Fotheringhay Castle, located seventy-five miles outside of London in Northhamptonshire, has been the location of some of the greatest historical events in European history. It was the birthplace of Richard III, a special gift to Catherine of Aragon by her husband Henry VIII and the site where Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots lost her head to an executioner’s axe. On the morning of February 8, 1587, Sir Thomas Andrews, Sheriff of Northhamptonshire, appeared outside the chamber door for the room of Mary Stuart. The forty-four year old queen arose from her prayers and followed Andrews into another room to say her final farewell to her servants. The once beautiful queen of France and Scotland lost her elegance to “premature aging” as a result of her captivity.
Mary proceeded to the great hall with two of her maidens, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, by her side. In front of one-hundred spectators, Mary walked onto a wooden stage where she noticed two men standing next to an axe. She slowly began to realize that these men dressed in black gowns would cause her demise. Robert Beale recited the execution orders to the crowd as Mary sat listening to them without any emotion. Once Beale finished reading the orders, the Dean of Peterborough rose to give the last rites. As he began, Mary interrupted him when she annunciated her prayers in Latin. The bull knelt beside Mary and asked her forgiveness for the task placed before him. Mary replied, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.”
When the executioner undressed Mary and revealed a red velvet petticoat, an overwhelming sense of shock appeared on the faces of the crowd. As Jane Kennedy placed the blindfold over Mary’s eyes, she told her maidens not to cry for her. Mary knelt before the block and positioned her head for a perfect fit. The bull proceeded with a swift strike only to land the axe in the back of Mary’s head. Eyewitness accounts have two different stories about Mary’s expression when this accident happened. Some have claimed that Mary whimpered silently and others believed they heard her scream in agony. The executioner proceeded with a second strike of the axe and successfully severed the head from her body. As the executioner lifted Mary’s head, her curly wig detached and the head fell back to the ground. God Save the Queen!
Protestants celebrated in victory throughout England and Scotland when they heard the news about the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. For years the queen has been at the center of many conspiracies against the life of Elizabeth I of England. In addition, she suffered continuous investigations in Scotland and England for the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary maintained her innocence throughout various inquiries and trials to determine her guilt. She blamed the ambitions of zealous Catholic servants who sought to further the Catholic cause for her benefit as well as their own. Many nineteenth century European historians agreed that Mary was a victim and examined hundreds of documents, such as the State Papers, to prove their claim. However, most modern-day historians believe in Mary’s guilt and claim that Elizabeth I and Lord Darnley died at her hands. In The True Life of Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, John Guy wants to break away from modern traditions of relying heavily on secondary sources because they distort the truth. Guy studied many primary source documents to reveal that Mary’s crimes were not significant enough to cause her death.
In Guy’s book he examines the plots against the life of Elizabeth I, the murder of Lord Darnley as well as correspondence between Mary and the conspirators. His conclusion shows Mary did not have any knowledge about her husband’s murder nor did she intend to murder Elizabeth. Mary never received the fair chance to defend herself and Elizabeth’s Privy Council had their mind made set about her guilt. This study will examine the pressures faced by Mary on issues of marriage and participating in Catholic plots to place her on the English throne. In addition, Mary’s innocence in the murder of Lord Darnley and the Babington conspiracy against Elizabeth’s life is revealed. This study will serve as an extension to Guy’s work in an effort to show a pattern of inconsistencies in the evidence used to implicate Mary in these crimes. These inconsistencies are found in letters written by Mary and then translated into fabricated copies by the English and Scottish governments to prove her guilt. The primary goal of these two governments was to stop the threat of a Catholic heir to the Protestant throne in England at all costs.
In order to understand the hostility faced by Mary Stuart, it is necessary to examine her claim to the English throne. After the death of Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII by Jane Seymour, Mary Tudor, his eldest sister, became Mary I of England. Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, the Catholic queen Catherine of Aragon. She married Philip II of Spain and failed in her attempts to produce an heir to the English throne. On November 6, 1558, Mary finally acknowledged Elizabeth as the rightful heir to the English throne. When she died eleven days later, Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor, announced Elizabeth as Mary’s successor during the Parliamentary session of that year. Elizabeth’s ascendancy to the throne of England was a victory for all Protestants throughout England.
