The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots;
Researched by Francesco Josepa Dougan… 8 February 2020
Queen of Scotland
8 Feb. 1587
Royal brother, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates.
I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I
would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.
Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject.
The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs.
The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose.
The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions.
As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life.
Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you.
Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.
Wednesday, at two in the morning
Your most loving and most true sister Mary R
To the most Christian king, my brother and old ally
8 feu 1587
Monssieur mon beau frere estant par la permission de Dieu pour mes peschez comme ie croy venue me iecter entre les bras de ceste Royne ma cousine ou iay eu beaucoup dennuis & passe pres de vingt ans ie suis enfin par elle & ses estats condampnee a la mort & ayant demande mes papiers par eulx ostez a ceste fin de fayre mon testament ie nay peu rien retirer qui me seruist ny obtenir conge den fayre ung libre ny quapres ma mort mon corps fust transporte sellon mon desir en votre royaulme ou iay eu lhonneur destre royne votre soeur & ancienne allyee.
Ceiourdhuy apres disner ma este desnonsse ma sentence pour estre executee demain comme une criminelle a huict heures du matin ie nay eu loisir de vous fayre ung ample discours de tout ce qui sest passe may sil vous plaist de crere mon medesin & ces aultres miens desolez seruiters vous oyres la verite & comme graces a dieu ie mesprise las mort & fidellement proteste de la recepuoir innocente de tout crime quant ie serois leur subiecte la religion chatolique& la mayntien du droit que dieu ma donne a ceste couronne sont les deulx poincts de ma condampnation & toutesfoy ilz ne me veullent permettre de dire que cest pour la religion catolique que ie meurs may pour la crainte du champge de la leur & pour preuue ilz mont oste mon aulmonier lequel bien quil soit en la mayson ie nay peu obtenir quil me vinst confesser ny communier a ma mort mays mont faict grande instance de recepuoir la consolation & doctrine de leur ministre ammene pour ce faict.
Ce porteur& sa compaigne la pluspart de vos subiectz vous tesmoigneront mes deportemantz en ce mien acte dernier il reste que ie vous suplie comme roy tres chrestien mon beau frere & ansien allye & qui mauuez tousiours proteste de maymer qua ce coup vous faysiez preuue en toutz ces poincts de vostre vertu tant par charite me souslageant de ce que pour descharger ma conssiance ie ne puis sans vous qui est de reconpenser mes seruiteurs desolez leur layssant leurs gaiges laultre faysant prier dieu pour une royne qui a estay nommee tres chrestienne& meurt chatolique desnuee de toutz ses biens quant a mon fylz ie le vous recommande autant quil le meritera car ie nen puis respondre Iay pris la hardiesse de vous enuoier deulx pierres rares pour la sante vous la desirant parfaicte auuec heurese & longue vie Vous le recepvrez comme de vostre tres affectionee belle soeur mourante en vous rendant tesmoygnage de son bon cueur enuers vous ie vous recommande encore mes seruiteurs vous ordonneres si il vous plaict que pour mon ame ie soye payee de partye de ce me que debuez & qu’en l’honnheur de Jhesus Christ lequel ie priray demayn a ma mort pour vous me laysser de quoy fonder un obit & fayre les aulmosnes requises ce mercredy a deulx heures apres minuit
Vostre tres affectionnee & bien bonne soeur Mari R
Au Roy tres chrestien monssieur mon beau frere & ansien allye
© National Library of Scotland
Mary Queen of Scots completed her last letter at 2am on Wednesday 8 February 1587. Six hours later she was to mount the scaffold at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. The letter is addressed to Henri III, King of France. He was the younger brother of her first husband, Francois (Francis) II, who had died of an ear infection in 1560 at the age of 16.
Reign and abdication
Mary’s short reign in Scotland, from 1561 to 1567, was at first characterised by stable policy and government. This was in spite of clashes with the Protestant reformer John Knox over Mary’s right to worship according to her Catholic beliefs. But her emotional involvements with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and later with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, led to the breakdown of this stability. They brought about the rebellion of the Protestant lords, and Mary’s abdication and flight into England.
Elizabeth, the English Queen, was faced with a dilemma. Instinctively she wanted to protect her cousin Mary against the Scottish reformers, seeing their action as striking at the roots of all monarchy. On the other hand Mary, dowager Queen of France, and Queen of Scots, was also heiress to the English throne.
