Monday, February 1, 2010

Addicted to the Past--Queen Elizabeth I signs Mary Stuart's Death Sentence

Today in history, February 1, 1587, English queen Elizabeth I signs Mary Stuart's (queen of Scots) death sentence.

Elizabeth was conflicted when it came to the matter of her cousin.  She knew that Mary represented danger, but she was highly aware of Mary's being a sovereign queen who was unlawfully deposed by her subjects.  She could not malign her cousin at the risk of damaging the model of royal prerogative.

At her trial, Mary defended herself; arguing that she was a sovereign queen and not punishable under the laws of England.  Additionally, she denied that she had ever plotted the death of Elizabeth.  By this time, it was too late.  She was condemned to death.  Elizabeth did not want to sign the execution warrant at first.  She agonized over the decision.  It is probable that she was tricked in to signing it.  Some believe that once she did sign it, the council rushed the execution in case Elizabeth changed her mind.  Mary was beheaded on February 8, 1587.  Elizabeth sent the following letter on the 14th to Mary's son, King James VI of Scotland:

My dear Brother,

I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolor that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. I have now sent this kinsman of mine, whom ere now it hath pleased you to favour, to instruct you truly of that which is too irksome for my pen to tell you. I beseech you that as God and many more know, how innocent I am in this case : so you will believe me, that if I had bid aught I would have bid by it. I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or Prince should make me so afraid to do that were just; or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage, nor carry so vile a mind. But, as not to disguise, fits not a King, so will I never dissemble my actions, but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me, that as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others' shoulders; no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.

The circumstance it may please you to have of this bearer. And for your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate. And who shall otherwise persuade you, judge them more partial to others than you. And thus in haste I leave to trouble you: beseeching God to send you a long reign.

Your most assured loving sister and cousin,

Elizabeth R.

Clearly, Elizabeth felt that her actions were justified, but she felt somewhat wrong about it because Mary was her cousin and also a queen. I also think that Elizabeth remembered a time when she was in a similarly precarious position with her sister, Mary Tudor.  Recalling that must have given her pause, if only for a moment.

 I can't imagine ordering the death of a cousin, but Elizabeth was a queen.  Her main priority was keeping her safety intact so as to preserve the safety of the realm.  Someone once said, "It's good to be the king queen."  When it came to decisions like these, it probably wasn't!



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  1. so interesting. I think she was in a difficult position because the death was necessary for political reasons! I never want that kind of power.

  2. It truly would be a horrible decesion for anyone to make regardless of the reasoning. I have alwasy sympathized with Queen Mary.

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