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 French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end.
-Mary Queen of Scots’ last words to her servants, 8 February 1587.
Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I’s letters to each other were their only 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 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 to each other from youthful rivalry, to a brief period of sisterly solidarity, to 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 the queens, and not the crucial words of the queens themselves, to piece together a contextual framework for Mary and Elizabeth’s evolving rivalry.
Mary, Queen of Scots painted around the age of 18 or 19 during her first widowhood (after Francis II of France’s 1560 death).
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 and cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was murdered and Mary soon after married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the man suspected of killing Darnley. Mary’s overthrow by the Scottish Protestant lords and her impetuous flight to England to seek Elizabeth’s assistance in 1568 marks the second turning point, and 1580—when Mary’s son James VI betrayed his mother and entered into an 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. What is certain is that, without these letters, we would have only the conjecture and 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 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 throne on 17 November 1558 upon her half-sister Queen Mary I Tudor’s death.
Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry begins over a confrontation between the two queens in the year 1558, rooted in the two different destinies their lives took when Elizabeth became Queen and Mary married her first husband, Dauphin Francois of France. The conflict was one of status and title centering on Mary’s naïve 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 and Queen of England and Ireland, since, in the eyes of Catholic Europe, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn, was illegitimate, and Mary, Queen of Scots was now the rightful Queen of England.
The young Mary, only 15 at her marriage, seems not to have understood how deeply she offended her older cousin Elizabeth by allowing her father-in-law Henri II and her Guise uncles “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.” 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” 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.” 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.
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 (then governed by Mary’s formidable mother, the Scottish Queen Mother and Regent Marie de Guise, sister of France’s powerful Guise brothers). 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 “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”, Mary’s uncles. Elizabeth, in an almost chiding tone, went on to patronize the young Mary and her husband Francois 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” 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. 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, aged only sixteen, Mary’s husband Francois died, leaving her a widow at 17, the stage was set for Mary and Elizabeth’s first serious confrontation. Within several months, after experiencing what seems to have been a profound depression and nervous collapse, the widowed Mary made up her mind to return to her native Scotland. This prospect alarmed Elizabeth, who was horrified of the prospect of her Catholic cousin and rival suddenly arriving on her doorstep. Citing Mary’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh, in which Scotland’s Protestant leaders 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.
Mary, Queen of Scots pictured in her first widowhood as the dowager Queen of France, 1560.
Mary responded with her first known letter in reference to her English cousin. Exhibiting what was to become a lifelong flair for self-dramatization, 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.”
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. 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.”
Mary, Queen of Scots painted as a young woman.
In summer 1565, Mary married her second husband, the nearest heir to both the Scottish and (after Mary) English thrones, her and Elizabeth’s mutual cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, whom Elizabeth had deliberately sent north in the hopes of seducing Mary. Within months, it became clear to all that Mary had rushed into a disastrous marriage; Darnley emerged as a drunk, a boor, and a womanizer. While Mary achieved perhaps her most important life’s goal, giving birth to a son and heir James in June 1566, news which dismayed Elizabeth , her misery in her marriage led to a whirlwind of drama culminating in the February 1567 murder of her husband. Mary had not hid her misery in her marriage from Darnley’s enemies, even going so far as to say to some of her 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”.
1565 or 1566 painting of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, King consort of Scots.
Portrait of Darnley’s murder on 10 February 1567. 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.
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”. 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.
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 counselors than myself”, casting herself as Mary’s chief advisor and defender against her enemies’ machinations. Despite receiving Elizabeth’s letter, Mary, 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. 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.” 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.” 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 delegitimized herself before her many enemies and only furthered the scandalous rumors 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 May 1567 that Mary had, after being kidnapped and allegedly raped by Bothwell, married the man publicly held responsible for Darnley’s murder, she wrote yet another impassioned, incredibly direct letter to her cousin, warning her in no uncertain terms that Mary’s actions had scandalized 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…
By marrying Bothwell, Mary, in Elizabeth’s view and all the world’s, 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.” 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…” Elizabeth signed herself, emphatically, “a good neighbour, a dear sister and a faithful friend”.
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 authority nor the will 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 behooves us to yield unto one marriage or other.
Mary fails to give a convincing defence of her marriage; all she can muster in response to Elizabeth’s horror and outrage is “it behooves us to yield unto one marriage or other”. These are hardly the words of a capable, confident queen.
