EXECUTION OF THE QUEEN OF SCOTS: 1584-1587
THROGMORTON’S plot–of which the Queen of Scots was undoubtedly cognisant, though it was not pressed against her–brought home to every one the danger in which Elizabeth stood (1584). To the Catholic conspiracy, the temptation to take her life was enormous. It was becoming clear that, while she lived, the much talked of insurrection would never come off. The large majority of Catholics would have nothing to do with it –still less with foreign invasion. They would obey their lawful sovereign. But if once Elizabeth were dead, by whatever means, their lawful sovereign would be Mary. The rebels would be the Protestants, if they should try to place any one else on the throne. The Protestants had no organisation. They had no candidate for the crown ready. It was to be feared that no great noble would step forward to lead them. Burghley himself, though longing as much as ever for Mary’s head, had with a prudent eye to all eventualities, contrived some time before to persuade her that he was her well-wisher. Houses of Commons, it is true, had shown themselves strongly and increasingly Protestant. But with the demise of the crown, Parliament, if in being at the time, would be ipso facto dissolved. The Privy Council, in like manner, would cease to have any legal existence. Burghley, Walsingham, and the other new men of whom it was mostly composed, had no power or weight, except as instruments of the sovereign. Her death would leave them helpless. The country would take its direction not from them, but from the great nobles of large ancestral possessions. Nor could they provide for such an emergency by privately selecting a Protestant successor beforehand, and privately organising their partisans. It would have been as much as their lives were worth if their mistress had caught them doing anything of the kind.
In this dilemma an ingenious plan suggested itself to them. They drew up a “Bond of Association,” by which the subscribers engaged that, if the Queen were murdered, they would never accept as successor any one “by whom or for whom” such act should be committed, but would “prosecute such person to death.”
This was a hypothetical way of excluding Mary and organising a Protestant resistance to which Elizabeth could make no objection. But the ministers knew that, as a merely voluntary association without Parliamentary sanction, it would add little strength or confidence to the Protestant party. It would not even test their numbers; for no Marian ventured to refuse the oath. Mary herself desired to be allowed to take it. The bond was therefore converted into a Statute by Parliament, though not without some important alterations (March 1585). It was enacted that if the realm was invaded, or a rebellion instigated, by or for any one pretending a title to the succession, or if the Queen’s murder was plotted by any one, or with the privity of any one that pretended title, such pretender, after ezamination and judgment by an extraordinary commission to be nominated by the Queen, and consisting of at least twenty-four privy councillors and lords of Parliament assisted by the chief judges, should be excluded from the succession, and that, on proclamation of the sentence and direction by the Queen, all subjects might and should pursue the offender to death. If the Queen were murdered, the lords of the Council at the time of her death, or the majority of them, should join to themselves at least twelve other lords of Parliament not making title to the crown, and the chief judges; and if, after examination, they should come to the above-mentioned conclusion, they should without delay, by all forcible and possible means, prosecute the guilty persons to death, and should have power to raise and use such forces as should in that behalf be needful and convenient; and no subjects should be liable to punishment for anything done according to the tenor of the Statute.
Here, then, was a legal way provided by which the Protestant ministers might act against Mary if Elizabeth were murdered. They were in fact created a Provisional Government, with power to exclude Mary from the throne. Whether they would have the courage or strength to do so remained to be seen; but they would at least have formal law on their side.
It had never entered into Mary’s plans to wait for Elizabeth’s natural death. She therefore read the new Act as a sentence of exclusion. Another blow soon fell on her. In 1584, elated by her son’s victory over the raiders of Ruthven, and believing that he was willing to recognise her joint sovereignty and cooperate with a Guise invasion, she had scornfully refused the last overtures that Elizabeth ever made to her. She now learnt that he had never intended to accept association with her, and that he had urged Elizabeth not to release her. In the following year he had accepted an annual pension of £4000 with some grumbling at its amount; and a defensive alliance was at length concluded between the two countries, Mary’s name not being mentioned in the treaty (July 1586).
As the prospects of the Scottish Queen became darker both in England and her own country, she grew more desperate and reckless. Early in 1586, Walsingham contrived a way of regularly inspecting all her most secret correspondence. He soon discovered that she was encouraging Babington’s plot for assassinating Elizabeth. Some of the conspirators, though avowed Catholics, had offices in the royal household; such was Elizabeth’s easy-going confidence. It was hoped that Parma would at the moment of the murder land troops on the east coast. Mendoza, now Spanish ambassador in Paris, warmly encouraged the project.
