recognise from this letter, as is clear by her wording, is that perhaps her most fatal mistake was to heed Elizabeth’s self-serving advice in permitting the rebellious lords back at her court, and not doing with them as Elizabeth surely would have done – beheading them for treason and confiscating their lands.

Now that Mary was in England, an extremely unwelcome prospect for Elizabeth, the two cousins’ relationship had changed once again. Elizabeth responded coolly to Mary’s first letter, leading Mary to write another impetuous letter to her in which she again urged Elizabeth to meet with her in person so that she could explain everything to her sister queen and cousin. In this letter, Mary hinted that, should Elizabeth not help her regain her lost throne, she would look elsewhere for assistance, chiefly France, where most of her advisors had implored her to seek refuge rather than England: “If for any reason I cannot come to you, seeing I have freely come to throw myself in your arms, you will I am sure permit me to ask assistance of my other allies”. [49]

By this time, Mary had sensibly already contacted her strongest natural ally in Europe – the powerful Queen Mother and Regent of France, her own former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, who would rule France for some thirty years in her sons’ names until her death in 1589. In support of Mary’s cause, Catherine had taken the initiative of writing to Elizabeth on 26 May, adroitly quoting one of the English Queen’s own sympathetic letters to her about Mary’s pitiable condition, in which Elizabeth had promised Catherine that she believed that all “princes are bound to assist one another to chastise and punish the subjects who rise up against them, and are rebellious to their sovereigns”. [50] In the same letter, again quoting Elizabeth’s own words to her, Catherine pledged that “inasmuch as this touches us to the heart”, both she and her son Charles IX were ready to “take part for the protection of “this desolate and afflicted queen,” that she may be restored to her liberty and the authority given to her by God, which in right and equity pertains to her and not to another.” [51] Catherine then threw down a gauntlet urging Elizabeth to make good on all her so far only verbal promises to help Mary:

I beseech you, madame, my good sister, that you would make manifest to every one, especially to the king, my son, how much you desire the authority of sovereign princes to be preserved, and their rebellious and disobedient subjects to be chastised and punished. Above all, that you will use her [Mary] with that good and tender treatment that you have promises us, and which we hope from you, and that you will benignantly vouchsafe to her all the aid, favour, and service which she will require for the restoration of her liberty, and the authority that appertains to her. [52]

The de facto ruler of France ended with a postscript which she wrote in her own hand, attesting to the seriousness with which she viewed Mary’s case and how deep an impression she wished to make on Elizabeth. The French Queen Regents hints that she did not trust Elizabeth to go much beyond offering her usual words but that, instead, Elizabeth would act in her usual self-interest and forget that she had helped destabilise Mary’s reign in Scotland by helping the Scots Protestants remove the French garrisons in 1560, and then in 1567 Elizabeth had failed to take any military action in Mary’s defence. Catherine once again adroitly quoted Elizabeth’s last letter to her:

Madame my good sister, I will write to you one word to pray you to put me to ease… on this occasion, I should desire not only to write to you myself [in her own hand], but to see you in person. Not that I doubt your goodness; having no other fear than this, that you will not remember sufficiently that you have often been unjust towards this queen, my daughter-in-law, and how this is a case that touches all princes, and especially a princess who has made me the assurances that you have done, “that, as much as lies in your power, you will make perfect in deeds that which you have shewn to her [Mary] in words”. [53]

As Catherine’s letter shows – part diplomatically phrased entreaty, part not-so-subtle pressure on Elizabeth to act decisively – Mary’s arrival in England, and the question of how and when to restore her to the Scottish throne, now became an international affair, “a case that touches all princes”. Elizabeth knew that she could not safely return her dethroned cousin to Scotland with Mary’s Protestant enemies in control of the country, but her Protestant advisors warned her that to let Mary pass to Catholic France risked possible French military involvement against the lairds, which would only further destabilise Scotland and possibly threaten Protestantism England. As Elizabeth continued to prevaricate, Mary found her cousin’s behaviour “maddening and her even-handedness galling in the extreme”. [54]


Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587, r. de facto 1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587), Queen consort of France (1559-1560).

As Mary gradually came to realize that her cousin had no intention of seeing her restored to rule in Scotland, she wrote a flurry of letters to Elizabeth, insisting and then begging for a personal audience with her. 1568 marks yet another major shift in writing style and tone between the two queens’ letters. Denied access to Elizabeth’s presence, Mary’s agony over her “anguished impotence of her enforced isolation” from her cousin “had Mary resorting to the language of unrequited love. [55] If allowed to see Elizabeth, Mary wrote, she would “discover to you the secrets of my heart…I shall devote myself more and more to love, honour, and obey you…” [56] These letters, extremely unconventional in their submissive phrasing, betrayed how out of touch Mary was with the political reality of her situation.

The detained Queen of Scots became increasingly frustrated with Elizabeth, who, to her outrage, sanctioned a 1568 hearing at York to determine the authenticity of the so-called “Casket Letters”, which Mary’s great enemy and half-brother, James VI’s uncle and regent the Earl of Moray, alleged she had written adulterously to Bothwell, urging him to kill Darnley. Mary furiously decried the letters as forgeries, but neither she nor her supporters were permitted to look at the copies. As Elizabeth had desired, the inquest – whose very legitimacy Mary rejected, as she was not an English subject, but a foreign prince living there against her will – found Mary neither guilty nor innocent of adultery and murderous conspiracy against Darnley, giving the English Queen the excuse to continue keeping her Catholic cousin a prisoner while also freeing her from having to license Mary’s trial or execution for murder.

Mary had, through her own incompetence and lack of ruthlessness as a ruler, lost her throne to her more ruthless Protestant enemies when she was only 24, a younger age than Elizabeth had been when she became queen in 1558. After a year in captivity, despite no evidence from Elizabeth, Mary still naively expected that her cousin would risk all to restore her to rule. Any willingness Elizabeth might have initially had to restore her Catholic cousin to her rightful throne in Scotland soon dissipated when leading Catholic earls and gentry in northern England rose in rebellion against the Protestant queen in autumn 1569. Reminiscent of a latter-day Pilgrimage of Grace which had so haunted Henry VIII in fall 1536, the Catholic rebels echoed the concerns of their fathers over thirty years earlier under Henry, insisting on full freedom of worship for Catholics while hoping to remove the ‘usurper’ Elizabeth and put Mary on the English throne in her place.

While English Catholics were motivated by a desire to defend and restore their ancient religious traditions and beliefs from what they saw as the theological heresies and blasphemous innovations of the persecuting Protestant reformers, abroad in Europe the rival Catholic kings of Valois France – Mary’s former brothers-in-law Charles IX and later Henri III – and Habsburg Spain – Philip II was Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law and one-time suitor – had more overtly political designs for restoring toppling Elizabeth and restoring Catholicism: by placing Mary on the throne, they hoped to bring England within their own respective spheres of political influence, as the Spanish had contrived to do in England when Philip II married Mary Tudor and became King consort of England in July 1554, and as the French had done in Scotland for centuries with the Auld Alliance and again when Mary’s mother Marie de Guise was Queen Regent there from 1554-60.

The rebellion had wide support among northern Englishmen, most of whom were still Catholic, and Elizabeth’s generals suppressed it with considerable difficulty and a colossal cruelty which many historians to this day omit from their analyses of her reign. Whereas her Catholic half-sister was demonised by the sinister sobriquet “Bloody” Mary Tudor for burning some 280 Protestants for heresy in a five-year reign, as a severe measure to punish and terrorise the “papists” in the north of her realm, the Protestant “Good Queen Bess” ordered at least 600 northern Catholic rebels hanged for treason in early 1570, surpassing her father’s blood-soaked legacy in the north of England from three decades earlier. [57] Here the contrast between the two queens could not be greater; during her brief period of direct rule in Scotland (1561-67), Mary – vilified both in her lifetime and afterwards by her victorious Protestant foes in Scotland and England as a wicked Jezebel and murderess – executed none of the men who rebelled against her in the wake of the Chaseabout Raid, whereas throughout her forty-four-year reign, Elizabeth pursued bloody reprisals and executions against her mostly Catholic enemies with as much vengeance as any of her male counterparts, predecessors, or successors.

Mary certainly knew of the Catholic risings in her favour, but said nothing on the subject to Elizabeth, who also never mentioned the rebellion in any of her letters to her imprisoned cousin. In the wake of the rebels’ crushing defeat, Mary continued to petition her English cousin to allow her greater freedom of movement. Elizabeth demurred, and Mary continued to write her increasingly complaining letters. Exasperated with Mary’s numerous plaintive letters to her, in a letter dated February 20, 1570 Elizabeth railed against her cousin: “Good madame, what wrong did I ever s[eek] to you or yours in the former part of my reign, when y[ou] know what was sought against me, even to the sp[oil] of my crown from me?” [58] The two queens’ relationship only continued to deteriorate after this letter was written, especially given that Pope Pius V issued his papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in April of 1570 formally excommunicating Elizabeth, whom he derided as “the pretended queen of England and servant of wickedness”, releasing English Catholics from obedience to her, and urging them to do all they could to depose her. [59]

From this point onward, Elizabeth began to view both Mary as a nuisance and the source for Catholic opposition to her reign; why she never thought to simply send Mary off to her beloved France, where she would have possibly remarried to a French grandee and served as a dowager queen bereft of any real political power, remains unclear. Her Protestant Privy Councillors increasingly pressured her to put her imprisoned cousin on trial and execute her for her suspected role in encouraging the failed 1571 Ridolfi Plot. This plot – orchestrated by Florentine nobleman and banker Roberto di Ridolfi with Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law King Philip II’s active support – sought once again to raise the Catholic North against Elizabeth, assassinate her, restore Catholicism, and put Mary on the English throne. Elizabeth’s cousin, England’s most powerful landowner Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, plotted to marry Mary and rule England alongside her, despite that her husband Bothwell was still alive, imprisoned in a Danish prison, and despite that Norfolk had led Elizabeth’s forces into Scotland in 1560 supporting the Protestant Lairds of the Congregation in ousting Mary’s mother, the Queen Regent Marie de Guise. As senior MPs and her councillors continued to push for Mary’s preemptive execution, Elizabeth prevaricated in her usual manner, increasingly referring to her Scottish cousin as “the Daughter of Debate”. [60]


A supporter of Mary’s cause painted this portrait of the Queen and her teenage son, James VI of Scots, in 1583. In reality, Mary never again saw her son after he was taken from her in 1567 shortly before her forced abdication.


By 1580, Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship deteriorated even further. As the years went on, and Elizabeth took steps to ensure that Mary’s son James VI was raised as a Calvinist Protestant by the regents governing Scotland during his minority, Mary bemoaned her lack of control over her own son and heir. When James wrote to Mary “declining to associate her with himself in the sovereignty of Scotland”, offering to treat her merely as a “Queen-Mother” [61], the devastated Mary wrote a nearly hysterical letter to Elizabeth in which she fumed that “Without him I am, and shall be of right, as long as I live, his Queen and Sovereign…but without me, he is too insignificant to think of soaring.”[62] Refusing James’ offer for her to return to Scotland as a retired, non-reigning queen, Mary wrote frenziedly to her cousin that “I do not acknowledge one [queen mother]; failing our association, there is no King of Scotland, nor any Queen but me.” [63] Again, Mary was utterly out of touch with political reality; while it is true that she had been forced to abdicate against her will, and that therefore, legally, she remained the Scottish monarch de jure, she had not ruled in Scotland for over thirteen years, and by 1580 her son was beginning to take some part in the governing of his realm, with the rest of Europe acknowledging him as a legitimate monarch.

Writing in early May 1580 to Elizabeth, whom she still addressed courteously as “Madam, my good sister”, Mary bemoaned that while she had “written to you several times during the last year; to lay before your consideration the unworthy and rigorous treatment which I have received in this captivity…” [64], Elizabeth had not responded to her. Alarmed that Elizabeth was growing distant from her, Mary felt obliged to point out to Elizabeth how her enemies were constantly conspiring to blacken her reputation and name: “I am constrained to beg and entreat you, as I humbly do, by my liberation out of this prison, to relieve yourself from…the continual suspicions, mistrusts, and prejudices with which [my enemies surrounding you] daily trouble you against me…” [65] Mary at this point was once again employing conventional speech toward Elizabeth, though it was, typical of her preferred style, wrought with emotion.

