Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser was born in 1932 in London. She is the author of many prize-winning historical works which have been international best-sellers. In 1969, Lady Antonia secured her place as a major historian with the publication Mary Queen of Scots, becoming the brightest star of the “Literary Longfords,” an aristocratic family that boasts eight writers in three generations. “She possesses an intuitive grasp of issues surrounding women, power, royalty, treachery, and treason” as displayed in The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England (1984); The Warrior Queens (1988); and The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992). Her most recent books are Charles II (1993), The Gunpowder Plot (1996) and Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (1997). She has also written eight crime stories, featuring Jemima Shore, and edited several anthologies.
Mary Queen of Scots (part)

The Dolorous Stroke

When the sheriff of Northampton, Thomas Andrews, entered, he found Mary kneeling quietly in prayer in front of the crucifix which hung above her altar.

It was the crucifix which her groom Hannibal Stuart now bore before her as she was escorted towards the great hall. The queen was totally calm, and showed no signs of fear or distress. Her bearing was regal, and some of the contemporary observers afterwards even described her as cheerful and smiling. The last moment of agony came in the entry chamber to the hall, when her servants were held back from following her and the queen was told that she was to die quite alone, by the orders of Elizabeth. Melville, distracted at this unlooked-for blow, fell on his knees in tears and exclaimed: “Oh Madam, it will be the sorrowfullest message that I ever carried when I shall report that my Queen and dear mistress is dead.” The queen dashed away her own tears and said gently: “You ought to rejoice and not to weep for that the end of Mary Stuart’s troubles is now done. Thou knowest, Melville, that 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. … “ And commending Melville to go to her son, and tell him that her dearest wish had always been to see England and Scotland united, that she had never done anything to prejudice the welfare of the kingdom of Scotland, she embraced Melville and bade him farewell.

Mary now turned to Paulet and the lords and pleaded with them to allow at least her own servants to be with her at the death, so that they could later report the manner of her death in other countries. Kent replied that her wish could not well be granted, for before the execution her servants were sure to cry out and upset the queen herself, as well as disquieting the company, while afterwards they might easily attempt to dip their napkins in her blood for relics which, said Kent grimly, “were not convenient”. “My Lord,” replied Mary, “I will give my word and promise for them that they shall not do any such thing as your Lordship hath named. Alas poor souls, it would do them good to bid me farewell.” As for her women she refused to believe that these were the instructions of Queen Elizabeth herself, for surely Elizabeth, herself a maiden queen, would not condemn a fellow-woman to die without any ladies about her to attend her, besides which, added Mary, “You know that I am cousin to your Queen and descended from the blood of Henry VII, a married Queen of France, and the anointed Queen of Scotland”. She then appealed to history where she had read in chronicles that other gentlewomen had had their ladies with them at their execution. After a hurried whispered consultation, the lords decided that Mary might have after all the choice of six of her servants to accompany her. Thus Melville, Bourgoing, Gervais, and the old man Didier who had been for many years Mary’s porter, were allowed to go forward, together with the two dearest of Mary’s women, who shared her bed, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle. Mary then went to follow the sheriff, having first bestowed a small gift (probably a seal) on Sir William Fitzwilliam, the castellan of Fotheringhay: he, unlike Sir Amyas Paulet, had shown especial courtesy to her in the carrying-out of his office.

The queen now entered the great hall in silence. The spectators gathered there – about 300 of them by one account – gazed with awe and apprehension at this legendary figure whose dramatic career was about to be ended before their eyes. They saw a tall and gracious woman, whom at first sight to be dressed entirely in black, save for the long white lace-edged veil which flowed down her back to the ground like a bride’s, and the white stiffened and peaked head-dress, that too was edged with lace, below which gleamed her auburn hair. Her satin dress was all in black, embroidered with black velvet, and set with black acorn buttons of jet trimmed with pearl; but through the slashed sleeves could be seen inner sleeves of purple, and although her shoes of Spanish leather were black, her stockings were clocked and edged with silver, her garters were of green silk, and her petticoat was of crimson velvet. She held a crucifix and a prayer book in her hand, and two rosaries hung down from her waist; round her neck was a pomander chain and an Agnus Dei. Despite the fact that Mary’s shoulders were now bowed and stooping with illness, and her figure grown full with the years, she walked with immense dignity. Time and suffering had long ago rubbed away the delicate youthful charm of her face, but to many of the spectators her extraordinary composure and serenity had its own beauty. Above all, her courage was matchless, and this alone in many people’s minds, whatever honours and dignities had been stripped from her by Paulet, still gave her the right to be called a queen.