The Scottish Queen was now in the case contemplated by the Statute of the previous year. But it required all the urgency of the Council to prevail with Elizabeth to have her brought to trial. Elizabeth’s whole conduct shows that she would even now have preferred to deal with her rival as she did in the inquiry into the Darnley murder. She would have been content to discredit her, to expose her guilt, and, if possible, to bring her to her knees confessing her crimes and pleading for mercy. But Mary was not of the temper to confess. Humiliation and effacement were to her worse than death. She chose to brazen it out with a well-grounded confidence that, as long as she asserted her innocence, people would always be found to believe in it, let the evidence be what it would. Besides, long impunity had convinced her that Elizabeth did not dare to take her life.
There was nothing for it, therefore, but to bring her to trial. A Special Commission was nominated under the provisions of the Statute of 1585, consisting of forty-five persons–peers, privy councillors, and judges–who proceeded to Fotheringay Castle, whither Mary had been removed. She at first refused their jurisdiction; but on being informed that they would proceed in her absence, she appeared before them under protest (14 October 1586). After sitting at Fotheringay for two days, the Court adjourned to Westminster, where it pronounced her guilty (25 October). A declaration was added that her disqualification for the succession, which followed by the Statute, did not affect any rights that her son might possess. The verdict was immediately known; but its proclamation was deferred till Parliament could be consulted.
A general election had been held while the trial was going on, and Parliament met four days after its conclusion (29 October). The whole evidence was gone into afresh. Not a word seems to have been said in Mary’s favour; and an address was presented to the Queen praying for execution. If precedents were wanted for the capital punishment of an anointed sovereign, there were the cases of Agag, Jezebel, Athaliah, Deiotarus, king of Galatia, put to death by Julius Cæsar, Rhescuporis, king of Thrace, by Tiberius, and Conradin by Charles of Anjou. In vain did Elizabeth request them to reconsider their vote, and devise some other expedient. Usually so deferential to her suggestions, they reiterated their declaration that “the Queen’s safety could no way be secured as long as the Queen of Scots lived.
Elizabeth’s hesitation has been generally set down to hypocrisy. It has been taken for granted that she desired Mary’s death, and was glad to have it pressed upon her by her subjects. I believe that her reluctance was most genuine. If not of generous disposition, neither was she revengeful or cruel. She had no animosity against her enemies. She lacked gall. She was never in any hurry to punish the disaffected, or even to weed them out of her service. She rather prided herself on employing them even about her person. Since her accession only two English peers had been put to death, though several had richly deserved it. She could affirm with perfect truth that, for the last fifteen years, she, and she alone, had stood between Mary and the scaffold, and this at great and increasing risk to her own life.
There had, perhaps, been a time when to destroy the prospect of a Catholic succession would have driven the Catholics into rebellion. But that time had long gone by, as every one knew. Elizabeth had only two dangers now to fear, invasion and assassination, the latter being the most threatening. There would be little inducement to attempt it if Mary were not alive to profit by it. Yet Elizabeth hesitated. The explanation of her reluctance is very simple. She flinched from the obloquy, the undeserved obloquy, which she saw was in store for her. Careless to an extraordinary degree about her personal danger, she would have preferred, as far as she was herself concerned, to let Mary live. It was her ministers and the Protestant party who, for their own interest, were forcing her to shed her cousin’s blood; and it seemed to her unfair that the undivided odium should fall, as she foresaw it would fall, on her alone.