By July 1585, Elizabeth’s hold over James was so strong that he was addressing her in his letters as “madame and mother” [66]; fortunately for Mary’s sake, she seems never to have known that he addressed Elizabeth as if she were his own mother. However, James’ continued close association with Elizabeth seems to have pushed Mary over the edge; amidst her stream of correspondence with to her Spanish and French supporters, word reached Mary of her son’s defensive treaty with Elizabeth in July 1586, right when the young, zealous Sir Anthony Babington asked her blessing for his plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put her on the English throne. [67] Mary left no written record of her thoughts regarding her only son’s betrayal of her in favour of the woman who had kept her a prisoner for nineteen years, but if she had heard of her English cousin’s wry statement (once made when discussing her marriage prospects with Mary’s ambassador to England, William Maitland) that “princes cannot like their own children, those that should succeed them” [68] for fear of being deposed by them or having their child used against them by their enemies, the Queen of Scots likely would have agreed.


James VI of Scotland in 1586, aged 20, with the Latin caption to the right reading “James VI by the grace of God King of Scots”, and the one to the left indicating that 1586 was the twentieth year of his age (also the twentieth year since his mother’s forced abdication). This was the year he betrayed his mother by agreeing to a defensive treaty with Elizabeth I, Mary’s erstwhile captor.

Part IV: The Beginning of the End: Foiled Plots, an Unprecedented Trial and an Inevitable Verdict

In March of 1586, the threat to Protestant England reached a new dimension when Philip II of Spain asked for and received a papal blessing and financial support from Pope Sixtus V for his planned ‘Enterprise of England’ to overthrow Elizabeth in Mary’s favour. This gave the King a crucial element of moral support from the epicentre of the Catholic Church, and influential political leverage from the papacy itself in making his case to other Catholic princes as to why they should also join in the invasion. [69] As Allison Weir notes, the papacy’s blessing of the Enterprise meant that “the invasion now assumed the nature of a crusade against the Infidel, a holy war that was to be fought on a grand scale”. [70] Aware of this development from her correspondence with Don Mendoza, Philip’s ambassador to England, Mary wrote to the envoy on 20 May offering to “cede and give, by will, my right to the succession of the [English] crown to your King [Philip] your master, considering the obstinacy and perseverance of my son [James] in heresy.” [71] Since Philip – already the ruler of Spain and Portugal, the Spanish Netherlands, parts of modern Italy, and vast holdings in the New World – had no desire to add England to his vast domains, as he told the Pope that if the Enterprise succeeded he intended to “resign any claim to the English succession to his daughter, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia.” [72]

The summer and fall of 1586 marks the fourth and final stage of the two queens’ relationship. In June, Elizabeth’s agents – chiefly Sir Francis Walsingham, her chief spymaster, and his decoder and assistant Thomas Phelippes –  discovered a new plot to depose her, liberate Mary, and place her on the English throne with Spanish military support and the anticipated rising of northern English Catholics. [73] Thomas Morgan, Mary’s agent in Paris, informed her of the plot’s overall goals and designs, and on 25 June she wrote from her Chartley prison to the young, foolhardy gentleman at its centre, Sir Anthony Babington, a wealthy man of twenty-five who had once served her as a page in the Earl of Shrewsbury’s household. (74) The Catholic plotters – Babington, an idealistic English Jesuit priest, Father John Ballard, and six of Babington’s trusted men – planned to go to the English Court and assassinate Elizabeth either in her Presence Chamber, in her gardens, or when she was moving publicly by open coach. (75)

Mary seems to have responded positively to the overall plan to free her without having directly countenanced her cousin’s regicide. When Babington replied to Mary on 6 July, addressing her ass “My dread Sovereign Lady and Queen”, he referred to the help of “six noble gentlemen, all my private friends” who would “despatch the usurper’, Elizabeth, while he himself would liberate Mary from Chartley. (76) Mary did not respond to him by writing in support of the assassination, but sent an initial brief response promising to write again within several days. (77) Phelippes reported to Walsingham in mid-late July that Mary’s chief secretaries had transcribed a coded note on 17 July which they later claimed (after threat of torture from their English interrogators) that she had written in her own hand. (78)

In this letter, the writer endorses the Babington Plot’s goal of overthrowing Elizabeth but, again, did not explicitly support her murder, instead vaguely writing that “the affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work: taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.” (79) The obvious questions here are 1) did Mary actually write these words, or were they forged by Phelippes? and 2) if Mary did write these words, does the phrase “the accomplishment of their design” refer to assassinating Elizabeth, or simply deposing her and putting Mary on the throne in her place? The legal issue is one of culpability: were Mary Elizabeth’s subject by law, her apparent support for overthrowing Elizabeth would, of course, be treason, yet Mary was not an English subject, but an illegally dethroned sovereign monarch confined by Elizabeth in England against her will. It is rather revealing that as soon as he received the letter and managed to decode it, as he later admitted, Phelippes himself drew a small gallows on it, inferring that Mary had at last given Walsingham enough rope, so to speak, to hang herself. (80) Mary and her supporters would claim that Phelippes had forged her answer which vaguely hinted at supporting Elizabeth’s assassination.

Alerted to these developments by Walsingham, and apparently trusting that neither he nor his assistants would dare to forge a letter by Mary, Elizabeth at last consented for her cousin’s belongings to be thoroughly searched by her gaolers. On 9 August, three of Mary’s personal wooden chests filled with her letters to and from her supporters were impounded and their contents sent to Walsingham, Mary’s two secretaries, Gilbert Curle and Claude Nau, were seized and interrogated, while Paulet himself arrested the Queen of Scots – who had been riding out on the moors – on the charge of treasonous conspiracy against Elizabeth. (81)

Babington, Ballard, and the other hapless conspirators were quickly captured, arrested, questioned, and tortured, and then duly tried and convicted for treason on 13 September. (82) Whereas the normal contemporary English practise for men sentenced to death for treason was to let them hang until dead before “drawing and quartering” their bodies, in this instance Elizabeth, who was particularly enraged by their ‘horrible treason’, insisted that at their public executions on 20 September at St Giles’ Field, Holborn, the condemned men suffer the fully horrors of a traitor’s death. This meant being hanged only briefly, cut down while alive and revived with water, “drawn” (disembowelled and castrated) while conscious, and only then, in extremis, beheaded and their corpses “quartered”. (83) While public executioners were a common form of entertainment in most societies during this period, the particularly savage butchery of the Catholic traitors on Elizabeth’s direct orders served to disgust the crowds of Protestant Londoners who had assembled to vindictively watch them die; wary of public opinion, Elizabeth gave orders that the seven remaining condemned men be hanged til fully dead on the following day before being drawn and quartered. (84)

Only five days after the executions of the plotters, Elizabeth again turned her attention to her arrested cousin, whom her advisors continued to insist must, for justice’s sake, be brought to trial as the men had been. After much prodding, on 25 September she ordered Mary transferred to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire (northeast of Oxfordshire), where she would ultimately stand trial for treason against Elizabeth and be executed. [85]

It is around this time that Elizabeth seems to have finally determined, after months of delayed, torturous soul-searching, that Mary was in fact guilty of conspiring against her. In a mid-August letter to Mary’s gaoler, the strict Puritan Sir Amyas Paulet, ordering him to dismiss most of Mary’s servants, Elizabeth refers to Mary as a “wicked murderess” [86], the only evidence that Elizabeth ever believed Mary to be guilty of Darnley’s 1567 murder. Interestingly, this is an allegation against Mary which, at the time of Darnley’s murder, Elizabeth had vehemently denied believing, both to Mary and to all her courtiers and foreign ambassadors. Thus, Elizabeth’s reference to Mary as a “wicked murderess” shows just how much their relationship had changed by the summer of 1586, to the point that Elizabeth now viewed Mary as her guilty and implacable enemy. In this same extraordinary letter, Elizabeth urges Paulet to tell Mary that “her vile deserts compelleth these orders [dismissing most of Mary’s servants], and bid her from me ask God forgiveness for her treacherous dealings towards the saviour of her life many a year, to the intolerable peril of my own”. [87] Astonishingly, Elizabeth views herself as Mary’s “saviour” for keeping her imprisoned over the past nineteen years!

The cousins’ final letters to each other are stark proof of how their relationship had deteriorated over time from a youthful rivalry, to sisterly solidarity immediately following Darnley’s murder, to increasing estrangement and resentment on Mary’s arrival in England, to ultimately deadly confrontation beginning in autumn 1586. Convinced of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, Elizabeth’s last letter to Mary was “an imperious broadside”. [88] Furious at Mary’s continued dissimulations, and particularly her refusal to acknowledge the right of English noblemen to try her since she was an anointed queen, Elizabeth’s letter carried no formal titles or polite address, “just a peremptory statement of fact and intent” [89] and a command that Mary duly answer Elizabeth’s judges, who represented the full authority of the English Queen:

You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you. . . It is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I myself were present. I therefore require, charge, and command you make answer for all I have been well informed of your arrogance. [90]

Even now, convinced of Mary’s guilt in the Babington Plot to assassinate her, Elizabeth still offered Mary a way out of certain death. She closed her above letter with this admonition, exhorting her sister queen to admit her guilt in playing a role in the Babington Plot, and throw herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy: “Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.” [91] Mary never responded. Sometime before her trial, Mary embroidered her royal cloth of estate with the French motto “En ma fin git mon commencement” (“In my end is my beginning”). By all accounts, she had begun to think seriously of her impending, inevitable death sentence as a martyrdom for her Catholic faith.

During her trial from 14-15 October before a court of 36 English noblemen – including her enemies Cecil and Walsingham – Mary at last had the opportunity to put her great charm to use, a charm Elizabeth could never bring herself to face in person. Through Elizabeth’s appointed commissioners at the trial, the Scottish Queen sought to remind and warn her cousin, urging her judges to remember “that the Theatre of the whole World is much wider than the Kingdom of England”. [92] She sought to impress upon Elizabeth that Mary was above all “a European prince and a Catholic queen” who “could look to her fellow Catholic princes to avenge her and to future generations to absolve her” [93] of her earlier misdeeds in ruling Scotland. When pressed to enter a plea of either guilt or innocence to the charges, Queen Mary heatedly denied that the trial had any legitimacy, flaring “I am no subject, and would rather die a thousand deaths than acknowledge myself to be one!”. [94] When told that she must answer the charges against her, Mary emphatically insisted on her innocence and claimed that the Babington papers purporting to show her sanctioning Elizabeth’s murder were forgeries engineered by duplicitous English spymasters [e.g. Walsingham and Burghley], declaring that “I would never make shipwreck of my soul by conspiring the destruction of my dearest sister!” [95]

When several of her servants and secretaries’ confessions to her alleged plotting were read aloud before the court, particularly he purported responses to Babington, Mary insisted that her letters must have been tampered with after she had first dictated them to her aides. She forcefully argued that the confessions were false, and that no monarch or ruler could be found guilty of a crime based off the altered, tampered-with writings or false testimony of their own servants:

The majesty and safety of all princes falleth to the ground if they depend upon the writings and testimony of their secretaries… I am not to be convicted except by mine own word or writing. [96]


Mary Queen of Scots standing at her trial by the court of 36 English noblemen appointed by Elizabeth I to judge her case.

Mary pointed out in vain that “My Papers and Notes are taken from me, and no man dareth step forth to be my advocate …”. [97] She was permitted no attorney to speak in her defence, a right usually afforded to the lowliest of Englishman accused of a major crime. Recognising that the Protestant English noblemen present all had a vested interest in seeing her convicted of treason and put to death, the Scottish Queen flatly refused to acknowledge their pretensions of legitimacy to try her, insisting that as a sovereign monarch – “queen by right of birth” – they had no authority to judge her in any capacity:

I am an absolute queen, and will do nothing which may prejudice either mine own royal majesty, or other princes of my place and rank, or my son … I am a queen by right of birth and have been consort of a king of France; my place should be there, under the dais … I am the daughter of James V, King of Scotland, and grand-daughter of Henry VII …To the judgment of mine adversaries, amongst whom I know all defence of mine innocence will be barred flatly, I will not submit myself. [98]


Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. The empty dais in the top center signified the royal authority of Queen Elizabeth as the English Sovereign in whose name the trial was conducted; Mary, seated in a lower chair to the top right, argued in vain that she, as a queen in her own right, should also have a throne.

