Scotlands History

Execution at Fotheringay

The night before her execution, Mary Queen of Scots was told of that her sentence was about to be carried out. She received the news calmly. At two in the morning Mary sat down and wrote a letter in French to her brother-in-law, King Henry of France.

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 am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning... I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime...

Around 8 am on 8 February 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was led to the scaffold in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle. A number of eyewitnesses recorded what happened that morning.

One noted that Mary said to her servant Melvin:

You ought to rejoice and not to weep for that the end of Mary Stuart's troubles is now done... all this world is but vanity and full of troubles and sorrows. Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end.

There was a gasp as Mary removed her black dress to reveal a red petticoat that symbolised Catholic martyrdom. As far as Mary was concerned she was dying for her faith. She kissed a crucifix and said ‘Even as Thy arms, O Jesus, were spread here upon the cross, so receive me into Thy arms of mercy and forgive me all my sins.'

Mary knelt by the block. A cloth was tied across her eyes. She groped for the block and laid her head down, repeating ‘In manus tuas, Domine’ - ‘Into thy hands, Lord’.

The executioner placed a hand on Mary for a moment then cut off her head with two blows of his axe. When he raised up her head to show the crowd Mary’s wig came away in his hand revealing her grey hair was cut short to her scalp. The Earl of Kent called out, 'Such end of all the Queen's and the Gospel's enemies.' Mary’s small lapdog was found hiding under the dead queen’s skirts, soaked in her blood.

Mary’s body was taken away to be embalmed while her blood stained clothes were burned. Mary Queen of Scots was laid to rest in Peterborough Cathedral. When her son James became king of England he had his mother disinterred and buried beneath a finely carved tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Mary’s last letter is preserved by the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

  • Detail from a painting showing men in Elizabethan dress watching a woman being beheaded

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Listen to the Robert Wynkfielde's account of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, at Fotheringhay Castle, 8 February 1587.