Wednesday, February 8
Martyrdom had its own rituals and rhythm. She had asked for more time, another day or two in which to pray and prepare and make her peace. But the stone-faced nobles of Elizabeth had sneered the more, had reminded her they were present merely to announce her execution for the following morn. That morn was come.
Only a few hours since delivery of their news, a few hours for her to write last letters and final testament, to speak and dwell upon the words of the Old Religion. As she had lain upon her bed in the quiet hours, her ladies had gathered round and read to her stories from the times of Christ. He had died for her. Now she was to die for Him. There was no greater privilege or comfort. She would show how a true heir to the English crown could meet her end, with dignified calm, with the strength and certitude of a Roman Catholic. No bastard offspring of the whore Anne Boleyn, no heretic usurper, would wrest the glory from her. Approaching six o’clock, drawing near to the appointed hour. The concluding act in the life and death of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
Fotheringhaye Castle, a grim and forbidding place set bleak upon its motte. Her own personal Calvary. In the hearth, the weak fire did little to chase off the pre-dawn chill. It mattered little. She would not shiver or show fear. Her mind was on higher things and her fingers clasped around a gold crucifix on which the Lamb of God was fixed. What honour to shed her blood for the cause, to be a rallying beacon for the coming war. Those who had tormented her, those who had entrapped her, would one day lose their humour as they in turn were forced to mount the scaffold. She felt a visceral rush of excitement at such prospect. As God was her judge, it would happen.
She lifted her arms while her ladies-in-waiting busied themselves in respectful grief to fasten the jet acorn-buttons of her black satin gown. Much care had been taken in choosing her wardrobe for this moment. Set with pearls and trimmed in mourning-velvet, and with sleeves slashed in imperial purple, it would add presence and regality to the event. Your Majesty. She was indeed a queen, a queen wronged, a queen betrayed, a queen denied her rightful place upon the throne of England. Instead, her neck was to be rested on the block and her head struck from her body. By order of her own kinswoman and cousin Elizabeth. Yet vengeance was so close and these murderers so blind.
For a moment, she thought she could hear the hammering of carpenters at work in the great hall below. The sounds were simply the imaginings of her mind, the residual echo of a night through which the artisans had laboured to create the stage for her passing. Each dull thud of a mallet or rasp of a saw, every nail-booted step of the guards outside, had made the outcome more solid and her destiny assured. Their efforts were as nothing to the great enterprise underway in Lisbon, to the provisioning and preparation of ships and the mustering of troops. King Philip II of Spain was embarking upon holy crusade against England. And she knew, had read of it in the secret communiqués smuggled to her by friends and loyalists. A pity she would not live to see the ancient faith restored or to witness the conquering Spanish enter London. A pity too those secret messages had been intercepted, those friends and loyalists compromised, caught, and turned. Walsingham had brought her to this point.
That name, that dark eminence. Sir Francis Walsingham. The spymaster of Elizabeth had sent so many to the rack and scaffold, had placed so many agents, had revealed so many plots. She had been wrong to believe she could outwit him, foolish in thinking there was any sanctuary from his reach. Ever austere and always watchful, with the patience of a serpent, it was Walsingham who had uncovered her scheming and pursued her to the end. His henchmen would be secreted among the gathered audience, would soon report on her destruction. Perhaps he would raise a smile, a toast. She had other concerns. Besides, there was scant advantage in regret.
Her women fastened the girdle at her waist and attached a rosary, placed a pomander-chain and Agnus Dei about her neck. The finishing touches. She was forty-four years of age and in her nineteenth year of captivity in England.
She reached and lightly brushed the tear-patterned cheek of her favourite servant. ‘No weeping, my sweet Jane. I beg it of you’.
‘Forgive me, my lady’. The eyes and voice were hollowed in sadness. ‘It is too much to bear to see you mistreated’.
‘Mistreated? I am raised up, chosen by God to do His bidding’.
‘We lose you, my lady’.
‘Nothing is lost save the frailties of flesh and the burden of existing. Be happy for me. I have prayed for this moment, for relief from my suffering. Now it is upon me’.
‘May we not mourn for you, my lady?’.
Mary smiled in gentle admonition. ‘I forbid it. For I go resolved and willing as a penitent sinner to my fate’
‘You leave us behind, my lady’.
‘To rejoice and to well remember and to keep the name of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, alive’.
‘I could not forget, my lady’. The words of the lady-in-waiting constricted between sobs.