The collapse of Mary’s reign came swiftly. Following the defeat of her forces at Carberry Hill by her Protestant half-brother the Earl of Moray, the captured, disheveled, heavily pregnant Mary was led through the streets of Edinburgh, all illusions of royal authority gone, her husband having fled the battlefield leaving her utterly without support or defence. Crowds verbally assaulted her, shouting “Burn the whore!” and holding up placards depicting their queen as a prostitute and adulterer. A prisoner of her Protestant enemies who now controlled her son the infant prince James, Mary’s reign was effectively over. Despite her horror at Mary’s reckless behavior, 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. Elizabeth 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”. Incensed that the Scottish lords would dare assault their God-anointed Sovereign, Elizabeth “threatened war” 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.
Upon hearing of her cousin’s capture by the rebellious Protestant lords in 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.” 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.” While Elizabeth continued to rail in support of her beleaguered cousin, she did not send troops to free Mary or restore her to her throne.
On 24th July 1567 Mary was forced to abdicate at Loch Leven castle immediately after miscarrying Bothwell’s twins, and the Protestant lords installed her infant son as James VI. A 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 behalf of her son. 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. For the next nineteen years, despite Mary’s naïve expectation that Elizabeth would make good her promises of loyalty and support and restore her to the Scottish throne, Mary was imprisoned on Elizabeth’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-year old James in 1574.
Betraying her impulsive and emotional nature, Mary wrote to Elizabeth as soon as she had crossed into England, urging her 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.” Now that Mary was in England, an extremely unwelcome prospect for Elizabeth, the two cousins’ relationship had changed once again. Elizabeth responded coolly, leading Mary to write another impetuous letter to her in which she hinted that, should Elizabeth not help her regain her lost throne, she would look elsewhere for assistance: “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…” Elizabeth knew that she could not safely return her to Scotland with Mary’s Protestant enemies in control of the country, but to let Mary pass to France risked possible French military involvement which would only further destabilize Scotland and possibly threaten England. As Elizabeth continued to prevaricate, Mary found her cousin’s behavior “maddening and her even-handedness galling in the extreme”.
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, begging for an audience with her. 1568 marks yet another major shift in writing style and tone. 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. 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…” These letters, extremely unconventional in their phrasing, betrayed how out of touch Mary was with the political reality of her situation.
The 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 Protestant half-brother and enemy the Regent Earl of Moray alleged Mary had written 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 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.
Mary had, through her own incompetence as a ruler, lost her throne, and after a year in captivity she still naively expected that Elizabeth would risk all to restore her to rule. Any willingness Elizabeth might have initially had to restore her cousin to her throne in Scotland soon dissipated when leading Catholic earls in northern England rebelled against the Protestant queen in autumn 1569, insisting on freedom of worship for Catholics and hoping to remove Elizabeth and put Mary on the English throne. The rebellion had wide support among northern Englishmen, most of whom were Catholic, and Elizabeth suppressed it with considerable difficulty. Mary almost certainly knew of the risings in her favour, but said almost nothing on the subject to Elizabeth. She continued to petition her English cousin to allow her greater freedom of movement. Elizabeth demurred, and Mary continued to write her.
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?”  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”, urging English Catholics to do all they could to depose her .
Elizabeth from then on began to view Mary as a nuisance and the source for Catholic opposition to her reign. Her Privy Councilors 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 Spanish King Philip II’s active support, sought to again raise the Catholic North against Elizabeth, assassinate her, restore Catholicism, and put Mary on the 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 Queen Elizabeth’s forces into Scotland in 1560 supporting the Protestant Lairds of the Congregation in in ousting Mary’s mother the Queen Regent Marie de Guise. As senior MPs and her councilors 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” .
A supporter of Mary’s cause painted this portrait of the Queen and her teenage son, James VI of Scots. 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 further. As the years went on, and Elizabeth took steps to ensure that Mary’s son James VI was raised as a 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”, 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.” Refusing James’ offer for her to return to Scotland as a retired dowager 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.” Again, Mary was utterly out of touch with political reality; while it is true that she had been forced to abdicate against her will, by now her son was taking part in the ruling of Scotland, and the rest of Europe acknowledged 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…”, Elizabeth had not responded to her. Terrified 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…” Mary at this point was once again employing conventional speech toward Elizabeth, though it was, typical of her, wrought with emotion. By July 1585, Elizabeth’s hold over James VI was so strong that he was addressing her in his letters as “madame and mother”; 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; word reached Mary of her son’s defensive treaty with Elizabeth in July 1586, right when Babington asked her blessing for his plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put her on the English throne.
