Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots Part 2: Of Codes and Warrants
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous texts. This week we’re finishing the story of a few particular instances of dangerous letters from the lives of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. Allow me to remind you exactly where we are.
Mary’s second husband, Darnley, and father of James VI was murdered by a bunch of Scottish lords. Mary’s privy council, which included a bunch of the lords who were involved in the murder, weirdly failed to find anyone guilty of the crime. Shortly after that, Bothwell raped Mary and forced her to marry him. Pretty much no one is happy about this other than Bothwell. The Scottish lords rebel, and when it’s clear that their army would beat the army raised by Mary and Bothwell, he flees, and she surrenders. Mary is imprisoned and accused by the Scottish parliament of being the mastermind behind her own husband’s murder. She’s forced to abdicate, and her half-brother, Moray, is made Regent for her infant son James. She managed to escape her imprisonment, and after an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim her throne, fled to England, in 1568 hoping that her dear cousin Elizabeth would help her.
Mary was expecting to finally, for the first time in her life, meet Elizabeth. Instead, Elizabeth refused to do so until the whole ‘being accused of her husband’s murder’ thing was resolved, and Mary became Elizabeth’s prisoner in all but name. Meanwhile, one of Elizabeth’s advisors, Cecil, was doing some behind the scenes collaboration with Moray, in order to try and find some actual evidence to prove her guilt, and he had also asked Lennox, father of the murdered Darnley, to submit a petition asking for justice in the murder of his son, and alleging Mary’s involvement.
Quick aside here, I compiled the timeline for the next bit from various different books, all of which had different focuses and therefore included and failed to include various bits of information. What I’ve included are the details that were mentioned in all or most of them, which means I’ve missed out details that were only mentioned in one book, unless they provided a citation I could actually check. Which was basically never. So with that caveat, let’s go.
Mary receives Elizabeth’s response on the 28th of May, telling her that they cannot meet until she’s been cleared of the murder. Mary is not impressed. The idea that a queen should be accountable to anyone other than God was an insult. Mary pleads with Elizabeth to be allowed to explain herself to her in private, but objects to standing trial. And she also has some counter-accusations of her own to make, including accusing some of the lords of being involved in the murder.
On the 8th of June Elizabeth sends an envoy to Scotland that stops on the way and tells Mary that Elizabeth is steadfast in her stance that she see can’t see her until there’s been some sort of inquiry. But, Elizabeth reassures her, if Mary is found innocent, she will be restored to the throne in Scotland, and Elizabeth says that she will summon Moray to account for his actions. When the envoy reaches Scotland, they tell Moray that he must go to Elizabeth and account for his behaviour in light of Mary’s accusations against him – not in relation to the murder of Darnley, but because he had unlawfully usurped the throne. When Moray gets this news, he has questions.
He wants to know what will happen to him if Mary wins. Will he be protected from her retribution? He also has some mysterious new evidence he’s found, and he’s going to send it over so he can get their opinion on it. And what is this evidence? It’s the casket letters, of course! Moray has suddenly managed to get his hands on these documents he had all along and didn’t mention before. Weird that it took him so long to produce these letters that they’d already totally had for many months.
Moray basically wants to show the evidence he’s got, and get feedback on whether it will be enough to prove his case before he actually submits the case. Now despite Elizabeth reassuring Mary that the inquiry will focus on restoring her to the throne, Cecil reassures Moray that, no matter what the outcome is, the English have no idea of even trying to restore Mary.
There’s a bit more back and forth between all parties as Elizabeth and Cecil try and wrangle Mary and Moray to do what they want, but by the end of July, both of them have agreed to an inquiry: Moray on the understanding that no matter what the outcome, Mary won’t be restored; and Mary on the understanding that the focus will be on restitutions and negotiating her return to Scotland.
It’s not a great deal for Mary, given that she also has to accept a couple of other conditions from Elizabeth: she must abandon her claim to Elizabeth’s throne, abandon Catholic Masses, and agree not to do anything with France, and not to punish the lords. But accept it Mary does.
On the 29th of August, still in 1568, the Duke of Norfolk was appointed head of the inquiry, along with the Earl of Sussex and Sir Ralph Sadler. They were told that if Mary were cleared, she would be restored to the throne of Scotland. And just to remind you, Mary is being told that this is all just going to be about getting her restored, and Moray has been told that no matter what the outcome, Mary won’t be restored. Politics.
In September Mary says that she will not attend the inquiry herself, because she doesn’t recognise its authority to judge her, but she will send along some commissioners to act on her behalf. She instructs them to only engage in the issue of her restoration, and ignore the accusations against her. Her written instructions show that she had by this point been informed of the existence of the casket letters, since she says that, should they be brought up, they are to demand Mary be allowed to see them. Mary’s decision not to appear in person suits everyone else just fine. Elizabeth, and Cecil especially, did not want Mary there. They were worried she would be too good in defending herself and win people over with her charm and charisma. It’s good for Moray too, since it means she won’t there in person to either contest the contents of the letters, or argue her counter-accusations about who was really behind the murder.
