Feb. 8, 2022

The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

February 8, 1587. Mary Queen of Scots, the rival of Queen Elizabeth I of England, is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle.

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Cold Open

It’s the middle of the night in Edinburgh, Scotland, on February 10th, 1567.

A servant is asleep in his narrow bed. But he's startled awake when the silent darkness is shattered by an explosion.

From the street outside, dogs bark wildly and his neighbor shouts in alarm. He slips from his bed and quickly pulls on his clothes. His heart thumping, the servant hurries down the backstairs of the house and goes out into the night to find out what’s happened. Stepping outside, he can smell dust and sulfur in the air.

He sees an older man with a lantern, rushing through the darkness in the direction of the blast. The servant follows him through the maze of streets until they arrive at what was a building called the Kirk o’Field House. But now there’s nothing left of it but a burning pile of rubble.

Outside, a crowd of concerned neighbors has gathered to find out what’s happened. One of the men in the crowd turns to the servant and says, “do you know who was staying in there?”

The servant shakes his head ‘no’.

"Lord Darnley", the man replies; “The Queen’s husband.”

Mary Queen of Scots has long struggled to unite Scotland behind her rule. A Catholic, she presides over a predominantly Protestant nation. Her marriage to the unpopular young Englishman, Lord Darnley, hasn’t helped.

Many Scots despise Darnley, who they see as a vain, promiscuous, power-hungry drunk. Eight months ago, Queen Mary gave birth to their son, James. But Darnley didn’t even show up to his baptism. As a result of his constant philandering, Darnley eventually contracted syphilis. As punishment, Queen Mary sent him away to stay at the Kirk o’Field house.

The young servant helps the crowd search through the rubble, looking for any survivors.

The young servant helps the crowd search through the rubble looking for any survivors. They dig all night but it's not until the first light of Dawn creeps across the sky that they find something in the garden of the ruined building.

The young servant pushes through the crowd for a better look. Stretched out under a pear tree is the naked body of the Queen’s young husband. But it’s obvious even to the servant that the nobleman wasn’t killed in the explosion or crushed by falling debris. He’s been strangled.

Eventually, it is revealed that sometime after Queen Mary sent Darnley away, someone started packing the cellars of the Kirk o’Field House with large quantities of gunpowder. Many will speculate that Darnley uncovered the plot against him, and attempted to flee. But the assassins stopped him in the garden and strangled him before he could escape. Others suggest that Queen Mary herself orchestrated the plot.

Though the truth will never be known, what is certain is that the death of her unpopular husband will not make Queen Mary’s rule over Scotland any less turbulent. Her struggle to keep her grip on power will eventually lead her to England, where she will meet the executioner’s blade on February 8th, 1587.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is February 8th: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

Act One: Things Fall Apart

It’s May 13th, 1568, at the village of Langside, just south of Glasgow in Scotland; nineteen years before Mary Queen of Scots is executed.  

Mary, the 26-year-old Queen, watches from a safe distance as her six-thousand-man army marches forward to engage enemy rebels who have challenged her right to rule.

Mary is feeling confident. Her commanders have assured her that her forces far outnumber the enemy. And once these rebels have been crushed, Mary can reassert her authority in Scotland and rule unopposed.

Like many nations in 16th Century Europe, Scotland is divided by religion. Most of the population is Protestant, but there is a strong Catholic community as well; including Queen Mary herself.

These religious tensions have weakened Mary’s hold on the Scottish throne. A year ago, in 1567, a powerful group of Protestant noblemen rebelled against Mary. They took the Queen prisoner and forced her to abdicate the throne to her infant son James. 

But there were many Scots still loyal to their Catholic queen. Two of them helped Mary break free from the rebel castle where she was being held prisoner. And after making her escape, Mary raised an army.

Her plan was to march her soldiers to the west coast of Scotland where she would wait for reinforcements and gather enough support to force the rebels to surrender and rescue her infant son James. But on the way to her destination, Mary’s enemies ambushed her and forced her soldiers into a fight.

