Much Ado About Nothing?

Keith M. Brown assesses the life, death and legacy of Mary Stewart

On February 1st 1587 Elizabeth I of England signed the death warrant of her cousin, Mary Stewart, the former Queen of Scotland (1542-67) and of France (1559-60). Seven days later Mary was beheaded in Fotheringay Castle.

At a stroke (three actually) the English government solved a major security problem, for Mary was the rival claimant to the throne and a focus for Catholic dissent in England, where she had been held prisoner since the summer of 1568. Mary's death also cleared the way for her son, James VI of Scotland, to advance his own claim to succeed Queen Elizabeth, and it removed an embarrassing reminder of the revolutionary means by which the infant King had been crowned twenty years before.

Of course, James made the expected protest and encouraged his border lords to raid into England; he may even have been genuinely but superficially saddened by the event. Elizabeth, meanwhile, indulged in characteristic duplicity and blamed her hapless secretary, William Davison, for clandestinely acquiring her signature on the warrant. The French court of Henry III, brother to Mary's first husband, went into exaggerated mourning. Philip II of Spain also appeared to be shocked and horrified, but immediately set in motion plans to get papal backing for his own claim to be recognised as Mary's heir. Mary's execution was not a momentous event and it generated ripples not waves of interest throughout the courts of Europe. It was little more than a tidying-up exercise in which a relic from the past, one of yesterday's politicians, was finally disposed of.

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week