Drawing her women close, Mary comforted them, her words soothing, her arms embracing. For long years they had been her companions and confidantes. No secrets were left; nothing remained to be done.
In turn, she kissed them. ‘For your service, I thank you. For your friendship, I thank the Lord. Be strong. Our parting is but a temporary thing’.
Another servant wailed. ‘You are our mistress and our very reason, my lady’.
‘Even as dust I will continue to be so’. Mary stepped back. ‘Now fetch the men so that I may say my farewell’.
They processed in, her surgeon and apothecary, her steward, her porter, her groom, all stooping to press their lips to her proffered hand, each burdened with a private anguish. Then she took a few morsels of bread soaked in wine, the better to sustain her in the desolate drama ahead, and withdrew alone to her oratory. The Last Supper followed by Gethsemane. Her attendants waited.
Dawn brightened into day, the sharp February sunlight glancing between embroidered drapes and presaging a promised spring. New beginnings. Mary prayed on in silence and seclusion before a wooden cross. Doubtless her Protestant slayers would claim such clement weather reflected divine benediction on their efforts. They could suppose what they liked. Past eight o’clock.
‘Open in the name of Queen Elizabeth Attendance is called! Make haste!’.
Interruption was rude but expected, arrived with urgent shouts and a flurry of loud impacts on the oaken door to the bedchamber. The ceremonial escort was outside. Access was given, and a man officious and ill-tempered in his duties marched through. Maybe he thought the prisoner was flown, perchance he suspected the traitorous Catholics would pull one final trick. He would take no chances.
Kneeling and composed, Mary glanced up at him. ‘Why, if it is not the sheriff of Northampton’.
‘You are required, madam’.
‘Solely by God my Saviour’.
‘Your appointment is with the block. Let us away to it’.
‘Is there such hurry?’.
‘There is engagement to keep and a delegation at the door’.
‘Feign would I have them wait’. She raised herself to face him and scrutinized him further. The man was of a type she recognised, raw ambition wrapped in finery and a ruff. ‘Each to our business, my lord sheriff’.
‘We shall maintain it as such’.
‘I will not protest’.
She turned and kissed the foot of the wooden cross before following him, pausing only while her ladies fitted her veil. It was a dressing of finest lawn edged in bone lace, attached with silver wire to her caul, and falling in delicate train down her back. She was ready. Tenderly, with the frozen emotion of departure, her ladies completed their task and curtsied low. The door opened and Mary Stuart made her exit.
Familiar and unsmiling faces greeted her. The dour countenance of her jailer Sir Amyas Paulet, the kindlier visage of the Fotheringhaye castellan Sir William Fitzwilliam; there too the regretful expression of the Earl of Shrewsbury and the choleric-hued eyes of the Earl of Kent.
The latter noble was spokesman. ‘Events undo you, madam’.
‘I remain unbowed and the Spirit of the Lord is with me’.
‘Your composure does you credit. It will be needed, for you go to mount the scaffold unaided by your servants’.
‘That is not the custom’.
‘It is the order of my queen’.
‘Am I not her cousin? Am I not anointed queen of Scotland?’.
‘To us you are mere traitor’.
‘While to others I am but sacrifice and victim’. She peered in turn at the assembled. ‘Is it not desirable the manner of my death should be observed and reported by those who know me? Is it not right that some dignity and rank be accorded me even as I face the axe?’.
Quick looks were exchanged and agreement reached. Kent nodded. ‘Very well, madam. Your steward and three manservants may join the foregathered in silence and obedience, two ladies may help disrobe you. That is all’.
‘What of my priest?’.
Anger emerged as a scowl. ‘I am not so mutable and persuaded as any Duke of Norfolk, madam’.
Indeed, he was not. The old Duke had been a fool, had fallen prey to her coquettish and calculating ways, had served sentence in the Tower for his misjudgement. Kent was of a different humour.
He leant forward. ‘Servants you may have, popish comforts you may not. Put aside your crucifix and carry instead your blasphemous faith in your heart’.
‘Shame on you, sir’.
‘No shame exists in what I do. It is my instruction’.
‘Instruction will save none of you. England is for the fiery pit. Those Protestant lords who this day condemn me shall themselves be condemned. Those who believe themselves architects of my damnation will one day prove themselves draughtsmen of their own’.
‘Be silent or be bound’.
‘I will be bound by nothing but my religion’. She smiled benignly at the discomfort caused. ‘My noble lords and sirs, today it is my reckoning. Tomorrow it is yours’.
‘So let us dwell on the present’.
