Posted in Events in History

The Arrest of Mary, Queen of Scots

“In my end is my beginning.”

The celebrated poet, T.S. Eliot may have penned these famous words in his poem, “East Coker”, however, he was not the first person to use them.  Mary, Queen of Scots took this phrase as a motto sometime during her long captivity in England. Embroidering the words on her canopy of state, they served as a sort of prophetic epitaph of her life, that ended so tragically at the hands of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I.

Some scholars speculate that she may have been referring to her late grandfather-in-law, Francis I’s symbol of the salamander with these words. In medieval times the salamander had an allegorical element that symbolized a righteous person’s ability to withstand fire, just as the three Hebrew children in the Biblical story, emerged unharmed from the fiery furnace.

Medieval manuscript depicting a salamander enduring the flames.
National Library of France, Department of Manuscripts, French 2286, fol. 10r.

Mary was an unrepentant Catholic. She never swayed from her religious beliefs, even though it caused heartache for her for most of her life. It is no secret that she considered herself a martyr for her Catholic faith (even going so far as to wearing a red petticoat, the martyr’s color, at her execution). She is known to have told her cousin, the Duke of Guise:

“For myself, I am resolute to die for my religion. . . With God’s

help, I shall die in the Catholic faith and to maintain it

constantly. . .without doing dishonor to the race of

 Lorraine, who are accustomed to die the sustenance of the faith.”

In her Essay on Adversity, written in 1580, Mary wrote of the lives of rulers:

“Tribulation has been to them as a furnace to fine gold—a means

of proving their virtue, of opening their so-long blinded eyes, and

of teaching them to know themselves and their own failings.”

Perhaps Mary saw herself emerging victorious on the other side of this mortal life with that everlasting life promised to believers that can only come after death.

Mary’s words can also be a bit predictive. They are a sort of foretelling of the immortal, romanticized life that she has taken on since her death. She is, beyond a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in Scottish history. Whether you believe she was complicit in her second husband’s death, and guilty of plotting a treasonous over-taking of the English throne, one cannot deny that she has had more than her fair share of 15 minutes of fame, and she remains one of those characters in history that we non-participants either love to love, or love to hate.

A little back history

After her disastrous second marriage to Lord Henry Darnley ended in his death by strangulation, Mary was kidnapped, raped and accepted a marriage proposal by another man accused in the death of her husband (we’ll save that story for another day.)  When Mary followed through with the marriage barely two months after Darnley’s death, suspicions were heightened concerning Mary’s involvement with Darnley’s murder.

Panel paintings of Mary, Lord Darnley, and James Bothwell on wall of the Mary Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh, Scotland~photo: Tonya U. Brown~2017

Soon Scottish lords were seeking to implicate Mary in Darnley’s murder as well, and she was forced to abdicate her throne to her one-year old son, James. When attempts to raise an army to take back her throne failed, she ended up imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle where she eventually miscarried Bothwell’s twins. She finally escaped ten months later with the help of one of her sympathizes.  

Surrender of Mary Queen of Scots at Carberry Hill, 1567. Illustration for the Historical Scrap Book (Cassel, c 1880).

Mary attempted a second time to raise an army, trying in vain to defeat her leading opponent, her half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray. When she was not successful, she fled to England, hoping to obtain help from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

Any indications of sympathy that Mary may have received from Elizabeth were short lived. She was quickly taken into custody and remained so, moving from residence to residence under house arrest for the next 19 years. Although records indicate that she led a somewhat pampered life while in England (after all—she was a queen), the fact remained that Mary was still a captive of Elizabeth’s. With her health declining, she made it no secret that she would use any means necessary to escape her situation. This was not a confession to treason, but merely an admission that she had tried on more than one occasion to escape.

 A victim of one scheming nobleman after another, she continued to be a political pawn, having no control of her own life. When her private letters were produced for Elizabeth to read, the contents were condemning. Through plots originating at the hands of her supporters in an attempt to rescue her, and plots formed at the hands of her enemies in an effort to entrap her, Mary endured some of the most farcical examples of court intrigue that have ever existed and rivals anything even Hollywood could come up with.

The day finally came

On August 11, 1586, Mary was arrested for her part in another murder plot to kill Elizabeth that would eventually come to be called the Babington Plot.  Mary’s long-time English foe, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil, and another of Elizabeth’s secretaries, Sir Francis Walsingham, had finally succeeded in scrounging up something to pin on the Scottish queen.

Forged postscript to a letter by Mary Queen of Scots to Anthony Babington and alongside Babington’s record of the cipher used~The National Archives~United Kingdom

By this time, Mary was suffering from arthritis, making movement in her arms and legs very painful. She could not walk without assistance and was confined to a bed most of the time. She testified in court that due to her illness, she had no desire to take the reins of government again. She also complained that her letters and papers had all been taken from her, and that she had not been given any counsel as to how to proceed in her trial. The most adamant of her complaints, however, was the fact that since  she was not an English subject, they had no right whatsoever, to try her under English law.

Her pleas and complaints went unheard, and after Elizabeth’s attempts to end her Scottish problem with other means had failed, she finally signed the death warrant to execute Mary on February 1 the following year. She was executed seven days later. Mary was 44 years of age when she laid down her life in typical martyr fashion, her red petticoat announcing to the world the glorious death to which she had been called.  

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots~Robert Herdman~Glasgow Museums
Notice the red petticoat peeping out at the bottom of her gown?

The following pictures were taken at the Mary Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh, Scotland when I was there in 2017. They depict examples of the high demand for relics pertaining to Mary and her fascinating story. There are many more relics at Jedburgh, but here I have posted only the ones that pertain to this post.

One final note of interest…

If you are interested in seeing some of the places that Mary stayed after her initial arrest in Scotland in 1567, or if you want to start at the beginning of her life in 1542, this is an excellent book. The author is Andrew Burnet.

Mary Was Here by Andrew Burnet
Mary Queen of Scots~Unknown Artist~Hermitage Museum~St. Petersburg, Russia

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