This Week in History: 1 February 1587 Elizabeth I signs Mary Queen of Scots’ death warrant

On 1 February 1587, Queen Elizabeth I signed Queen Mary’s death warrant after months of delay. Mary was found guilty in a trial ending in October 1586 for her involvement in the Babington Plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. Due to both Parliamentary calls for Mary’s execution and personal fear regarding Mary’s potential to take the English throne, especially after the plot, Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

The Babington Plot was a plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and crown Mary in her place. Anthony Babington, the head of the plot, sent messages to Mary while she was imprisoned, which concerned the assassination of Elizabeth and Mary’s rescue. Mary sent a reply agreeing to the assassination. However, English spies had intercepted the letters, and after discovering the names of other members of the plot they arrested Babington and many of the others involved. Babington admitted that Mary had written a letter supporting the plot before his execution in September 1586.

Mary’s trial and sentencing had been delayed by Queen Elizabeth, as was her execution. Eventually, with a Parliamentary petition for Mary’s execution, Elizabeth had no choice but to sign the warrant.

In order to escape the issue of regicide that came with Mary’s death, she attempted to convince Mary’s gaoler to kill her, which would enable Elizabeth to escape responsibility. However, he refused. Luckily for Elizabeth the Privy Council held a private meeting under Sir William Cecil and agreed to send the signed warrant to the executioner.

Elizabeth was left unaware and while she was angry with her council she had managed to successfully remove herself from the situation.

Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on  8 February 1587, and was to be the last truly Scottish monarch. Her son James became King of Scotland and eventually King of England, creating the Union of the Crowns. Elizabeth’s signature on Mary’s death warrant led to the end of the independent Scottish monarchy, and ultimately set Scotland on the path to full Union.

Image: Amber Young

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