Mary kept her gaze steady and resisting. ‘I lift my eyes to heaven. Now you shall see how Mary Stuart gladly meets her long expected end’.
Journey to the site of execution could begin.
Black canvas draped the scaffold. Set near the centre of the great hall, it was a simple structure some twelve feet square and raised two feet from the ground. Upon it, surrounded by quantities of scattered straw, and itself standing two-foot proud, was the focus of attention and grim totem of the piece, the block. And lying close on a fold of dark cloth was the axe. A stark scene for a portentous drama, one lit by the leaking sunlight, by the rows of tallow lamps hanging in their brackets, and by the warmer glow cast by a roaring blaze in the fireplace. Still the coldness clung.
An audience of three hundred had assembled. Behind a row of drawn-up soldiers, lords and notables were seated. To their rear, standing or settled on trestle-benches, were others. Local worthies and churchmen, the invited burghers and the curious, all had been brought together by prospect of historic and defining act. Expectation and low murmur filled the room, a festiveness that mingled oddly with drab unease. The weight of the moment could ever dampen the pleasure. It had passed the hour of nine.
A stirring, a craning of necks and swivelling of eyes, and whispers eddied through the crowd. It had started. Members of the retinue took their places and principal actors approached the stage. Here, the Dean of Peterborough, severe in his ecclesiastical gown; there, the executioner and his assistant; anonymous in their leather hoods and tight-fitting jerkins.
‘The prisoner arrives’.
They rose in unison, not in respect for the condemned, but in deference to their queen who had signed the death warrant. Somewhere a drum beat a funereal tattoo. Then, preceded by the sheriff of Northampton, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, entered her arena. Shocked and collective silence fell upon the whole. She was not what they anticipated, not the alluring demon of their nightmares nor the devious papist siren who had served as talisman and rallying-point for rebellion against the Crown. Just a stooped figure, made stouter through imprisonment, and moving slowly for the raised platform. Yet there was something undimmed in her manner, a majesty and serenity that transfixed. Beneath the veil, a half-smile played, and the famed auburn hair marked her steady passage through the crowd. Truly a royal presence.
With the aid of her two ladies, she climbed the three steps to the scaffold and halted to listen as the words of the commission for her execution were read.
Standing below her, the Dean of Peterborough began his address. ‘It is not too late to renounce your sin, never too late to reject Catholic heresy and vile superstition and adopt the Protestant faith of this nation and our sovereign queen’.
‘I am settled in my religion, Mr. Dean. And I am here to shed my blood for it’.
‘Then you will surely suffer the torments of hell’.
‘On the contrary, I escape the torments of this world for the wonders of everlasting life’.
‘Unburden yourself and become a child of Christ’.
‘He shall receive me at this hour and at the moment of my death’.
‘Be reconciled to our cause, my daughter’.
‘Do not trouble yourself, for I rejoice in my own’.
The Protestant minister knelt at the base of the steps to pray in loud and sonerous tones. But Mary turned her back and prayed louder, her voice rising strong and her words in Latin echoing through the hall. Spectators shifted uneasily at the sound of the forbidden rites. They had not heard such utterance for many years. Undaunted on her podium, Mary stood her ground.
As the churchman finished, Mary knelt and clasped together her hands, changing to the English tongue for her plea of intercession.
‘O, Lord, in Your mercy, wash free our cares, banish the afflictions of the English Catholic faith, have pity upon my son and allow Elizabeth my cousin to serve You in years to come. May the saints intercede for me, may the good citizens of this kingdom return to the path of righteousness, and may God avert His wrath from our beloved England’. She kissed her rosary, crossed herself, and spread wide her arms. ‘As Christ suffered and died upon the Cross, so too must I stretch out my arms and be received into Your embrace. Forgive my sins, O God, and take me from this world of travail’.
She rose, the creak of her Spanish shoeleather loud against the muted backdrop. The pageant was inching towards finale. It was the turn of the axeman and his aide to beg forgiveness, a formal act lent trembling intensity on the stage. They lowered themselves before her.
‘Will you pardon us for what we must do, my lady?’.
‘Willingly and with all my heart, for now it is you I hope who will end my troubles’. She murmured closer in the ear of the executioner. ‘Should you perform with the skill and quickness of the carpenters on this scarrold, you shall have from me no complaint’.
There was convention to observe, the need to undress. Calmly, she seated herself on a padded stool and surveyed the throng as her ladies moved to her side. One removed her veil, the other the ornaments around her neck.
‘I confess I have never before put off my clothing in such company’. Hands loosened her girdle; fingers that had so recently fastened the buttons began to unpick them.