Now, as Mary watches the battle unfold, her confidence collapses. Her army is bigger, but the rebel commanders are clearly more experienced. They quickly outmaneuver and overpower Mary’s soldiers. After only 45 minutes, the Battle of Langside, as it will come to be known, is over. Mary’s army has been routed. And the defeated Queen must run for her life.


Days later, on May 16th, 1568, Mary stands on the shores of the southwest coast of Scotland. As she peers out across the expanse of water before her, she spies her destination in the distance; a dark smudge of land on the horizon.

At this time, Scotland and England are entirely separate nations. England is ruled by a protestant Queen: Elizabeth I. Mary, a Catholic, has never met Elizabeth. But in spite of their religious differences, there’s a reason Mary believes Elizabeth will help her. The two women are cousins.

A few days ago, Mary had thousands of soldiers at her command. Now she has fewer than 20. She cannot defeat the rebels and rescue her infant son on her own. She will need her cousin’s help.

And Mary knows her pursuers aren't far behind. So she hurries to a fishing boat that’s waiting just off shore. She feels the cold water on her feet as she splashes through the shallows. When she reaches the boat, she’s helped on board by a group of sailors awaiting her arrival. Within minutes, the boatmen hoist the sails and push out to sea.

Four hours later, Mary will land on the shores of England hoping to throw herself on the mercy of her cousin. But Elizabeth will not be merciful, nor will she help Mary reclaim power. Instead, Elizabeth will make her cousin a prisoner once again and ensure that Mary never sees her homeland or her son again.

Act Two: How do you solve a problem like Mary?

It’s January 1585, about 17 years after Mary fled Scotland.

In northern England, a long train of carts bumps along a country road. The thirty wagons are laden with tapestries and carpets, clothes, and jewels. Mary, the former Queen of Scots does not travel light.

She rides on horseback at the head of a procession, wrapped in furs to ward off the biting January wind. She is surrounded by guards, but they’re not here to protect the former Queen; their job is to stop her from escaping.

Mary fled Scotland hoping that her cousin, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, would help her retake the Scottish crown. Instead, Mary was taken prisoner and locked away; she’s been moved around from castle to castle ever since.

Mary is a problem the English don’t know how to solve. As a fellow monarch, Elizabeth was horrified that rebels forced Mary from her throne. But Elizabeth is a Protestant. She has no desire to meddle in Scotland on behalf of a Catholic monarch; cousin or not. And there’s another complication. Elizabeth is childless. Mary is her closest living relative; and that makes Mary, potentially, the heir to the English throne.

Like Scotland, the English population is divided between Protestants and Catholics. After decades of tension and violence between the religious factions, Elizabeth has established a less extreme version of Protestantism that tolerates Catholics, provided they are loyal to the Queen. Her goal is peace in England, and she has it, for the moment. But there are plenty of disgruntled English Catholics who would love to see Elizabeth killed and her Catholic cousin Mary placed on the throne of England instead.

Over the years, several treacherous conspiracies have been thwarted by Elizabeth’s spies. After each unsuccessful attempt, Elizabeth responded by tightening her grip on the former Scottish Queen. Today, Mary is moved yet again, this time to the grim confines of Tutbury Castle in central England.

Soon, the procession of carts rattles over the drawbridge and into the castle yard. There, Mary looks up at her new home: a dreary stone tower looming in the gray sky. Mary is now in her forties, but she looks much older. The many years of imprisonment have taken a toll on her health.

But she has not yet given up hope. She prays that one of the plots against Elizabeth will succeed, so she can trade the dark chambers of these remote castles for a Royal Palace and an English crown. And soon, Mary’s prayers appear to come true.

After a year in the tower at Tutbury, Mary is moved again, this time to Chartley Manor, a moated mansion in Staffordshire. Not long after her arrival, Mary begins to receive secret correspondences.

