8 February 1587 – Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots‘So long as there is life in her, there is hope; so as they live in hope, we live in fear’, so said the English ministers about Catholic supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed the men in Mary’s life were ultimately the death of her.

As Henry VII’s great-granddaughter, Mary I of Scotland, as she was known, posed a serious threat to the English throne, and for that she lost her life.

Having recently moved away from the Catholic Church to enable him divorce and to marry again, Henry VIII ideally wanted Mary to marry his son. And that set the tone for her life as a helpless pawn in the vicious wrangling for the English throne.

After she became betrothed to Henry’s only son Edward VI, the Catholics got wind of it and whisked her away. They were much more in favour of approaching the French for a match to cement her Catholic bloodline.

Marriage potential

She was eventually married to the French Dauphin, Francis, which eventually made her Queen of Scotland and of France, albeit briefly. And it was there that her surname Stewart was rewritten Stuart in line with French spelling.

It may well have been a happy marriage, but for her husband’s untimely death from an ear infection. So she returned to Scotland and made a great Queen for a while. That was until she married her cousin Lord Henry Darnley, who was a great grandson of Henry VII.

Mary in haste

Theirs was a troubled marriage and he was eventually murdered. The grieving widow speedily took a third husband just three months after Darnley’s death.

Repent at leisure

But this coupling fared no better and her unpopular marriage to the Earl of Bothwell didn’t go down too well with her army, which promptly defected. It rose up against her and she was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant child.

Throneless, Mary then sought refuge into what she thought would be the sympathetic embrace of her cousin, Elizabeth I in England. However, she was flung in jail for 19 years instead, as she still posed a serious threat and a vain hope for all the Catholics out there.

A series of Catholic threats to overthrow Elizabeth took place concluding with the Babington Plot in 1586. The conspiracy was exposed and, naturally, the plotters were relieved of their bowels and heads in September 1586.

Mary followed five months later on this day in 1787. She was found guilty of treason and beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, aged 44.

Heads you lose

It’s believed that it took two strikes of the blade to behead the queen and after the first slice, she is meant to have mouthed the words ‘sweet Jesus’. A third and final fell of the axe severed the final piece of ‘gristle’, which cut loose her head from her body. Some say this kind of protracted execution was an unofficial extra punishment said to be reserved for particularly heinous offenders.

Sadly, her indignities didn’t end there. According to a first-hand report by Robert Wynkfield, after she’d been beheaded, ‘her lips stirred up and a down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off’. And after her decapitation, the executioner is said to have tried to hold up the lifeless head. Instead her auburn wig came away in his hand, exposing her body-less, bald head.

But the most poignant bit of all was that her bewildered, beloved dog – a Skye terrier, dog trivia fans – witnessed the entire act. Said Wynkfield: ‘then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her cloths, which could not be gotten forth by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed…’.

Vanessa Redgrave played “the ginger one” in the 1972 flick Mary, Queen of Scots and Barbara Flynn borrowed the corset for the role in the Helen Mirren starrer, Elizabeth I in 2005. Clémence Poésy is also particularly good in Gunpowder, Treason And Plot which dramatises the live of Mary and her son, James I.

Also on this day

8 February 1924 – Gee Jon
8 February 1555 – Laurence Saunders

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