Today In History: 08 Feb 1587 Mary Queen of Scots is Executed


08 February 1587: Mary, Queen of Scots, is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle aged 44 after being convicted of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I in the Babington Plot.

Mary was born on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, Scotland, to King James V and his French second wife, Mary of Guise. She was the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII of England through her paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor. Margaret was Henry VIII’s older sister so Mary was Henry VIII’s great-niece.

Portrait of Mary at about 17 years old, c. 1558–1560.

The only surviving legitimate child of James V of Scotland, Mary was six days old when her father died and she inherited the throne.

Mary Stuart was Queen of Scots from 14 December 1542 until she was deposed 24 July 1567.

She spent the next twenty years of her life in exile or imprisoned. After she was deposed, she sought the assistance of her first cousin once removed, Elizabeth I, who reigned over England.

This complicated matters however as Elizabeth perceived Mary as a threat and had her imprisoned while a commission of inquiry investigated whether she was responsible for the death of her first husband, which had been the proximate cause of her overthrow.

She spent eighteen and a half years imprisoned in England, and several plots to replace Elizabeth with Mary or have her marry other European royalty came to nothing. On August 11, 1586, Mary was arrested after being implicated in the Babington Plot, another scheme to overthrow the protestant Elizabeth and replace her with the catholic Mary.

She was found guilty on October 25 and sentenced to death. Elizabeth hesitated to sign the death warrant, fearing the precedent it set, and asked her custodian to find a way to “shorten the life” of Mary, but he refused. Elizabeth eventually signed the warrant and the execution was set for February 8.

Mary was not executed with a single blow – the first missed and hit her in the back of the head, the second did not completely sever her head, and only after the third did the executioner raise her head to the crowd. Mary was wearing a wig however, and the head fell from his hands, revealing that she had very short, grey hair.

Depiction of the execution on Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.