On this day, 24 November 1586: Parliament’s intervention against Mary, Queen of Scots

Our fourth specially commissioned article for Parliament Week. To find out more, visit www.parliamentweek.org

On 24 November 1586 a delegation from the Lords and Commons went to meet Queen Elizabeth I at Richmond Palace, their mission: to convince her to order the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Parliament of 1586 was called specifically because of Mary's complicity in the Babington Plot in August that year. The assassination in 1584 of William of Orange, the leader of the Dutch, and protestant, revolt against the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands, had added a new and particularly dangerous dimension to the religious conflicts of Europe. It was easy to assume that  Elizabeth, the monarch of the most significant of the few countries in Europe which had abandoned their allegiance to the Pope, would be targeted next. In a tense and febrile atmosphere, the English Protestant elite wanted to make sure that Elizabeth would not suffer the same fate; or that if she did, she would be succeeded by a Protestant – and certainly not by her cousin and closest heir, Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots. Mary had fled to England in 1567 after being deposed in Scotland. Since then, she had been held in a more or less comfortable house arrest, her imprisonment caused by the increasing – and well-founded – anxiety of the English government that she would become the focus of Catholic plots. She had been held in a series of castles and fortified houses in the midlands, most recently in the custody of two reliable protestants: Sir Ralph Sadler and Sir Amyas Paulet.

In the Parliament of 1584-5, the Council had managed to get Elizabeth to agree to an Act designed to protect England’s protestant future. The Act for the Queen’s Safety  provided for the trial and death or exclusion from the succession of anyone involved in an invasion, rebellion, or plot against the Queen. However it permitted the heir of such a person (meaning James VI of Scotland, Mary’s son) to succeed to the English throne as long as they were not involved in the conspiracy. This provision opened the way to an agreement between England and James, the Treaty of Berwick, signed in July 1586.

The Treaty helped to make Mary reckless. Effectively disowned by her son, she ratcheted up her contacts with the Spanish King Philip II – but using intermediaries who had been turned by Elizabeth’s brilliant, and aggressively anti-Catholic secretary and spymaster Francis Walsingham. A scheme devised by the Spanish ambassador in London, Bernardino de Mendoza, was communicated to her by a young Catholic gentleman, Anthony Babington, in July. Her acceptance of the idea, in a ciphered letter that Walsingham read two days after it was written, sealed her fate: it was clear evidence that she had been involved in conspiracy against the Queen, and meant, under the 1585 Act, that she would be tried – and if found guilty, executed.

The trial went ahead at Fotheringay, in Northamptonshire, in October, meticulously planned by William Cecil, Lord Burghley. The guilty verdict was delivered in the Star Chamber at Westminster on 25 October. Having secured the result they had been seeking, Elizabeth’s Council, led by Burghley, now had to persuade an intensely reluctant Elizabeth to follow it through. Elizabeth’s extreme distaste for the execution – mostly because of her alarm at the idea of a Queen being subjected to a judicial process and a formal sentence – led to an enormous tussle between them over the following months.

Burghley had planned for the sentence to be ratified by a new Parliament, and he used this body, which assembled on 29 October, to try to force her hand. The attack began in a debate on 3 November, in which councillors Sir Christopher Hatton, Sir Walter Mildmay and Sir Ralph Sadler all assailed Mary: Hatton said bitterly that ‘the manner of the Queen of Scot’s life and her practices from the beginning [have been] most filthy and detestable, if you look well into them you shall well find that her ambitious mind, grounded in papistry, hath still thirsted after this crown of England, and our overthrow’. A joint petition of the two Houses to Elizabeth – drafted by Speaker of the Commons John Puckering, and carefully amended by Burghley – was presented on 12 November, requesting that ‘direction be given for further proceeding against the said Scottish Queen according to the effect and true meaning of the [Act for the Safety of the Queen’s person]. The Queen’s answer was gracious, but it gave no hint that she was prepared to execute Mary.

On 24 November a second delegation visited the Queen, who continued to prevaricate in a long and convoluted speech: ‘I am not so void of judgement as not to see myne owne peril, nor yet so ignorant as not to know it were in nature a foolish course, to cherish a sword to cut mine own throat, nor so careless as not to weigh that my life daily is in hazard.’ But as for actually carrying out the execution, she went on to say:

‘if I should say it should not be done (by my faith) were more than I meant to tell you. If I should say it shall be done, it were more than I could now assure or were convenient here to be declared… Your judgement I condemn not, neither do I mistake your reasons, but pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer answerless’.

Elizabeth eventually consented to have the verdict proclaimed publicly, on 6 December, to show that Parliament had achieved something; but even after that she sat on the death sentence for six weeks, before she finally signed it on 1 February 1587. To Elizabeth’s subsequent fury, before she had time to change her mind, Burghley had the sentence carried out at Fotheringay. At Mary's execution, the warrant was read from the scaffold by one of Walsingham’s sidekicks, Robert Beale; afterwards, one of Cecil’s servants, Robert Wingfield, reported back to Cecil that it had been done. William Davison, the man who took the warrant to Walsingham, bore the brunt of the Queen’s anger.

Author: Paul Seaward