On this day in 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots, went on trial for conspiracy against Elizabeth I of England.
On 11 August 1586, after being implicated in the Babington Plot, Mary was arrested while out riding and taken to Tixall.
In a successful attempt to entrap her, Walsingham had deliberately arranged for Mary’s letters to be smuggled out of Chartley. Mary was misled into thinking her letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham.
From these letters it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. She was moved to Fotheringay Castle in a four-day journey ending on 25 September, and in October was put on trial for treason under the Act for the Queen’s Safety before a court of 36 noblemen, including Cecil, Shrewsbury, and Walsingham.
Spirited in her defence, Mary denied the charges. She told her triers, “Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England”. She drew attention to the facts that she was denied the opportunity to review the evidence, that her papers had been removed from her, that she was denied access to legal counsel and that as a foreign anointed queen she had never been an English subject and thus could not be convicted of treason.
Mary was convicted on 25 October and sentenced to death with only one commissioner, Lord Zouche, expressing any form of dissent.
Despite this, Elizabeth hesitated to order her execution, even in the face of pressure from the English Parliament to carry out the sentence. She was concerned that the killing of a queen set a discreditable precedent, and was fearful of the consequences, especially if, in retaliation, Mary’s son James formed an alliance with the Catholic powers and invaded England.
Elizabeth asked Paulet, Mary’s final custodian, if he would contrive a clandestine way to “shorten the life” of Mary, which he refused to do on the grounds that he would not make “a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot on my poor posterity”.
On 1 February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant, and entrusted it to William Davison, a privy councillor. On the 3rd, ten members of the Privy Council of England, having been summoned by Cecil without Elizabeth’s knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence at once.