Catholics did not share in the sentiments felt by Protestants in Elizabeth’s ascendancy to the throne. They believed that Elizabeth was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When Henry married Anne Boleyn, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon had not been recognized by the Catholic Church because she was still alive. Furthermore, when Henry divorced and executed Anne in 1536, the Act of Parliament declaring Elizabeth as illegitimate had never been repealed. Since Elizabeth’s illegitimacy continued to remain an issue, Mary Stuart, the only daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, appeared the rightful heir because she was the granddaughter of Henry VII of England. The Guise family of France maintained Mary Stuart’s right to the English throne based on Mary Tudor’s decree to return England to the embrace of the Catholic Church. However, when Pope Paul IV refused to declare Elizabeth illegitimate, all hopes for the English throne by Mary Stuart and the Guise family diminished. Paul did not want offend Philip II of Spain, who sought Elizabeth’s hand in marriage after the death of his wife Mary Tudor.
Although Elizabeth was not declared illegitimate by the Pope, Mary continued to believe that she deserved the title Mary II of England. Her greatest betrayal came when Philip II of Spain joined forces with Catherine de Medici to stop the Guise power structure in France. In 1561, both powers signed the Treaty of Edinburgh. The agreement acknowledged Elizabeth as the rightful heir to the English throne. Conyers Read suggests France came to an agreement easily with Spain because their exhaustion from half of a century of fighting with the Hapsburgs. At this point, Catherine de Medici wanted to assert her power on the French throne. Elizabeth’s ascendancy to the English throne received a stroke of good luck because the powers of France and Spain, along with the papacy, did not combine forces against her. Mary could not bring herself to ratify this treaty because she felt it was an insult to her honor as the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth maintained her respect for Mary since she was another female sovereign. The Queen of England wanted to resolve any misunderstandings about the Treaty of Edinburgh, but Mary feared that any agreement made might decrease her chances in succeeding Elizabeth to the throne. The Scots Lords advised Mary to come to terms with Elizabeth in exchange that she recognized her as “heiress presumptive.”
Mary sent her secretary, William Maitland, to England to persuade Elizabeth in revising the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh to include her as Elizabeth’s successor. Elizabeth’s response only assured Mary that she would win the love of the English people to regard her as the rightful heiress. Mary was not pleased with this news and sent Maitland back to England to warn Elizabeth about amending the treaty or action maybe taken to acquire the English throne. Maitland also advised Elizabeth that Mary requested an audience with her soon. Elizabeth could not approve any requests to meet with Mary with the religious war between the Catholics and Huguenots in France. She did not want to strengthen the position of the Guise family that may bring potential suffering to the French Protestants.
Elizabeth agreed to meet with Mary around September 20, 1562 when the religious war was projected to end. Maitland returned to Scotland to relay Elizabeth’s message to Mary. In his absence, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, advisor to Elizabeth, sent the queen an urgent letter advising of another religious war in France. Elizabeth wanted to assist the Huguenots and recognized that Mary’s Catholic associations might overthrow them. Elizabeth postponed the meeting for the remainder of the year and sent her messenger, Sir Henry Sidney, to Scotland to advise Mary of her plans.
On January 12, 1563, Elizabeth’s Second Parliament met in order to settle the question on the succession. Parliament urged Elizabeth to marry but she refused to adhere to their suggestions. In order to deter them away from the issue, Elizabeth replied that she would one day marry and have children. In regard to the issue of Mary’s succession, Parliament recommended a marriage proposal between her and Elizabeth’s dearest friend, Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth trusted Dudley was the best candidate to promote the welfare of England in the North by ending the threat of foreign invasion from Scotland. Dudley was Protestant and an acceptable choice to the Calvinist lords who wanted Scottish Catholic powers to remain in check. Maitland met with Mary to discuss the marriage proposal and realized this would secure Mary as an heiress to the English and Scottish thrones. Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil, also approved of the plan to bring peace on the issue of succession.
