Execution or murder? Elizabeth I and the problem of how to kill Mary Queen of Scots

Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Lords 1558-1603 section, discusses the thorny issue that faced Elizabeth I in the wake of the discovery of Mary Queen of Scots’ role in the Babington Plot of 1586…

On 1 February 1587 Sir Francis Walsingham and his fellow Secretary of State, William Davison, wrote on behalf of Elizabeth I to the privy councillor Sir Amias Paulet, one of the gaolers of the deposed Scottish queen, Mary Stuart, who had fled to England more than twenty years earlier and had recently been judged guilty of plotting to overthrow and murder Elizabeth. In this letter – perhaps the most extraordinary ever to have been written at the behest of an English monarch – Paulet was informed that Elizabeth ‘doth note in you a lack of that care and zeal of her service that she looketh for at your hands’. The Queen was astonished that though Paulet had been Mary’s gaoler for more than two years, he had not yet, in all that time, ‘found out some way to shorten the life’ of Mary, whose continued existence posed a very great threat, not only to Elizabeth herself but also to ‘religion and the public good’. Mary, after all, had made no secret of the fact that she considered herself the rightful Queen of England, or that she desired to return Protestant England to the Catholic faith.

Sir Amias Paulet (attributed to N. Hilliard) [via Wikimedia]

For those of us brought up to regard England’s most famous Queen in an heroic light, it is sobering to learn that Elizabeth expressly advocated the murder of her Scottish cousin. However, the murder of royalty was hardly unknown in England, as Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI and the uncrowned Edward V had all been quietly dispatched. Even so, those responsible were normally careful to leave nothing in writing that might incriminate them. In this case, however, Elizabeth felt no such compunction. That is because, in her view, she was not asking Paulet to commit murder. As she observed, Paulet already had ‘good … warrant and ground’ for quietly dispatching Mary, because he had taken the Oath of Association of 1584. Formulated in the aftermath of the assassination of the Dutch Protestant leader William the Silent, and given statutory authority by the Parliament of 1584-5, the Oath required all those who took it to eliminate anyone who tried to kill Elizabeth. As Mary had recently been tried and found guilty of conspiring with Anthony Babington and other English Catholics to overthrow and murder Elizabeth, Paulet was duty-bound to end the life of his prisoner without further ado.

Unsurprisingly, Paulet did not share Elizabeth’s view of his obligations in respect of the Oath. On receiving the Queen’s rebuke, he penned a response that has become justly famous: ‘God forbid that I should make such a shipwreck of conscience, or leave so great a blot to my poor posterity, [as] to shed blood without law or warrant’. Elizabeth, though, was furious at Paulet’s refusal to take matters into his own hands. She stormed at ‘the niceness of those precise fellows who in words would do great things but in deed perform nothing’. As she saw it, Paulet’s dereliction of duty meant that the responsibility for killing Mary now fell to her.

Mary Queen of Scots (F. Clouet) [via Wikimedia]

Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute Mary was partly informed by a horror of taking direct responsibility for killing a fellow queen and a close relative – Mary was her first cousin once removed. It also owed something to a desire not to play into Mary’s hands by turning her into a Catholic martyr. However, the main reason Elizabeth wished to do away with Mary secretly was that she feared how the news of her involvement in Mary’s death would be received in Paris and Edinburgh. Now that England was at war with Spain, Elizabeth was anxious to avoid antagonizing either France (where Mary was a former queen consort) or Scotland (where Mary was a former queen regnant) by executing a fellow monarch. Were Mary to be killed as a result of private enterprise rather than state action, Elizabeth could hope to assuage the wrath of these foreign powers by blaming her death upon the zeal of one of her subjects. A state execution, on the other hand, seemed to offer Elizabeth little prospect of pleading innocence. It would also provide her enemies with the perfect justification for carrying out further attempts on her own life.

Elizabeth’s desire for Mary to be killed secretly was not shared by her chief minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. This was ironic, to say the least, as Burghley was one of the architects of the Bond of Association, which had authorized the killing of anyone who threatened the life of Elizabeth. Like other members of the Council, Burghley considered it important that Mary should die at the hands of the public executioner. When in November 1586 Parliament prepared a petition urging the Queen to execute Mary, Burghley struck out a long reference to the Bond of Association lest it should encourage Elizabeth to cling to the hope that one of her enterprising subjects would make it unnecessary for her to sign Mary’s death warrant. However, in the short term, Burghley was beating his head against a brick wall, as before the beginning of February 1587, Elizabeth declined to append her signature to the warrant. Even after she did sign it, she decided not to issue the warrant until she had first put pressure on Sir Amias Paulet to take Mary’s life.

Execution of Mary Queen of Scots: drawing by R. Beale [via Wikimedia]

What happened next is well known: Burghley and his fellow councillors issued the warrant without the Queen’s knowledge and Mary was executed on 8 February. Elizabeth was livid, because Mary’s death would now, inevitably, be laid at her door. Burghley was temporarily banished from the royal presence, and William Davison was deprived of office, tried, imprisoned and fined. However, for Elizabeth the matter had actually worked out rather well. By acting independently, Burghley and his colleagues had given the Queen what she wanted. Not only had they succeeded in ridding her of the threat posed by Mary, they had also ensured that she could deny direct responsibility for Mary’s death.


Further reading:

Antonia Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots (1969)

J. Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots: a Study in Failure (1988)

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