The inquiry begins on the 4th of October, and starts with Mary’s representatives accusing Moray of forcing Mary to abdicate and treating her awfully. Moray responds by highlighting how he very much disagreed with Mary’s awful, awful decision to marry Bothwell, and also she totally abdicated voluntarily. Why mention the marriage to Bothwell? In short: he’s laying the foundations for accusing Mary of being involved in Darnley’s murder by presenting her relationship with Bothwell as not only consenting, but therefore also adulterous and immoral, and so he can build on that idea to support the claims in the casket letters that the two of them conspired together to kill Darnley.
On 9th of October, Moray approaches Norfolk once again seeking reassurances about what’s going to happen. He wants to know what will happen if Mary is found guilty – will she be kept imprisoned in England, or sent back to Scotland to face punishment? He also says that he’s been keeping the casket letters private up until now, and wants confirmation that he will be protected from retribution by Mary should he go public with them.
On the 11th Elizabeth is informed by Norfolk that they have been given, in secret, copies of the casket letters. No copies have been given to Mary or her commissioners, and they haven’t been told about them. However, a copy of one of the letters is leaked to Mary, and Norfolk is informed that she and her commissioners know about them on the 15th. The day before, on the 14th Moray had announced his intention to submit additional evidence to the inquiry. Note, he doesn’t actually submit it, he just says that he’s going to.
On the 22nd of October, Elizabeth decides she needs to meet with representatives from both sides. And then she decides that they need to move the inquiry to Westminster, and that she needs to appoint more commissioners. Including Cecil.
Another thing that happens in October is that someone raises the possibility to Norfolk of his marrying Mary. Norfolk was a widower three times over, and the type of person who might be sympathetic to Mary. Perhaps especially if he could marry her. Mary begins to try and get a divorce from Bothwell.
The inquiry reconvenes on the 25th of November, and the next day Moray privately submits an ‘Eik’, which was a direct accusation that Mary had been involved in the murder of Darnley, and that she had planned to kill her son James, too. And on the 29th Lennox submits his bill.
Mary’s commissioners have been given a copy of the Eik, and respond by saying that the charges are made up by Moray, in order to depose Mary before she could turn twenty-five, at which point she would have been able to revoke lands granted to the lords.
By the start of December Mary’s representatives are complaining about the fact that Elizabeth has received Moray in person, but still won’t receive Mary. And they’re also concerned that the inquiry is into Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s murder, rather than restitutions. They ask Elizabeth that Mary be allowed to defend herself in person. Elizabeth says no, and tells them that Mary must be found innocent before restitutions can be discussed, and hearing this, they withdraw from the inquiry.
As soon as they’re gone, Moray presents the deposition accusing Mary and Bothwell of colluding in Darnley’s murder, some other documents and… the casket letters. Which means we now get to finally discuss their contents.
The documents Norfolk had been given contained eight French letters from Mary to Bothwell (unsigned, of course), a collection of love sonnets also written in French supposedly also from Mary to Bothwell, two drafts of a marriage contract between them, and two other documents, one of which was a supposed request from Mary to her lords requesting that they sign the Ainslie band (that’s the one that declared they all agreed Bothwell was innocent, and that the queen needed to remarry, preferable to someone Scottish). Contemporary consensus is that these documents were forgeries, and there’s numerous reasons why this is thought to be the case.
First: the marriage contracts. One was a clear forgery, and the other was a promise from Mary that, since she was a widow, she would marry Bothwell when he divorced. Which, even if genuine, is not proof of anything, other than that… once Mary was widowed, she promised Bothwell she would marry him once he was divorced. Entirely legal. Moray tried to claim that the letter had been written before her husband died, which wasn’t exactly consistent with the content of the letter itself.
Second, the sonnets: scholars now date the style of the sonnets as belonging to the 1520s – making them nearly 50 years out, style-wise. Goodare (2007) suggests that both the sonnets and four of the letters – those with a particularly romantic theme – most likely came from a type of manuscript in circulation in Renaissance Courts at the time which contained collections of romantic material. Being pulled from a manuscript would also explain why the sonnets don’t even name Bothwell.
Of the remaining four letters, letter two (which was actually written before the one known as letter one, of course) is the longest and the most damning. In it, Mary, or, more probably… Pseudo-Mary asserts her hatred of Darnley and her love for Bothwell. She complains that Darnley had bad breath and that she is making a bracelet for Bothwell. But it also contains false statements, such as claiming that Lennox is cooped up in his rooms at Glasgow, when he was actually elsewhere at the time. The letter is rambling and disjointed in a way that might suggest it was a compilation of parts from letters Mary genuinely had written to people, with dates, locations, and recipients changed, and interpolations added in.
Letters three and four supposedly show Mary consenting to being abducted by Bothwell. There’s another purported letter that doesn’t survive which was Mary confessing to having instigated a quarrel between Darnley and another lord in the hope that the lord would kill him.