When Maitland returned to Scotland, he did not tell Mary of the news upon his arrival. However, the marriage plan did get back to King Philip of Spain. Maitland kept the marriage proposal a secret because Dudley’s family heritage consisted of traitors. Elizabeth granted Dudley the Kenilworth Castle at Warwickshire in an effort to make him more appealing to Mary. Mary’s true interest lied with the son of Philip II, Don Carlos, who began to fall ill. Elizabeth sent Thomas Randolph as a confidential agent to discuss the marriage plans with Mary. She gave him instructions to keep the name of Dudley a secret when discussing the plans. Once he arrived, Mary’s councilors pressed Randolph to reveal the name of the suitor. When he told Mary that the suitor was Dudley, she instantly rejected the marriage plans because of Dudley family’s reputation as a traitor. After Parliament received this news, Cecil offered Mary the promise of English secession with the approval of Parliament. In addition, Elizabeth elevated Dudley’s status to the title of the Earl of Leicester.
Mary continued to refuse the marriage proposal and began to steer in the direction of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary granted him titles such as the Earl of Ross and the Duke of Albany. They married on July 29, 1565 at the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. With this marriage, Mary wanted to rule Scotland without interruption, restore the Catholic faith and pursue the rebellious lords of England. As the marriage progressed, Darnley became lazy, unpleasant, arrogant and a habitual drinker. Maitland began to notice Mary’s discontent with him and wanted to rid her of her troubles. On November 20, 1566, Maitland, accompanied by other Scottish lords, followed Mary to Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh to solve the problem with Darnley. Without Mary’s knowledge or consent, Maitland schemed different ways for Mary to become free of Darnley once and for all. Initially he pushed for a divorce and wanted the Earl of Moray, Mary’s half-brother, to consent to the plan. According to Frank Meline, the Scottish Lords only pushed for the divorce in order to protect their land grants, which Darnley stood to inherit upon Mary’s twenty-fifth birthday.
Moray did not agree to the divorce plans because Darnley was still free to cause further mischief. At the encouragement of the Scottish Lords, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, decided to join the plans for Mary’s divorce from Darnley. According to Meline, the lords selected Bothwell as Mary’s new husband because they believed he would protect their land grant interests. Bothwell arrived at the decision to encourage Mary to divorce Darnley because of his desire to elevate his political status. Mary considered Bothwell as a close friend during her troubled marriage with Darnley, although it is not clear whether or not an affair took place between them. Romantic historians, such as Antonia Fraser, believed it was Bothwell’s love for Mary that inspired him to join the divorce plot. Meline and Read insisted that Mary’s love for Bothwell encouraged him to seek a divorce from his wife and marry her. Guy’s position on the entire love affair is that Bothwell never possessed any passion or for the Scottish Queen. He wanted to use Mary sexually as well as experience the feeling of ruling beside her as king. Bothwell and Maitland suggested the idea of divorcing Darnley to Mary, but she feared that her son would become an illegitimate heir to the English throne. After continued mental exhaustion in her marriage, Mary agreed to the divorce plans. Mary did not realize that eventually these divorce plans would escalate to a murder plot, which forced her to abdicate the Scottish throne.
James Douglas, Earl of Morton, wanted to take the plans further than divorce. Morton’s anger against Darnley still boiled from the Rizzio Plot. Bothwell’s ambitions for a chance to reign as king beside Mary encouraged him to join the plot to murder Darnley. On February 8, 1567, Mary visited Darnley, who suffered from syphilis, at the Kirk O’ Field house in Glasgow. Bothwell wanted Mary to persuade Darnley to join her in returning to Edinburgh where the other Scottish lords awaited him. Bothwell deceitfully encourage Mary to believe that Darnley wanted to kidnap James VI and become his regent. When she approached Darnley about this accusation, he denied any knowledge of it and Mary returned to Edinburgh. Two days after her departure, there was an explosion at Darnley’s house and he was killed. Bothwell married Mary on May 15, 1567.
