‘I cannot but deplore my evil fortune, seeing you have been pleased not only to refuse me your presence, causing me to be declared unworthy of it by your nobles; but also suffered me to be torn in pieces by my rebels…. not allowing me to have copies of their false accusations, or affording me any liberty to accuse them.’ Mary, queen of Scots to Elizabeth I after the Northern Rebellion
There were three main plots concerning Mary, queen of Scots – the duke of Norfolk’s scheme of 1569, the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, and the Babington Plot of 1586. For as long as Mary lived, she was a potential threat to Elizabeth. And since she was now imprisoned on English soil, she was an even greater menace. Domestic enemies of the queen made no secret of their admiration for Mary Stuart. And foreign ambassadors often communicated secretly with her, particularly the French and Spanish ambassadors. As a former queen of France, Mary had many friends in that country. And as a Catholic queen, she was friendly with the increasingly pious Philip II of Spain.
Elizabeth was always of two minds regarding her cousin. She recognized the danger which Mary represented, but she was acutely conscious of Mary’s status as a sovereign queen unlawfully deposed by her subjects. She could not impugn her cousin’s dignity without risking damage to the ideal of royal prerogative. The trick was to deprive Mary of her standing as a sovereign. Mary’s own behavior, in Scotland and England, gave Elizabeth a distinct advantage. Even staunch Catholic allies were troubled by Mary’s reported crimes. Perhaps she was innocent of complicity in her second husband’s murder, but she had married James Hepburn, the earl of Bothwell in a Protestant ceremony. And the evidence of the ‘Casket Letters’ (now believed to be false) supported the theory that Mary and Bothwell had an adulterous affair and then plotted Darnley’s murder. This erosion of Mary’s reputation necessarily alienated her moderate supporters. But for the extremists, such flaws could be overlooked for the greater good of overthrowing the heretic Elizabeth.
At first, Mary was content to avoid plotting against her cousin. But when it became clear that Elizabeth would not help her return to Scotland, she was forced into a corner. She wrote constantly to the English queen, begging for a personal meeting, much as Elizabeth had requested an audience with Mary I. Elizabeth refused. Mary was originally placed in the care of the wealthy earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Bess of Hardwick. She was kept in comfortable quarters, with a large retinue of servants and accorded respect as a sovereign queen; she even ate beneath a cloth of estate. But she was essentially a prisoner and no material comforts could obscure that essential fact.
Those early years in England were spent in various hearings and meetings, with Mary proclaiming her innocence of Darnley’s murder and the duplicity of her Scottish nobles. When these ended with her freedom still denied, she became understandably bitter. She had been condemned to prison without a fair hearing, with no end in sight. For a lively young woman who had always lived openly and passionately, with as great a love of the outdoors as Elizabeth, used to being her own mistress and the former queen of two countries, the situation was intolerable. She was only 25 years old when she arrived in England and all of her natural energy and enthusiasm became fixed upon one goal – freedom.
She was essentially powerless. And so she turned to subterfuge, relying upon a small network of Catholic and foreign allies. This was surprisingly successful. She gained important news from the continent and Elizabeth’s court. But Shrewsbury complained incessantly about the expense of Mary’s imprisonment and Elizabeth’s councilors complained about her ceaseless correspondence with Catholics. And so she was eventually removed from Shrewsbury’s care into less comfortable quarters. This had the paradoxical effect of encouraging more plotting on Mary’s part.
After the plot to marry Norfolk and the Northern Rebellion failed in 1569, Mary increasingly turned to her foreign supporters. They were able to provide crucial encouragement as well as the names of trusted English sympathizers. In 1583, the second serious plan to free Mary and kill Elizabeth was discovered. It is known as the ‘Throckmorton Plot’, after its leader Sir Francis Throckmorton. A well-born Catholic Englishman, Throckmorton was given money and guidance by the French prince, the duc de Guise. De Guise wished to invade Scotland and England simultaneously, murder Elizabeth with the assistance of English Catholics, and then place Mary on the throne. Elizabeth’s great spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham was notoriously suspicious, a trait which most (including Elizabeth) often condemned. But in this case, his prudence, and an agent named Fagot, foiled the plot. The 30 year old Throckmorton was arrested and tortured on the rack before confessing everything. He was executed at Tyburn on 10 July 1584. Based upon his confession, the complicity of the Spanish ambassador Bernadino de Mendoza was discovered; he was expelled from England in January 1584.
In June 1584, even as Throckmorton awaited execution, the Protestant leader William of Orange was assassinated at Delft by a Catholic. Elizabeth’s councilors became even more terrified for her safety. It did not help matters that France was in the midst of terrible religious turmoil. Catherine de Medici had sought to placate both parties by tolerating Protestant services; she also married her daughter Marguerite to the Protestant prince Henri of Navarre in 1572. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was the result. Henri had saved his own life by renouncing Protestantism, but in 1576 he was able to escape imprisonment and publicly embraced his faith again. In 1584, King Henri III of France named Henri of Navarre his heir presumptive. None of Catherine de Medici’s sons had produced a male heir and so the throne would pass to a Protestant king.
This decision led to ‘The War of the Three Henrys’ and, indirectly, Henri III’s assassination in 1589 by a Catholic fanatic, Jacques Clement. Henri of Navarre was then crowned king of France, but was forced to fight against the Catholic League. He could not enter Paris until 1594, after once again renouncing his faith with the famous remark, ‘Paris is well worth a Mass.’ But he continued at war with Spain for several more years and embarked upon a policy of religious toleration which culminated in the Edict of Nantes in 1598.
