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Mary, Queen of Scots – The Letters That Brought Her Down

On this day, history casts a shadow over the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, as the Casket Letters were revealed and led to her eventual death. These letters, purportedly written by Mary herself, became pivotal pieces of evidence used against her in the accusation of conspiring to murder her second husband, Lord Darnley. The authenticity of these letters has been the subject of intense debate among historians, but they have remained an important part of English History.

The Casket Letters

In 1567, Mary’s life took a dramatic turn when her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was found murdered under mysterious circumstances. Suspicion quickly fell upon Mary and her close ally, the Earl of Bothwell. Shortly after these events, Mary was abducted by Bothwell and the two later came out and revealed they were married. This development only cast further suspicion on them as many suspected they murdered Lord Darnley to allow the marriage to proceed.

To make the situation even more dramatic, a small silver casket was discovered containing a series of letters, sonnets, and other documents. These were allegedly written by Mary and sent to Earl Bothwell. These documents became known as the Casket Letters and were used by Mary’s enemies as evidence to link her to Darnley’s death.

However, many doubted the authenticity of these letters both back then and today. Many believe that they were forgeries created by her enemies to justify her forced abdication and imprisonment by the Scottish nobility to secure power themselves. 

Regardless of their authenticity, the controversy of these letters grew so great that Mary was forced to abdicate her throne. Not only that, but she also feared for her life from the Scottish nobility and fled to England for refuge. At the time, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I who was also her cousin. She hoped this familial tie would grant her shelter from her people. 

Mary, Queen of Scots Execution

Unfortunately, Elizabeth would instead imprison Mary for almost two decades and the very letters she tried to escape from would be used as evidence by her cousin to justify her execution in 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots, spent her last hours praying, giving away her belongings, and writing her will and a letter. Her execution took place in the Great Hall, where a scaffold draped in black cloth was set up. It had a block, a cushion for her to kneel on, and stools for witnesses. The executioner and his assistant asked for her forgiveness, which she granted, hoping for an end to her troubles.

Mary was helped to remove her outer garments, revealing a crimson velvet petticoat and black satin bodice, which symbolized martyrdom. She joked about having such “grooms” and removed her clothes before the crowd. Blindfolded with a white veil, she knelt and positioned her head on the block.

The execution was brutal. The first strike missed her neck, hitting her head instead. The second blow almost severed her neck, but a small piece of sinew required a final cut. The executioner then held her head, which revealed a wig when it fell, showing her short grey hair.

Reports noted that her lips moved for a while after her beheading and a small dog emerged from her skirts. All her belongings were burned to prevent relic hunting. Queen Elizabeth claimed she didn’t authorize the execution and blamed her council. The council member who delivered the warrant was imprisoned but later released.

Mary’s request to be buried in France was denied. She was buried in a Protestant service in Peterborough Cathedral. Years later, her son, King James VI, and I, moved her remains to Westminster Abbey. Many of her descendants were also interred there.

A statement by the Scottish Partliam immortalized their thoughts on the Casket Letters revelation.

“In so far as by diverse her previe letters writtin and subscrivit with hir awin hand and sent by hir to James erll Boithvile chief executor of the said horrible murthour, … it is maist certain that sche wes previe, art and part (complicit) and of the actuale devise (plot) and deid of the foir-nemmit murther of her lawful husband the King our sovereign lord’s father.”

– Statement by the Scottish Parliament
mary, queen of scots letters

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