As Norfolk and his fellow commissioners noted at the time, the letters would be damning indeed, were they written in Mary’s own hand. But there are, of course, multiple reasons to suspect that they weren’t.
Firstly, it’s just not that likely that Mary would have ever committed the kind of sentiments expressed in the letters to paper. Even if their content did reflect genuine sentiment (which an abundance of evidence suggests they didn’t), that would just be too dangerous. Anyone could intercept them (Wernicke 2006: 175). You’d have to accept that Mary and Bothwell were both cunning enough to orchestrate their plans, and foolish enough to be so careless with incriminating evidence of them. Which is certainly not outside the realms of possibility, but it is cause for scepticism.
Secondly, the dates of the discoveries of the letters don’t really match up with the events up to and past Darnley’s murder. According to Moray, the letters were supposedly found on the 21st of June, 1567. But nine days later he and the other lords issued a summons against Bothwell, on charges of murdering Darnley and abducting the queen. Why would you do that if you had some letters showing that Mary orchestrated the murder, loved Bothwell, and consented to being abducted? In July Moray told the Spanish ambassador that he’d heard of a letter, in which Mary talked about going to Glasgow to fetch Darnley, trying to poison him, and, if that failed, take him to the house to be blown up. But no letter with such details emerges when the letters are mentioned again in December, when parliament decides to accuse Mary of masterminding the plot to murder Darnley. It’s generally assumed that what Moray was talking about was letter two, which doesn’t contain these incredibly damning details. Why could that be? Either the ambassador recorded the details incorrectly, which, let’s be real, seems unlikely; or Moray was misinformed about the details of the letter (remember, he’s only telling the ambassador that he’s heard about it, not that he’s seen it himself); or he was exaggerating for some reason; or the details of the letter were not fixed in stone yet due to it not having been written yet.
Thirdly, if this letter did exist in July… why does it take until December for the lords to decide to accuse Mary? Did they just keep misplacing these super important documents? And after that, there’s another question of why it is that no one mentions them again after December until they’re suddenly needed at this inquiry? It’s all just a bit weird. Even weirder is the fact that Moray claimed the letters were discovered on a servant of Bothwell’s who had been sent to retrieve them, and had been arrested whilst doing so. But in the deposition following his arrest, no mention of the letters is made (Williams 2018).
Fourthly, the timeline of the letters doesn’t match up with Bothwell’s known, confirmed movements at the time. Letters one and two are addressed to him whilst he’s supposedly in Edinburgh, but he would only have been in Edinburgh at the right time to receive one of them (letter two). In fact, Bothwell was barely in Edinburgh around that time – only for sixish days after Mary’s abduction, which means he received the rest of the letters in other places, and then carried them all around with him, and at some point later deposited them in Edinburgh. Which doesn’t seem likely at all. If for some reason you really insist on keeping super incriminating evidence, you’re probably not going to leave it somewhere where it’s easily discovered, and where you hardly visit.
Fifthly, the original letters are never produced. When Moray sends along copies of the letters to Elizabeth in June to get her opinion on them, he sends along not just copies, but copies that have been translated into Scots, rather than left in the original French, which would certainly have been more accessible to Elizabeth and her lords.
Of course, since Moray conveniently didn’t produce the letters for scrutiny until Mary’s commissioners were out of the way, there’s no one there at the inquiry to point any of this out.
At this point you might be wondering, ‘but if the letters are forgeries, why didn’t they do a better job of them?’ The letters had another important function beyond trying to prove Mary’s guilt, one for which they didn’t need to actually be sufficient proof of her guilt. What they needed to do was establish to Elizabeth and Cecil beyond all doubt that there’s just no way a reconciliation between Moray and Mary is going to be possible. And they manage to do that just fine. The fact that Moray and his supporters are prepared to present these letters means there’s no going back. Even if they were to decide Mary was innocent for some reason after all, there’s now zero chance for restitutions.
Around the 20th of December, Mary gets news about the Eik and the letters, and sends messengers to Elizabeth charging Moray of accusing her of a crime he and his fellow lords committed, and asking to see copies of these casket letters.
She does not get to see copies of these casket letters.
On the 10th of January 1569, Cecil, or Elizabeth, or Cecil and Elizabeth, declare that neither side has offered sufficient proof of their accusations against the other. So… neither side wins. Except… Moray definitely wins. He gets to return to Scotland, along with a loan of £5,000 and Mary remains stuck in limbo. It’s completely clear now that Elizabeth has no intention of doing much to help her reclaim her Scottish throne, and of course, without Mary being acquitted of the murder, Elizabeth still refuses to see her. And she refuses to let her go anywhere. All that’s really happened is that Mary has gone from being a prisoner in Scotland, to being a prisoner in England.
Mary once again requests to see a copy of the letters. Elizabeth replies telling her that she can only see them if she first agrees to respond to the accusations made against her. She refuses.