By this time, Mary had become convinced that she would die a martyr’s death at Elizabeth’s hands. As with all treason trials in Tudor England, Mary’s was a foregone conclusion; while she protested her innocence to the last, on October 25, 1586 she was pronounced guilty of high treason for conspiring to assassinate Elizabeth and duly sentenced to death by beheading. Almost immediately as news of the verdict at Fotheringhay reached Westminster, church bells rang through London and Parliament pressured Elizabeth to sign Mary’s execution warrant. Elizabeth, in characteristic fashion, demurred and stalled, hoping to find a way to spare herself the horror of ordering her fellow queen and kinswoman’s death. Despite her harsh words about Mary, Elizabeth still balked at the prospect of allowing an anointed queen and monarch to be executed under her order: she naturally feared what kind of precedent it would set if the law established that a monarch could be legally put to death. Responding to a delegation of twenty noble peers and forty MPs who petitioned her at Richmond Palace on 12 November to draw up the warrant of execution, Elizabeth demurred, telling them that by pressuring her to execute Mary,

in this late Act of Parliament you have laid a hard hand on me, that I must give directions for her [Mary’s] death, which cannot be but a most grievous and irksome burden to me. We princes are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world. It behoveth us to be careful that our proceedings be just and honourable. (99)

When Parliament unanimously reaffirmed its support for the death sentence against Mary on 24 November, sending another audience to Richmond to petition Elizabeth to execute Mary for her own safety, the preservation of Protestantism, and the good of the kingdom, Elizabeth responded with her characteristic penchant for studied indecision (brackets are my own comments):

Since it is now resolved that my surety cannot be established without a princess’s head, full grievous is the way that I, who have in my time pardoned so many rebels and winked at so many treasons, should now be forced to this proceeding against such a person. What will my enemies not say, that for the safety of her life a maiden queen could be content to spill the blood even of her own kinswoman? I may therefore well complain that any man should think me given to cruelty, whereof I am so guiltless and innocent [Evidently Elizabeth had forgotten about ordering the Babington plotters drawn and quartered while still alive]. Nay, I am so far from it that for mine own life I would not touch her. If other means might be found out [keeping Mary imprisoned or exiling her], I would take more pleasure than in any other thing under the sun. (100)

Elizabeth concluded her remarks with words which must have both impressed her MPs in their masterful rhetorical eloquence yet infuriated them by her dissemblance: “I am not so void of judgement as not to see mine own peril, nor so careless as not to weigh that my life daily is in hazard. But since so many have both written and spoken against me, I pray you to accept my thankfulness, to excuse my doubtfulness, and to take in good part my answer answerless.” (101)

While her English cousin remained deeply tormented over whether or not to order her execution, Mary received the trial verdict with serene equanimity. When Paulet tore down her royal canopy of estate and coat of arms following the issuing of her death sentence – haughtily declaring that in the eyes of English law she, a woman condemned to death, was already considered legally dead, and therefore had no right to such trappings of earthly sovereignty (102) – Mary simply hung a crucifix and pictures of Christ’s passion in its place. Sometime following the verdict – according to Catholic tradition passed down from numerous English, French, and Scottish Catholic priests and bishops during these past five centuries, which numerous clergy have related to me orally – the Queen of Scots composed in Latin her last known poem praying God to release her from her earthly prison and “chains” and “liberate” her to the heavenly realm:

O Domine Deus!
Speravi in te;
O care mi Iesu!
Nunc libera me:
In dura catena
In misera poena
Desidero te;
Languendo, gemendo,
Et genuflectendo
Adoro, imploro,
Ut liberes me!

I have translated the prayer as follows, opting for a more literal Latin to English transition:

O Lord God! I have hoped in Thee;
O Jesus my Beloved, set me free:
In rigorous chains, in piteous pains,
I am longing for Thee!
In weakness appealing, in agony kneeling,
[lit. “languishing, sighing, and kneeling]
I pray, I implore Thee to liberate me!

Mary’s last letter to Elizabeth — written on December 19, 1586, less than two months before her execution on February 8, 1587 — puts the final touch on the complete degeneration of their relationship over the past nineteen years. Convicted of conspiring to assassinate her fellow queen — a charge Mary vehemently denied to her death — she knew that Elizabeth would likely be forced by parliamentary petitions and Protestant public opinion to have her beheaded. Describing her nineteen-year imprisonment in religious terms as a “long and weary pilgrimage”, Mary’s last letter to her cousin and gaoler contains a plea for her remains to be conveyed to France after her death, as well as a curious plea that Elizabeth not send an assassin to deny Mary the martyr’s death she now longed for as a kind of absolution for the sins of her earlier life:

Now having been informed, on your part, of the sentence passed in the last session of your Parliament, and admonished… to prepare myself for the end of my long and weary pilgrimage, I prayed them to return my thanks to you for such agreeable intelligence, and to ask you to grant some things for the relief of my conscience. . . I require you, Madam, for the sake of Jesus, that after my enemies have satisfied their black thirst for my innocent blood, you will permit my poor disconsolate servants to remove my corpse, that it may be buried in holy ground, with my ancestors in France, especially the late Queen my mother, since in Scotland the remains of the Kings my predecessors have been outraged, and the churches torn down and profaned…

…Dreading the secret tyranny of some of those to whom you have abandoned me, I entreat you to prevent me from being dispatched secretly, without your knowledge, not from fear of the pain, which I am ready to suffer, but on account of the reports they would circulate after my death… I beseech the God of mercy and justice to enlighten you with His Holy Spirit, and to give me the grace to die in perfect charity, as I endeavour to do, pardoning my death to all those who have either caused or cooperated in it [a veiled reference to Elizabeth herself]; and this will be my prayer to the end. [103]

Most disturbingly for Elizabeth, Mary’s final letter to her contained an explicit threat that her judicial murder at Elizabeth’s hands would outrage all of Catholic Europe and likely provoke retaliation by the Catholic powers (chiefly Philip II of Spain) against England:

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you that you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered…Your sister and cousin, wrongfully a prisoner, Marie Royne [104]

Mary’s valedictory words to her cousin – “my blood will be remembered” – must have seared themselves into Elizabeth’s soul. True to Mary’s haunting prophecy, even today the blackest stain on the Virgin Queen’s reign – more than the many hundreds of English Catholic priests and laity her government brutally executed for treason – remains her fateful decision to ultimately judicially murder her own cousin and fellow sovereign to, as she saw it, protect her own crown and her own life.

Elizabeth I signature on Mary Queen of Scots death warrant

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature (‘Elizabeth R’ — ‘R’ for Regina) at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Courtesy of Lambeth Palace Library, the official library of the Anglican Archbishopric of Canterbury, Lambeth, Greater London, England. Mary Queen of Scots Execution Warrant (detail, MS 4769, f.1r). The warrant begins “Elizabeth by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland” and orders that the English Queen’s commissioners for the execution journey north to Fotheringhay to “Mary Queen of Scots daughter of James the Sixth late King of Scots” and there “cause execution to be done upon her person”. This warrant authorising the execution of an anointed monarch was wholly unprecedented in British, and, indeed, known European history.

When word reached Mary on 7 February that Elizabeth had at last signed her death warrant, the Queen of Scots responded calmly, thanking God and saying to the English messengers present that

In the name of God, these tidings are welcome, and I bless and praise Him that the end of all my bitter sufferings is at hand.  I did not think that the Queen, my sister, would ever have consented to my death; but, God’s will be done.  He is my principal witness, that I shall render up my spirit into His hands innocent of any offence against her, and with a pure heart and conscience clear before His divine majesty of the crimes whereof I am accused.  That soul is fair unworthy of the joys of heaven, whose body cannot endure for a moment the stroke of the executioner. [105]

Even after bringing herself to sign the death warrant authorising Mary’s execution, Elizabeth still searched desperately for a way to rid herself of having to take upon the heinous crime of murdering her own kinswoman and fellow queen. The Queen suggested that Mary could be quietly murdered by her English guards. Her request that Mary’s life should be artificially ‘shortened’ was taken to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary’s gaoler. The horrified Paulet replied to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s chief spymaster and one of the chief witnesses against Mary at her trial, only six days before Mary’s execution:

I am so unhappy to have lived 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 Fotheringhay, the 2nd of February, 1587 [106]

When Paulet informed Mary the night before her death of her impending execution on the morrow, the Queen received the news calmly, while her servants, deeply devoted to her, collapsed in tears and wailing lament. Mary expressed her shock that she would be allotted no time to finalise her will and testament, but the Protestant lords who had come to Fotheringhay to see her die responded coldly that she had already had two months to do so since she was initially sentenced to die. [107] Using this moment with so many of her enemies present to maximum effect, the Queen then placed her right hand on a copy of the New Testament and swore a solemn oath that “I take God to witness, that I never desired, sought, nor consented to the death of your Queen.” [108] That night, after supper, the Queen wrote to her Catholic chaplain Fr. De Prean, who was elsewhere in the castle –her Puritan gaolers steadfastly refused to admit him to see her despite both their earnest entreaties – and since he could not offer her the chance to make a final confession and receive the Eucharist, she expressed her sorrowed resignation that she must make only a general confession and urged him to remain awake all night with her, standing in solidarity with her vigil before her death. [109]

Part V: “In my end is my beginning”: Mary as convinced martyr and Elizabeth as reluctant executioner

Mary, Queen of Scots spent the last hours of her earthly life in quiet prayer and writing to her Catholic allies in Europe, especially her former brother-in-law, King Henri III of France (1551-89, r. 1574-1589). [110] In her final earthly letter, written at two in the morning with a steady, calm hand in her pristine French, Mary once again declared herself innocent of the charge of conspiring against Elizabeth, claiming to her fellow king that she was about to die as a martyr for their shared Catholic faith. [111] Addressing the note familiarly to “Au Roy tres chrestien monssieur mon beau frere & ansien allye” [“to the Most Christian King Monsieur my good brother and ancient ally”], [112] Mary implored Henri II to pay her longsuffering servants their due wages, to have prayers and proper funeral Masses offered for her soul, and she also reiterated to him that she desired to be buried next to her mother in France on consecrated ground, a request which neither Elizabeth nor her own son James would ever fulfil (my notes in brackets):

Royal brother [lit. “Monsieur my good brother”], having by God’s will [lit. “the permission of God”], for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates [Parliament].

I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

… I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning… I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject.

The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. …

It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to… [have prayers] offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian [Queen of France], and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. . .

Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

Wednesday, at two in the morning
Your most loving and most true sister   Mary R [113]

Mary Queen of Scots last letter to Henri III de France

The first page of Mary’s last letter, written around two in the morning on February 8, the day of her death, to her former brother-in-law King Henri III of France. This is the Queen’s own handwriting; note that it is in an extremely clear, crisp, even style betraying no evident distress or fear.