In fact, to Catholics throughout Europe, Mary was rightful Queen of England, since Elizabeth herself was the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. To maintain her own position as head of the English state, Elizabeth could not afford to allow Mary to remain at liberty.
Throughout the 18 years of her imprisonment, Mary symbolised the aspirations of the English Catholics hoping for the restoration of their country to Catholicism. In addition, the rival Catholic Kings of France and Spain each hoped to bring England within his own sphere of political and diplomatic influence by placing Mary on the English throne.
Plots and threats
Directly or indirectly, Mary was involved in plots against the English Queen, in plans for Catholic risings in England, and in diplomatic intrigues on the continent. The Ridolfi plot (1571), the Throckmorton plot (1583), and the Babington conspiracy (1586) all involved the threat of foreign invasion. The English government was persuaded that, to ensure the political stability of England, Mary could not be allowed to live.
Although disturbed at the thought of executing her cousin, a monarch in her own right, eventually Elizabeth agreed.
The English government insisted that the death of Mary was purely a political matter. However, as she conveys in her last letter, Mary herself believed she was dying a religious martyr.
But what concerned her equally when she wrote to the King of France, with whom she had corresponded regularly while in captivity, was the well-being of her household servants after her execution. In effect, few of these servants returned to their native lands of France and Scotland.
Letter reaches France
Not until late in 1587 was Bourgoing, Mary’s physician, able to make his way to France and give his report to Henri III, presumably delivering this letter at the same time. It was, however, left to Philip II of Spain to authorise, through his ambassador Bernardino Mendoza, the payment of wages and pensions to Mary’s servants.
The letter itself no doubt remained in the French royal archives. Later, at some unknown date, it was given to the Scots College in Paris, a Catholic seminary for Scottish priests, probably as a relic of the martyred Queen. There it remained until the French Revolution, when the College was dissolved, and its archives dispersed.
Presented to Scotland
Mary’s letter then passed through the hands of various owners, and eventually became part of the celebrated collection of autographs formed by the great 19th-century collector Alfred Morrison.
In 1918 the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots was bought by a group of subscribers and presented to the Scottish nation through the National Art Collections Fund. It was held by the Advocates Library, until 1925, when the National Library of Scotland was created.
Mary Stuart was executed on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle, after a trial whose outcome forever troubled Queen Elizabeth I
This famous account of the execution was written by Robert Wynkfielde.
Accounts such as these, and woodcuts of the scene, were very popular throughout Europe. The great scandals of Mary’s life were forgotten and she was mourned as a Catholic martyr. The truth of her demise was not so simple. Elizabeth did consistently reject petitions to execute Mary over the 19-year course of her imprisonment. Eventually, however, the Catholic threat was deemed too great and Elizabeth reluctantly signed the warrant for execution.
Her [Mary queen of Scots] prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.’ Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other her apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.
All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, ‘that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company.’
Then she, being stripped of all her apparel saving her petticoat and kirtle, her two women beholding her made great lamentation, and crying and crossing themselves prayed in Latin. She, turning herself to them, embracing them, said these words in French, ‘Ne crie vous, j’ay prome pour vous’, and so crossing and kissing them, bade them pray for her and rejoice and not weep, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress’s troubles.
Then she, with a smiling countenance, turning to her men servants, as Melvin and the rest, standing upon a bench nigh the scaffold, who sometime weeping, sometime crying out aloud, and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, crossing them with her hand bade them farewell, and wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.
This done, one of the women having a Corpus Christi cloth lapped up three-corner-ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scots’ face, and pinned it fast to the caule of her head. Then the two women departed from her, and she kneeling down upon the cushion most resolutely, and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this Psalm in Latin, In Te Domine confido, non confundar in eternam, etc. Then, groping for the block, she laid down her head, putting her chin over the block with both her hands, which, holding there still, had been cut off had they not been espied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms cried, In manus tuas, Domine, etc., three or four times.
Then she, lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lifted up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen.
Then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short, her face in a moment being so much altered from the form she had when she was alive, as few could remember her by her dead face.
Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off.
Then Mr Dean [Dr Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough] said with a loud voice, ‘So perish all the Queen’s enemies,’ and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it, with a loud voice said, ‘Such end of all the Queen’s and the Gospel’s enemies.’
Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having any one thing that belonged unto her.
And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.