‘Majesty...’. Desolate anguish spilled from her servant.
‘Reserve your sorrow for those without faith, dear Jane’. She returned to her feet, permitted her ladies to cluster round.
‘May God go with you, my lady’.
‘And always be with you’. Whispered conversation broke off as the Queen of Scots cast a warning look at the encroaching executioner. ‘Touch me not, good man. You are no customary groom of mine’.
He ignored her and pulled free her gown. She had wanted dramatic effect, was counting on its impact. The audience gasped, its breath held in three hundred throats. In front of them, a slash of colour in the blackness, Mary was revealed in crimson satin bodice and velvet petticoat of brightest scarlet. The symbol of blood and of Catholic martyrdom. None could ignore its meaning or duck the visual shockwave.
Mary exchanged glances with her servant standing wretched with a silken scarf held in her hands. ‘Ne crie point pour moi. Ne crie point’. The blind was tied about her eyes.
Mumbling their prayers, her weeping ladies were ushered away. On the bleak scaffold, the Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury had assumed their places on low stools and the execution team was ready and flexing. Beheading was performance art. For a few second, Mary was alone in thought at the threshold. This was her life, her reason, her consummate act. Let all see and let the heart of Walsingham quake. Fulfilment and ecstasy bathed her bound and upward-tilted face. She found the cushion at her feet and sank to it before the block.
‘In te Domino confide, non confundat in aeturnum…’. In you Lord is my trust; let me never be confounded.
Carefully she reached out, her fingertips touching and tracing the contours of the wood. She was a pilgrim at the start of a journey, a supplicant at the altar. With her hands, she positioned her chin in the groove, lay herself out, and held wide her arms.
‘In manus tuam Domine, confide, spiritum meum’. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Four times she called out. The assistant to the executioner placed a steadying hand on her body, and the axe swung.
The blade bit deep, its contact thudding hollow and startling and ballooning into the shivering atmosphere. Yet it was no clean strike and steel had embedded in the back of the head. A messy undertaking. The mouth leeched an involuntary groan. Cursing to himself, the executioner prised metal from bone and arced the weapon again into the descent. Accurate and almost through. Bending to his labour, the axeman worked the edge and severed the remaining sinew. Butchery was done and the head fell away.
Sudden violence gave way to a dread and unsettled stillness. It was a pall beneath which people blinked stupefied or clenched tight their eyes, balled their fists, muttered oaths or prayers. Ten o’clock. On the dais, blood coursed and collected in rivulets.
‘God save the Queen!’. The executioner held aloft his detached and battered prize.
The Dean of Peterborough joined him in rousing cry . ‘So perish all the enemies of the Queen!’.
‘Amen to it!’. Parading near the slumped torso, the Earl of Kent gleefully entered the chorus. ‘Such be the end of the enemies of our Queen and Gospels! May they all share this bloody fate!’.
But few seemed to listen. They were concentrating on the ashen face of the deceased, on the lips that parted and closed and which seemed to curse them all. Surely, they had done wrong. With still less dignity, the head dropped from its wig and bounced hard on the boards, its aged features twisting, its hair cropped and grey, its mouth continuing in secret conversation. The axeman bent to retrieve it. Close by, the Earl of Shrewsbury wept.
There was more horror. In the aftermath, as spectators were herded dumb and troubled from the hall and the executioners worked to strip their carcass, a muffled whine sounded on the platform. From the deep folds of the petticoat in which it had been hiding a small Skye terrier, lapdog and treasured companion to the departed Mary, emerged cringing to the outside. It sniffed and whimpered, recognising the scent, disturbed at the strangeness, and crawled through the thickening slick to cower forlorn below the headless shoulders. The tiny canine would not be leaving its mistress.
Accompanied by a small retinue, the Earl of Shrewsbury rode hard and south along the Roman road for London. With luck, fair weather, and the aid of fresh horses stabled on their route, they would cover the distance in good time and bring their news to the Queen. Behind them at Fotheringhaye the scaffold would be dismantled, the blood sluiced, the vital organs removed and burned and the corpse sealed in a lead casket. All signs, any relics or tokens of remembrance, were to be expunged. As though Mary had never lived.
Beyond sight of the riding party, far ahead, was another horseman. He too was making the journey of some eighty miles; he too had witnessed the grisly spectacle in the great hall. But his destination was different. He carried his report to the orchestrator of that day, the spy chief and principal secretary of state Sir Francis Walsingham. Go to top of page Back