It turned out, Elizabeth was wise not to trust Mary. As you would expect, Scottish supporters schemed and plotted against Elizabeth at every turn during the early months of Mary’s imprisonment and in 1569, the threats became a reality.
In Elizabethan England, there was not only a religious division between the North and the South, nobles in the north felt threatened by Elizabeth’s power. With the increase in threats on Elizabeth’s life, the question of who would succeed to the throne of England was being asked more often. No one wanted another Catholic queen so it was becoming obvious to the government that Elizabeth needed to rid England of Mary before Catholics got to Elizabeth first. And their advice to her was she needed to do it quickly.
You can be sure Mary’s supporters were thinking the exact same thing, only in their minds, Elizabeth was going to be the one disposed of.
It’s not clear who first suggested the idea of a marriage between Mary and 30-year-old Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk although his name had been floating around as a possible suitor for Mary for several years. Norfolk himself was actively discussing it by mid-October of 1568.
Norfolk was a second cousin to Elizabeth through her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Howard, and he considered himself, as England’s only duke at the time, as terribly undervalued in the English court. Self-worth had never been a problem in the Norfolk family and seems to be a familial flaw. It had led his father and great-grandfather to the executioner’s block under Henry VIII and his grandfather had only been reprieved by the death of Henry himself. To add to his sense of incredible self-worth, after the deaths of his three previous wives, he had become the wealthiest landowner in the country as well as Earl Marshal of England and Elizabeth’s Lieutenant in the North. As such, he had the means, the numbers, the family connection and he had the support of a Florentine banker by the name of Ridolfi behind him to make himself well and truly heard.
‘The Ridolfi Plot’, as it was called, was an intricate scheme in 1569 to murder Elizabeth, free Mary and marry her off to Norfolk, then put Mary on the English throne. With the assistance from Catholic English peers in excess of 39,000 men, the plan was looking incredibly positive. With this impressive array of support, it seemed only logical that he could progress further and make a considerable attempt to depose Elizabeth.
It could have been a great success. Alongside the Duke of Norfolk and his family connections, they had Ridolfi’s money and the support of the Bishop of Ross who was surreptitiously delivering letters to Mary of their progress while she was under house arrest in Bolton Castle. Then there were the armies of both Phillip of Spain and 10,000 loyal men standing behind the Duke of Alba from the Netherlands to back them up. They even had the go ahead and the nod of approval from Pope Pius V.
But common sense tells us that the plot was doomed to fail even if it hadn’t been discovered prematurely. For one thing, 10,000 roaring Spanish and Dutch soldiers waving swords and guns would have been more than a little difficult to hide. For another, they would still have been absurdly inadequate to overthrow Elizabeth’s newly formed army. Thirdly, the vagueness of the invasion point was terribly confusing. What let them down at this point was administration.
The plan they’d hatched was to land at either Harwich or Portsmouth, not a bad location by any means for an invading army. But by not telling Ridolfi exactly where Harwich was in the first place, they made a colossal blunder because the banker had no idea where to go. Another stumbling block for Norfolk as a future king was that a lot of nobles considered him a rather dubious contender anyway. Most regarded him as a bad leader, and heaven forbid, he wasn’t even a Catholic. All this, plus the fact that both he and Mary had been married three times before this new proposed marriage, seems to have made the attempt a little too farfetched for anyone to conceive.
Elizabeth’s extensive spy network didn’t have to work too hard to uncover this plot. Ridolfi’s talkative nature was always going to be a problem and rather stupidly, he trumpeted his plan all over Europe, more particularly to Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who sent a private message back to Elizabeth. Ridolfi’s messenger was then arrested at Dover with his pockets full of compromising letters and money and he soon spilled every bean in his possession.
From being the most powerful nobleman in England, Norfolk overnight became damaged goods. Elizabeth ordered him to be arrested and sent to the Tower of London on her 37th birthday on 7th September but he left court before he could be arrested, evidently hurt that his cousin could believe the terrible rumours of his implication in the plot. She reissued the order later that month and he removed himself further away to his palace in Kenninghall, outside Norwich, claiming illness. His distress seemed understandable, caught between public shame at becoming a person who could eliminate the queen and the private horror waiting for him while imprisoned in the Tower.
