8th February 1587

Mary, Queen of Scots, is executed

Mary ascended to the Scottish throne upon the death of her father, James V. She had been just six days old at the time and, being too young to rule, a series of regents acted on her behalf.

She grew up in France, married the Dauphin of France when she was 16, and was widowed one year after he came to the throne. She returned to Scotland in 1561, then aged 18 and, in 1565, married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Mary and Darnley had a child, James, but Darnley was killed seven months after the birth and, within three months of his death, Mary had married James Hepburn, who had been accused – and acquitted – of the killing.

Catholic upset

This caused great upset in several quarters, and particularly among Catholics, for whom Hepburn’s divorce just 12 days before his marriage to Mary did nothing to annul the commitments he’d made to his wife and to God. It looked like war was about to break out, but when Mary’s troops largely abandoned her, she was taken into custody and Hepburn was sent away.

History was about to repeat itself, for just as Mary had come to the throne when too young to rule, the same happened to her son. Mary was forced to abdicate, and her son was crowned James VI of Scotland on 29 July 1567, at the age of 13 months. In 1603, he was also crowned King James I of England and Ireland.

Mary imprisoned and tried

Mary was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle but escaped and fled to England and called on Elizabeth for support. Mary was taken into custody and an inquiry was opened into Darnley’s killing, but Mary refused to recognise the court. This put Elizabeth in a difficult situation, which was rendered impossible when, several years later, Mary was found to have been sending coded messages to her supporters.

These came to light when Mary was arrested following the discovery of the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth. This would have removed the Protestant queen from the throne, on the assumption that the Catholic Mary would be able to take her place. Mary’s mistake, in the immediate aftermath of her arrest, was to use an insecure system of codes to encrypt her messages, which were easily unscrambled and used in evidence against her. She was tried, convicted of treason and, on 25 October 1586, sentenced to death.

Queen Mary’s execution

It took until the beginning of February the following year – 1587 – for Elizabeth to sign the death warrant and the execution went ahead on 8 February, with Mary losing her head at Fotheringhay Castle. She had dressed herself in a black satin bodice with red sleeves and been given a gold-trimmed blindfold to wear. Her last words, before the axeman brought down his implement were, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”.

It took the executioner three strikes to separate her head from her body and, when he lifted it by the hair, it dropped to the floor. He found himself holding nothing but an auburn wig.



Other events that occured in February

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