And that, very anti-climactically, is the end of the story of the casket letters. But it’s not the end of Mary’s story, and there are more dangerous documents to come. But before we move on, let’s stop to answer a few of questions. Firstly, what happened to the casket letters? The originals, by which I mean, those copies Moray presented at the inquiry, were returned to Scotland in 1569, and disappear in 1584. The last known owner was the earl of Gowrie, who was executed for high treason by Mary’s son, James VI.
Secondly: was Mary actually involved in the murder of Darnley, and if so, how much did she know? Mary certainly knew that the plotters had been planning something, but how much did she really know about the specifics? Consensus is still split over this question. The most extreme position, and one that has become increasingly unpopular over the centuries, is that she knew all about it and was involved. But there are very good reasons for why this is unlikely. Firstly, The Craigmillar bond is a far more compelling piece of evidence than the casket letters are. Secondly, Mary didn’t actually suggest that Darnley go to the gunpowder house. She wanted him to go to Craigmillar. But he objected. Why would she even bother to suggest he go somewhere else if she wants him in Edinburgh so she can blow him up? Thirdly, Mary had even been in the gunpowder house herself the day it blew up. Given that the cover story would have been ‘well, improperly stored gunpowder does do that’, would she really have risked going to that house at all? Fourthly, the way she handles herself after Darnley’s death is not a way that suggests she had been anticipating what was going to happen. She behaves as if she’s completely blind-sided by it, failing to act the part of the outraged wife and queen that she would have needed to in order to avoid suspicion. Finally, she genuinely seems to have initially thought that the plot was aimed at her, rather than Darnley.
No less unlikely is the position that she knew nothing at all. She was involved in discussions with her advisors as to what to do with Darnley, and she had to have heard the option of murder be raised in order to veto it.
The most plausible option is that she thought they were going to have some seriously stern words with him, threaten him, or maybe rough him up, just as he was fond of roughing up others, not that they were going to kill him.
So what happens to Mary now? She’s still Elizabeth’s prisoner. But Mary’s courtship with Norfolk ramps up, and a lot of things happen in the next few years. Remember, we’re currently in 1569.
After the January announcement of no verdict, Mary is moved, in February, to Tutbury castle, a more secure stronghold. Over the course of the year she’ll be moved around frequently, and this pattern continued for the rest of her imprisonment.
One of her advisors, Leslie, travels to London in May, to meet and discuss things with a couple of lords in favour of the Mary-Norfolk wedding.
In April, Mary is moved back to Wingfeld. In July, her request for divorce is rejected in Scotland.
When Elizabeth finds out, in September, about the marriage plan with Norfolk, she angrily castigates the duke, and tells him he can’t do it.
Elizabeth orders Mary moved to a more secure location, and also orders Mary’s bedchambers to be searched for evidence that might implicate her in the marriage plot. But Mary was learning some lessons about the danger of letters, and had ordered many of her documents burned before she departed.
At the same time, Norfolk leaves court without Elizabeth’s permission. Suspecting he’s trying to rally support for the marriage, Elizabeth orders him back, and when he returns, on the 11th of October, she has him placed in the Tower of London.
Mary and Norfolk warn their supporters and allies in the north not to revolt or do anything stupid, but in November they do it anyway. They make it as far as Tadcaster, roughly 125 miles south of their starting position, and only around 54 miles away from where Mary was being held.
On November 25th, she’s moved. However, the two earls leading the uprising didn’t push any further south; their forces disbanded in December, and the two of them fled to Scotland.
And there were months and there were more months, and that was the end of the first year. And God saw it and it was… no great, to be honest.
In 1570 the game of Pass the Mary resumes. Despite the whole Norfolk being arrested and stuck in the Tower of London thing, Mary continues to communicate with him.
Meanwhile in January up in Scotland, Moray is assassinated. Mary’s father-in-law, Lennox, succeeds him as regent. Mary was, weirdly, not sad about Moray’s fate, and said that she didn’t know who did it, but if she did, she’d grant him a pension. (Warnicke 2006: 192).
In February, the pope officially excommunicates Elizabeth, increasing the danger Mary posed to Elizabeth by providing encouragement for Catholics to try and invade England, and free Mary.
At this point Elizabeth is still actually trying to negotiate restitutions between Scotland and Mary, but she has some stipulations. First, Mary must conclude a league with England, guaranteed by Scottish hostages. Second, Mary isn’t allowed to marry anyone non-Scottish without Elizabeth’s approval. Thirdly, she must agree not to challenge Elizabeth or her heirs for the English throne. Fourthly, her son James must be sent to London. Finally, Mary must maintain Protestantism in Scotland.
Mary is not a fan. Especially not of the ‘sending James to London’ part. But reluctantly, she agrees. That doesn’t mean that Mary abandons her ‘marry Norfolk’ plans. She pursues both courses of action. Which might seem sensible, but chances are that if people find out about the marriage plans, they might not be inclined to continue pursuing the restoration plans. But hey, if they found out about the marriage plan and she wasn’t also pursuing restoration plans, then she’d find herself in the same place in terms of outcome.