Three days later, Elizabeth wrote again demanding his return ‘…without any manner of excuse’. By 28th, all semblance of patience was gone. Norfolk was placed under house arrest on October 3rd and he was in the Tower by the 11th. By January the next year he was tried and convicted of three counts of high treason and beheaded six months later again.
Mary watched in stunned silence as Norfolk and hundreds of rebels were executed for treason. As the death toll rose, Elizabeth’s government again pushed hard for Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant as well. Still she refused to shed royal blood, stating that Mary would continue to remain in her prison.
It was nineteen years later, when Francis Drake returned from a trip that had taken him around the world and he’d brought back Peruvian gold and spices as well as captured Spanish treasures. As a reward, Elizabeth had knighted him and given him his own personal coat of arms. With his experience, there was never a doubt that he would be the one to lead the expedition to attack the Spanish. In September 1585, Drake left Plymouth in command of 1800 soldiers and 21 ships freeing up Elizabeth’s time so she could concentrate on Scotland.
With Drake on his way to fight the Spanish, Elizabeth needed as much support as she could get. And what she had was a rabbit in her hat, well … in her prison. Mary Queen of Scots was still locked away safe and sound and during the whole time, her son James had continued to petition Elizabeth for the safe release of his mother so she could return to Scotland.
Where once upon a time, Elizabeth would have scoffed at the idea of sending Mary home, considering how Mary and her supporters were continually plotting to murder her. But things had changed in that nineteen years and she began to see the value of the notion. What if she too could kill two birds with one stone? What if she gave Scotland back their precious queen, with a little quid pro quo, of course? Slowly, a plan began to formulate in her mind. What she would do would be to send James an ultimatum. On the threat of losing his ‘heir apparent’ status to the English throne, she would demand that James sign a treaty with England by which he pledged to protect her, and vice versa. They would both come to each other’s aid in the event of any attack. Only then would she consider releasing his mother.
The unspoken words to James were ‘Spanish attack’ aimed at shutting out the Spanish and of course, with his mother’s freedom hanging in the balance, James willingly signed. His mother’s release was everything he had been hoping for and if her release meant pledging his support to protect England from Spain in the process, then so be it.
It was at this time when everything began to unravel. No sooner had he signed the agreement than a new plot surfaced aimed to kill Elizabeth. Letters from Mary were discovered by Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham suggesting another attempted assassination and the threat from Scotland could not be denied anymore.
The chief instigator had been Anthony Babington, a young man recruited by John Ballard, a Jesuit priest who had wanted to rescue Mary and place her on the English throne. At Ballard’s instruction, Babington had sent a coded letter to Mary, who added his name to the complicated plot, and Mary had responded back in code ordering the would-be rescuers to assassinate Elizabeth. When Mary had signed the letter, she had been in a dark mood thinking her son James had betrayed her since she had been dependent on the Spanish to help rescue her. She had even stated in the letter that she was in favour of a Spanish invasion of England.
Mary couldn’t have picked a worse time to write the letter. John Ballard was arrested on 4th August and under torture confessed. Then he’d implicated Babington. Within days, the names of other conspirators were added to the list and all were rounded up and taken prisoner.
For Mary, the 11th August 1586 dawned like any other day except for some subtle differences and if she’d been watching closely, she would have been aware that a change was taking place. Up until that day, Mary had always been treated like a royal prisoner with every luxury at her disposal. In Bolton, she had been living very nicely in the South-West tower with a full retinue of 51 knights, servants and ladies-in-waiting. Her household included cooks, grooms, a hairdresser, an embroiderer, an apothecary, physician and a surgeon. Elizabeth had even sent tapestries, rugs and furniture from nearby Barnard Castle and she had herself loaned some pewter vessels to Mary as well as a copper kettle.
But much to Mary’s annoyance, she had been moved one year before to Chartley Manor owned by Robert Dudley’s stepson, Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex, because the house had a deep moat, which helped with security. She was still allowed relative freedom of her prison, along with her servants and every day she was allowed to go out riding while her servants left the house to do her laundry. On this particular day however, her servants were refused permission to leave the manor.
At the time, Mary hadn’t seen this as a threat. It had surprised her, but she nevertheless continued with her plans to go out riding with her doctor and several others. But as she came to the crest of a hill, she was startled by a group of armed soldiers waiting for her in the shade of a leafy outcrop. It was only then she learnt that instead of riding back to the manor, she was to be taken to Tixall where she would wait to stand trial for treason.