At eight o’clock on the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots walked calmly to the scaffold in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle accompanied by her devoted ladies-in-waiting and several male assistants, all of whom were weeping with horror at the thought of their mistress’ impending death. Eyewitnesses reported that the Queen “entered the hall with a firm step and unruffled composure” [114], exuding in these last moments of her earthly life a serene and queenly demeanour which deeply impressed those three hundred men – the local Earl Marshall’s guards and about a hundred local gentlemen – who had come to watch her die. [115] Outside the hall, in the Castle courtyard, hundreds of local Protestant Englishmen and women had gathered to see the woman they regarded as a traitor and murderess be put to death. Bede records, as does Strickland, that the rabble were entertained with a band of musicians playing an old folk song “Jumping Joan” used commonly to amuse crowds of spectators at the burning of witches. [116] In keeping with their astonishing brutality in allowing such a mocking song to be used at a queen’s execution, the Protestant lords also refused to allow Mary’s Catholic chaplain to accompany her to her death. [117]

One eyewitness described how the Queen was beautifully and carefully attired in splendid dress, deliberately evoking the image of a Catholic martyr. To her very end, in this, her last public appearance, she would play the part of a martyr for her faith:

On her head a dressing of lawn edged with bone lace; a pomander chain and an Agnus Dei; about her neck a crucifix of gold; and in her hand a crucifix of bone with a wooden cross, and a pair of beads at her girdle, with a medal in the end of them; a veil of lawn fastened to her caul, bowed out with wire, and edged round about with bone lace. A gown of black satin, printed, with long sleeves to the ground, set with buttons of jet and trimmed with pearl, and short sleeves of satin, cut with a pair of sleeves of purple velvet. [118]

On approaching the scaffold erected at the centre of the great hall, Mary turned to her weeping ladies and manservants to console them, saying: “Thou hast cause rather to joy than to mourn, for now shalt thou see Mary Stuart’s troubles receive their long-expected end.” [119] She continued, exhorting them to remember that “all this world is but vanity and full of troubles and sorrows. Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end and thirsted for my blood.” [120]

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mary walking onto the scaffold on 8 February 1587. Robert Inerarity Herdman, 1867. (C) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mounting the scaffold, the Queen heard the charges and sentence of death read against her, which she greeted with a serenity and “a joyous countenance” that astonished the onlookers. [121] After sitting in the chair provided her on the scaffold, she espied the executioner, clad in the customary black velvet, “holding his axe with the edge turned towards her. . . She saw them, and the block, and the crowd in the hall, thirsting for her blood; and she saw it all without betraying any trepidation or fear.” [122] Gazing out over the crowd of hundreds of hostile locals come to see her lose her head, Queen Mary then addressed the assemblage in English, arguing that “although she was a sovereign princess, and not subject to the Parliament of England, she had been unjustly accused of crimes of which she was altogether innocent” [123], solemnly declaring that “she had never devised any harm against the Queen of England” and that, after her execution, she firmly believed “much would be brought to light that was now hid”, revealing the treacherous objectives of those who had worked so long toward her death. [124]

Gently but firmly refusing the offer of Dr Fletcher, the Protestant Dean of Peterborough’s services, to pray with her in English according to the Reformed rite, Mary again requested her Catholic chaplain and was refused. [125] She then had her rosary taken from her, in direct defiance of Elizabeth’s orders that she be allowed all her Catholic devotional items in her last earthly moments. The Queen addressed the obstinate Dean, saying “Trouble not yourself nor me, for know that I am settled in the ancient Catholic religion, and in defence thereof, by God’s grace, I mind to spend my blood.” [126] In mocking defiance of the woman who was about to end her life serenely settled in her ancestral faith, the Dean – who insisted even then, as Knox once had a quarter century earlier, on lecturing Mary that she must abjure “popish superstition” and embrace Protestantism, or risk eternal damnation – began praying aloud according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. [127] He attempted to drown out the Queen, who insisted on praying her own prayers in Latin; Mary uttered her Catholic prayers in a louder voice, weeping as she recited psalms 31, 51, and 91 from memory. [128]

She switched to French, praying for herself, and then for the Roman Catholic Church whose faithful were suffering so greatly in England and Scotland. [129] Then, continuing on her knees in English while holding her crucifix, Mary prayed audibly for the life and health of Queen Elizabeth, publicly forgiving her cousin of her death. She then prayed for her son James, whom she had not seen in twenty years. [130] Her last prayer spoken loudly enough for all to hear was one for her own forgiveness and salvation: “As Thy arms, O Christ, were extended on the cross, even so receive me into the arms of Thy mercy, and blot out all my sins with Thy most precious blood.” [131] Even at this moment, as Mary was only minutes away from her death, the Protestant Earl of Kent mocked her Catholic piety, insolently telling her that “it would be better for her to eschew her popish trumperies, and bear Christ in her heart”, to which she replied gently “Can I hold the representation of my crucified Redeemer in my hand, without bearing Him, at the same time, in my heart?”, at last silencing him. [132]

Her prayers finished, she refused the help of the executioner and his assistant to undress her, saying with a slight smile, “I was not wont to have my clothes plucked off by such grooms, nor did I ever put off my clothes before such a company!” [133] Mary’s ladies then took off her black gown to reveal a bodice and petticoat of deep scarlet, the traditional colour of Catholic martyrdom representing willingness to shed one’s blood in the defence of that religion.

The chief executioner then knelt, as was custom, and begged the queen’s forgiveness for what he had to do. Queen Mary replied softly, “I forgive you with all my heart, for I hope this death will give an end to all my troubles.” [134] After Mary laid aside her devotional items, one of her attendant ladies and oldest friends, Jane Kennedy, had been extremely agitated when the executioner moved to take the Queen’s crucifix and rosary beads as a form of compensation for him, and wrenched them from his grip. The Queen spoke calmly to the executioner, bidding him leave her dear old servant the small consolation of keeping her crucifix: “Friend, let her have it; she will give you more than its value in money.” [135] Blessing her weeping ladies and servants several times with the sign of the Cross, the Queen bid them pray for her til the last moment, and to see that her remains were not abused by the mob. [136]

Mary then knelt, gently laid her head on the block before her, and repeated several times her final earthly supplication: “In manuas tuas, Domine, confide spiritum meum” (“Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”; paraphrasing Jesus’ last words when dying on the Cross). [137] In the ensuing moments of her death, it took three brutal blows of the incompetent headsman’s clumsy axe to sever Mary’s head, during which time she remained motionless, and several eyewitness accounts report that her lips carried on moving for fifteen minutes after her death. [138]

Alison Weir describes how the executioner then picked up Mary’s head by the hair, as was custom, declaring that it belonged to a traitor and enemy of Queen Elizabeth. To the astonishment of the onlookers, when he did so, her cap fell off along with a red wig, revealing that the once beautiful Mary’s real hair was grey and “polled very short”, reflecting how much she had aged prematurely during her imprisonment. [139] Immediately after Mary’s decapitation, the executioners began collecting her belongings and burning all of them, so as to leave no relics for Catholics who might venerate the dead Queen as a martyr. [140] Even her blood was wiped up with rags and the rags duly burned. Weir also relates the story of Mary’s loyal dog, who had secretly accompanied his mistress to her death, saying that when the executioner went to remove Mary’s clothes, as had been ordered:

he found her little dog under her coat, which, being put from thence, went and laid himself down betwixt her head and body, and being besmeared with her blood, was caused to be washed… [141]

By all accounts, the poor dog, traumatised by the violence he had witnessed and depressed at being parted from his unfortunate mistress, refused to eat, grew weak, and died. [142]

When Elizabeth received the news of her cousin’s botched execution several days later, while all of London rejoiced with the ringing of church bells and the setting of celebratory bonfires [143], the Queen shut herself away for several days, alternately weeping with horror and fear of divine judgment against her regicide and kin-slaying, and railing against her councillors who, she now claimed in a letter to James VI, had acted precipitously and sent the signed warrant to Fotheringhay without her express permission. [144] In this astonishing letter to the son of the woman she had just had executed, Elizabeth referred to Mary’s execution as “this unhappy accident” and swore that she had never intended for the warrant to be carried out. [145] She threw William Davidson – the loyal palace clerk who had sent the warrant north after consulting with the lords of Elizabeth’s Privy Council – into the Tower of London, declaring that she would see him hanged, while she banished both Lord Burghley and her long-time favourite, Sir Robert Dudley, from Court. [146]

She railed and stormed, but the whole world knew that she would do, and ultimately, did, nothing of great consequence against the men she deemed responsible for precipitously dispatching the warrant north without her direct approval. In Europe, Elizabeth’s long-time nemesis and one-time suitor Philip II of Spain – whom many Catholics believed Mary had named as her successor to her claim on the English throne, since her estranged son was an avowed Protestant – observed that “it is very fine for the Queen [Elizabeth] now to give out that it was done without her wish, the contrary being so clearly the case”, and he duly began to plan his invasion of England to depose the heretic queen and avenge Mary’s death. [147] Pope Sixtus V called for a new crusade against Elizabeth and urged Philip to invade England as soon as possible. Large black-clad crowds of the faithful in Paris and Madrid clamoured for Mary’s canonisation as a martyred queen and defender of the faith, while placards and tracts poured forth across Catholic Europe condemning Elizabeth as a ‘bastard and shameless harlot’, heretic, blasphemer, kin-slayer, and Jezebel – not dissimilar to the denunciations against Mary which had appeared in Edinburgh in spring and summer 1567. [148]

After her execution in 1587, despite the pleas of her disconsolate servants and in violation of all semblance of decency and respect for royalty, Mary’s severed head was exhibited from a window for several hours to the crowds outside Fotheringhay Castle before being embalmed by English surgeons. [149] Even in death, her chaplain was not permitted to pray over or anoint the Queen’s body. A disgraceful six months after Mary’s initial embalming, she was initially buried — with much irony, and against her wishes — in the nearby Anglican Cathedral of Peterborough, the formerly Catholic cathedral of the same Dean who had so annoyed her in her last moments on the scaffold by insisting that he read from the Book of Common Prayer. [150] As Cuthbert Bede notes, during the six-month period that Elizabeth refused to authorise Mary’s burial, her devoted servants were kept prisoner at Fotheringhay. Even after Mary’s Protestant funeral, the late Queen’s servants were detained a further three months before, at last, James VI prevailed upon Elizabeth to release his mother’s devoted friends. [151]

By June 1587, Elizabeth had fully forgiven both Lord Burghley and Dudley, inviting herself to Theobalds – the grand Hertfordshire estate she had gifted the former in gratitude for his years of service to her – for three weeks, her longest visit she ever spent at her old counsellor’s chief residence. [152] While there is no reason to believe that Elizabeth – a pious Protestant in her own devotions who firmly believed in the divine authority of kings – was insincere in her horror and regret over Mary’s execution, the inescapable fact remains that as soon as she had signed the death warrant, even though she later claimed never to have wished it to be sent forth to Fotheringhay, she had immediately schemed for a way to have Mary assassinated to avoid forcing her to execute her own cousin in the eyes of the world. She undeniably wanted Mary dead, but would have preferred the assassin’s knife or poison over the public scaffold and the axe.


Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8:00am on February 8, 1587. One can see her male servants kneeling in prayer and supplication on the scaffold to the left, and to their left some of Mary’s weeping ladies also praying just before she is beheaded. To the far left, outside the Great Hall, the fire burns into which all the Queen’s bloodstained clothes and objects will be thrown to prevent anyone from taking trophies or relics from the execution.

Elizabeth I Armada portrait

The famous Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I showing the summer 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English Royal Navy assisted by the “Protestant wind” which whipped up the English Channel, scattering the Spanish ships out of their formation. Attributed to George Gower, 1588.


It is impossible to deduce from their war of letters which of the two queens “won” in their lifelong rivalry with each other. If we are to go by the letters alone, by the end of the correspondence Mary clearly has eked out the moral high ground, aware that her cousin would attempt to have her assassinated, and seeing herself as unjustly condemned by her heretical cousin to die what she chooses to view as a martyr’s death for the Catholic faith. After ordering her troublesome cousin to accept the legitimacy of her judges—which Mary never does—Elizabeth is silent. In terms of their final communications, Elizabeth’s last message to Mary was, ultimately, the death warrant she dispatched to Fotheringhay Castle on February 1, 1587. Yet even there, Mary appears triumphant, for by her dignity at her execution and her deliberate casting of herself as a martyr, she managed to redeem herself in the eyes of much of history for her earlier marital problems and far worse failure as an effective ruler.

In the realm of political posturing, Mary’s death at last allowed Elizabeth to live without the fear of constant plots for her assassination, but in executing her cousin and rival queen, Elizabeth opened the way for the Spanish Armada, which, had it succeeded, would have not only deposed and likely killed Elizabeth, but forcibly re-imposed Catholicism on still newly Protestant England. She also created an extremely disturbing legal precedent: that a court could, somehow, legally sentence to death a crowned and anointed monarch, and that a monarch could somehow be found guilty of committing treason against another monarch to whom she never swore loyalty or allegiance. This precedent of “legal regicide” would come to haunt Mary’s male descendants when Charles I, her grandson born over a decade after her execution, would be beheaded in 1649 as “a traitor, tyrant, and public enemy” on the order of the Cromwell-controlled, Puritan-dominated Parliament.