In August, the restitution negotiations are still underway. The marriage plans haven’t been discovered, and Elizabeth agrees to release Norfolk from the Tower, where he’s been for the past eleven months, when he agrees to drop the idea of marrying Mary.
He does not drop the idea of marrying Mary.
In October, Elizabeth sends Cecil and an advisor to negotiate details with Mary.
And there were months and there were more months, and that was the end of the second year. And God saw it and it was… well, not as bad as the first year.
In early 1571 some Scottish Commissioners arrive to negotiate with Mary’s representatives. At the start of the discussions Mary promises to stop seeking aid from other monarchs, and to drop the idea of marrying Norfolk.
She does not drop the idea of marrying Norfolk.
Or of seeking aid elsewhere.
The negotiations abruptly end in March, when Elizabeth discovers that the Scottish delegate didn’t actually have the authority to do some of the things she wanted them to do.
Mary looks around at the state of international politics, and decides that her best bet is to seek help from Rome, and Spain. She and Norfolk start conspiring with a guy called Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian from Florence who was living in England, and who was an influential banker, of the Catholic persuasion. Ridolfi goes to Rome to seek financial and military aid, along with Mary’s advisor, Leslie. Now Mary just wants aid in being restored to the throne in Scotland, but Ridolfi and Leslie realise that Phillip, the king of Spain, and the Pope will need a bigger incentive than that, and float the possibility that they could actually free Mary and put her on the throne in England as well, allowing them to bring England back into the Catholic fold.
It’s a big enough plan to get Rome and Spain involved, but not one that they actually have the resources or capabilities to pull off. They are biting off way more than they can chew.
In April, Cecil discovers there is a plot for Mary to escape to Scotland, after being given some letters to that effect, which had been discovered by Mary’s dear father-in-law and current regent, Lennox. Later that same month, Cecil orders the arrest of one of Leslie’s secretaries. They find in his possession some encrypted letters, and a copy of a manuscript penned by an archbishop that defended Mary.
In case you’d forgotten what a cunning buttface Cecil could be, he plants someone to worm their way into the secretary’s trust. Once he’s achieved this, the secretary asks him to deliver some encoded letters from various people to Leslie. The plant, of course, takes them straight to Cecil, who has them copied before sending them on to their intended recipient.
After this, Cecil… questions the secretary, who gives up enough details of the key to the cypher that the letters were written in to allow Cecil to crack it.
In May, Cecil detains Leslie. He kinda’ freaks out, and blabs enough to implicate himself, Norfolk, and Mary in the Rudolfi plot. In fact, he freaks out so much that he basically agrees to any statement suggested to him, regardless of how absurd it was. Like a claim that Mary was involved in not only the death of Darnley, but even that of her first husband, Francis. Which would make literally no sense for her to do.
Elizabeth orders Mary kept on a tighter leash – she lowers the number of people Mary is allowed to have in her entourage, and insists on stricter limitations on Mary’s outdoor time.
In July the pope authorises some archbishops to begin the process of nullifying Mary’s marriage to Bothwell.
In September, one of Norfolk’s allies sends him a bunch of money. Norfolk entrusts some of it to an agent to take to Mary’s chief ally in Scotland, one Lord Grange, who was currently holding Edinburgh in her name. Instead, the messenger takes it to Cecil.
Armed with this knowledge of Norfolk’s actions, he has Norfolk’s house searched, where he discovers a bunch of Mary’s encrypted letters aaaaand the key for deciphering them. Never keep your cypher key with the cypher text, guys. Kind of defeats the whole purpose if you do.
Norfolk is back in the tower again by September, just shy of a year since his release from there. He is soon joined by Leslie. Mary’s entourage is cut down to 16 people and she is moved again.
Also in September, her dear, darling father-in-law and regent of Scotland, Lennox, got himself killed in a fight engineered by his rivals. The guy who takes his place is called Mar.
Cecil’s not done getting his hands on things meant for other people, and subsequently intercepts a letter from Ridolfi to Mary. He has even stricter restrictions placed on Mary’s freedom, and she’s basically confined to her chambers.
And there were months and there were more months, and that was the end of the third year. And God saw it and it was… very obviously going downhill.
In January of 1572, Norfolk is tried for treason, and found guilty. Which should mean instant death penalty. Which is definitely what parliament wants. In fact, parliament would rather like the death penalty for Mary, too. But Elizabeth hesitates for a few months over what to do. She signs and recalls Norfolk’s death warrant several times. However, in June, in order to get parliament to shut up about having Mary executed, she agrees to the execution of Norfolk. Sucks to be him.
At the same time, she also dispatches messengers to Mary, accusing her of trying to strengthen her claim to the English throne by attempting to marry Norfolk and participating in the Rudolfi plot. Mary responds basically the same way she did when they were setting up the inquiry: she recognises none but God as having the authority to try her, but she will respond to the accusation to Elizabeth in person.