If Mary thought she had a hope of defending herself, she was wrong. Even though the assassination order had not come from James, Mary’s supporters had instigated it and it was the final straw for Elizabeth. Knowing she could not wait any longer, she was forced to make a fateful decision regarding Mary. Parliament was still pushing for her execution and at last, a stoic Elizabeth signed her death warrant on 4th December 1586. It was all just a formality anyway.
Within 24 hours, Elizabeth regretted it but by then, it was too late to stop the ball from rolling.
While Mary waited for word of her fate, her supporters were given no such luxury. On 20th September, seven Catholic men were bound to hurdles in the Tower of London and dragged on their final slow journey through the streets to a hastily erected scaffold in the open field at the upper end of Holborn to what is now known as Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Most of the condemned were well-connected and wealthy men, wearing fine silks for their last day on earth. Just a week before they had been tried at Westminster and found guilty of treason and only six weeks before that, they had been free men enjoying the good life. Authorities had searched the homes of known conspirators who had been seen having furtive conversations and the list was a long one.
The crowd, numbered in the thousands, gathered at the scaffold and authorities had to fence off the site to stop people blocking the view. The gallows were even raised so that no one could miss seeing justice being done. Seven more executions would follow the next day.
It was customary for a traitor’s death to be by hanging but this day would be different. One after another, the men were left to swing briefly by the neck until half-dead and then cut down, still alive and conscious. Then they were made to watch as an executioner hacked off their genitals with their own knives before digging out their intestines. If they were still alive after all of that, they knew their heart would be next. As their insides were cast into a burning brazier, each man’s body was then dismembered and the severed head set high above the gallows.
The first man to die was Ballard, arguably the ringleader, and the second was Babington. He stood unflinchingly beside the scaffold and watched Ballard die, waiting coolly for his turn, not even removing his hat as others turned away in apprehensive horror.
The outcry from their executions was so intense that Elizabeth changed the order for the second group to be allowed simply to hang until ‘quite dead’ before disembowelling and quartering.
Weeks later, Mary was sent to be tried at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire by 46 lords, bishops and earls. There would be no legal counsel, no permission to review the evidence and there would be no witnesses called. Portions of the letter were simply read and Mary was convicted of treason against the country of England.
It was on the 7th February that Mary began to hear faint banging in the distance and she would have been aware that a scaffold was being erected. It wasn’t until after dinner that evening that she was notified of her forthcoming execution at 8am the following morning. She was not allowed to see a priest, despite one being in the building, and she was not given permission for him to hear her confessions or to receive the Last Sacrament. She could however receive the consolation of their minister. She quickly distributed her belongings to her household and wrote her last will as well as a letter to the King of France, her former brother-in-law who was now King Henry III of France.
At just past eight the next morning, the Sheriff arrived for Mary and they made their way down the great oak staircase of Fotheringhay Castle. At the foot of the stairs, the Earl of Kent refused to allow Mary’s servants to proceed any further but after heated words with Mary, six of her attendants were granted permission. Just not a priest.
From around the countryside, the gentry gathered to witness her death. Mary appeared in black satin and walked down the quiet hall to the cloth-covered scaffold draped in black. In the hush, she slowly disrobed revealing a blood red bodice and a petticoat of crimson velvet, the colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church. She was then blindfolded by one of her servants and ordered to kneel in deathly silence. Throughout the hall, awed spectators watched and held their breath, expecting Elizabeth’s soldiers to rush in and halt the execution at any moment. After years of refusing to kill her cousin, no one really expected Elizabeth to go ahead with it. Surely this was just a terrifying warning to the Scottish queen to stop her rebellious threats and plots. Wasn’t it?
It took two strokes to kill Mary. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head, at which point Mary’s lips moved (her servants reported they heard her whisper “Sweet Jesus”). The spectators in the Great Hall gasped and screamed. The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew that the embarrassed executioner split by using the axe as a saw. The executioner then held the head up and at that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand came apart and the head fell to the ground, revealing Mary’s head of very short, grey hair. She had tried to disguise the greying of her hair by wearing the wig that had matched her auburn hair before her years of imprisonment. She was 24 years old when first imprisoned and she was 44 at the time of her execution.
As Mary died, Elizabeth sat in her room and cried.