The suspense continued through December and January. In the meantime it became abundantly clear that no foreign court would interfere actively to save Mary’s life. While she had been growing old in captivity, new interests had sprung up, fresh schemes had been formed in which she had no place. She stood in the way of half-a-dozen ambitions. Everybody was weary of her and her wrongs and her pretensions. The Pope had felt less interest of late in a princess whose rights, if established, would pass to a Protestant heir. Philip could not intercede for her even if he had desired to save her life. He was already at war with England, and, if she had known it, not with any intention of supporting her claims. James by his recent treaty with England had tacitly treated his mother as an enemy. Her scheme for kidnapping and disinheriting him, found among her papers at Chartley, had been promptly communicated to him. Decency required that he should make a show of remonstrance and menace. But he had every reason to desire her death, and his only thought was to use the opportunity for extorting from Elizabeth a recognition of his title to the English crown and an increase of his pension. He sent the Master of Gray to drive this bargain. The very choice of his envoy, the man who had persuaded him to break with his mother, showed Elizabeth how the land lay, and she did not think it worth her while to bribe him in either way. The Marian nobles blustered and called for war. Not one of them wanted to see Mary back in Scotland or cared what became of her; but they had got an idea that Philip would pay them for a plundering raid into England, and the doubly lucrative prospect was irresistible. James, however, though pretending resentment and really sulky at his rebuff, knew his own interests too well to quarrel with England. What the action of the French King was is less certain. Openly he remonstrated with considerable vigour and persistence; not entering into the question of Mary’s guilt, but protesting against the punishment of a Queen and a member of his family. Probably his efforts, so far as they went, were sincere, for he instructed his ambassador to bribe the English ministers if possible to save her life. But it was evident that, however offended Henry III might be by the execution of his sister-in-law, he would not be provoked into playing the game of Spain.
A warrant for the execution had been drawn soon after the adjournment of Parliament, and all through December and January Elizabeth’s ministers kept urging her to sign it. At length, when the Scotch and French ambassadors were gone, and with them the last excuse for delay, she signed it in the presence of Davison (who had lately been made co-secretary with Walsingham), and directed him to have it sealed (1 February). What else passed between them on that occasion must always remain uncertain, because Davison’s four written statements, and his answers at his trial, differ in important particulars not only from the Queen’s account but from one another. So much, however, will to most persons who examine the evidence be very clear. Elizabeth meant the execution to take place. There is no reason to doubt Davison’s statement that she “forbade him to trouble her any further, or let her hear any more thereof till it was done, seeing that for her part she had now performed all that either in law or reason could be required of her.” But signing the warrant, as both of them knew, was not enough. The formal delivery of it to some person, with direction to carry it out, was the final step necessary. This, by Davison’s own admission, the Queen managed to evade. He saw that she wished to thrust the responsibility upon him and Walsingham, and he suspected that she meant to disavow them. Although, therefore, she had enjoined strict secrecy, he laid the matter before Hatton and Burghley.
Burghley assembled in his own room the Earls of Derby and Leicester, Lords Howard of Effingham, Hunsdon, and Cobham, Knollys, Hatton, Walsingham, and Davison (3 February). (1) These ten were probably the only privy councillors then at Greenwich. He laid before them Davison’s statement of what had passed between the Queen and himself at both interviews. He said that she had done as much as could be expected of her; that she evidently wished her ministers to take whatever responsibility remained upon themselves without informing her; and that they ought to do so. His proposal was agreed to. A letter was written to the Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury instructing them to carry out the execution. This letter all the ten signed, and it was at once despatched along with the warrant. They quite understood that Elizabeth would disavow them. They saw that she wished to have a pretext for saying that Mary had been put to death without her knowledge, and before she had finally made up her mind. They were willing to furnish her with this pretext. Of course there would be more or less of a storm to keep up the make-believe. But ten privy councillors acting together could not well be punished.
On Thursday (9 February) the news of the execution arrived. Elizabeth now learnt for the first time that the responsibility which she had intended to fix on the two secretaries, one a nobody and the other no favourite, had been shared by eight others of the Council, including all its most important members. Storm at them the might and did, and all the more furiously because they had combined for self-protection. But to punish she whole ten was out of the question. Yet if no one were punished, with what face could she tender her improbable explanation to foreign courts? The unlucky Davison was singled out. He could be charged with divulging what he had been ordered to keep secret and misleading the others. He was tried before a Special Commission, fined 10,000 marks, and imprisoned for some time in the Tower. The fine was rigidly exacted, and it reduced him to poverty. Burghley, whose tool he had been almost as much as Elizabeth’s, took pains to make his disgrace permanent, because he wanted the secretaryship for his son, Robert Cecil.
The strange thing is, that Elizabeth not only expected her transparent falsehoods to be formally accepted as satisfactory, but hoped that they would be really believed. Her letter to James was an insult to his understanding. “I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolour that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. . . . 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 [bidden] ought I would have bid [abided] by it. . . . Thus assuring yourself of me that as I know this [the execution] 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.”
