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On this day in 1586 – The trial of Mary Queen of Scots began

The trial of Mary Queen of Scots began at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire on 14th October 1586. Despite being kept essentially under house arrest for the duration of her time in England she was finally officially arrested on 11th August 1586 after being implicated in the Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne of England in her place. Mary had letters smuggled out of Chartley thinking that they were safe however; they were delivered straight to Sir Francis Walsingham who deciphered and copied them before allowing them to continue to the intended recipients. It was clear in these letters that Mary endorsed the killing of her cousin. Following her arrest she was transferred to Fotheringhay Castle and placed on trial charged with treason under the Act for the Queen’s Safety.

Mary stood trial in front of 36 noblemen that included Cecil, Shrewsbury and Walsingham himself. Mary denied the charges that were put before her and initially refused to even attend the trial but was told by Cecil that it would go ahead with or without her presence. Mary eventually appeared in front of the jury at 9am dressed in a black velvet gown and a white cambric cap and veil. She began to argue that the court was not legitimate and that she had not been allowed to seek legal representation or arrange for any witnesses to appear on her behalf.

Trial of Mary QoSThe counsel seated for the trial

The trial began with the intricate details of the Babington Plot being retold to the jurors and accused Mary of giving her blessing to the plot. A brief exchange occurred between Mary and the jurors;

Mary: I knew not Babington. I never received any letters from him, nor wrote any to him. I never plotted the destruction of the Queen. If you want to prove it, then produce my letters signed with my own hand.
Counsel: But we have evidence of letters between you and Babington.
Mary: If so, why do you not produce them? I have the right to demand to see the originals and copies side by side. It is quite possible that my ciphers have been tampered with by my enemies. I cannot reply to this accusation without full knowledge. Until then, I must content myself with affirming solemnly that I am not guilty of the crimes imputed to me…”

Unknown to Mary, Sir Francis Walsingham had amassed a large collection of evidence against the former Scottish queen that included:-

  • Sir Anthony Babington’s confession
  • A deciphered transcript in English of Mary’s response to Babington
  • A reciphered copy of the original letter sent by Mary to Babington that is an exact replica
  • Confessions from Mary’s personal secretaries.

The court produced this evidence to Mary who broke down in tears but continued to deny any involvement claiming that the evidence presented was fraudulent and that Walsingham was attempting to frame her.

Following a break in the proceedings for lunch the counsel read out the secretaries confessions and although surprised at what was being read out Mary was claiming that the letters must have been intercepted and changed. The proceedings then broke for the day with them to resume the next morning.

trial-of-mary-queen-of-scots-in-fotheringay-castleMary Queen of Scots on trial at Fotheringhay Castle

The next morning saw the counsel go straight into reiterating the accusation that Mary had consented to the plot, the trial would go back and forth between the accusers and Mary with the trial eventually closing with Mary demanding that the case should be heard in front of Parliament and the Queen. Elizabeth delayed the verdict for as long as she could, wrestling with her conscience over whether she could condemn an anointed monarch but eventually on 4th December Elizabeth declared that Mary was indeed guilty but she was unwilling to sign the warrant for her death until 1st February 1587 when Elizabeth asked for William Davison, her secretary, to bring the warrant to her and she signed it but also requested that instead of a public execution she wished that Walsingham wrote to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary’s jailer, to ask him to perform the task in secret therefore meaning Elizabeth could deny any involvement in it.

However, Paulet was appalled at what was being asked of him and said ‘God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience or leave so great a blot on my poor posterity’. At the same time Cecil had arranged a secret meeting of the Privy Council where it was agreed that the warrant would be sent to Fotheringhay Castle and appointed the Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury to oversee the execution, they would keep this from Elizabeth until the task was done.

On 8th February 1587 Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle.

execution warantMary Queen of Scots execution warant signed by Queen Elizabeth

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