Say what you like about Elizabeth I, Queen of England, but she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty as a ruler. Even less afraid was her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, whose careful interception of the letters of Mary, Queen of Scots, made it clear that Mary – who had a good claim to the English throne in her own right – was plotting to have her cousin murdered and to take her place as Queen.
Under the circumstances, Mary’s arrest, conviction and sentencing to execution were more or less guaranteed, although Elizabeth hesitated to order the death sentence carried out, as she worried that it might set a precedent for Queen-killing, something she had a vested interest in preventing. Her Privy Council took the matter out of her hands, and Mary was scheduled to beheaded on February 8, 1587. In the event, it took two strokes of the headman’s axe to kill her. Her body, clothing and personal effects were burnt to frustrate relic hunters.
Mary, Queen of Scots (or Marie Stuart, as she is known in France), was the daughter and heir of James V of Scotland. She was also a claimant to the throne of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The two women were frequently at odds, both politically and in religious matters – Mary was a Catholic, ELizabeth a Protestant, and the situation between the two faiths in the British Isles at that time was as divisise and violent as it remains in Northern Island.
In 1567, the Scottish nobility turned on Mary, and she was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James (who was only a year old at the time, but became James VI just the same). She was imprisoned in Scotland, but in early May she escaped and raised a small army. Meeting with defeat in this revolt, she fled to England, seeking the aid of her cousin. Unfortunately, Mary had misjudged her cousin’s mood, and Elizabeth quickly had her thrown into prison, and eventually executed.
Later, Elizabeth herself died without issue, and James IV of Scotland became James I of England, unifying the two kingdoms.