James VI of Scotland in 1586, aged 20. This was the year he betrayed his mother by agreeing to a defensive treaty with Elizabeth I, Mary’s jailor.
Fall of 1586 marks the fourth and final stage of the two queens’ relationship. Elizabeth’s agents’ discovered Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Elizabeth ordered Mary transferred to Fotheringhay Castle, where she would ultimately stand trial for treason against her cousin and be executed. It is around this time that Elizabeth seems to have finally determined, after months of delay, that Mary was guilty of conspiring against her. During this time she revealingly refers to Mary in a letter to her jailor as a “wicked murderess”, the only evidence that Elizabeth believed Mary to be guilty of Darnley’s 1567 murder—an allegation against Mary which, at the time of the murder, Elizabeth had vehemently denied. Thus, Elizabeth’s reference to Mary as a “wicked murderess” shows just how much their relationship had changed by fall of 1586, to the point that Elizabeth now viewed Mary as her guilty and implacable enemy.
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, ultimately, deadly confrontation in 1586. Convinced of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, Elizabeth’s last letter to Mary was “an imperious broadside”. 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” 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.
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 plot, and throw herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy: “Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.” Mary never responded. Some time 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 martyrdom.
At her trial in mid-October, during which Mary at last had the opportunity to put her great charm to use, she sought to remind Elizabeth, through her commissioners, to remember “that the Theatre of the whole World is much wider than the Kingdom of England”, reminding 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” of her earlier misdeeds in ruling Scotland. 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!”. When told that she must answer the charges against her, Mary insisted on her innocence, declaring that “I would never make shipwreck of my soul by conspiring the destruction of my dearest sister.”.
When several of her servants and secretaries’ confessions to her alleged plotting were read aloud before the court, Mary argued that her letters must have been tampered with after she had first dictated them. 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. 
Mary pointed out in vain that “My Papers and Notes are taken from me, and no man dareth step forth to be my advocate …”. . She was permitted no attorney to speak in her defence. Citing that the 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 “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 defense of mine innocence will be barred flatly, I will not submit myself. 
Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. The empty dais in the top centre 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 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 sentenced to death. Almost immediately, 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 signing her sister queen and cousin’s death warrant. While her English cousin remained tormented over whether or not to order her execution, Mary seems to have received the trial verdict with serene equanimity. Sometime following the verdict, she composed (in Latin) her last known poem praying for the Lord to release her from her earthly prison 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
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,
I pray, I beseech 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 reversal of their relationship in 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 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 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 longed for:
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.
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 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 
Mary’s valedictory words—“my blood will be remembered”— must have seared themselves into Elizabeth’s soul.
Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature 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.
When word reached Mary 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.  
Even after bringing herself to sign her cousin’s death warrant authorising the 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 jailors. Her request that Mary’s life should be ‘shortened’ was taken to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary’s strict Puritan jailor. 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
Paulet informed Mary the night before her death of her impending execution; the Queen received the news calmly, while her servants, devoted to her, collapsed in tears. She spent the last hours of her earthly life in prayer and writing to her allies, especially her former brother-in-law, King Henri III of France (1551-89, r. 1574-1589). In her final earthly letter, written at 2:00 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. She also reiterated to Henri that she desired to be buried next to her mother in France on consecrated ground, a request neither Elizabeth nor her own son James would ever fulfill:
Royal brother, having by God’s will, 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…
… 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…
At eight o’clock on the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots walked to the scaffold in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle accompanied by her priest, her devoted ladies-in-waiting, and several male assistants. One eyewitness described how the Queen was beautifully and deliberately attired in splendid dress, evoking the image of a Catholic martyr. To her very end, she would play the part of a martyr for her Roman Catholic 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. 
On approaching the scaffold, Mary turned to her weeping ladies and manservants and said: “Thou hast cause rather to joy than to mourn, for now shalt thou see Mary Stuart’s troubles receive their long-expected end.”  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.” 