Also at the same time, the threat Mary represents in underlined to Cecil and Elizabeth when they receive news of the fact that in France, Catholics had just massacred 5,000 Huguenots, i.e.: not Catholics. Elizabeth sends a messenger to Scotland to alert them of this, and the raise in threat level, but also to discuss returning Mary to Scotland so she can be put on trial for Darnley’s murder, and executed.
Mar, the new regent, is receptive of the proposals, but before they can finish ironing out the details he dies in October. Natural causes, this time. To be honest, at this point I’m kind of surprised there aren’t rumours that the regency is cursed because of what they did to Mary.
Another guy, Morton, who had also been involved in all the plotting and scheming over the last however many years, takes over. He drops the plans. He doesn’t want Mary back.
One final thing that happens in in 1572 is that Cecil resigns from his position as the Queen’s secretary of state, and becomes the lord treasurer instead.
And there were months and there were more months, and that was the end of the third year. And God saw it and it was… yikes.
In late May of 1573 Morton, the new new regent, leads his forces against the entrenched Lord Granger in Edinburgh, and defeats him. He is promptly executed. After this, things calm down for the next few years. Elizabeth tries a couple of times to negotiate restitutions with Morton, but they don’t go anywhere.
In December of 1573, someone is appointed to Cecil’s old position of principal secretary. This introduces our final player for this story. He’s some guy called Francis Walsingham. If you don’t recognise the name, you may still recognise him by the title he is often given today: the Queen’s spymaster. As awesome as that title is, it doesn’t really do justice to Walsingham’s career as a whole, and places undue emphasis on the spying-related parts. If you’ve consumed contemporary fiction media that portrays Walsingham, it’s possibly been more myth than man. Having said that, our focus today is, indeed, on the spy stuff.
Anyway, on with the march of time. Mary’s advisor, Leslie, in released in 1774 and heads off to France. In 1775, Mary appoints him her ambassador to the pope. Leslie also initiated proceedings for her annulment from Bothwell, which still hadn’t happened. At the same time, more potential husband options are being floated, with accompanying discussions of how to free her. However, the prime marriage candidate dies of typhoid in 1778. Also in 1778, Bothwell pops his clogs. RIP, buttwad.
There were rumours when he died that he’d made a death bed confession of his, Moray’s and Morton’s involvement in Darnley’s death, and exonerating Mary of any involvement. But rumours of the existence of such a confession were already abroad a couple of years before he had the decency to die. Mary had heard about the supposed confession back then, which of course, was written down. She’d sent someone – actually, one of her four Mary’s – to try and determine if it was legit or not, because if it was, that’d kinda be useful to our Mary. However it was… probably a forgery, since some of the people who had supposedly witnessed the confession were actually already dead at the time (Warnicke 2006: 21-13).
Now, I haven’t mentioned it every time it happened, but Mary was not a well person, and frequently suffered bouts of illness whilst she had been in Scotland. The next few years in England were even rougher on her health. In 1777 she gets so ill that she actually draws up her will. Despite the physicians who attended Mary telling Elizabeth that she needed exercise and time outdoors for the sake of her health, Elizabeth is disinclined to allow it.
This plague of illnesses continues for the rest of Mary’s life. She’s frequently bed-ridden, can’t walk, or walks with a heavy limp due to swelling in her left leg, foot and side. She has sciatica and swelling is her right hand and arm, too. She suffers from insomnia, and several other things.
In 1581, the Curse of the Regency claims it’s last victim. James had come of age – by which I mean, he was 13 – making him king, and no longer requiring a regent. James has Morton executed for treason and the murder of Darnley – James’s father. Mary’s allies might be dropping like flies, but at least so are her enemies.
Also in 1581, Mary attempts to open negotiations about the possibility of a joint rule with her son.
In November, Elizabeth sends some advisors to discuss the possibility of this joint-rule. Things get interrupted by James being kidnapped in 1582, but he escapes after about 10 months and resumes his rule.
In 1583 Elizabeth permits negotiations about the joint-rule to resume, but cancels them again in August. Mary is still not just pursuing one course of action, and continues corresponding with allies who might liberate her. This particular plot, known as the Throckmorton plot, is discovered in November of that year, by Walsingham and his spies. And the key player, Throckmorton, is executed. But not before implicating Mary in the plot. This increases the desire among many of Elizabeth’s lords to see Mary’s head forcibly removed from her body. Elizabeth ignores them.
In 1584, concerned about the threat Mary continued to present to Elizabeth and England, and probably also to set parameters under which they could kill Mary, the English council write… a bond. The bond committed its signatories to defend Elizabeth, and to ‘prosecute to death’ not just anyone involved in any assassination attempt, but also the person under whose name the attempt was committed. So if anyone revolts in the name of Mary, she can be executed. The next year, 1585, an act was passed that modified the original wording of the bond, and changed the ‘prosecute to death’ part to a commitment to creating a special commission for a trial. Which would still totally end in execution. Everyone knows that this bond is aimed specifically at Mary. Including Mary.
