Was Elizabeth I Justified in having her Cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland Executed

Elizabeth I in 1546

When studying the lives of Elizabeth I and her rival cousin Mary Stuart, modern interpretations paint a fairly definitive picture of their perceived personalities. Elizabeth’s character is revealed through titles such as Elizabeth I, Red Rose of the House of Tudor by Katherine Lasky, Elizabeth I: Queen of England’s Golden Age by Paul Hilliam, or Clark Hulse’s Elizabeth: Ruler and Legend. Mary Stuart, however, is painted in a much different light. Recent works detailing the life and actions of the Queen of Scots can not be found in the romance section, though their titles include John Guy’s My Heart is my Own, and Jenny World’s Mary, Queen of Scots: Pride, Passion and a Kingdom Lost.

We are left with an image of a fierce and fiery Elizabeth, presiding over a ‘Golden Age’ of England, while her bumbling cousin, preoccupied with love and lust is allowing her country to slip away. How then, did Mary Stuart present herself as a threat to the grand Elizabeth, and was that threat worth her life? On February I, 1587 Queen Elizabeth signed a death warrant that sealed the fate of another anointed Queen. By the following week, Mary Stuart had been executed.[1] Was Mary's death justified?

Mary’s and Elizabeth’s Early Years

Both Elizabeth and Mary had come to their thrones at tumultuous times. Mary became Queen of Scotland at only six days old when her father, James V died shortly after hearing the news of her birth.[2] Elizabeth was the second child of King Henry VIII, and daughter of Anne Boleyn. Anne was Henry’s second wife and Elizabeth was born into a troubled England with a new Protestant faith.[3]

Mary’s early years were spent in France where she was betrothed to the French Dauphin in response to England’s advances on Scotland throughout the Rough-Wooing. She married the Dauphin of France in 1558, the same year Elizabeth acceded to the throne in England. Mary, however, was the descendant of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, and many English Catholics held her to be the legitimate heir to the English throne.[4] The two Queens were now rivals. Mary held staunchly to her English claim, and disadvantaged Elizabeth further through her marriage and possibility of an heir. The first of many unfortunate circumstances occurred for Mary when her husband, Francis II, became ill and died in 1560; nine months later Mary sailed for Scotland.

The years Mary spent in Scotland were not happy. She returned to a country newly divided by a Reformation, and Mary was viewed suspiciously by many of her prominent nobles. In 1565 Mary wed her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. It was with Lord Darnley that Mary bore her only child James, in 1566. The marriage broke down after Lord Darnley sought the Crown-Matrimonial, and grew jealous of Mary’s private secretary who was later murdered in front of a very pregnant Mary.[5] A year later there was an explosion where Darnley had been sleeping, but he was suspiciously found smothered near a garden outside. Mary was implicated in the crime, and only recently cleared.[6]

Criminal Allegations Surrounding Mary

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots

Rumors circulated of Mary’s involvement in the crime, and Elizabeth sent word to Mary of her knowledge, "I should ill fulfil the office of a faithful cousin or an affectionate friend if I did not ... tell you what all the world is thinking. Men say that, instead of seizing the murderers, you are looking through your fingers while they escape; that you will not seek revenge on those who have done you so much pleasure, as though the deed would never have taken place had not the doers of it been assured of impunity. For myself, I beg you to believe that I would not harbor such a thought."[7]

Soon after the death of Lord Darnley Mary entered into a Protestant marriage with Lord Bothwell, one of the men also implicated in the death of Darnley. The marriage was deeply unpopular among her Catholic supporters who raised an army against her in favor of her son. Mary was imprisoned for a time in Scotland before escaping to England, where she believed her cousin Elizabeth would raise an army to help her regain her throne.[8]

Elizabeth was cautious, however, and had Mary imprisoned in a number of castles over the course of nineteen years before ordering her execution. As a Catholic, and rival Queen with a legitimate claim to the English throne, her very presence in England was a great threat to Elizabeth and Mary became entangled, whether knowingly or not, in a number of plots against Elizabeth.[9]

There were rebellions by Catholic Lords in the North of England, and plots to replace Elizabeth with Mary through the help of Spanish troops. Pope Gregory XIII even endorsed a plan to invade England from the Spanish Netherlands and wed Mary to Don John of Austria, half-brother to Phillip II of Spain.[10] In 1586 Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot, through a series of her own letters that were deciphered as they were smuggled out of her chambers. The letters directly linked Mary to an assassination plot against Elizabeth.[11]

Elizabeth Reluctantly Signs Mary’s Death Warrant

Mary was convicted and sentenced to death, though Elizabeth was hesitant to sanction the order. Although Mary had been removed from power for nineteen years, Elizabeth feared the precedent she would set by executing a fellow Queen. The fear of retaliation from Catholic Lords in Scotland with the support of Mary’s son, now an adult caused Elizabeth to delay her decision for four months. Finally in February of 1587 Elizabeth signed the death warrant.[12] Without Elizabeth’s consent, members of the English Privy Council assembled and agreed to carry out the sentence at once. [13] Mary was put to death on February 8th, 1587.

Rumors abounded that Elizabeth wished to retract the warrant, but being unaware of the Privy Council’s plans, her reprieve was too late. The Queen of England’s immediate threat was gone. When Elizabeth died without an heir, however, she passed the crown onto Mary’s only son. James VI of Scotland, became James I of England. Being separated from his mother since infancy allowed Protestant Lords to raise James according to the reformed religion. He would not pose a threat to England’s still delicate religious atmosphere. Mary’s kingdom, therefore, was not “lost” as some titles suggest. Her only son moved the Stuart reign into England, fulfilling Mary’s dream of claiming the English throne. At the same time, James upheld the wishes of his predecessor and was religiously tolerant. In the end, Elizabeth’s decision to end Mary’s life united their kingdoms.


  1. Jenny Wormald, Mary, Queen of Scots: Pride, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. (London: Tauris Parks Paperbacks, 2001), 190.
  2. John Guy, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), 15.
  3. J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth. (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2001), 1.
  4. Antonia Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots. (London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), 85.
  5. Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots, 256-258.
  6. The Daily Mail, “Mary Queen of Scots is CLEARED of murdering her husband by a panel of experts who re-examined the evidence... just 428 years after she died. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3249401/Mary-Queen-Scots-CLEARED-murdering-husband-panel-experts-examined-evidence-just-428-years-died.html#ixzz3t6rvL625> Accessed December 1, 2015.
  7. Alison Weir, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. (New York: Random House Publishing Group, Feb 1, 2004), 308-309.
  8. Fraser, 369.
  9. Guy, 442.
  10. Fraser, 446.
  11. Weir, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, 507.
  12. Fraser, 528.
  13. Guy, 496.

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