The marriage to Bothwell proved disastrous for Mary’s reputation in Europe and caused the collapse of her reign as Queen in Scotland. Bothwell had a terrible temper and became very jealous of Mary. On June 15, The Scottish lords were united against Mary because they declared Bothwell guilty of Darnley’s murder and wanted complete hegemony over Edinburgh. After Mary and Bothwell arrived at Edinburgh Castle, Morton and his troops gathered at Carbury Hill. Mary surrendered and was taken prisoner to Lochleven Castle in Edinburgh for eleven months. According to Guy, Mary stood behind her husband because he was her only protector. Instead, Bothwell escaped and Mary never saw him again. Elizabeth sent Sir Thomas Throckmorton to Scotland to appear before the Lords of the Congregation. He advised them of Elizabeth’s plan to take action against them if Mary remained a prisoner. They did not heed her orders because Mary had abdicated the throne and gave the lords consent to her son’s coronation. Moray accepted the appointment as regent to Prince James without any concern of Elizabeth’s threats. Throckmorton knew there was no reason to remain in Scotland and returned to England.
Mary escaped Lochleven on May 22, 1568 with the help of the Laird of Lochleven’s brother, George Douglass. She sent word to Elizabeth requesting that she receive her upon her arrival and provide her with supplies. Elizabeth’s Privy Council did not accept the news of her arrival and Cecil raised concerns on the threats she posed to England. Cecil believed that Mary would assemble her friends to assist her in proclaiming her rights to the English throne. Furthermore, Cecil assumed that Mary would try to gain the support of Scotland while she sought refuge in England. Upon Mary’s arrival to England, Cecil held an inquiry at Westminster to determine if Mary had a role in the murder of Lord Darnley. Mary consented to the inquiry as long as she was restored to the Scottish throne upon a favorable verdict. The Earl of Moray, who offered his assistance in the plot on Darnley’s life, turned his back on his sister. His apparent deceit may have been to exonerate his name and separate himself from the conspiracy.
Moray produced evidence against Mary by submitting a silver casket containing eight letters found under Bothwell’s bed after he escaped. The Casket Letters were letters written by Mary to Bothwell out of her love for him. Meline offered valid points to prove the Casket Letters produced by Moray were forged. When Bothwell escaped, he had enough time to pack all of his belongings before his flight. It is highly unlikely that he would forget to take letters such as these. Secondly, the silver casket was found by a former attendant of Bothwell who knew what was contained inside of it. In an effort to incriminate Mary, Moray may have forged these letters based on assumptions of what may have been discussed in them. None of the letters contained Mary’s signature or her seal. Finally, all of the letters were translated from French into Scotch. The original French version never surfaced, which suggests that Bothwell took the letters with him. Agnes Strickland proves one last piece to the puzzle to prove Mary’s innocence in the murder of Darnley. Strickland provides a letter written by Bothwell on his deathbed confessing that he devised the plot to kill Darnley along with Moray and Morton. Bothwell stated that Mary did not have any knowledge that Darnley was murdered. The commissioners ignored this confession as well as Parliament when the issue resurfaced during Mary’s trial at Fotheringhay.
During the trial, Moray produced a letter written by Mary of her desire to murder Bothwell. Mary denied this letter and claimed that it had been forged. Throughout the inquiry, Mary persistently requested to see the original letters for which she was accused of writing. The English commissioners, which consisted of the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Sussex and Sir Ralph Sadler, denied her access to them and stated that they were not convinced of Mary’s innocence. They agreed that the letters contained too much information that Mary could only know. Jane Dunn gives a romantic twist to the story when she claimed that the Duke of Norfolk began to in fall in love with Mary and was more sympathetic to her plight. Dunn states that Norfolk believed that Elizabeth only wanted to keep Mary as a prisoner and Moray wanted to stain the name of his sister. The inquiry ruled that Mary remained Titular Queen of Scotland from her permanent residence in England. Mary was removed to Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire under the guard of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
During this time, Mary held regular communications with Guerau de Spes, a Spanish ambassador sent to England by Philip II. His orders from Philip were to rise against Elizabeth through disgruntled English Catholics, establish Mary on the throne and restore Catholicism as the national faith. This became the central theme in future plots involving ambitious Catholics who wanted to escalate Mary’s power. De Spes believed that the Duke of Norfolk would serve as a good husband for Mary. Norfolk expressed his plans to marry Mary and dispose of William Cecil from the Council. Mary favored this idea because she wanted to reclaim the Scottish throne and gain her freedom. In May, 1569, Mary received a formal proposal of marriage from Norfolk. All those who were involved in the marriage plot wanted to keep it a secret until Elizabeth was persuaded of the advantages from such a union. When Moray heard of the marriage plan through courtly gossip, he sent a letter to Elizabeth to warn her of the plan.