Ultimately, the two queens’ letters reveal Mary to be a hopelessly politically incompetent monarch who failed to bring any of her many enemies to heel, a failed queen who lost the kingdom that was hers by birth right because she was unable to harness and convert her considerable personal gifts and talents into becoming an effective governor and ruler. She never managed to forge her own alternate centre of power against Moray and Knox, or gain control of the political circumstances in which she found herself. While I suspect that this is because Mary was groomed and educated primarily to be Queen consort of France rather than a ruling Queen of Scots, the tragedy of her political incompetence is made all the more manifest in that her own mother Marie de Guise was a markedly effective regent during the six years she ruled while the young Mary was growing up at the French court.

Despite her obvious political limitations, Mary emerges sympathetically on the moral or ethical scale as a woman possessed of deep conviction, in both her faith and the majesty and authority of monarchs. She emerges as the braver and more charismatic, if less adroit and politically astute, of the two women, while Elizabeth emerges as a solitary, lonely figure whose cunning, craftiness, dissembling, and bouts of cruelty inspire little in the way of personal sympathy. Elizabeth, as the oft-repeated phrasing goes, was first and foremost a monarch and only then allowed herself to be a woman; no one can read her writings and not be convinced of the truth of this old sentiment.

While one cannot help but see Elizabeth as a hopelessly self-isolating figure, whose unstable, at times traumatic childhood differed so markedly from Mary’s pampered and indulgent one, one detects in Elizabeth the steely resolve and political ruthlessness that made her such a magnificent and formidable prince by the opinion of all who dealt with her. As Pope Sixtus V – the very man who had blessed the armada which sailed against Elizabeth – said in praise of her after its ignominious defeat, this woman who was reviled by over half of Europe as an illegitimate heretic unfit to reign or rule astonished the world in that she unquestionably managed to make herself the absolute master of her realm, and, through the Protestant regents she maintained north of the border, Scotland as well before James VI’s majority. Elizabeth was undeniably a cunning, masterful politician, yet she remains a profoundly tragic figure, a woman who ultimately feels obliged to murder her own cousin under the shallowest of legal pretences in order to guarantee her own security and satisfy her people’s bloody demands for Mary’s head.

While Elizabeth has triumphed in the selective Protestant national memory as England’s Gloriana – still widely regarded as its most beloved monarch –  it is Mary who ultimately gains a kind of final revenge in the historical record, as her ungrateful son James and his posterity succeeded the childless Virgin Queen in 1603. It is Mary whose distant descendant, another Protestant Elizabeth, to this day still reigns over an only-nominally Protestant England and Scotland, in a United Kingdom where most of her subjects are no longer religiously observant, yet where more Catholics attend Mass on Sundays than Anglicans attend the Established Church’s communion services. Ironically, today the two rival queens are entombed only yards apart from each other in the most iconic symbol of the dying Church of England, Westminster Abbey. It was here in July 1603 that Mary’s son was anointed and then crowned in St Edward’s Chair – over the ancient, confiscated Stone of Scone –as King of England and Ireland, uniting in his person the three crowns of the kingdoms over which his mother and Elizabeth, and their male predecessors in Scotland and England, had warred and contested for so long.


Alternately hailed as “Scotland’s Solomon” or derided as the uncouth yet brilliant “Wisest Fool in Christendom”, James VI of Scots became King of Scots when he was only thirteen months old following his mother Mary’s forced (and therefore, strictly speaking, illegal) abdication on 24 July 1567. At the age of 36, he became the first Stuart King of England and Ireland on 24 March 1603 following Elizabeth I’s death. He reigned over the three legally separate kingdoms in a ‘personal union’ or ‘Union of the Crowns’ under the same monarch until his own death at the age of 58 in March 1625. Daniel Mytens, 1621.

Queen Elizabeth I tomb

James VI and I, successor to both Mary, his mother, and Elizabeth, his mother’s killer, had his English predecessor buried below this magnificent marble tomb in Westminster Abbey’s Lady Chapel of Henry VII in 1603. It would be nine years before he would show the same pious consideration for his murdered mother. Ironically, Elizabeth’s marble effigy here was erected immediately over that of her Catholic half-sister and predecessor, Mary I Tudor.

A Rivalry in Letters 22

The Latin inscription on the joint tomb of Mary I of England and Elizabeth I reads: “Regno Consortes et Urna Hic Obdormimus Elizabetha et Maria Sorores in Spe Resurectionis”: “Partners [it. “consorts”] in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection.”


Six months after her execution in 1587, Mary was initially buried — against her wishes — in the Protestant Cathedral of Peterborough, the cathedral of the same Dean who had so annoyed her in her last moments on the scaffold. In 1612  James VI and I ordered his mother’s remains unearthed and transferred to Westminster Abbey, where he paid for this magnificent marble tomb for her to be erected only yards from her hated cousin and murderer, Elizabeth I. Bede relates that all historians who have studied the effigy consider it a true likeness of the Queen of Scots. 


Reassessing the complicated legacy of the much-maligned Mary Queen of Scots – and Elizabeth’s role in her cousin’s dramatic fall

For most of my intellectually conscious life, I have read widely about the political and religious revolutions which transformed, for better and for worse, England, Scotland, and Ireland under the Tudors and Stuarts. I tended to deeply admire Elizabeth I of England, and viewed Mary I of Scotland with a mixture of pity for her tragic end and dismissal of her failures in the art of governance. I was a non-practising Catholic during much of this period, and of a generally uncritical liberal persuasion so that, in many ways, I was a natural sympathiser to the Protestant cause without ever remotely considering that any of the Protestant claims against Rome were true or accurate. In the past six years or so, many things served to alter my view toward Mary in a more positive, though certainly not uncritical, direction. This, in turn, naturally somewhat diminished my estimation of Elizabeth. One obvious factor was, undeniably, my own conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 2010-2011, which, theological dogmatic differences between Rome and the Christian East aside, is far closer in spirit and ethos to much of traditional, local Catholicism than to the violent, often state-imposed Protestant movements of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and, of course, Knox and Moray in Scotland.

What I struggled with in writing this paper was the simple phenomenon that the more thoroughly I examined all the available evidence, the more it emerged that both the prevailing English and Scottish Protestant narratives – that the Reformation “rescued” these countries from an abysmal Dark Age, that most were deeply estranged from the Catholic religion and had little to no knowledge of the faith they blindly followed – were simply fabrications intended to gloss over what can best be described as a form of traumatic cultural and religious violation. Likewise, while I never bought into the idea that she was an entirely innocent martyr and victim of hateful conspiracies, I came to see – based on all that I read, often from many English historians and authors – that Mary’s reign in Scotland was sabotaged from even before its onset. Her many failures as a ruler rest not so much in her own incompetence – which was considerable and undeniable – but in the fact that she was simply out of her element, trained to be a French queen consort rather than a ruling Queen in Scotland, and she found herself unequal to the massive task of trying to rule a kingdom whose elites were, by 1561, pitted against everything she had been raised to cherish and value.

I have often read and heard critics – many of whom I admire – blaming Queen Mary (1542-1587, r de facto1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587) for her perceived lack of ruthlessness and fatal inaction in not moving harshly or swiftly enough against her Protestant enemies in Scotland. While I agree that it would have been ideal had she been able to do these things, practically she never could have realistically hoped to have done so without bathing her kingdom in the kind of bloody religious wars that convulsed France during her adolescence there. While Mary should have, in hindsight, endeavoured to have Knox arrested and either executed or at least permanently exiled as a heretic and traitor, and her brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray tried, attainted, and beheaded as such after the Chaseabout Raid, the reality is that Mary had no large enough power base of her own in Scotland to carry out such political manoeuvres on her own initiative. She simply had no entrenched or expandable political support system loyal to her and powerful enough to help her carry out such objectives needed to solidify her control and weaken or eliminate her enemies.

It is intriguing, though ultimately futile, to think of the many “what ifs” of Mary’s reign, in particular, and her life, generally. Had her politically effective mother, the dowager Queen and Regent Marie de Guise (1515-60), lived just a year longer, to 1561, long enough for Mary to return home and receive command of her mother’s army of French troops, Mary could have had this powerful army at her back and either subdued the Calvinist Lairds of the Congregation, or at least forced them to tolerate her and many of her subjects’ Catholicism. Had Marie de Guise died at age 65 (1580) and not 45 (1560), and Mary been able to benefit from her brilliant political insight as a veteran political actor, Queen Mary almost certainly could have kept her throne, in part because Marie de Guise would have strongly pushed for a second French marriage for her widowed daughter and thus the disastrous Darnley marriage and all its problems could have been avoided.


Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots (1512-1542, r. 1513-his death), and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise (1515-1560), daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise. Marie served effectively from 1554-1560 as Regent for her daughter while the young Queen Mary was being educated at the French Court of Henri II.

South Leith Parish Church Marie de Guise arms 1560

Beautiful stone engraving showing Marie de Guise’s coat of arms as Queen (consort and then regent) of Scotland. She is referred to as Maria of Lorraine because she was born in Lorraine, where her father Claude was Duke and Head of the House of Guise. Her arms and those of Lorraine are quartered with the Scottish royal lion, her husband and daughter’s royal standard.

Had Marie de Guise lived longer, and the majority of the Lowland Scots gentry and burghs thus not gone over so strongly to the Calvinist Reformation attempt of 1560, the Reformation could either have been avoided outright, defeated in the early 1560s with Catholic Highlanders’ and French armed support, or partly undone early on in Mary’s personal reign in Scotland. Even if Marie de Guise had died in 1561, with French troop support the young Queen Mary could conceivably have raised the Catholic Highland clans in a bloody religious war to massacre or drive out Lowland Protestant Scots — just as her hated mother-in-law Catherine de Medicis, widow of Henri II and mother of three French kings, did intermittently in France against the Huguenots.

Had Mary done this successfully, she might have kept her throne and even ultimately restored Catholicism in Scotland (allowing, in her characteristic leniency, for some religious toleration for Protestants like the future French king Henri IV de Bourbon) but it bears examining: at what cost could Mary have prevailed? Protestant critics damn her either way — her weakness and lack of ruthlessness enabled Moray and Knox to ultimately triumph and defeat and depose her. Yet what would they say and write had Mary openly defied them, worked to isolate them politically, and ultimately confronted them with arms?

The reality is that this aggressive course of action was never an option for Mary. In 1561, with no French troops to support her and no veteran, experienced politician mother to guide her in governing and establishing effective control over Scotland, the politically weak and isolated Mary, with few trustworthy allies and even less military strength at her disposal, diplomatically and sensibly chose to work toward maintaining an uneasy, fragile peace with Moray and Knox — in other words, with the new pro-English Reformation establishment– instead of risking civil war.

The extreme weakness of Mary’s political position from 1561 can be illustrated by the fact that, in the opening months of her personal reign in Scotland, the Queen’s Catholic chaplains were set upon by a violent Calvinist Edinburgh mob inflamed by Knox’s preaching, and the priests were nearly torn to pieces for the “capital offense” of offering Mass for their Sovereign Queen’s worship. What had been the State religion of Scotland in 1559 was, two years later, banned and outlawed. Thus, only a year after the tenuous, English (and thus, Elizabeth)-backed establishment of the Calvinist Kirk, the young Catholic Queen Mary could barely worship freely in her own country! In this same time period, Mary felt obliged to permit Knox to lecture her about her “Romish superstitions and idolatry”, and effectively allowed the Calvinist Kirk, her ideological enemy, to shore up its power in the Lowlands. Mary thus, essentially, tragically recognized the brutal Scottish Reformation that had occurred only a year earlier as a fait accompli.

Why did she do this? The Queen clearly felt she had no better or realistic alternatives besides accepting the status quo as she found it. Arriving in Edinburgh after over a decade of exile in France, where she had been queen consort to François II, Mary had no real political power base loyal to her in Scotland in 1561. She was, culturally, a Frenchwoman, and many of her subjects, especially Protestants, regarded her with suspicion as a foreigner. Abroad, Catholic Valois France was now ruled de jure by her young brother-in-law Charles IX, but governed de facto by her hateful mother-in-law the regent Catherine de Medicis, under whom the Guise Catholic League and Huguenots would soon become embroiled in bloody religious wars. To the south, newly Protestant England under her cousin Elizabeth (previously Catholic under Mary I Tudor, but now once again Anglican since November 1558) had actively worked before Mary’s 1561 return to Scotland to actively undermine the regent Marie de Guise and the Catholic Scottish-French “Auld Alliance”. Elizabeth herself had politically, financially, and intellectually supported the Scottish Reformation and invaded Scotland to weaken Mary’s mother and her French alliance, and thus the English Queen was hardly going to support any attempt by Mary to re-impose Catholicism, restore the Auld Alliance, or weaken the new Protestant Kirk in any way.

