Why did Elizabeth I hesitate when signing the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots?

Anthony Babington (24 October 1561 – 20 September 1586) was an English nobleman convicted of plotting the assassination of Elizabeth I of England and conspiring with the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots.

Following Mary Queen of Scots‘ imprisonment in England, William Cecil, the English Secretary of State, looked for a means of preventing her from succeeding Elizabeth on the English throne as was he dynastic right. After the debacle of the reign of Mary Tudor, he was determined to avoid a Catholic succession. His plan was to entice Mary into supporting a plot for Elizabeth’s assassination, and when she backed a plot led by Anthony Babington she was tried at Fotheringhay Castle, for her treasonable involvement. The plot’s objective was to install Mary on the English throne in place of Elizabeth. Elizabeth was certainly unaware that the plot led by the gullible Babington had been put together by Cecil’s agents as a means of entrapping Mary, and it had no realistic hope of Continental Catholic support.

Elizabeth had two reasons for hesitating before signing the death warrant. Firstly, she was extremely nervous of the effect it would have on public opinion in those parts of England that remained Catholic, and in both Scotland and on the Continent. It was by then becoming clear that English Catholics preferred a Protestant English Queen to a Catholic foreign one and there was no groundswell of support for Mary. As it turned out James in Scotland had already enjoyed a taste of power, and he did not want Mary returned to Scotland, where he would have the problem of deciding what to do with his mother. Although he could not say so, her death rather suited him. Similarly Catherine de Medici in France was trying to curb the belligerence of the ultra-Catholic Guise family (of which Mary was a member through her mother) in her attempt to end the wars of religion in France. She had no reason to want Mary, as a Guise niece, kept alive as the focus for their ambitions in England. Spain certainly did not want to jeopardise its relationship with England by supporting Mary. With England forming one side of the Channel linking the two halves of the Habsburg dominions in Spain and the Low Countries, Philip II needed English neutrality in his continuing continental conflict with France.

Elizabeth I of England

The second problem for Elizabeth was that executing a ruling monarch, who was arguably above the law in England, set a bad precedent for her own future as England’s doubtfully legitimate English monarch. She knew that, at the conferences at York and Westminster, the evidence provided by the Scottish Government of Mary’s purported involvement in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, had been concocted. Mary was now being held under house arrest in England, despite not being convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was shocked that Mary, while supporting the Babington plot, was confirming her undying loyalty to Elizabeth, in her attempt to gain support for the Association, a plan for her to become joint ruler of Scotland with her son, James. Whatever, Elizabeth’s misgivings, she knew that Mary was being two-faced. She also accepted Cecil’s advice that Mary’s death would improve England’s security. She did not realise that Cecil was exaggerating the security risk, by continuing to report plots put together by his double agents.

Despite hoping that some loyal subject would murder Mary to save her having to sign the warrant for Mary’s execution, no one relieved Elizabeth of her obligation. In the end she signed it among a pile of papers, claiming quite deceitfully, that she had done it by mistake. Cecil was taking no chances. He arranged Mary’s execution before she could change her mind. Elizabeth then accused Cecil of acting without her express authority. She banned him temporarily from her presence, but this was for public consumption, and he was soon back in favour.