Elizabeth summoned Norfolk to confess his marriage plans, but he refused to answer her. She continued to give the duke chances to confess, but he denied the marriage plans even as they moved forward. Elizabeth ordered Norfolk to appear before the English Court because of his unwillingness to cooperate. He fled to Kenninghall in Norfolk as Cecil and other members of council urged him not to escape. Norfolk was arrested while en route to Windsor and placed in the Tower. The Queen wanted to try him for treason and if convicted, she would take the law into her hands. Cecil advised against this because it might portray her as a tyrant.
After Norfolk was released from the Tower, Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian Catholic, went to London as a business agent. After being unsuccessful in the rebellion of the northern earls in November, 1569, he decided that any revolt used to cede foreign powers was necessary. He showed his plans to place Mary on the English throne to Pope Pius V on February 25, 1570. Pius approved of his plans and published a Bull of Excommunication for Elizabeth and all her subjects. Mary wrote to Norfolk on February 8, 1571 outlying Ridolfi’s plan and invited him to join. Norfolk initially resisted until Mary’s agent in London, John Leslie, the Bishop of Ross, encouraged him to support Ridolfi. At the same time, Parliament assembled in May, 1571 to pass three acts on High Treason. These Acts stated that an act of treason was committed when anyone denounced Elizabeth as the rightful queen, any form of literature contained elements of heresy or any papal bull was passed into England.
When the Bishop of Ross was threatened with the rack, his confession revealed that Norfolk participated in the plot to free Mary. The Duke was arrested on charges of High Treason and, once again, sentenced to the Tower. Elizabeth placed a watchful eye on Mary and decided to never again bring up the issue of restoring her to the Scottish throne. Mary denied any evidence of the plot brought before her including any knowledge of being acquainted with Ridolfi. Parliament was divided on the type of punishment for Mary. Most of the members came to an agreement that execution was the correct punishment for Mary, while others believed that barring her from the English secession was sufficient. Cecil never received enough evidence to charge Mary with involvement in the Ridolfi Plot. Elizabeth did not entertain any discussions of her execution and decided to spare Mary. On May 31, the Queen signed Norfolk’s death warrant.
Since Cecil could not arrest Mary, he decided to strip away her diplomatic relations in France. He sent Thomas Smith, a member of the Privy Council, to France to encourage Catherine de Medici to disassociate herself from Mary. He created the illusion of an immediate threat posed by Spain to England in defense of Mary’s cause. Cecil published copies of the Casket Letters and distributed them in Scotland to dissuade people from assisting Mary in reclaiming the Scottish throne. Upon Norfolk’s execution, Parliament wanted to obtain a bill of attainder, which bypassed the need to accumulate evidence or give Mary the right to a trial. Read suggests that Walsingham wanted Mary’s execution more than Cecil because her presence in England posed a threat to Elizabeth. Walsingham wanted to use Mary’s severed head as a message to other conspirators seeking to plot against the Queen. Elizabeth did not approve of these efforts and maintained that she could not move against a God-anointed queen.
