The Queens Head

Edward Marston

'Her head should have been cut off years ago.'

Queen Elizabeth I


Fotheringhay Castle, February 1587

Death stalked her patiently throughout the whole of her imprisonment. Hardly a day passed when she did not hear or imagine its stealthy tread behind her, yet it stayed its hand for almost twenty years. When it finally struck, it did so with indecent haste.

'Tomorrow morning at eight o'clock.'

The Earl or Shrewsbury set the date and time of her execution in a faltering voice. He was part of the deputation which called on her after dinner in her mean apartments at the grim fortress. Mary was forced to get out of bed, dress and receive the men in her chamber. She was the Dowager Queen of France, the exiled Queen of Scotland and the heir to the English throne but she had to suffer the humiliations that were now borne in upon her.

Shrewsbury pronounced the sentence, then Beale, the clerk of the Council, read aloud the warrant from which the yellow wax Great Seal of England dangled so mesmerically. Everything was being done in strict accordance with the Act of Association.

Death had enlisted the aid of legal process.

Her captors gave her no crumbs of comfort to sustain her through her last hours. When she asked that her own chaplain be given access to her, in order to make ready her soul, the request was summarily denied. When she called for her papers and account books, she met with resistance again. The deputation was proof against all her entreaties.

Their licence extended beyond the grave. It was Mary's wish that her body might be interred in France either at St Denis or Rheims but they refused to countenance the idea. Queen Elizabeth had expressly ruled against it. Alive or dead, the prisoner was to have no freedom of movement.

All further appeals were turned down. The interview came to an end, the deputation withdrew and Mary was left to soothe her distraught servants and to contemplate the stark horror of her situation.

Tomorrow morning at eight o'clock!

In an impossibly brief span of time, she had to tie off all the loose ends of a life which, for some forty-four years now, had been shot through with moments of high passion and deeply scored by recurring tragedies. Twelve days would not have been long enough for her to prepare herself and she was given less than twelve hours. It was a cruelly abrupt departure.

Supper was quickly served so that Mary could begin the task of putting her affairs in order. She went through the contents of her wardrobe in detail and divided them up between friends, relations and members of her depleted household. When she had drawn up an elaborate testament, she asked for Requiem Masses to be held in France and made copious financial arrangements for the benefit of her servants. Even under such stress, she found time to make charitable bequests for the poor children and friars of Rheims.

Her spiritual welfare now took precedence and she composed a farewell letter to the chaplain, de Preau, asking him to spend the night in prayer for her. The faith which had sustained her for so long would now be put to the ultimate test.

It was two o'clock in the morning before her work was done. Her last missive, to her brother-in-law, King Henry of France, was thus dated Wednesday 8 February, 1587, the day of her execution.

Mary lay down on the bed without undressing while her ladies-in-waiting, already wearing their black garments of mourning, gathered around her in sombre mood. One of them read from a Catholic bible. The queen listened to the story of the good thief as it moved to its climax on the cross, then she made one wry observation.

'In truth, he was a great sinner,' she said, 'but not so great as I have been.'

She closed Her eyes but there was no hope of sleep. The heavy boots of soldiers marched up and down outside her room to let her know that she was being guarded with the utmost care, and the sound of hammering came from the hall where the scaffold was being erected by busy carpenters. Time dragged slowly by to heighten the suspense and prolong her torment.

At six o'clock, well before light, she rose from her bed and went into the little oratory to pray alone. Kneeling in front of the crucifix for what seemed like an eternity, she tried to fit her mind for what lay ahead and to ignore the sharp pains that teased and tested her joints. The sheriff of Northampton eventually summoned her and the agony of the wait was over. The longest night of her life would now be followed by its shortest day.

Six of her servants were allowed to attend her. Mindful of her command that they should conduct themselves well, they drew strength from her evident composure and fortitude. Whatever the mistakes of her life, she was determined to end it with dignity.

Almost three hundred spectators had assembled in the great hall and they strained to catch a first glimpse of her as she came in, looking on with a mixture of hostility and awe. They knew that they were in the presence of a legend-Mary Queen of Scots, an erratic, imperious, impulsive woman who had lost two crowns and three husbands, was Catholic heir to a Protestant country and could, by her very existence, inspire rebellion while still under lock and key.

Her youthful charm might have vanished, her beauty might have faded, her face and body might have fleshed out, her shoulders might have rounded and her rheumatism might oblige her to lean on the arm of an officer as she walked along, but she was still a tall, gracious figure with the unmistakable aura of majesty about her and it had its due effect on her audience.

She was dressed in black satin, embroidered with black velvet and set with black acorn buttons of jet trimmed with pearl. Through the slashed sleeves of her dress could be seen inner sleeves of purple and although her shoes were black, her stockings were clocked and edged with silver. Her white, stiffened and peaked headdress was edged with lace, and a long, white, lace-edged veil flowed down her back with bridal extravagance.

Mary 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. Her manner was calm and untroubled, and she wore an expression of serene resignation.

In the middle of the hall was the stage which had been built during the night. Some twelve feet square and two feet high, it was hung with black. As Mary was led up the three steps, her eye fell on the pile of straw which housed the executioner's instrument. Her rank entitled her to be despatched with the merciful swiftness of a sharp sword but she saw only the common headsman's axe. It was a crushing blow to her pride.

She listened with studied calm as the nervous Beale read out the commission for her execution. Mary was imperturbable. It was only when the Dean of Peterborough stepped forward to harangue her according to the rites of the Protestant religion that she betrayed the first sign of emotion.

' Mr Dean,' she said firmly, 'I am settled in the ancient Catholic Roman religion, and mind to spend my blood in defence of it.'

Resisting all exhortations to renounce her faith, she hurled defiance at her judges by holding her crucifix aloft and praying aloud in Latin and then in English. When she had attested her devotion to Catholicism, she was ready to submit to her fate.

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