James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 9 : The Execution of Mary

In 1586, James was faced with a moral dilemma, although his power to actually act was limited. Sir Francis Walsingham, one of the chief members of Elizabeth’s Privy Council, and an inveterate enemy of James’s mother, had, through a combination of entrapment, espionage and daring, uncovered (or created) the Babington plot, to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne of England.

It was evident that, if Mary had not actually approved the assassination of Elizabeth, she was well aware that it was planned. This information was used to condemn her for treason. James, not surprisingly, was completely unable to believe that Elizabeth really intended for Mary to be executed. Indeed, Elizabeth herself found it difficult to bring such a momentous event to pass.

James wrote a number of letters begging that Mary’s life be saved, but at the same time he knew that the Act of Association would render any pleas he made for Mary, fodder for any those sought to exclude him from the English succession.

Having deposed their Queen some 20 years before, the nobles and commons of Scotland now affected to be horrified at the idea that a foreign government might take it upon itself to execute her. Under pressure to show that Scotland was a sovereign country, and that James was of equal standing with Elizabeth, he wrote his cousin a letter which caused Elizabeth to explode in fury. In it, he pointed out that her father’s execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, had not been so heinous a crime as her execution of a fellow sovereign would be.

Once she had been persuaded to calm down enough to respond, Elizabeth replied to this missive the statement that his letter meant that she would not now intervene to delay any proceedings against Mary: a handy way of passing the blame for Mary’s death to James. In addition, she refused to receive any delegation from Scotland led by nobles, requiring that any embassy should be led by commoners.

Nevertheless it was clear to the English that James would do no more than protest. The Earl of Leicester was assured that alliance with England was a key component of James’s policy, from which he would not deviate unless absolutely forced to do so. It was obvious that the only thing that might force James to take more aggressive note towards his southern neighbour would be a definite decision on Elizabeth’s part to name a different successor.

James was well aware that to break with England could only be politically feasible if he were to ally with Catholic Spain. It was an open secret that Philip II was planning an invasion of England but his success was by no means guaranteed and a policy of alliance with a Catholic nation would be highly unpopular with the majority of James’ nobles. He could therefore do no more than plead for Mary’s life, and pledged that she would, if spared, take no part in any further conspiracies. He assured Elizabeth that her life is no less dear to him than his mother’s, and that he was constant in his friendship towards her country.

But James knew that there was nothing he could do to help Mary. The English government, with or without Elizabeth’s heartfelt consent, was determined to make an end of her and she had given them the means to do so. James a committed Protestant whose overriding ambition was to inherit the Crown of England and who had little or no power to challenge England, was obliged to swallow the bitter pill.

There are mixed reports of how James received the news of his mother’s death – some suggesting that he was glad that he was now truly King at last; another suggesting that he was upset and depressed. We must remember that James could not possibly have remembered Mary, whom he had not seen since he was 10 months old.

James was very pleased to accept Elizabeth’s protestations that the actual execution had nothing to do with her, but that her secretary William Davidson had exceeded his authority by sending the warrant for execution.