Elizabeth and her council carefully considered the events in France. There were three great Protestant leaders in Europe – Elizabeth I (however unwilling she was to accept the role), William of Orange, and Henri of Navarre. Of the three, William was assassinated in 1584 and Navarre was once again forced to convert. Elizabeth survived unscathed, but the Throckmorton plot was a very troubling development. It meant that foreign powers were determined to destroy her; there would be no more marriage proposals, only a shadowy network of plots.
In October, Cecil and Walsingham were concerned enough to draft the ‘Bond of Association’, a document which pledged protection of the queen and destruction of her enemies. Walsingham was now secretary of state, having assumed the more onerous duties of that office from Cecil in 1568; his focus was primarily on diplomacy and espionage. In January 1585, he arranged for Mary, queen of Scots to be moved to Tutbury Castle. Her personal papers were minutely examined during the process, without her knowledge. Walsingham wished to know all, but without rousing Mary’s suspicions.
Elizabeth approved of these plans. She was personally courageous and refused to alter her many public appearances for fear of an assassin. This caused her councilors many sleepless nights. But they could not help but admire her bravery. She also took to keeping a small sword beneath her pillow in case of an attack. It was her only sign of distress and perfectly in keeping with her pragmatic approach to life. The assassins might come, but she would be armed and ready to fight
In February 1585, Parliament banished Catholic priests and ordered the return of all Englishmen studying at seminaries abroad. The ‘Bond of Association’ was also given legal force, which meant that noncompliance with its terms would be a treasonable offense. It would be officially ratified by Parliament in July 1586. And in May, relations with Spain deteriorated further when Philip II ordered the seizure of English ships in Atlantic ports. Three months later, England signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Alliance at Nonsuch Palace, in which Elizabeth pledged military assistance to the Protestant Dutch rebellion against Spain. Almost 7000 English soldiers under the command of Robert Dudley immediately left for the Netherlands.
It was clear to everyone that conflict between England and Spain was fast becoming inevitable. As much as she preferred to prevaricate and remain neutral, Elizabeth was being forced to choose sides. The problem of Mary, queen of Scots only encouraged Elizabeth’s support for the Protestant cause.
In December 1585, Mary was moved to Chartley Manor. Walsingham knew she was plotting again, this time with increasing desperation. Throckmorton’s failure had shaken her badly, though she professed innocence. Her exact role in that conspiracy remains unclear; it is possible she only knew of it, but did not actively encourage it. But she did enthusiastically support the treason of another English Catholic, a young man named Sir Anthony Babington.
Another well-born Englishman, Babington had served as a page in Shrewsbury’s household during the early years of Mary’s imprisonment. His romanticized memories of the queen, as well as his passionate Catholicism, made him susceptible to the plans of Thomas Morgan, one of Mary’s trusted agents. In 1580, the 19 year old Babington was traveling in France when he met Morgan. After he returned to England, he became increasingly associated with Mary’s admirers, eventually smuggling letters from the French embassy to the imprisoned queen. Babington was only a half-hearted conspirator, but Walsingham was content to use him to lure Mary into a final trap. When Babington learned the Catholic priest Ballard planned to murder Elizabeth, he tried to escape abroad but Walsingham refused him a passport. Babington was frantic and turned to a friend for advice, confessing everything. His friend then ran to Walsingham with the information. But the queen’s secretary of state did not act at once. He sensed this was his best opportunity to catch Mary in the act, so to speak, and with enough evidence to finally convince Elizabeth of her cousin’s complicity. The queen’s refusal to condemn Mary was no longer a benevolent quirk; for her councilors, it was a matter of life and death.
Walsingham had soon collected a number of letters between Morgan, Mary, and Babington. And in one of those, Mary explicitly approved the murder of Elizabeth. It was this letter that Walsingham needed. When confronted with it, Elizabeth was at first disbelieving and then angry. She approved of moving Mary to Fotheringhay Castle and sending a commission of statesmen there to investigate the Babington Plot. She also sent along a letter to be delivered to her captive cousin. It read:
You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you, but have, on the contrary, protected and maintained you like myself. These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. Yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. I therefore require, charge, and command that you make answer for I have been well informed of your arrogance.
Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.
Mary defended herself at the resulting trial; her most potent argument was that she was a sovereign queen and thus not liable to the laws of England. She also denied ever plotting the death of Elizabeth. But it was too late. She was condemned to death. Elizabeth at first refused to sign the warrant for execution, much as she had earlier with Norfolk. It was an agonizing decision. There is a possibility she was tricked into signing it. Mary was finally beheaded on 8 February 1587. On the 14th, Elizabeth sent the following letter to Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland:
My dear Brother, I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolor that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. I have now sent this kinsman of mine, whom ere now it hath pleased you to favour, to instruct you truly of that which is too irksome for my pen to tell you. I beseech you that as God and many more know, how innocent I am in this case : so you will believe me, that if I had bid aught I would have bid by it. I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or Prince should make me so afraid to do that were just; or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage, nor carry so vile a mind. But, as not to disguise, fits not a King, so will I never dissemble my actions, but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me, that as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others’ shoulders; no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.
The circumstance it may please you to have of this bearer. And for your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate. And who shall otherwise persuade you, judge them more partial to others than you. And thus in haste I leave to trouble you: beseeching God to send you a long reign.
Your most assured loving sister and cousin,
Elizabeth had been queen for almost thirty years, surviving numerous obstacles and conspiracies. Her councilors now believed the greatest threat to her reign was over. But they were wrong, as the momentous events of 1588 would soon prove.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Queen Elizabeth I: Biography & Facts Continued Part 4" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/queen-elizabeth-i-part-4/, February 8, 2015