When she hears about this act, Mary realises that it’s a cover by which those who wanted her dead would be able to execute her on the pretext of preserving Elizabeth’s life (Warnicke 2006: 224). And she’s not exactly wrong. She takes the step of herself endorsing the act to demonstrate that she’s super not down with any conspirators. From the point of view of potential conspirators, the act means that they need to make sure they free Mary before killing Elizabeth, ‘cause otherwise someone else would probably get to Mary before they did, and kill her, too (Warnicke 2006: 225).
In 1586 we reach the final plot in this saga; the one that will get Mary killed. This one is known as the Babington plot. Shockingly, it involves a guy called Anthony Babington.
The plan involves Spain invading, an uprising among the English Catholics, the assassination of Elizabeth, and the freeing of Mary. Babington begins to discuss the plan with Mary, via encrypted letters.
Unfortunately for Mary, Walsingham is still monitoring all her communications. Which means that even though the letters were written in a cypher, and even though they’re being smuggled to and from Mary by being hidden in the corks of beer barrels, Walsingham is intercepting them all and having them copied before being sent on to their intended recipient.
On the 6th of July, Babington writes to Mary proposing an invasion, rescue, and the assassination of Elizabeth by six men. On the 17th of July, Mary replies, agreeing to the plan. Including the killing Elizabeth part.
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about these letters, and the cypher. Because cryptography is cool. Today, we can encrypt messages in ways that are basically impossible for humans to crack. But in Europe, in the 1500s, the primary method of encoding messages was the substitution cypher. Where… you substitute one thing for another.
The cypher Babington came up with had mixed elements. The simplest part involved substituting each letter of the alphabet for a symbol. Babington’s symbols included some numbers, some Greek letters, some alchemical symbols and some that… I don’t know what they are.
Now this kind of cypher is pretty easy to crack using frequency analysis. If you know what language someone is writing in, you can use a sample text to figure out the frequency at which various letters appear, and apply that model to the encoded text. If ‘e’ is the most common letter in English, and 7 is the most common symbol occurring in the message, then there’s a decent chance that 7 is ‘e’.
So Babington includes another element that makes it a bit safer: he includes four ‘null’ symbols. These are symbols that don’t stand for anything at all, but you can pepper them throughout the text to throw off an attempt at frequency analysis. Instead of representing the letter ‘e’, 7 might represent nothing at all. This makes it a bit harder to solve, but a decent code-breaker could still figure it out. And Walsingham had a code-breaker who was one of the best in the business: Thomas Phellipes.
Another little detail Babington adds to his cypher is a symbol indicating that the proceeding letter needed to be written twice. So, in the word ‘written’, there are two ‘t’s in the middle of the word. Instead of writing, ‘eta, eta’ (which is the actual value Babington assigned to the letter ‘t’, by the way), you’d use the symbol that indicated a double letter, and then a single eta.
But Babington’s not done. Another type of cipher, known as a nomenclator is also added to the mix. Nomenclators use the same principle of substitution, but on the word level, rather than on the individual letter level. So you have one symbol that represents a whole word, rather than different symbols for each of its constituent letters. In themselves, nomenclators can be hella clunky. If you’re substituting symbols for letters, you’re only using 26 symbols. And even if you throw in some nulls and a double symbol, you’re still only dealing with a fairly limited number. Enough that you can write it all down on a single, small piece of paper. But when you’re substituting symbols for whole words, the number of symbols you need to provide to the person you want to be able to decode the message shoots through the roof.
The last nine sentences I’ve just read contain 141 words, and over 80 unique words. So even to encode that, I’d have to use 80 different symbols. And if you want to write a series of letters, you end up with enough symbols that you’d have to provide an entire book for it to be decoded. Which is hardly practical. And would require a lot of beer barrels.
Babington only assigns 10 symbols to represent whole words, which makes the code a little bit harder to crack, but far from impossible. I’ll post a photo of the key to Babington’s cypher on twitter, and there’ll be a link in the show notes to that. Unfortunately for Babington, his cypher was no match for Phellipes. With each letter he was given a copy of, Phellipes had more and more data to help him in his efforts. Frequency analysis provided a starting point, and trial and error helped rule out the nulls. Eventually, all that was left unsolved were the code words, whose meaning could be gleaned from examining the context in which they occurred. When Phellipes deciphered the letter Mary sent agreeing to the plan, he understood exactly how damning it was. He drew a little symbol representing the gallows on his decoded transcript.
Walsingham now has enough evidence of Mary’s involvement, but he’d still ideally like to know who these six men are who are supposed to assassinate Elizabeth. He gets Phellipes to forge a postscript to the letter, fishing for information about the men, and how they intended to go about their plot.
