08 February 2011

Queen of Scots

On this day in 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, England on orders from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Mary, who was Elizabeth's heir, had spent 19 years under house arrest. Implicated in a plot to kill Elizabeth, Mary was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. 

According to accounts of her execution Mary, who had spent the night before prayering and writing final letters and her will, arrived at the scaffold dressed in a black gown. When her servants undressed her, it was revealed that she wore a bodice and petticoat in red—the liturgical colour of Catholic martyrdom. Blindfolded, she knelt in front of the block and stretching out her arms said "Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit." Unfortunately, Mary's executioner was not a perfect marksman. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. Her servants reported they heard her whisper "Sweet Jesus." The second blow severed the neck, except for a small piece of sinew that the executioner had to sever by using the axe as a saw. The drama was not over. When he held up her head and cried out, "God save the Queen," he found himself clutching an auburn wig as the dead queen's head, covered with short, grey hair, fell to the ground. One of the myths that emerged after Mary's execution was that her little Skye terrier had been hiding under her skirts and emerged covered in blood. Refusing to leave his mistress' side, the dog died shortly after of a broken heart.

Mary's body was laid to rest in Peterborough Cathedral and remained there until her son, King James VI of Scotland, succeeded Elizabeth to the throne of England. He had his mother's body removed to Westminster Abbey where it still remains, next to that of the woman who signed her death warrant, Elizabeth I. The two women at odds in life are forever united in death. 

I have always had conflicting views on Mary, Queen of Scots. On the one hand, she seems to have been a charming woman who bravely defended her Catholic faith and Scotland against the big bully, England. Yet on the other hand, she often appears vain and selfish, making foolish decisions and joining forces with the wrong people. When I was in Scotland, it felt like Mary was everywhere. Yet it never got old, seeing her image or reading a plaque that proclaimed that she had slept there, visited, rode by, etc. No matter what your views are of Mary, you can't deny that she's fascinating. 

To read more about Mary, Queen of Scots, check out Antonia Fraser's excellent biography. And while you're at it read up on her mother, Marie de Guise. She essentially ruled Scotland when Mary was a child and is just as fascinating a woman as her daughter.

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