On this day in history : 8th February 1587 – Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded on the orders of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England – in what can only be described as a horrific botched execution….

Mary Stuart – Francois Clouet – Public domain

After Mary had abdicated from the Scottish throne she sought refuge in England and was initially welcomed by Elizabeth, however cautiously…. Mary was permitted to live in various castles around the land but she was continuously watched…. For nineteen years she was virtually a prisoner under house arrest….

Mary in captivity by Nicholas Hilliard c.1578 – Public domain

Then in 1586 a plot was uncovered to murder Queen Elizabeth I…. The Babington Plot, sparking a Catholic uprising, led by Roman Catholic nobleman Anthony Babington, implicated Mary and she was brought to trial…. At the two day trial, on the 14th-15th of October 1586, she was found guilty and sentenced to death…. It seems Elizabeth was reluctant to sign her cousin’s death warrant – so a rather underhand method was used to ensure that she did…. The warrant was slipped into a large pile of papers awaiting her signature and so she signed it without realising she had done so….

Drawing of the trial of Mary Queen of Scots – The digital collections of the British Library – CC0

44-year old Mary was to be executed in the Great Hall at Fotheringay Castle…. Mary’s own mother, Anne Boleyn had been beheaded – a master French swordsman had been brought in to perform her execution….it had been quick and clean…. The same cannot be said for Mary’s….

The scaffold was draped in black, more than 100 spectators gathered in the Great Hall to watch the proceedings…. Mary was forced to undress to her undergarments – she wore a blood red bodice to symbolise her Catholic martyrdom…. All the while her loyal servants wept around her….

Mary’s lady-in-waiting tied a cloth around her mistress’s eyes and helped her to kneel on the cushion…. Mary prayed – “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” ~ “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”….

Unable to see, due to the blindfold, Mary had to fumble around to find the block on which to lay her head…. Once her chin was in place one executioner held her in place whilst the other raised the axe…. As it fell and struck her neck it became all too obvious he had gravely misjudged….the blade had only partially gone through…. He quickly raised the axe and let it fall again but still her head remained attached…. after a third blow and using a sawing motion Mary’s head was finally severed from her body….

The execution scene, drawn by eye witness Rupert Beale – Public domain

Exclaiming “God save the Queen!” the executioner raised the head for all to see…. as he did so Mary’s head promptly fell to the ground – and he was left holding only a red wig…. According to witness accounts of the time her lips continued to twitch for a good quarter of an hour after decapitation….

As if all that is not gruesome and traumatic enough, more was still to come…. As the executioner lifted the skirts of Mary’s petticoats to remove her garters – as was his right as executioner – he discovered her pet dog, Geddon, hiding in the folds…. The distraught little dog refused to leave his dead mistress – and lay in the pool of blood where Mary’s head had been….

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