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‘Forgive me’: The brutal execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

A new movie revisits a bloody moment in royal history

Saoirse Ronan stars in the new movie "Mary Queen of Scots." (Liam Daniel/Focus Features/Reuters)

The movie “Mary Queen of Scots,” starring Saoirse Ronan as the ill-fated rival to Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) opened in theaters Friday. This story about the monarch’s death sentence was originally published in The Washington Post on Nov. 8, 1995.

The doomed queen approached the black-draped stage on which she was scheduled to die. Eyes straight ahead, back rigid and head high, she paused at the foot of the steps leading to the scaffold. Her once magnificent looks had faded with age and years of imprisonment, but she still radiated royal dignity.

The man who for so long had been her jailer offered his hand to assist her ascent. “I thank you, sir,” she said, according to a historical account of the day. “This is the last trouble I shall ever give you.”

Reaching the platform, the 44-year-old queen was directed to sit in a chair. Looking about the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, she saw the crowd gathered to witness her demise. More than 100 people were riveted by the unfolding spectacle. Her eyes met the hooded axman dressed entirely in black, the instrument of his trade lying on the floor nearby.

The warrant for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scotland, was read aloud, signed by her cousin, England's Queen Elizabeth I. The end of a tumultuous life was approaching rapidly on this cold February morning.

This was to be an unprecedented execution. Royalty had been killed before, boldly knocked off thrones or quietly dispatched. Even spouses of kings were not immune, as evidenced earlier in the century when two of Henry VIII's six wives lost their heads.

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But this time would be different. The beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, would be the first legal execution of an anointed European monarch.

It would change forever the ancient tradition that royalty was untouchable. Thrones would become increasingly less secure. Indeed, several monarchs would die by order of their own subjects, seized by revolutionary fervor. Now, however, Mary stood alone.

She had been just six days old when she inherited Scotland’s throne after the death of her father in 1542. Her mother, ruling the country during Mary’s minority, sent the child to France at age 5 to be raised in the court of King Henry II. There, she grew to be more French than Scottish, surrounded by luxury, sophistication and culture.

By the time the young queen married King Henry's eldest son, Francis, in 1558, she had become a remarkable beauty, tall and slender with red-gold hair and amber eyes. With her versatility in languages and taste for music and poetry, she represented for many the Renaissance ideal of royalty.

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Upon her father-in-law’s death and her husband’s ascension to the French throne in 1559, Mary became queen of a second country. It was her claim to the crown of a third, however, that would prove fatal. England, not yet united with Scotland, was ruled by the Protestant Elizabeth I. But the Roman Catholic Mary believed that Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was invalid.

Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII, who had cut ties with the pope to divorce his wife and marry Elizabeth's mother. The break with Rome ended England's officially Catholic status and launched the Protestant Church of England.

Like many Catholics, Mary believed that Henry's second marriage was illegitimate, along with the daughter it produced. As Henry's great-niece, she was next in line to the English throne. Her immediate claim, however, did not endear her to her cousin, Elizabeth.

Fate soon began to turn against Mary. She was widowed at 18 and, returning to Scotland, encountered a nation in the turmoil of religious reformation, hostile to her Catholic faith. John Knox, the Calvinist preacher, railed against her, even forecasting her bloody death. Scottish nobles offered little allegiance.

In 1565, the queen entered an ill-advised marriage to her cousin, Henry Stuart, Earl of Darnley, a weak and vicious man with pretensions about becoming king. Mary grew to loathe him. Her hatred increased when Darnley and a group of nobles slaughtered her private secretary and confidant before her eyes, and it was not alleviated by the birth of her son and heir, James, in 1566.

That same year, a house outside Edinburgh where Henry lay recovering from an illness was blown up, and the would-be king was strangled as he tried to escape. Suspicion immediately fell on Mary.

It increased when, after only three months, she married the Earl of Bothwell, chief suspect in the murder. Enraged Scottish nobles captured the newlyweds in the battle of Carberry Hill several months later. Bothwell was exiled, and Mary, after being imprisoned, was formally deposed in favor of 1-year-old James.

She escaped from prison and briefly enjoyed freedom, until her supporters were defeated the next year in battle. The Scottish queen then sought refuge in the kingdom of cousin Elizabeth and unknowingly entered a web from which she would never escape.