The letters are smuggled to Mary by a local brewer who frequently delivers barrels of beer to the manor. The brewer is connected to a group of Englishmen who want to help Mary. One of these men, Anthony Babington claims he represents a group of Catholics who plan to kill Elizabeth and install Mary as the new Queen of England. But before he proceeds, he wants Mary’s blessing.

Eventually, Mary writes a response and sends it to Babington through the local brewer. In Mary’s reply, she encourages Babington to go forward with his plan. But Mary doesn’t realize she’s being deceived. The local brewer isn’t trying to help Mary. He’s doing the bidding of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.

With the help of his network of spies, Walsingham managed to uncover Babington’s plot to kill Elizabeth and install Mary. But upon learning of the scheme, he didn’t have Babington arrested. Instead, he facilitated the conspiracy. Walsingham’s spies arranged for the local brewer to smuggle Babington’s letters to Mary in Chartley Manor.

Walsingham is a devout Protestant. He’s been looking for a way to eliminate the threat of the Catholic Queen for some time. And when he reads Mary’s eager reply to Babington, Walsingham knows he has what he needs to put Mary on trial for treason, a crime that carries with it a penalty of death.

Act Three: Family Feud

It’s the morning of February 8th, 1587, at Fotheringhay Castle in England.

Mary enters the crowded hall. As she looks up at the scaffold where she will soon meet her end, her stomach churns with fear. But the former Scottish Queen holds her head high and forces herself to remain composed.

This is the same room where Mary was put on trial. During those proceedings, she tried to protest her innocence. She claimed that as sovereign of a foreign country she was not an English subject and therefore couldn’t be guilty of treason. But her spirited defense failed. On October 25th, 1586, Mary was convicted and sentenced to death.

But for months, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth I refused to sign the death warrant. She could not bring herself to condemn her own cousin. Additionally, Elizabeth feared retribution from Catholic countries in Europe, like Spain and France. But her advisers, including Francis Walsingham, encouraged her relentlessly to rid the country of Mary, the troublesome Scot. Eventually, the Queen caved.

Today, as Mary stands on the scaffold, she kisses her sobbing ladies-in-waiting one last time and asks that they pray for her soul. As she falls to her knees, the 44-year-old whispers a prayer in Latin. Then, she lays her chin on cold dull wood and waits for the executioner’s ax to fall.


After Mary’s execution, Queen Elizabeth sends a letter to Mary’s son James, the King of Scotland. Elizabeth claims she never intended for his mother to die and that her subordinates carried out the execution without her knowledge. But her protestations of innocence are belied by the fact that Elizabeth's signature is on Mary’s death warrant. Still, James accepts Elizabeth’s version of events and does not seek revenge for his mother’s death. But someone else does: Phillip II, the Catholic King of Spain.

In King Phillips’ mind, and in the eyes of many European Catholics, Mary is a martyr who was wrongfully put to death by a Protestant heretic. Not long after her death, Phillip begins plotting a way to remove Elizabeth from power and restore Roman Catholicism to England. In the months that follow, the already simmering tension between the two countries erupts into an all-out war on the high seas. In 1588, King Phillip sends his “Spanish Armada”, a fleet of 130 ships, to invade England.

But Phillip’s so-called “invincible armada” is no match for England’s navy. Soon, the Armada sails back to Spain in defeat, at least one-third of its ships lost. England’s triumph over Spain helps establish England as a major European naval power. But Elizabeth will not live to enjoy the full fruits of that achievement. 

Sixteen years after Mary’s execution, Queen Elizabeth I dies childless. As a result, she is succeeded by her closest living relative: Mary’s son, James, the King of Scotland.

James’ ascension to the English throne makes him king of both Scotland and England. This so-called “Union of the Crowns” is a prelude to an official unification that will happen a century later when England and Scotland united as One Kingdom by the name of Great Britain; an outcome that was set in motion when Mary Queen of Scots was executed on February 8th, 1587.


Next on History Daily.February 9th, 1886, after anti-Chinese violence descends into riots, President Grover Cleveland declares a state of emergency in Seattle. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Vanessa de Haan and William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.