Mary's life was anything but easy. She married three times - none of them being very happy, and they would be the cause of her reputation as an adulteress and a murderer (whether or not either was true!). Suffering miscarriages, possible rape, terrible acts of violence, and even imprisonment during her third marriage, I think it's safe to say that none of us would have liked to be in Mary's shoes. Unfortunately, by the time she was only twenty-six, she had faced more trials and misery than we can even imagine - and her struggles were far from over!
Sadly, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I was hesitant to help - even when Mary managed to escape to England to beg for her cousin's support. Instead, Elizabeth was suspicious of Mary's activity, and had her kept in an English castle - there to be questioned. Mary, however, was outraged that she should be treated that way. As a member of royal blood (though no longer Scotland's official Queen), she felt she didn't deserve to be questioned or handled like a common woman. Unfortunately, once incriminating letters (known as The Casket Letters) were found, they only acted as more 'proof' of Mary's guilt in both murdering her second husband, and committing adultery. Mary vehemently denied the truth in these letters and insisted that they were forgeries - and still, to this day, we don't know the truth of the matter! But Elizabeth was nervous to let the subject go. Mary was officially a prisoner in England, subject to more questioning and investigation.
Elizabeth, being pressured to order her cousin's execution, was hesitant to kill another Queen. The ramifications of such an action could be deadly, as she knew. What would happen if Mary's son James took up arms against her? Obviously, Elizabeth did not want to engage in a war with Scotland - but wasn't her life and crown at stake? Begrudgingly, she signed the death warrant on 1 February 1587, but entrusted it to a member of her council. Behind her back, ten members of the Privy Council moved forward with the execution - knowing that if the matter was put off for too long, Elizabeth may change her mind.
On 7 February 1587, Mary was informed that she would be executed the following morning. Taking the news with grace and dignity, Mary spent her final hours in prayer, writing letters to her loved ones, and organizing the distribution of her property. When the time of her death arrived, she made her way to the indoor scaffold (built in the Great Hall of the castle) which was draped in black and about two feet high. When the executioner knelt beside her to beg for her forgiveness, as was custom, Mary replied, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles." Her ladies helped her disrobe, revealing her red gown - the color of martyrdom in the Catholic church. She was even said to have made a joke at that moment about never having been disrobed in such company.
What should have been finished in a single stroke of the axe actually took a horrifying number of blows and tries from the executioner. The first strike apparently hit the back of her head - and the crows present at the execution reported that Mary's lips moved at that moment to say "Sweet Jesus." The second blow of the axe severed most of her neck, but it took one final attempt to complete the job. Once it was done, the executioner held Mary's head up and shouted, "God save the Queen!" In one final mishap, Mary's head fell at that moment, leaving the executioner holding only the auburn wig that she had been wearing. Now the crowd could see that Mary's natural hair was actually very short and grey.
There is a rumor that Mary's small terrier had been hiding in her skirts during her execution, and that he refused to part from his dead owner. The sad story goes that the poor dog was covered in Mary's blood, and had to be forcibly taken away and washed.
Once Mary's execution was over, her clothes, items, as well as the block and scaffold were burnt in the Great Hall, to avoid them being hunted as Catholic relics.
Queen Elizabeth was furious when the news of Mary's execution reached her. In an attempt to deny responsibility, she blamed her Privy Council, and at least one member was arrested for his high-handed decision. Although Mary had wished to be buried in France, Elizabeth ignored her request and left her body unburied in a coffin at Peterborough Cathedral - following a Protestant funeral service. Her entrails are said to have been buried secretly at Fotheringay Castle.
Mary was finally laid to rest when her son James VI of Scotland/James I of England ordered a grand tomb to be built at Westminster Abbey for his poor mother. He also oversaw the tomb for Elizabeth I, but seemed to make sure that Mary triumped once more with an elaborate tomb. I have personally been to see both tombs and I must say that Mary's is magnificent!
Although Mary Queen of Scots met a grisly end, I think it's important to look at the theories surrounding her life and death and try to determine for ourselves how we feel about her. Too often she is portrayed as an extreme - either the murder-driven villain or the sainted martyr. There seems to be very little in between when it comes to Mary Stuart, which is unfortunate. I don't know what to think, honestly. I do, however, know that Mary's life is not one that I would have liked to experience. She seems to have been a tortured, miserable woman who faced trial after trial until the bitterest of ends. I'm curious to know your thoughts, though. Was Mary a villain or a hero? Did she deserve her fate, or was she severely wronged? Weigh in with your opinion in the comments section!