Perhaps, by affecting a politique conciliatory approach toward the Lairds and the Kirk til she managed to build up her own political support base to oppose them, Mary hoped to bide her time and ultimately isolate and outmanoeuvre Moray and outlive Knox and then begin, having raised Prince James as a Catholic, to gradually undo the Reformation. Alas, she never could, and thus it is hardly surprising that the baby James VI’s first regents were his mother’s enemies: his paternal grandfather Lennox, Darnley’s father, and his half-uncle, Mary’s great enemy and half-brother the cunning bastard Moray. The inflammatory Knox preached the main sermon at the baby king’s spurious coronation, which, despite his mother baptizing him a Catholic, was done according to Kirk rites.

Remember, a forced abdication as Queen Mary’s was — signed at knifepoint at Loch Leven castle immediately after she miscarried twins by Bothwell — is completely legally invalid. Thus, from a monarchist perspective, Mary remained the sole and rightful Scottish Sovereign and queen regnant until her equally unlawful execution, a regicide, at Elizabeth’s orders on 8 February 1587. This is something which all Anglocentric histories on this subject conveniently gloss over, as do most of the older Calvinist-dominated Scottish hagiographies (one can hardly accurately call them historiographies) of the Reformation-era period.

Protestant critics of Mary from 1567 through to today blame her, also, for not doing enough to punish Rizzio and Darnley’s killers. Again, practically, what could she have done? Her own horrid, feckless husband Darnley actively supported and colluded in the first murder, a murder which seriously endangered Mary’s life as well as her pregnancy with the future James VI. As for the second murder, which Queen Mary was slanderously accused of having either participated in or directed via the forged Casket Letters, the act itself, and her subsequent politically disastrous marriage to Bothwell all served the ends of those who wished to overthrow her. Effectively, the Darnley murder enabled her Protestant enemies — chiefly Moray, Knox, and Buchanan — to produce the effective political propaganda — Mary as Jezebel, siren, as adulterer and murderess — needed to further isolate, delegitimize, and ultimately (illegally) depose her by July 1567.

The reality is that sadly, in 1561, Queen Mary, unlike Elizabeth in 1558, had terribly disobedient subjects among the effective leaders of Scotland; their goals and interests were diametrically opposed to her political and literal survival. She returned to her kingdom only a year after the violent Calvinist Reformation, in which many centuries of Roman Catholic religious art, architecture, liturgical and musical patrimony, and local traditions were abruptly destroyed and iconoclastically overturned in the wake of Mary’s mother Marie de Guise’s untimely death.

It cannot be emphasised enough that the new Calvinist de facto rulers of Scotland in power at the time Mary returned to her kingdom in 1561 as the young, widowed queen dowager of France — the Lairds of the Congregation led by Moray and Knox — all had strong and obvious political, ideological, and material interests in toppling her from the throne as soon as possible. Removing Mary would enable the Lairds and their allies in the new Kirk to preserve and strengthen their extremely new, vulnerable Protestant establishment by ensuring that the young Catholic Queen was deposed before she could become powerful enough to undermine or oppose them. This would in turn ensure that her baby son and heir would be raised a Protestant and taught to hate her. James’ long minority would free them to continue to appropriate large sums from the national treasury, especially the vast, illegally and violently acquired, looted wealth of confiscated monasteries, abbeys, stripped cathedrals, shrines, and church benefices.

In hindsight, it certainly seems a shame to those who find themselves sympathetic to her cause that Mary did not act swiftly to arrest Rizzio’s murderers and execute them to re-establish a degree of political authority, but one must seriously ask: Who would have obeyed her order to arrest them, and how could she have ensured their conviction? Most of the leading Scots nobles at her court either wanted Rizzio dead, lost nothing by his death, or had actively conspired toward his murder. Probably only Bothwell was personally loyal enough to the Queen to have dared to arrest these murderous lairds, but he, one man without a great clan army at his back, would hardly have been able to deal with all her enemies.

One must remember that the idea of any armed Englishmen bursting in on Queen Mary Tudor or Queen Elizabeth I dining at supper and holding a gun to her stomach, and proceeding to stab to death one of her closest male friends and advisors was unthinkable. The Scottish crown in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply didn’t possess the same level of enforceable political authority as did the English crown, nor did the Scots monarchs enjoy the same kind of personal security, inviolability, or prestige as did the English monarchs after 1485 when Richard III of York fell in battle to Henry VII Tudor at Bosworth Field. From Henry VII’s accession-by-conquest in 1485 to Henry VIII’s death in 1547, England enjoyed over half a century of rule by adult kings who were usually powerful enough to keep their leading nobles under control either through careful patronage and politicking or overt force.

Scotland’s vying noble houses and factions, on the other hand, consistently manoeuvred politically to their own ends at the Crown’s expense. While England had its own share of murdered monarchs and forced abdications (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and the princes in the tower including Edward V), in Scotland literally all of Mary’s recent predecessors as kings from James I onward had either died in battle (or shortly thereafter, as with her father James V) or been murdered. This meant that for most of the fifteenth century and all of the sixteenth, Scotland’s monarchs ascended the throne as infants, with the effective rule of the country in the hands of successive partisan, factional and self-interested regents. After 1485, no English King died in battle or by murder; in contrast, James III was murdered in 1488, leaving his minor son as heir, while James IV himself died in battle at Flodden in 1513. James V thus became King as a babe and himself died of psychological collapse in 1542 following a devastating loss to the English at Solway Moss and the depressing news that his queen had given birth to a daughter.

Mary’s paternal forebears James I and James III had both been murdered, while both her father James V and grandfather James IV came to actually rule only after long, highly factional, divisive, and partisan minorities. Thus, compared to her English paternal great-uncle Henry VIII and her cousins Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, as Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart simply didn’t have a comparable level of actual, real command over Scots nobles, nor of practical political power and enforceable royal authority, as did these English sovereigns over their nobles.

Mary’s rival and half-brother Moray and Elizabeth’s chief Privy Councillor Cecil were essentially working in tandem to orchestrate every aspect of Mary’s eventual downfall, and profiting from and exploiting her political missteps (chiefly marrying Darnley, not executing Moray, and sparing and then marrying Bothwell). Had Mary done the sensible thing and left Scotland for France in 1568, she likely would have lived in comfortable retirement on her dower estates into old age, perhaps remarried to a rich, powerful French prince or become an abbess like her aunt Renee. Had she done the latter, she would have certainly died in her bed. Had she done the former, she perhaps might have launched an armed attempt to retake her throne with eventual French or Spanish military and financial support. She may well have been successful at retaking Scotland and reclaiming her throne, especially in the 1570s when James was still young and his regents divided among themselves. Yet by 1568, when confronted with the life-altering decision of where to flee, Mary had few allies still in power in France: the hostile Catherine de Medicis remained in effective control and offered her no real support, and the Queen Regent viewed Mary’s powerful Guise family as just as dangerous to her sons’ crown as the Huguenots. Thus, a French welcome for the exiled Mary was hardly guaranteed in 1568, and, had Mary sailed for France, she could potentially have faced house arrest or internal exile on Catherine’s orders. The other alternative was of course the one Mary ultimately chose to take: England, and Elizabeth. Why did she make this decision which, in hindsight, seems so fatal?

Perceptions of a man or woman’s honour meant a great deal in late medieval and early modern Europe, and a person’s honour was held to reflect on their family’s status, dignity, and prestige. This prioritisation of honour was especially the case among kings and queens and great nobles; note that this valuing of honour does not mean that all rulers and nobles actually were truly virtuous and honourable, but that they all felt they had to be seen as such in order to maintain their prestige and dignity. Hence why at the height of the Darnley murder scandal, Elizabeth repeatedly wrote to Mary expressing her grave concern for Mary’s life, but especially for her honour — -her reputation which had been so sullied by the rumours of her alleged complicity in her husband’s murder. Thus, in 1568, Mary could not possibly have conceived that her own flesh and blood, her til-then supportive sister monarch Queen Elizabeth, was capable of being so deceitful as to first detain and then ultimately imprison her once she arrived in England seeking assistance to regain her lost throne. Elizabeth’s audacious actions toward Mary– refusing to see her in person, keeping her detained in northern castles, staging a stacked hearing to purportedly determine the authenticity of the Casket Letters, and ultimately holding her sister queen prisoner — not just Elizabeth’s ultimate decision to bring Mary to trial and execute her — outraged Catholic Europe at the time precisely because they were seen as being so dishonourable.

In terms of political theory, Mary’s ultimate execution, which she and Catholic Europe chose to view as a martyrdom – the “third crown” of a type of kingdom she never obtained in her earthly life — is one of the most fascinating, and, from a conservative perspective, disturbing events in history. This was the first time in European history that a monarch – in fact, a woman who was doubly a queen, once anointed and crowned as a queen regnant whilst a babe, and then anointed and crowned as a queen consort whilst a young teenager – was, in the eyes of those who killed her, legally put to death. Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn, obviously comes to mind, but she was a queen consort, wife of the king, not a monarch in her own right. Mary’s execution did not just horrify Catholic Europe because they chose to believe she was a martyr for their shared faith – it horrified all the crowned heads of Europe because she was, or, rather, had been, one of them.

To murder a monarch in a political assassination, a treasonous regicide, was something that happened often enough in Stuart Scotland and Plantagenet England, and on the Continent, but Mary’s execution was something entirely different. We know of course that Elizabeth tried at the last moment to arrange for Mary such an “accident in the night”, but to Mary’s last gaoler’s credit – a man who could not have despised Mary more, nor she him – he refused to sully his name and his posterity with such a craven act. Mary’s execution proclaimed to the world that it was legally possible to put to death a person who, in the eyes of the Church and state in medieval and early modern Europe, was considered a representative of God on earth, the chief intercessor before Him for his (or her) people, whose reign God divinely blessed, whose triumphs He celebrated and whose failures He allowed as a form of chastisement. To proclaim that such a person could legally be killed – and somehow be found to have actually committed a crime that not only deserved, but necessitated the ultimate punishment – struck at the core foundations of the entire medieval and early modern political and religious worldview. This is partly why Elizabeth so deeply feared divine retribution for spilling a prince’s blood, for cutting off a head which had twice been anointed with sacred oil and crowned with divine authority.

In our modern world where most countries are republics – either actual democracies with varying levels of open elections, or name-only oligarchies or dictatorships under a republican guise — it may seem hopelessly anachronistic or idle for me to speculate on this issue. Many will ask, incredulously, why does it matter that, in 1587, one woman who happened to be a reigning monarch signed the death warrant executing her own cousin, another reigning monarch? The reality is that, if in fact, in a monarchical system, absolute inviolability and sovereignty rests in the person of the monarch, then to kill a monarch – regicide – is a crime, so that therefore even trying to do so is a capital offense. Indeed, in any traditional Christian polity, regicide has been regarded as a sin of profound and enormous consequence. This is why Elizabeth believed herself entirely justified – and her contemporaries agreed with her – in ordering the Babington Plot conspirators to be disembowelled and castrated while still alive. It is also why Europeans of all manner of religious conviction were horrified to hear that Elizabeth had taken the unprecedented step of having her courts sentence a fellow monarch, an anointed queen, to death, and then taken the additional, harrowing step of signing the warrant that let the sentence be carried out.

This very act – a supposedly legal regicide – marks a profound rupture in the political and religious consciousness of early modern Europe. Aside from the tragic drama of the story—England’s Protestant Queen executing her Catholic Scottish cousin and rival—and the resultant war Mary’s death inspired between England and Spain, the Queen of Scot’s unlawful 1587 execution marked something far more profound with far more long-term repercussions: the “beginning of the end” for monarchies as an effective, fully functional political system.

The 1215 Magna Carta marks the “beginning” of the devolution of monarchical authority, as it was the first time a king had had to recognize himself bound to an authority besides God Himself. Similar measures in Hungary, Scotland, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire developed in the ensuing centuries to establish certain limits on kings’ power to abuse or misuse their nobles. The 1689 Glorious Revolution and its English Bill of Rights marked the “end”, the death throes of the British monarchy toward unlimited Crowned Oligarchic Parliamentarianism, but what marked “the beginning of the end”? What heralded in the bloodless revolution that transformed Britain from a partly-limited, traditional monarchy into a crowned oligarchy where Parliament rules and monarchs largely reign?