Refusing the offer of the Protestant Dean of Peterborough’s services to pray with her, Mary 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 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.” 
The Dean then began praying aloud according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, attempting to drown out the Queen, who insisted on praying in Latin; Mary uttered her Catholic prayers in a louder voice, weeping as she did so. Then, she refused the help of the executioner and his assistant to undress her, saying “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” . Mary took off her black gown to reveal a bodice and petticoat of scarlet, the traditional colour of Catholic martyrs.
The executioner then knelt, as was custom, and begged her forgiveness for what he had to do. Queen Mary replied softly, “I hope you shall make an end of all my troubles.” She then knelt, laid her head on the block before her and repeated “In manuas tuas, Domine, confide spiritum meum” (Latin: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”; Jesus’ last words when dying on the cross) . It took three blows of the axe to sever Mary’s head, and it was reported that her lips carried on moving for 15 minutes afterwards. Alison Weir describes how the executioner then picked up Mary’s head by the hair, as was custom, but that her cap fell off along with a red wig, revealing that Mary’s real hair was grey and “polled very short”. Immediately after Mary’s decapitation, the executioners began collecting her belongings and burning them, so as to leave no relics for Catholics who might venerate the Queen as a martyr. Even her blood was wiped up with rags and the rags burned. Weir also retells 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… 
By all accounts, the dog, depressed at being parted from his unfortunate mistress, refused to eat, grew weak, and died.
Robert Inerarity Herdman, 1867. (C) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8:00am February 8, 1587.
The famous Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I showing the 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, 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 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 worse failure as a 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. Ultimately, their letters reveal Mary to be a hopelessly incompetent ruler but the braver, if not more intelligent of the two women, while Elizabeth emerges as a solitary, lonely figure, yet a masterful politician who is ultimately forced to murder her own cousin in order to guarantee her own security and satisfy her people’s demands for Mary’s head. While Elizabeth triumphed as England’s Gloriana, perhaps its most beloved monarch, it is Mary who ultimately has a kind of final revenge, as her ungrateful son James and his posterity succeeded the Virgin Queen in 1603.
James VI of Scots became King of Scots when he was only thirteen months old following his mother Mary’s forced abdication on 24 July 1567. He became King of England on 24 March 1603 following Elizabeth I’s death. He reigned until his own death at the age of 58 in March 1625. Daniel Mytens, 1621.
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 in 1603.
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 her son and heir 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, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1886.
Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844.
Cheetham, J. Keith. On the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited, 2000.
Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.
Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
McGrath, Patrick. Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1967.
McMillin, Andrea. “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” Academia.edu. 2015. Accessed May 5, 2015.
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.
 Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 2004, 22.
 Ibid, 22-23
 Ibid, 169
 Ibid, 171
 Ibid, 180
 Ibid, 206
 Ibid, 215
 Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 27.
 Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 274.
 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 King of England, Elizabeth cried “the Queen of Scots is lighter of a fair son, and I am but barren stock!” (Ibid).
 Ibid, 283
 Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 49.
 Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 116.
 Ibid, 117.
 Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 296.
 Ibid, 294, 297.
 Ibid, 296-297.
 McMillin, Andrea. “Mary Mary Quite Contrary.” Academia.edu. 2015. Accessed May 5, 2015.
 Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 118.
 Ibid, 118-119.
 Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 51.
 Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 301.
 Ibid, 307.
 Ibid, 308.
 Ibid, 311.
 Ibid, 313.
 Ibid, 320.
 Ibid, 321.
 Ibid, 323.
 Ibid, 332.
 Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 122.
 McGrath, Patrick. Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1967. 69.
 Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Power, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. London, England: Tauris Parke, 2001. 12.
 Marcus, Leah S. et al. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. 369.
 Ibid, 370.
 Ibid, 263.
 Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 365.
 Harrison, G.B. The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968. 179.
 Ibid, 180.
 Ibid, 181.
 Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 392
 Ibid, 369.
 Weir, Alison. Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003. 574.
 Ibid, 575.
 Strickland, Agnes. Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888. 436-437.
 Ibid, 437.
 Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1886. 111-112.
 Strickland, Agnes. Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888. 441-442.
 Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 378-79.
 Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844. 237-238.
 Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998. 379.
 Ibid, 379.