1568-present day: Execution of an enduring icon

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  • A silver casket engraved ‘Sacred to the memory of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots’ contains a lock of hair said to be Mary’s
    A Scottish silver casket from the early 19th century © National Museums Scotland
  • Cast of the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots. The original is in Westminster Abbey, London. © Scottish National Portrait Gallery
    Cast of Mary, Queen of Scots' tomb © Scottish National Portrait Gallery
  • A portrait of King James VI of Scotland and I of England © Scottish National Portrait Gallery
    King James VI of Scotland and I of England © Scottish National Portrait Gallery
  • A memorial portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots from 1603.
    A memorial portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots © Royal Collection Trust

Read about Mary’s final years and the aftermath of her execution which saw Mary held for 18 years and implicated in various plots, culminating in the ‘Babington Plot’ which resulted in her being tried for treason. On 8th February 1587, aged just forty four, Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle. In death as in life, Mary has remained a controversial figure.

Plots and treason: 1568 - 1587

Aged 25 - 44

The English lords were unable to determine either Mary’s guilt or her innocence. She was held for 18 years in a series of castles and stately homes in the Midlands and north of England. She lived, however, in some luxury, and never had fewer than 16 staff. Gradually she was implicated in various intrigues and purported plots, culminating in the ‘Babington Plot’ in 1585. With the support of an invasion from Spain, Elizabeth would be deposed and Mary put upon the throne of England. Referring to Elizabeth, Babington’s letter to Mary stated, ‘...the dispatch of the usurper... my private friends... will undertake that tragical execution.’ Against the advice of her secretary, Mary replied, approving his plans. All her correspondence was being intercepted, and she was tried for treason.

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Palace of Holyroodhouse Mary was a skilled needlewoman and created many embroideries. It is said she concealed secret messages in her work. More humorously, the elaborate Cat Embroidery is thought to allude to herself as the mouse and Elizabeth I as the cat.

Execution 8: February 1587

Aged 44

Though Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant, she subsequently denied she had sanctioned the execution. But her privy councilors moved without her knowledge, and a week later Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle. She was told only the evening before, and had little time to prepare herself. She wore undergarments of scarlet – the sign of Catholic martyrdom. It took two blows of the axe to behead her. Afterwards, her small dog was found cowering among her clothes. Her last words were ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’, although more famously she is known for the phrase she embroidered on her cloth of state while imprisoned, ‘In my end is my beginning’.

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A memorial portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots from 1603 Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013National Museum of Scotland Look upon a cast of Mary’s tomb from Westminster Abbey.  Her final resting place is in Henry VII’s chapel... along with her cousin Elizabeth I.

Lennoxlove House At this 14th century mansion house you can see Mary’s death mask. 

Palace of Holyroodhouse Don't miss the memorial portrait from 1603.

Aftermath: 24 March 1603

1603 is a date etched into the memory of every Scot, for on 24 March of that year, Queen Elizabeth I of England died and James VI of Scotland also became James I of England. Elizabeth had seen off Mary, but there was nothing the ‘Virgin Queen’ could do to prevent her cousin’s son from inheriting her throne. The much sought after Union of the Crowns had finally been realised, not by naked English Tudor ambition, but by archetypal Scottish Stewart endurance.

An enduring icon: 1542 - present day

In death as in life, Mary Queen of Scots has remained a controversial figure, dividing historians and the general public alike. Was she a scheming adulteress with blood on her hands, or a courageous heroine driven by the love of her country and her God? The answers to these questions remain cloaked in the past, but of something there is no doubt: Mary, the infant, the girl, the woman – immortalised in art, literature, film and music – was a giant of her time, whose like will surely never be seen again.