In the centre of the great hall, which lay on the ground floor of the castle, directly below the room in which Mary had been tried, was set a wooden stage, all hung with black about twelve feet square, and two feet high off the ground. …

Once led up the three steps to the stage, the queen listened patiently while the commission for her execution was read aloud. Her expression never changed. Cecil’s own official observer, Robert Wise, commented later that from her detached regard, she might even have been listening to a pardon, rather than the warrant for her own death. The first sign of emotion was wrung from her, when Dr Fletcher, the Protestant dean of Peterborough – he who afterwards described the fine weather as a sign that Heaven looked with favour on the execution – stepped forward, and proposed to harangue the queen according to the rites of the Protestant religion. “Mr Dean,” said the queen firmly, “I am settled in the ancient Catholic Roman religion, and mind to spend my blood in defence of it.” Shrewsburry and Kent both exhorted her to listen to him, and even offered to pray with the queen, but all these proposals Mary resolutely rejected. “If you will pray with me, my lords,” she said to the two earls, “I will thank you, but to join in prayer I will not, for that you and I are not of one religion.” And when the dean, in answer to the earls’ direction, finally knelt down on the scaffold steps and started to pray out loud and at length, in a prolonged and rhetorical style as though determined to force his way into the pages of history, Mary still paid no attention but turned away, and started to pray aloud out of her own book in Latin, in the midst of these prayers sliding off her stool on to her knees. When the dean was at last finished, the queen changed her prayers, and began to pray out loud in English, for the afflicted English Catholic Church, for her son, and for Elizabeth, that she might serve God in the years to come. Kent remonstrated with her: “Madam, settle Christ Jesus in your heart and leave those trumperies.” But the queen prayed on, asking God to avert his wrath from England, and calling on the Saints to intercede for her; and so she kissed the crucifix she held, and crossing herself, ended: “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.”

When the queen’s prayers were finished, the executions asked her as was customary, to forgive them in advance for bringing about her death. Mary answered immediately: “I forgive you with all my heart, for now I hope you shall make an end of all my troubles.” Then the executioners, helped by Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, assisted the Queen to undress – Robert Wise noticed that she undressed so quickly that it seemed as if she was in haste to be gone out of the world. Stripped of her black, she stood in her red petticoat and it was seen that above it she wore a red satin bodice, trimmed with lace, the neckline cut low at the back; one of the woman handed her a pair of red sleeves, and it was thus wearing all red, the colour of blood, and the liturgical colour of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, that the queen of Scots died.

The time had come for Jane Kennedy to bind the queen’s eyes with the white cloth embroidered in gold which Mary had herself chosen for the purpose the night before. Jane Kennedy first kissed the cloth and then wrapped it gently round her mistress’s eyes, and over her head so that her hair was covered as by a white turban and only the neck left completely bare. The two women then withdrew from the stage. the queen without even now the faintest sign of fear, knelt down once more on the cushion in front of the block. She recited aloud in Latin the Psalm In te Domino confido, non confundat in aeternum – In you Lord is my trust, let me never be confounded – and then feeling for the block, she laid her head down upon it, placing her chin carefully with both her hands, so that if one of the executioners had not moved them back they too would have lain in the direct line of the axe. The queen, stretched out her arms and legs and cried: “In manus tuas, Domine confide spiritum meum” - Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit” – three or four times. When the queen was lying there quite motionless, Bull’s assistant put his hand on her body to steady it for the blow. Even so, the first blow, as it fell, missed the neck and cut into the back of the head. The queen’s lips moved, and her servants thought they heard the whispered words: “Sweet Jesus.” The second blow severed the neck, all but the smallest sinew and this was severed by using the axe as a saw. It was about ten o’clock in the morning of Wednesday 8 February, the queen of Scots being then aged forty-four years old, and in the nineteenth year of her English captivity.

In the great hall of Fotheringhay, before the wondering eyes of the crowd, the executioner now held aloft the dead woman’s head, crying out as he did so: “God Save the Queen.” The lips still moved and continued to do so for a quarter of an hour after the death. But at this moment, weird and moving spectacle, the auburn tresses in his hand came apart from the skull and the head itself fell to the ground, It was seen that Mary Stuart’s own hair had in fact been quite grey, and very short at the time of her death: for her execution she had chosen to wear a wig. The spectators were stunned by the unexpected sight and remained silent. It was left to the dean of Peterborough to call out strongly: “So perish all the Queen’s enemies,” and for Kent, standing over the corpse to echo: “Such be the end of all the Queen’s, and all the Gospel’s enemies.” But Shrewsbury could not speak, and his face was wet with tears.

It was now the time for the executioners to strip the body of its remaining adornments before handing it over to the embalmers. But at this point a strange and pathetic memorial to that devotion which Mary Stuart had always aroused in those who knew her intimately was discovered: her little lap dog, a Skye terrier, who had managed to accompany her into the hall under her long skirts, where her servants had been turned away, had now crept out from beneath her petticoat, and in its distress had stationed itself piteously beneath the severed head and the shoulders of the body. Nor would it be coaxed away, but steadfastly and uncomprehendingly clung to the solitary thing it could find in the hall which still reminded it of its dead mistress. To all others save this poor animal, the sad corpse lying now so still on the floor of the stage, in its red clothes against which the blood stains scarcely showed, with its face now sunken to that of an old woman in the harsh disguise of death, bore little resemblance to her whom they had known only a short while before as Mary Queen of Scots. The spirit had fled the body. The chain was loosed to let the captive go.