Why did Elizabeth I have Mary Queen of Scots executed?

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Catherine de Medici 1519-1589

Following the murder of Henry Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, Mary failed to arrange a proper investigation into a crime generally thought to have been planned by the Earl of Bothwell. Furthermore, she agreed to marry him. This implied that she was involved with Bothwell in a crime of passion, but there is no plausible evidence to support this hypothesis. Nevertheless, the rumours were such that the Scottish nobility, acting together, took up arms against Mary and Bothwell, resulting in her imprisonment at Lochleven, while Bothwell was allowed to escape to Norway (then part of Denmark). When Mary escaped from Lochleven and fled to England, Elizabeth I was pressurised by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and the staunchly Protestant English government to sanction Mary’s execution.

There was considerable doubt whether the English had authority to try Mary as a foreign head of state, but Elizabeth arranged ‘conferences’, initially at York, but later at Westminster,  at which the murder of Lord Darnley was to be investigated. Mary was not permitted to attend or to examine the evidence submitted by the Scottish Government, but  it became clear to the investigators that it was fraudulent. Admittedly, Elizabeth was shocked that Mary had not arranged a proper trial for Bothwell and had then married him, but she refused to find her culpable of the murder. Nevertheless she was persuaded by Cecil that Britain’s security was best served by retaining her, as the Catholic pretender to the English throne, under house arrest in England,while the Scottish nobles, who had brought the spurious charges against her, were allowed to go free.

Philip II of Spain 1527-1598

This did not solve Cecil’s problem. After the debacle of the reign of Mary Tudor, he was determined to avoid another Catholic Queen, and Mary Queen of Scots had steadfastly refused to convert to Protestantism. He needed another tack. He made repeated attempts to implicate her in a Catholic plot to replace Elizabeth, so that she could be brought to trial for treason. Yet there was no great appetite for a plot to replace Elizabeth in either France or Spain, from where the necessary military force for it to succeed would need to come. Catherine de Medici in France had no enthusiasm for promoting the ultra-Catholic interests of Mary’s Guise relations, who were fomenting civil war against the Huguenots. Philip II of Spain was completely absorbed in his war with the Dutch rebels and did not need the English to offer the Dutch any further support or to interfere with Spanish shipping in the channel.

Although Cecil implied that the Catholic threat in England was very real, English Catholics generally preferred Elizabeth as a Protestant English Queen to Mary as a Catholic foreign one. Furthermore, Elizabeth wanted to maintain the Tudor succession, and was reluctant to charge Mary, unless unequivocal evidence could be provided of her part in a treasonable conspiracy. Cecil resorted to using  double agents to infiltrate plots among a few Catholic extremists giving the impression that the Crown was at great risk. He made several attempts, of which the most significant was the so-called ‘Ridolfi Plot’, in which a Papal banker, Roberto Ridolfi, who provided a messaging service between Philip II and dissident English Catholics, was persuaded by Cecil to divulge to the English Government all correspondence passing through his hands. Although Mary’s letters were intercepted, they revealed nothing to implicate her. Cecil also infiltrated the offices of Archbishop Beaton, Mary’s ambassador in Paris, from where most of the plotting was being initiated by Cecil’s double agents. Eventually Anthony Babington, a gullible Catholic squire from Staffordshire, was persuaded to lead one such plot, put together by Cecil’s agents. The agents also provided a communication system so that Babington could seek Mary’s support for the plan. Although their correspondence was conducted in code, Cecil’s agents were able to intercept and decipher everything.

James VI of Scotland 1566 – 1625

With Mary being desperate to find a way to gain her freedom from house arrest, she agreed to support Babington’s unrealistic plan. At last, Cecil had the evidence that he needed. Elizabeth was particularly shocked, as Mary was at the same time confirming her undying loyalty, despite being held under house arrest without trial. Although Mary was justifiably found guilty, Elizabeth wanted to avoid signing the warrant sentencing her to death.  In part, this was because she wanted to test the reaction of Continental heads of state and of James VI in Scotland, and in part because Mary was her Tudor kinsman, who was arguably above the law, and it set a precedent for future action against herself. She seemed to hope that someone would save her having to sign by arranging Mary’s death without her authority. Eventually Government pressure was such that she approved the warrant, pretending that she had not read it. Burghley quickly arranged the execution before she could change her mind. She then dismissed him for acting without her authority, but this was for public consumption and Cecil was soon back in office.

In the following year, the Spanish launched their armada to achieve a Counter-Reformation in England. Elizabeth and Cecil got away with it, but only just.

Robert Stedall has written a number of histories covering the period of Mary Queen of Scots. His most recent book, Mary Queen of Scots’ Downfall – The Life and Murder of Henry Lord Darnley, was published by Pen and Sword in November 2017