At 8 am this morning in 1587 at Fotheringay Castle a 44 year old woman was led out of her room to the Hall. She was dressed in black with a veil over her hair. Her Catholic beads were fixed to her belt and she held a crucifix in her hand. She had been in prison for 20 years. As the historian J Neale ungallantly describes â€œthe charm of youth was gone; she was corpulent, round shouldered, fat in the face, and double chinnedâ€.
She wept at leaving her servants. The scaffold was decked in black. The Dean of Peterborough sought her repentance at this last moment, inviting her to renounce her Catholic views. She told him she was resolved to die a Catholic, and said her own prayers in a loud voice to offset his.
The two executioners helped her take her robe off. She quipped that she â€œwas not want to have my clothes plucked off by such groomsâ€. The axe fell as she recited â€œIn manus tuas, Domineâ€.
As the Executioner lifted up her head, a wig slipped from it, revealing close cropped grey hair that had been concealed by the red haired wig. â€œThis be the end of all the enemies of Gospel and her Majestyâ€ cried the Earl of Kent, whose loyalty to Elizabeth I was much stronger than his abilities to forecast the future. One of the dead womanâ€™s little dogs who had crept under her clothes reappeared and lay between her severed head and shoulders, in her blood.
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This brutal act led to rejoicing in London at the death of Mary Queen of Scots. Public opinion saw her as a continuing threat to Queen Elizabeth and the Protestant religion. They hoped her death would mark a new chapter, and an end to plots against Elizabethâ€™s life.
Instead, as we know, the following year was to see the Spanish finally put to sea to invade England in an effort to force it back to Catholicism at the point of Spanish steel. The death of Mary Queen of Scots did not mark the end of threats to the realm.
Indeed, England was in grave danger. Then, the threat was violent, backed up by the might of the worldâ€™s superpower, Spain. It was intolerant, seeking to prevent England following its chosen religious and political course. It personalised the clash to the Queen herself, just as the death of Mary had personalised the conflict the other way.
Today, England is also in danger from the continent. Fortunately it is not a danger backed up by continental armies, and is not one which wants to force people to change their views at the point of a sword. It is one based on a continental view that we need to change our laws and ways of doing things, this time at the point of a pen scribbling continental treaties and law codes to tie us up in ever more needless bureaucracy. The tragedy is that this time Parliament, far from being a hawk for our liberties, by large majorities urges the process on.
The death of Mary Queen of Scots is a sad reminder of the lengths a former English government felt it had to go to to protect the realm from foreign intervention. Her death was willed by Parliament and the Queenâ€™s council. Elizabeth herself hesitated and delayed for weeks before allowing the death warrant to be issued after the court had passed sentence. She knew there could be no winners from a Princeâ€™s death, and understood it was a dangerous precedent. The brutal deed has been understandably contentious ever since. For the Queen, it was important that it had been willed by people and Parliament, the common practise in an age when people paid with their lives for political opposition. Maybe the woman in Elizabeth took a small dark satisfaction from knowing her rivalâ€™s striking auburn hair was not real after all. Someone at the time went to great lengths to ensure this unimportant detail was well recorded.