1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution which saw Jacobin France guillotine its King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in the prelude to the infamous Reign of Terror) is too recent…

1689 (William III and Mary II’s granting of the Bill of Rights which recognised the political supremacy of Parliament and granted English Protestants—not Catholics—many basic protections from the Sovereign but not from Parliament) is too recent….

1649 (The Cromwell-controlled English Parliament voting to convict King Charles I of being a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy” and subsequently beheading the King) is too recent…

Where may we look to see the origins of the monarchy’s long descent from a de facto absolutist state under the Tudors to the largely ceremonial figurehead regime we see in place today? We must look, not to the tumultuous reigns of the English Stuarts or the increasingly ceremonial reigns of the Hanoverians, but to the Tudors themselves, to a decision made by England’s still most beloved Queen, the “Gloriana” of famous memory, Elizabeth I. We must look to two seminal years: 1586 and 1587. In 1586, without any legal precedent, without any attorney to aid her or even the benefit of having her own papers and documents to consult, Mary— ruling Queen of Scots from 1542-1567 and Queen of France from 1559-1560—was tried for treason and ultimately executed at the behest of her reigning cousin, Elizabeth I.

Mary had fled to England in 1568 following her deposition from the Scottish throne seeking Elizabeth’s help and protection, expecting that her cousin and fellow queen would naturally commit money and troops to restore her, a Catholic Queen, to the throne of her rebellious and (since 1560) newly Protestant kingdom. Mary had been forced to sign her abdication in July 1567 immediately after she had miscarried twins by her third husband while imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. Following her escape from that prison, Mary’s armies were then twice defeated by Protestant forces under her treacherous half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray, who was in Queen Elizabeth’s pay.

As we know, Elizabeth refused to help her cousin. Instead, as she had done previously before Mary had returned from France to rule Scotland, Elizabeth secured a Protestant regency in Scotland, ensuring that Mary’s only son and heir, James VI, was raised a Protestant and taught by his Calvinist tutors to despise his mother as an adulteress and murderer. Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for the next 19 years, during which time Mary actively plotted to regain her lost freedom and, so she was accused at her trial, to overthrow her Protestant cousin. For in the eyes of Catholic Europe, it was Mary Stuart, not the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, who was the lawful Queen of England.

Mary’s plotting made her the enemy of all English Protestants, and by 1586 Elizabeth was essentially forced by her advisers to bring her Scottish cousin Mary to trial for treason. As with all Tudor treason trials, Mary’s trial verdict was a foregone conclusion, as the jurors were all English nobles subject to Queen Elizabeth. As a Queen in her own right, Mary vehemently denied that the English court had any authority to try her, and, she famously stated, she would “rather die a thousand deaths” than acknowledge herself to be subject to the laws of England.

So it came to pass that, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth I regretfully signed her own cousin and sister queen’s execution warrant.

While two medieval English kings, Richard II (1367-1400, r. 1377-1399) and Edward II (1284-1327, r. 1307-1327), had been unlawfully murdered shortly after their illegal deposition from the throne, neither men were executed lawfully; an assassin in the night is entirely different from a public, state-sanctioned, royally-ordered execution. Mary’s state-sanctioned murder was different from Richard II or Edward II’s killings in that, from the English Protestant point of view, Mary’s execution represented, somehow, incredibly, an entirely legal act in conformity with the existing laws of Parliament. That is what makes it so horrendously appalling. Edward II and Richard II were murdered after being deposed — they never freely abdicated. Mary, too, was unlawfully forced to abdicate by her political enemies, but then she was only put to death almost two decades later after a formal trial by English lords acting at Queen Elizabeth’s behest.

Walking to her execution dressed as a Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded with three strokes of the axe at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8 at the age of 44.  The most heinous aspect of the entire spectacle was that Elizabeth, a God-anointed sovereign queen, had convinced herself that signing the death warrant of her own cousin and kinswoman – a woman who was, by all right, still the lawful Queen of Scotland the morning she died in February 1587 – was the only way to preserve her own life and her kingdom’s relatively new Protestant established Church.

With this execution, a sovereign queen regnant had ordered the judicial murder and execution of a fellow queen regnant. This marked the inevitable beginning of the end. Ever since Elizabeth, the childless Protestant ‘Virgin Queen’, ordered her luckless Catholic cousin Mary’s execution, Mary’s grandson Charles I’s execution, and the execution of King Louis XVI of France and his Queen Marie Antoinette, were all but inevitable. From Mary’s execution on February 8, the world experienced as a horrid reality the notion that a God-anointed monarch could be lawfully and legitimately put to death. From that moment, farewell to true monarchical sovereignty, farewell to the organic, ancient basis of medieval and early modern political society: the union between Church and Crown, altar and throne.



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Pryor, Felix. Elizabeth I: Her Life in Letters. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707. “Procedure: letters of demission from Mary queen of Scots: Act concerning the demission of the crown in favour of our sovereign lord and his majesty’s coronation”. University of St Andrews. 6 December 1567. Accessed 10 August 2016. http://www.rps.ac.uk/trans/1567/12/104

Strickland, Agnes. Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888.

Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998.

Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Power, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. London, England: Tauris Parke, 2001.



[1] Dunn, Jane, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 2004, 22.

[2] Ibid, 22-23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 92.

[6] Ibid, 23.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 169.

[9] Ibid, 171.

[10] Ibid, 180.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 206.

[13] Ibid, 215.

[14] Goodare, Julian, ‘Queen Mary’s Catholic Interlude’, in Mary Stewart Queen in Three Kingdoms: Innes Review, vol. 37 (1987), p.158; Bain, Joseph (editor), Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900, p. 161 no. 181. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/scotland/vol2

[15] Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), p. 184. Randolph to Bedford, 28 July 1565; Education Scotland: Foghlam Alba, “Renaissance, Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots: Lord Darnley”. Scotland’s History. Accessed 17 August 2016. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/renaissancereformation/lorddarnley/index.asp

[16] Daniel, William S, History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Edinburgh, Scotland: Duncan Anderson, 1852, p. 67.

[17] Harrison, G.B, The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968, p. 27.

[18] Dunn, 274.

[19] Upon hearing the news that her rival and cousin had fulfilled her dynastic duty in providing for the Scottish succession, giving birth to a boy who would one day, Elizabeth knew, succeed her as the first Stuart King of England, Elizabeth cried “the Queen of Scots is lighter of a fair son, and I am but barren stock!” (Ibid).

[20] Ibid, 283.

[21] Harrison, p. 49.

[22] Marcus, Leah S. et al, Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 116.

[23] Ibid, 117.

[24] Dunn, 296.

[25] Ibid, 294, 297.

[26] Ibid, 296-297.

[27] Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), p. 331.

[28] Marcus et al, 118.

[29] Ibid, 118-119.

[30] Harrison, 51.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Dunn, 301.

[33] Bain, p. 331.

[34] Labanoff, A, Lettres de Marie Stuart, vol. 7. London, England: Dolman, 1852. Folio 212, M. Du Croc to Charles IX, 17 June 1567.

[35] Donaldson, Gordon, ed., The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, Folio Society, London, 1969, 68-69.

[36] Dunn, 307.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, 308.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, 311.

[42] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, “Procedure: letters of demission from Mary queen of Scots: Act concerning the demission of the crown in favour of our sovereign lord and his majesty’s coronation”. University of St Andrews. 6 December 1567. Accessed 10 August 2016. http://www.rps.ac.uk/trans/1567/12/104

[43] Ibid.

[44] Bain, p. 363.

[45] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, “Procedure: letters of demission from Mary queen of Scots: Act concerning the demission of the crown in favour of our sovereign lord and his majesty’s coronation”.

[46] Dunn, 313.

[47] Ibid, 320; Strickland, Agnes, Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888, 70.

[48] Strickland, 67-68.

[49] Dunn, 321.

[50] Strickland, 73.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid, 74.

[54] Dunn, 323.

[55] Dunn, 332.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Kesselring, K.J. The Northern Rebellion of 1569. London, England: Palgrave MacMillan UK, 2010, 119.

[58] Marcus et al, 122.

[59] McGrath, Patrick. Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1967. 69.

[60] Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Power, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. London, England: Tauris Parke, 2001. 12.

[61] Marcus et al, 369.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid, 370.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid, 263.

[67] Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998, 365.

[68] Pryor, Felix. Elizabeth I: Her Life in Letters. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003, 43.

[69] Weir, 363.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid, 363-364.

[74] Ibid, 364.

[75] Ibid, 363.

[76] Ibid, 364.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid; Guy, John, My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London, England: Fourth Estate, 2004, 484-485; Fraser, Lady Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. New York, NY: Delta Book, Bantam Dell, 1993, 493.

[82] Weir, 367.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid, 367-368.

[85] Harrison, 179-181.

[86] Ibid, 180; Weir, 366; Dunn, 393.

[87] Weir, 366, Dunn, 393.

[88] Harrison, 180; Dunn, 395.

[89] Harrison, 180.

[90] Ibid, 181; Dunn, 395-396; Weir, 369.

[91] Harrison, 181; Dunn, 396.

[92] Guy, 488.

[93] Weir, 369.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid, 370.

[96] Weir, Alison, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003. 574.

[97] Ibid, 575.

[98] Lambeth Palace Library. “Mary Queen of Scots Execution Warrant Saved for the Nation”. Accessed 12 August 2016. http://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/content/executionwarrant

[99] Weir, The Life of Elizabeth I, 372.

[100] Ibid, 373.

[101] Ibid, 373-374.

[102] Ibid, 372.

[103] Strickland, 436-437.

[104] Ibid, 437; Weir, The Life of Elizabeth I, 372.

[105] Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1886. 111-112.

[106] Education Scotland: Foghlam Alba. “Renaissance, Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I signs the death warrant”. Scotland’s History. Accessed 12 August 2016. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/renaissancereformation/deathwarrant/index.asp

[107] Bede, 113.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Ibid, 114.

[110] Strickland, 441-442.

[111] Ibid.

[112] National Library of Scotland. “The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots”. French transcription. http://digital.nls.uk/mqs/letter1.html

[113] National Library of Scotland. “The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots”. English translation. http://digital.nls.uk/mqs/index.html

[114] Bede, 121.

[115] Ibid, 121-122.

[116] Ibid, 122.

[117] Ibid, 120.

[118] Weir, Alison, The Life of Elizabeth I, 378-79; Bede, 116.

[119] Weir, 379; Bede,

[120] Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844. 237-238.

[121] Bede, 123.

[122] Ibid, 122.

[123] Ibid, 123.

[124] Ibid.

[125] Ibid, 124.

[126] Weir, 379.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Bede, 126.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Ibid.

[131] Ibid.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Weir, 379.

[134] Bede, 127.

[135] Ibid, 127-128.

[136] Ibid, 128.

[137] Ibid, 129.

[138] Bede, 129; Weir, 379.

[139] Weir, 379; Bede 130.

[140] Bede, 139-140.

[141] Weir, 380.

[142] Bede, 130, 144-145.

[143] Ibid, 140.

[144] Weir, 381.

[145] Bede, 145.

[146] Bede, 145-146.

[147] Ibid.

[148] Weir, 382.

[149] Bede, 146.

[150] Weir, 381.

[151] Ibid.

[152] Ibid, 382.

Creative Writing Prompt 1: The Quiet Ascent

The Quiet Ascent: Finding Noetic Meaning in Dynamic Silences

What cannot be said will be wept. – Sappho of Lesvos

This is one of those quotes that brings to mind all sorts of daily scenarios in interpersonal relationships. The give-and-take of any conversation which results in an uncertainty: does the other feel the same, does he or she relate to what I am saying, does he or she enjoy our exchange? Sometimes the doubt or uncertainty can be subtle; other times it can be profound. Each one of us has encountered these situations in our daily interactions with those closest to us, those known to us but not on an intimate level, and then, of course, the many strangers. A lingering glance unacknowledged. A smile left unreturned. A revealing word of deeper meaning or intent left unanswered. A word of concern left without reply.