Little as James cared what became of his mother, it was impossible that he should not feel humiliated when he was expected to swallow such a pill as this –and ungilded too. He had no intention of going to war with the country of which he might now at any moment become the legitimate King. But to let Elizabeth see that unless he was paid he could be disagreeable, he winked at raids across the border and coquetted with the faction who were inviting Philip to send a Spanish army to Scotland. It was but a passing display of temper. The end of the year (1587) saw him again drawing close to Elizabeth, and she was able to give her undivided attention to the coming Armada.
It cannot be seriously maintained that because Mary was not an English subject she could not be lawfully tried and punished for crimes committed in England. Those, if any there now be, who adopt her own contention that, being an anointed Queen, she was not amenable to any earthly tribunal, but to God alone, are beyond the reach of earthly argument. The English government had a right to detain her as a dangerous public enemy. She, on the other hand, had a right to resist such restraint if she could, and she might have carried conspiracy very far without incurring our blame. But for good reasons we draw a line at conspiracy to murder. No government ever did or will let it pass unpunished. If Napoleon at St. Helena had engaged in conspiracies for seizing the island, no one could have blamed him, even though they might have involved bloodshed. But if he had been convicted of plotting the assassination of Sir Hudson Lowe, he would assuredly have been hanged.
That the execution was a wise and opportune stroke of policy can hardly be disputed. It broke up the Catholic party in England at the moment when their disaffection was about to be tempted by the appearance of the Armada. There had been a time when they had hopes of James. But he was now known to be a stiff Protestant. Only the small Jesuitical faction was prepared to accept Philip either as an heir of John of Gaunt or as Mary’s legatee. There was no other Catholic with a shadow of a claim. The bulk of the party therefore ceased to look forward to a restoration of the old religion, and rallied to the cause of national independence.
NOTE ON PAULET’S ALLEGED REFUSAL TO MURDER MARY
I have not alluded in the text to the story, generally repeated by historians, that Elizabeth urged Paulet and Drury to murder Mary privately. There is no doubt that, after the signature of the warrant, Walsingham and Davison, by Elizabeth’s direction, urged Paulet and Drury to put Mary to death, and that they refused. But was it a private murder that was meant or a public execution without delivery of the warrant? There is nothing in any of Davison’s statements inconsistent with the latter and far more probable explanation. The blacker charge is founded solely on the two letters which are generally accepted as being those which passed between the secretaries and Paulet, but which may be confidently set down as impudent forgeries. They were first given to the world in 1722 by Dr. George Mackenzie, a violent Marian, who says that a copy of them was sent him by Mr. Urry of Christ Church, Oxford, and that they had been found among Paulet’s papers. Two years later they were printed by Hearne, an Oxford Jacobite and Nonjuror, who says he got them from a ropy furnished him by a friend unnamed (Urry?), who told him he had copied them in 1717 from a MS. letter-book of Paulet’s. There is also a MS. copy in the Harleian collection, which contains erasures and emendations–an extraordinary thing in a copy. It is said to be in the handwriting of the Earl of Oxford himself. There is nothing to show whence he copied it.
No one has ever seen the originals of these letters. Neither has any one, except Hearne’s unnamed friend, seen the “letterbook” into which Paulet it; supposed to have copied them. Where had this “letter-book” been before 1717? Where was it in 1717? What became of it after 1717? To none of these questions is there any answer. The most rational conclusion is that the “letter-book” never existed, and that the letters were fabricated in the reign of George I. by some Oxford Jacobite, who thought it easier and more prudent to circulate copies than to attempt an imitation of Paulet’s well-known handwriting, with all the other difficulties involved in forging a manuscript.
But it may be said, Do not the letters fit in with Davison’s narrative? Of course they do. It was for the very purpose of putting an odious meaning on that narrative that they were fabricated. It was known that letters about putting Mary to death had passed. The real letters had never been seen, and had doubtless been destroyed. Here therefore was a fine opportunity for manufacturing spurious ones.
1. The remaining Privy Councillors were Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Chancellor Bromley, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Warwick, Lord Buckburst, Sir James Crofts, Sir Ralph Sadler, Sir Walter Mildmay, Sir Amyas Pualet, and the Latin Secretary, Wolley.
From Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly. Published in London by Macmillan and Co., 1892.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly, 1892 – Chapter IX" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/queen-elizabeth-edward-spencer-beesly-1892-chapter-ix/, February 27, 2015