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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

On This Day: Mary, Queen of Scots beheaded

Updated: Feb 16

February 8th, 1587: After 19 years of imprisonment, Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle.

Why? Fotheringhay Castle was the last of the many genteel prisons in which Mary, Queen of Scots spent the final 20 years of her life after she was forced to abdicate from the Scotland’s throne in 1567. Genteel it may have been – it had been a royal residence – but it was also remote, surrounded by marshland and difficult to escape or be rescued from. Those were important considerations: Mary was about to be tried for treason, after the discovery of the so-called Babington Plot had finally and firmly implicated her in a conspiracy to depose and murder Elizabeth I.

The outcome of Mary’s 1586 trial was a foregone conclusion, but it took Elizabeth several months to agree to sign the death warrant. Mary was not only an anointed queen, but Elizabeth’s own cousin: England’s queen couldn’t chop off Mary’s head without first giving it some thought.

The inevitable happened, however, in February 1587. Several macabre legends surround Mary’s beheading, including that when the executioner held the severed head up by its hair to show onlookers that the job was done, it became apparent that the queen had worn a wig – the hair came away in the man’s hand and the head rolled away across the floor.

The Babington Plot? The goals of the Babington Plot in 1586 were to assassinate Elizabeth I and place the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. To ensure success, Spain promised an invasion force. The plot was named for Anthony Babington who wrote to Mary - the figurehead of several Catholic plots during Elizabeth’s reign - with details of her rescue from captivity and execution of her cousin.

In 1586 an English Catholic named Anthony Babington (right) was recruited by Jesuit priest John Ballard to communicate with Mary, Queen of Scots about the details of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and rescue Mary from captivity in Chartley Hall, Staffordshire. Mary had been imprisoned on Elizabeth’s orders for 18 years since the former’s forced abdication from the Scottish throne. Conditions of Mary’s captivity demanded she have no contact with the outside world. Babington, therefore, had to arrange for messages to be smuggled between him and Mary.

Coded messages [1], passed to and from Mary’s residence in Chartley concealed in the stopper of a beer barrel, were intercepted and decoded by agents of Elizabeth’s chief spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham (right). Babington and 13 others were caught, tried and sentenced to death for treason by being ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’ in September 1586. More than uncovering the plot, the letters provided hard evidence that Mary had been complicit. After Elizabeth finally, and reluctantly, signed her death warrant, Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8th, 1587.

Walsingham was able to keep tabs on closet Catholics and would-be assassins, intercept and decode correspondence, and foil numerous plots against the Queen. So effective was Walsingham’s operation that he had a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, inside Babington’s circle from the beginning, as well as a codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes, at Chartley to decipher the secret messages.



1. Code: a system of words, letters, figures, or symbols used to represent others, especially for the purposes of secrecy.


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