In November 1583, Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s new Secretary of State, captured Francis Throckmorton, the nephew of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, who worked on behalf of Mary as her agent. Walsingham’s spies discovered his communications with the Duke of Guise and the Jesuits. Walsingham also intercepted letters written by Mary to Castlenau, an ambassador at the French embassy. Mary hoped to make Scotland independent, with the protection of France, and restore her reign as Queen. Throckmorton confessed that the conspiracy’s aim was to prepare Philip’s Enterprise of England for Mary to acquire the throne. He added that Mary and Bernardino de Mendoza, a Spanish ambassador, participated in the conspiracy. Elizabeth wanted Throckmorton executed and Mendoza expelled in disgrace. For the remainder of Elizabeth’s reign, Spain was not allowed to send another ambassador to England. Walsingham began to tighten security in August, 1584, and, with the approach of 1585, Mary was sent back to Tutbury Castle. Elizabeth ceased any further discussions of restoring Elizabeth to the Scottish throne.
In October, 1584, with the assassination of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, Walsingham and Cecil formed the Bond of Association on behalf of Elizabeth. This measure began as a method to destroy the Queen of Scots if she became involved in another conspiracy. James was exempt from this order unless he participated in any plots involving an attempt on Elizabeth. When Cecil informed Mary of this, she held steadfast in her claim of being unaware of any conspiracies against Elizabeth. Nevertheless, she signed the Bond to show her cooperation and innocence in any of the conspiracies. James sent his mother a letter stating that he would continue to acknowledge her as Queen Mother, but he could not approve a “joint rule or restore her to the throne in Scotland.” James signed a separate treaty with England one year later to show his allegiance to Elizabeth. After Mary signed the bond, she received word that a new jailer, Sir Amias Poulet, a Puritan, was set to arrive at Tutbury to increase surveillance. Mary heavily contested this because she believed that their religious practices would clash. He did not allow her to have any visitors, confiscated her mail, and only permitted her to leave the castle with a parade of armed soldiers. On Christmas Eve, 1585, Mary was removed from Tutbury to Chartley, which was a fortified house of the Earl of Essex.
Paulet’s fear of Elizabeth’s security was confirmed after the arrest of Gilbert Gifford, a Catholic refugee, at Rye on his arrival from France. He appeared before Walsingham and confessed that Mary’s friends in Scotland sent him to re-establish contact with her. Now that his plans were known, Gifford worked for Walsingham as a spy. His task consisted of passing all incoming correspondence to Mary directly to Walsingham. Gifford had to intercept any letters that Mary sent as outgoing mail and give them directly to Walsingham. Mary sent numerous letters to her Catholic agent, Chateauneuf, to advise him to beware of spies among his secretaries. She had no idea that Chateauneuf’s secretaries were not the real threat.
Walsingham passed the letters to his secretary, Thomas Phelippes, an expert in ciphers. Phelippes decoded, copied and resealed the letters to send them to their destination. The issue with Phelippes letters was that he added postscripts to all of Mary’s letters without her knowledge to extract more information from the conspirators. Walsingham also gave Gifford the order to advise Mary that he knew of a secret route to smuggle the letters in and out of Chartley. Gifford introduced himself in a letter he sent to Mary and described a secret channel which she might communicate with her friends overseas. Walsingham made arrangements with a local brewer, Master Burton, in Buxton, to supply Mary’s house with regular supplies of beer in large barrels. Burton received a monetary bribe to transport Mary’s letters in a waterproof wooden box. In order to slip through the bung-hole of the barrel, a small box was needed. The brewer had been duped into believing his assistance helped Mary, but when the truth revealed itself it was too late to do anything. Mary never suspected that a trap had been set by Gifford and Walsingham.
In May, 1586, Gifford intercepted two damaging letters from Mary to Mendoza and Charles Paget, a Catholic co-conspirator, which assured her support for a Spanish invasion by Philip II. When Paget responded to Mary’s letter, he informed her about a Catholic priest, John Ballard, who arrived from France in order to construct the Catholic rebellion against Elizabeth. The invasion was going to coincide with the Spanish invasion expected that summer. Ballard visited Anthony Babington, a rich Catholic supporter of Mary, to discuss the murder plot of the Queen. His first task was to transfer five packets of letters, written by Thomas Morgan, a co-conspirator, to Mary. Mendoza also joined the plot because he lost his political status as a Spanish Ambassador. He wanted to plan a religious war involving Catholic invasion of England.