The English queen, using considerable political skill, cited a series of reasons connected with the murder of Darnley to hold Mary captive in several English castles for 18 years.

Trapped in England, she became the idol of English Catholics who wished to see Elizabeth dead and Mary their queen. Discovery in 1586 of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and spark a Catholic uprising sealed Mary's fate.

Implicated, Mary was tried and condemned by an English court whose jurisdiction she refused to recognize. Required to sign the death warrant, Elizabeth was extremely reluctant, aware that doing so would sanction the death of an anointed queen, possibly provoke attack by other European monarchs and set a dangerous precedent with her people.

Elizabeth delayed until Parliament and her councilors convinced her that the rival queen's death was vital to her safety and that of England.

As she faced the block where she was to lose her head, Mary saw herself as a martyr for her faith. The royal esteem she once commanded, her foolish decisions and the intrigue in which she had been enveloped became distant memories.

According to a contemporary report, a man suddenly emerged from the crowd. “I am the Dean of Peterborough!” he shouted. “It is not too late to embrace the true faith! Yea, the Reformed Religion, which hath …"

Mary, taken aback, interrupted him calmly, saying: “Good Mister Dean, trouble not yourself any more about this matter. I was born in this religion, have lived in this religion and am resolved to die in this religion."

As the dean continued his exhortation, Mary turned away and prayed quietly in Latin. The executioner stepped forward and knelt before her. “Forgive me,” he said.

"I forgive you and all the world with all my heart,” she answered with a smile, “for I hope this death will make an end to all my troubles."

Rising, the executioner offered to help her disrobe in preparation for the ax. Declining politely, Mary turned instead to her ladies in waiting for assistance. They unbuttoned her black gown, revealing a vibrant crimson one. Her veil and headdress were removed and set on a nearby stool.

Mary kissed her ivory crucifix and laid it beside her clothing, then added her prayer book. Taking out a gold-bordered handkerchief, she handed it to one of her ladies, whose hands were trembling so much that Mary had to help secure it as her blindfold.

Someone led the queen to the block and helped her to kneel on the cushion before it. She reached out, groping for the block and placed her neck on it.

"Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” she whispered in Latin, as the executioner raised his ax and swung. To his horror, he missed, merely grazing the queen's head.

"Sweet Jesus,” she was heard groaning quietly as the ax was lifted again. This time, it nearly severed neck from body. Angry and exasperated, the executioner sawed through the remaining flesh. The head rolled away, while the body fell on its back, bleeding.

"God save Queen Elizabeth,” the executioner shouted as he grasped the severed head by the hair and raised it to the crowd. Suddenly, it fell and rolled away, leaving in his hand only a red wig. Onlookers gasped, seeing the gray-haired head, suddenly old, facing them, lips still moving.

The executioner lifted the queen's dress to remove her garters, his time-honored prerogative, but was startled as a small dog emerged from the folds. Mary's pet, Geddon, had hidden in the dress.

Geddon rushed to the corpse and circled, confused and distraught.

The dog began to howl. The Protestant dean who had confronted Mary leaped to the platform and pushed the dog's face into the pool of blood.

"Remember what {John} Knox prophesied about the dogs drinking her blood!” he yelled. “Drink, you cur!” But Geddon resisted, instead sinking his teeth into the dean’s hand. What became of Geddon remains unknown.

Mary's head was displayed on a velvet cushion before an open window at Fotheringhay Castle. Her crucifix, prayer book, bloodstained clothes, the execution block and anything she had touched were taken to the courtyard and burned, obliterating all traces of Mary, Queen of Scots.

But questions linger. Historians continue to debate her role in the murder of Darnley and her involvement in the plot to kill Elizabeth. Her character remains enigmatic, inspiring widely divergent opinions. She has been seen as misguided martyr, unwittingly swept into the religious frenzy of her time, and as scheming Jezebel, dabbling in murder to achieve her aims.

Sixteen years after the beheading, Elizabeth died of natural causes, and Mary’s son, James, ascended to the throne his mother had coveted. Almost four centuries later, the rival queens lie in London’s Westminster Abbey, only a few feet apart.

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