As we try to process on a daily basis our interactions with other people – some of which give us joy, some of which give us anxiety, some of which simply give us general stress – we often fail to think of all of the processing that we don’t manage to do during the day. Even the most extroverted person, as I am, can only process so much when interacting with so many different people in a given twenty-four hours. Sometimes it is the most meaningful encounters we have in a day that allow us to experience brief periods of genuine joy, the kind that makes the rest of the day’s stresses vanish into the manageability of an adjusted perspective. Sometimes these encounters allow us to experience – later on, once the bustle of the day has died down – the quiet joy of silent contemplation, of constructive silence.

This positive, organic, naturally occurring reflection of one soul on the depth and immensity of what another person has said can awaken in the soul the quiet, higher spiritual joy that is the very essence of what gives any meaningful life solid purpose, and which is at the heart of the Christian faith in particular. These ‘little joys’ are, for we who are called to be ‘little Christs’, glimpses into the deeper mystagogical and symbolic reality of living the Faith – when we experience spiritual joy from our conversations with other human beings, whether they are our spouse, family, friend, or stranger, we are drawn inexplicably, unconsciously into the deeper joy of Christ who made us all.

Paradoxically, sometimes on a given day when we get so caught up in the minutia of simply going about the day’s business – our various responsibilities, tasks, duties, chores, deadlines, et cetera – we do not fully process what we either wished we had said or wish that someone had said to us. For any one of us who is noetically aware, for anyone who is spiritually alive and awakened to the use of the noetic faculties (the “eye of the heart” or the “heart of the soul”) vibrant within himself or herself, it is often in the still, quiet hours of the late night or even carrying over into the pre-dawn when all the world around us is asleep that we do begin to process what we could not earlier.

Often one of the most profound ways a human being does process the depth of the interactions he or she had earlier is through the quiet contemplation that results in the shedding of tears. I could speak to this on a scientific level – what it means for the brain, what is taking place in the moment when someone is crying, there are different kinds of tears and so many different reasons for weeping, of joy, of anxiety, of feeling overwhelmed by an emotional depth and breadth of a certain situation, and these can all cause tears to flow – but relating the original quote, the quote implies a person’s regret for not saying something that they felt deep down, or someone else not saying something that the person wished they had said.

It is often in these blessed moments when we are most truly alone, engaging in a healthy period of solitude, rather than loneliness (one can be alone and not be lonely, and one can be with other people yet feel lonely or detached) that the whole person – the body, soul, and spirit – naturally recharges. One of the most basic ways that anyone who is noetically aware is going to recharge is by contemplative silence. If we are frustrated or disappointed or anxious, or feeling regret about words left unsaid in a conversation we had, if we are upset for not saying something that we wish we had said, we all know what this can mean and how it plagues us. Reflecting on whether or not we said the right thing, whether or not we said the right thing correctly, whether or not we should have said something that we did not say – we come to see that words left unspoken, consigned to the inner heart of the soul, unexpressed publicly but still deeply there, will be wept.

CW The Quiet Ascent 2

I think this applies to words that come from the deeper nature within us, the deeper part of each person, that reflects man’s higher, divine attributes (In other words, that which animates us at the core of our being). If the words we say and use in a given conversion reflect that higher, divine love and consideration, we will experience profound spiritual joy in that conversation. If, however, we fear that we did not communicate what we wished to say in keeping with these higher attributes, or if we were hoping for the other to say something he or she did not, this often gives us cause to weep. If we fail to say something of the higher impulse within us, something that recognizes and speaks directly to the noble aspects of the other’s soul, that is something we will naturally regret. When we process that regret, and the very depth of the emotions and sentiments regarding the lack of saying that, we do so most naturally through the shedding of tears.

From an Orthodox perspective – St Silouan wrote about this quite frequently, and that is one of the primary reasons I was inspired to take him for my patron – it is a profound virtue and sign of noetic life and kenosis to weep for all of the world, as well as our own sins. Not to do so deliberately or ostentatiously, but simply to do so organically when moved and prompted by the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. To reflect on our own sins, whatever they might be on a given day, and to reflect on the sins present in and afflicting the greater world – all of the ways people harm and fail each other, all of the ways people remain disconnected or disinterested in others’ sufferings – is entirely natural. To reflect on these things, I think, is a core part of being truly human in the highest sense of what that word actually means. To be truly human is not to sin and excuse the sin out of the idea that “we’re only human”, but to aspire to live, manifest, and reach toward the Eternal Good, to the divine love united to and contained and manifested in Christ, while ever recognizing our own fallibility and imperfections. To be human is to constantly strive, despite repeated failings, to ascend on the ladder, as we say, toward God, toward theosis – and to seek to raise oneself toward the heavenly in all things, in all ways, in synergy or cooperation with the Holy Spirit. As Lewis said, we are not truly divine sons of God unless we realize our God-given humanity, which raises us above the angelic ranks, and we are not truly human unless we realize that we are actually made, we exist, to become ever more divine like unto God Himself.

CW The Quiet Ascent 1

Taking this into account, words let unspoken, words left unsaid, that we wish we had said in an ‘angelic conversation’ which raises us and the other toward God together, are naturally a source of regret and, even, some lamentation. We only live as sojourners on this earth for such a time, and so amidst having, on a certain day, a certain number of routine interactions with the medley of people in our lives, to regret not saying something of great import in one of the exceptional interactions of the day is quite normal. We process that loss, that sense of a missed opportunity, often with the flowing of tears.

One of the greatest lies of secular modernity – an emotional and spiritual, and even psychological aspect of what the Russians call дегуманизация, dehumanizatsiya) – is the idea that somehow it is either weak or less ‘mature’ or ‘stable’ to weep in situations when the heart naturally laments. Obviously the death of a loved one is a time in which all human societies say it is acceptable to weep, but in cases of great joy as well, we have cause for weeping different tears; those of rejoicing. The quote refers more to tears of sadness and of an overflow of emotion, of pricks to the conscience or noetic stirrings. Truly, it is a man who is most animated by love for God who weeps in certain situations, not out of a misplaced passive sentimentality, but an active love for the world. Men and women naturally experience a greater animation, a greater earnestness, in talking with those who they esteem and love; thus, to regret not saying something is a natural response after such a discussion.

It is natural for man to experience wonder – all the awe-inspiring thoughts we have in certain conversations as we come to connect deeply with the other and know him or her better, and, of course, wonder and awe at the divine majesty which we encounter in the Church’s holy services and in the stunning beauty of the natural world. Man is made to delight in God’s creation, and above all to delight in His fellow-man as icons of the love and life that exists between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Lord made man for each other, and so by, to delight in each other and thereby draw closer to delight, corporately, in Him. In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God insofar as our relationship with this person is a godly one. When we encounter God, touched by His grace directly in a noetically palpable way, or we are touched by the grace of another person – the grace of God flowing through that person – these experiences are also unspoken moments that are very much real and alive in our souls. They speak wordlessly to the soul; sometimes words deliberately left unspoken, words carefully omitted, give us greater cause for rejoicing, or for grief, than those explicitly stated.

CW The Quiet Ascent 4

Words unspoken yet understood nonetheless through silence may sound like thunder or a lion’s roar – they may give us cause for rejoicing, or weeping. An implied but delicately unexpressed spiritual affection of the highest order (philia – ‘affection’ being a rather pale, deflated translation, a cheapening of that concept) becomes a very real attraction to the soul of the person, to the nobility which par la grace de Dieu resides in that soul and animates its very being. Encountering such a noble soul is something which can move any man or woman to tears; when a soul encounters another soul of such beauty, that moves it to glorify God and respond with tears of astonishment and radiant joy. How can we not be moved by our interactions and exchanges with a person who – in their intelligence, their wit, or their thoughtfulness or compassion, or any combination of these things – reminds us of the higher order of things to which all of our souls naturally aspire? That is a natural and entirely human thing; the noble, God-loving soul is dawn to a noble, God-loving soul. This dance of souls, of budding attraction between two persons, is a chaste foretaste of the delights of marriage; an unspoken promise of the drawing ever-nearer to God with another person. This dance beckons us to the divine, as it itself reflects, like a light reflecting off a mirror, the love of God and His providence for each person.

When we perceive in another soul these intellectual sparks, these long-nourished flames, of the highest inspiration, we are in an imperfect yet very real way touching the divine, aspiring toward He who is beyond all yet in all, He who creates all from nothing and entreats us to unite to Him. The human soul is, like our God, no autonomous solitary monad; rather, the soul is meant, like the Persons of the Trinity to each other, to live eternally in loving relationship; we are exhorted as human beings to live in relationship to those around us, drawing, ideally, ever closer in webs of work, friendship, motherhood or fatherhood, and marriage. Along with communing of the Body and Blood of our Lord Himself, the love between two souls, between two people, is the most intimate spark or bond of the encounter with God that we can hope to have in this earthly life. God reveals Himself to us above all else in the Eucharist, but beyond that, yet very much connected to it, in and through other human beings. We are made for each other; God made us to delight in each other on every level of human existence, from the more intimate levels (the most intimate ‘little kingdom’ of husband and wife, and of parents and children, and then, still very close but radiating outward, the bonds of a true, high friendship, and then, beyond that, our neighbors and colleagues) to, finally, the outer – the many strangers we meet who are all made in His image.

The challenge is, as we process on a daily basis our interactions with those of all different spheres and reaches – those who are closest to us, those who are at an intermediate level, and then those who are on the outer periphery of our lives – to respond to so many stimuli in a given moment as best we can. Because of this necessary multitasking, which itself can be overwhelming or sometimes dehumanizing, the centering prayers – especially the Jesus Prayer – offer us a tremendous consolation to center our lives, our thoughts, and put things in the proper perspective. These prayers go a tremendous way in allowing us to recover our equanimity and our sense of inner peace after a day of tremendous stimulation and likely stress.

I initially viewed the quote as a negative one, hinting primarily at feelings of regret, but now I see a positive element: sometimes, as St Isaac says, we cannot approach God, or His presence in another person, with adequate words truly appropriate to or measuring the situation. We are left in a state of sublime wonder and adoration; the highest feelings we can have toward God when married with the three loves in their highest forms. On a microcosmic level, but still profoundly important, when we have that kind of higher love for someone, or for multiple people to differing degrees, then we are truly – as Lewis said – realizing our true ‘spiritual inheritance’ and potential as Christians, as little Christs. It is on that note that I think, ultimately, we are to aspire on a daily basis to ideally speak the words we wish to speak to others, and to appreciate, in profound contemplative silence, the breadth, the majesty, and the beauty of the words spoken to us by another noble soul, and all those in our lives who matter.

Language is one of the greatest gifts that man has; it is directly a gift from God. Human speech cannot ever perfectly praise Him, and so in moments when our languages themselves fail to adequately do so, as magnificent as they are, we resort firstly to using language married to sacred song, to music in which the nous and the voice of the heart pray as one, and then, when even chanting and hymnody fails to fully capture that magnificence and wonder of the Lord, we are silent. We have recourse to silence not as a consolation for estrangement or loneliness, but as a silence of intimate communion. Whether this is communion with God, or with a beloved friend or other such esteemed person, or with a spouse, or children or parents, it is that intimate communion relative to each circumstance and each person in our life to which we are called to aspire. We are called simultaneously to ascend and descend; as St Isaac wrote, to raise our noetic consciousness to “the place where thoughts dry up, and stirrings vanish…where human nature becomes serene, and is transformed as it stands in the other world”, and to bring this same refuge, this same eternal placidity and majesty, to all that we do in this life and all we meet. As St Seraphim of Sarov so beautifully remarked, the foremost goal of our lives as Christians is to acquire the Holy Spirit, and, by doing so, aid in the salvation of those around us.

To the noetically aware, words unspoken carry a meaning all their own, never audibly expressed yet clarion in their meaning. Words unspoken turning to weeping is a natural, emotive impulse in the human person, a reflection of the activity of the soul which wants to connect in the deepest possible way with every other person, and, as life goes on, particularly with those closest to it. We are, simply, to imitate the angels in our mortal conversations, as best we can, so as to have a better taste of the heavenly choirs which ceaselessly praise the King of kings. When we encounter a high soul, a noble soul, in a mortal body, whose soul cannot but rejoice, and weep either tears of joy for the growing bonds, or tears of woe for fear of any loss in the connection? In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God, and any noble soul recognizes the nobility of another like it.