Babington agreed to the murder plot and advised that he had thirteen supporters who were anxious to join the plan. Gifford, working as a spy for Walsingham, joined Babington and Ballard in the murder plot. Babington sent a letter to Mary on July 6 to outline the plan for Elizabeth’s murder and asked for her blessings in executing the plot. In the letter to Mary, Babington stated that of the thirteen men he recruited, six of them were going to take Elizabeth’s life. When Mary sent her support for the plan, she did not formally give her approval for Elizabeth’s assassination. However, she acknowledged that action was needed in securing her freedom from Elizabeth. Mary advised Babington to turn to Mendoza for assistance because he was the ambassador to Philip II of Spain. Gifford intercepted the letter and turned it into Walsingham, who decided to let the plot continue. Walsingham waited for this moment and believed that any approval given by Mary endorsed the murder of his Queen.
Walsingham sent Phelippes to Chartley in order to intercept Babington’s letter to Mary. After he decoded the letter, he sent it back to Chartley to wait for Mary’s response. Mary’s secretaries assisted her in translating the letter into French and English. Nau was responsible for drafting the letter in French so that Mary could approve it before it was translated into English by Curle. The English version of the letter was not written by Mary’s hand and it is not clear as to the accuracy of Mary’s words in that letter. Phelippes decoded the letter because Gifford intercepted the cipher sent by Mary to Chateauneuf. Walsingham believed that this was enough evidence to accuse Mary of her written consent for Elizabeth’s assassination and foreign invasion.
Ballard was arrested and sent to the Tower on the grounds of being a Catholic priest. Babington decided to flee England and Elizabeth issued a proclamation condemning the conspiracy. Copies of paintings were distributed throughout England to show the identity of the conspirators. While Mary was away hunting, chests full of letters were confiscated and sent to Walsingham. Walsingham arrested Mary and captured Babington sending him to the Tower on the next day. Elizabeth isolated Mary from her servant in the hopes that she would die of loneliness. Babington confessed to the plot to assassinate Elizabeth and implicated Mary as the centermost conspirator. Babington, Ballard and five other men were tried and sentenced to die at St. Giles Fields at Holborn. On September 25, Elizabeth’s Privy Council sent Mary to Fotheringhay Castle in Northhamptonshire.
A total of forty commissioners, consisting of lords, privy councilors and judges, were selected to preside over Mary’s trial. Cecil guided the trial and his objective was to convince Mary’s supporters of her guilt. The trial commenced on October 11, but Mary refused to participate on the grounds that she was a God-anointed Queen. Walsingham sent for Sir Christopher Hatton, acting Lord Chancellor, to advise Mary that her attendance was mandatory, but she still did not move. Elizabeth decided to send a letter to Mary, which contributed to Mary’s decision to participate in the trial. Guy states that Mary’s change of heart came after she realized that the committee may find her guilty without her testimony. When the trial commenced on October 14, Mary was charged with “treasonable conspiracy against the Queen’s life.”
Mary was not allowed the defense of counsel nor did she see any of the evidence against her. She believed that commission delegated had a guilty verdict planned in their minds before her trial began. Mary told the commission that she only wanted to discuss her words and not Babington’s letters. She denied any knowledge of the Babington Plot and claimed that the letters had been forged. Furthermore, she stated that she never intended for the conspirators to murder Elizabeth on her behalf. Mary was unaware that her letters had been intercepted by Walsingham while en route to Babington. In addition, the commissioners never advised her that the letters sent to Babington were translated by Walsingham’s spy, Thomas Phelippes.
According to Pollen, Nau, who translated Mary’s letter in to French, may have been misguided by Cecil as to how many letters were confiscated in Mary’s chamber. His testimony may contain fallacies because he was under extreme pressure by Walsingham to confess. Curle’s translation was taken from Nau’s draft and placed into an English cipher. Phelippes version of Curle’s letter is not authentic because it is a copy of the original document. Furthermore, the postscript he added to these letters contributed to a major flaw in the accuracy of these letters. Elizabeth’s Council did not want to turn these letters in as evidence because Phelippes translated these copies. When Babington confessed to these letters, he was shown other copies with additional postscripts. Members of Council deceitfully told Babington that these letters were from the other conspirators in order to extract a confession. Babington, Nau and Curle were forced to rewrite these same altered letters when they confessed to them. Phelippes postscripts added the informal request for the name of the six conspirators and the method of instructions given once their names were revealed. If Babington had noticed Phelippes’ postscript before he signed the letter, Mary’s fate may have turned in a different direction.
Walsingham and Cecil were not convinced by Mary’s testimony of her innocence. After reviewing the evidence against Mary, the commissioners reached a verdict of guilty in her absence. When Parliament approached Elizabeth with verdict and the execution sentence, Elizabeth replied with an “answer, answerless.” Two days before Parliament reconvened, Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, sent an envoy to Elizabeth to plea for mercy on his mother’s life. Elizabeth and her Council believed this attempt was not out of concern for his mother’s life, but to verify the security of his succession to the English throne. Parliament assembled on October 16 to declare Mary’s sentence-execution by the axe. On November 25, the commissioners reassembled in the Star Chamber at Westminster to formally condemn Mary to death. Elizabeth continued to delay the signing of the execution warrant drafted by Walsingham. She was afraid of a Catholic rebellion and further attempts on her life by Catholic conspirators.
Elizabeth sent for Sir William Davison, Walsingham’s secretary, to advise the Council that she wanted the execution to take place in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle. She instructed Davison to go to Sir Christopher Hatton to attach the Great Seal of England on the warrant. Davison showed the warrant to Cecil before bringing it to Hatton. When Elizabeth told Davison to hold the warrant until she spoke with Hatton once more, Davison replied that it was too late. Hatton and Davison went to Cecil to call an emergency council meeting. This meeting concluded to continue the plans to dispatch warrant without further permission from the queen. Cecil drafted an order for the presentation of the warrant to Mary at Fotheringhay Castle. Elizabeth demanded to hear no more of Mary’s execution until after the deed was done. The rest is history!
In 1585, an Act of Parliament decreed that anyone conspiring on behalf of Mary Stuart can cause her death even if she does not have any knowledge of the crime. Plots continued to soar after Mary escaped Lochleven Castle in Edinburgh to England. The Scottish Queen did not accept the invitation by her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, to return to France because she believed that Elizabeth had her best interest at heart. Cecil and Walsingham used many tactics to link Mary with the conspiracies of ambitious Catholics seeking to promote the Catholic cause as well as their own. In the case of the Babington Plot, the conspirators were threatened with extreme methods of torture to extract confessions. Mary’s secretaries, Nau and Curle, were promised gracious favors as well as threats of punishment by Walsingham. The truth of Mary’s guilt or innocence will never surface because of the methods implored by Council to obtain confessions. The evidence produced by the conspirators was not valid enough to execute a case against Mary. Walsingham may have fabricated a plot against Mary because of the lack of evidence against her. He wanted to rid England of her at all costs, no matter if his methods created injustice to all who were involved. Mary’s fate was already determined at the onset of trial in the Babington case. The commissioners who passed her sentence were allowed to see the evidence against her before the trial commenced. Her death sentence was passed after the second examination of the evidence against her. In November 25, 1586, Mary was charged with directing Babington to consult with Bernardino de Mendoza because of his experience and giving her consent to the six conspirators who agreed to perform the assassinaton on Elizabeth’s life.
Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay and Mary Queen of Scots: Being an Account, Historical and Descriptive…London: Simpkin, Marshall and Company, 1886. Also available online at http://www.archive.org/details/fotheringhaymary00bederich.
Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Vintage Press, 2003.
Erickson, Carolly. The First Elizabeth. New York: Summit Books, 1983.
Fraser, Antonia. Mary, Queen of Scots. New York: Delacorte Press, 1969.
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