However, Babington doesn’t get a chance to give a full reply. He only has time to send a brief note, because needs to go abroad to organise things on the continent. And he actually has to register with Walsinham’s department in order to get a passport. When the guy manning the office realises who Babington is, he stalls for time by taking Babington to a nearby tavern for a beer and a meal, whilst his assistants gather some soldiers for support. A note arrives informing him that they’re ready to arrest Babington, but because it’s a note, and written down, Babington manages to see it. He pulls the classic move of saying he was going to pay, and then legging it. In order to evade arrest he cuts his hair short, and stains his dainty, white, aristocratic skin with walnut juice to give himself a tan. Walnut juice is actually still used in self-tanning lotions today.
It doesn’t work, though. He is caught ten days later, and rounded up with many of his co-conspirators. In September, 1586, They’re tried, and found guilty, and sentenced to death. Babington and six other conspirators were executed on the 20th. Not in the comparatively kind ‘off with their heads’ style, but in full, ‘hanged until nearly dead, then cut down, castrated, and disembowelled’ style. It was considered pretty nasty even at the time, and the next group of conspirators executed the day after were probably delighted to learn that they’d be hanged until definitely dead, and only then castrated and disembowelled.
Once more, Elizabeth appoints a commission for a trial of Mary. She appoints 48 commissioners, though six of them refuse to attend. Mary’s past strategy, of declaring that, as a queen, no one but God had the right to judge her, does not work this time. There’s going to be a trial whether she likes it or not. Mary’s trial begins on 15th of October at Fotheringhay Castle. Mary maintains that she is innocent. Yes, she consented to plots to try and free her, including ones that involved other countries invading to that end, but she had nothing to do with the plot to assassinate Elizabeth. When presented with the deciphered letters from Mary herself, history repeats itself: she declares that they have been tampered with, and asks to see the originals. Guess what doesn’t happen.
Now, some scholars do now question the authenticity of parts of the fatal letter. They think it’s possible that Phellipes not only forged the transcript, which we know for certain that he did, but also inserted the only direct reference made to the six unnamed men and their ‘design’. They point out that Mary discusses every other detail of the plot in depth, but not the assassination. There are several other arguments that I won’t get into (Warnicke 2006: 235-38). Personally, I found them reasonable enough for this to be a real possibility, but not at all conclusive. Ultimately, we’ll never be able to know, because the original drafts of Mary’s letters, which would give us a source free from any forged additions, were burned by her advisors. This time, the letter burning doesn’t really work in her favour.
Despite the fact that one of them had already written to Elizabeth in September denying Mary had anything to do with the plot, the same two advisors who had burned her letters, confirmed statements they had made when they were arrested admitting Mary’s involvement. Mary suspects that these confessions were obtained under fear of death, or perhaps that they had been bribed (Warnicke 2006: 244). Later, both men, one to Mary’s son, and the other in a deathbed confession, would claim that Mary had nothing to do with the plot (Warnicke 2006: 245).
Mary is found guilty.
The commissioners recommend the death penalty. Elizabeth is, as she had always been, reluctant. Mary is still a queen, and still Elizabeth’s cousin. As always, the potential repercussions for setting a precedent under which a queen can be tried and executed, along with the international reaction, loom above. Parliament continues to press for Mary’s death. On the 4th of December, a few days before Mary’s 44th birthday, her sentence is publically declared. But Elizabeth still procrastinates on signing the death warrant. She actually tries to get Mary’s keeper to… find a way to make Mary’s life shorter, but he refuses. On the 19th of December, Mary writes her final letter to Elizabeth, her cousin, and a woman who, despite all Mary’s efforts, she had never met. She makes requests for how her body should be treated after her death, and pleads that she not be assassinated, possibly having heard of Elizabeth’s suggestion to her keeper. She forgives everyone involved for their crimes against her, but reminds Elizabeth that one day, she too will die, and be forced to give an account of her actions before God. Mary doesn’t write short letters, but here’s part of that final letter:
Now having been informed, on your part, of the sentence passed in the last session of your Parliament, and admonished by Lord Beale to prepare myself for the end of my long and weary pilgrimage, I prayed them to return my thanks to you for such agreeable intelligence, and to ask you to grant some things for the relief of my conscience…
I will not accuse any person, but sincerely pardon every one, as I desire others, and, above all, God, to pardon me. And since I know that your heart, more than that of any other, ought to be touched by the honour or dishonour of your own blood, and of a Queen, the daughter of a king, I require you, Madam, for the sake of Jesus, that after my enemies have satisfied their black thirst for my innocent blood, you will permit my poor disconsolate servants to remove my corpse, that it may be buried in holy ground, with my ancestors in France, especially the late Queen my mother, since in Scotland the remains of the Kings my predecessors have been outraged, and the churches torn down and profaned.
As I shall suffer in this country, I shall not be allowed a place near your ancestors, who are also mine, and persons of my religion think much of being interred in consecrated earth. I trust you will not refuse this last request I have preferred to you, and allow, at least, free sepulture to this body when the soul shall be separated from it, which never could obtain, while united, liberty to dwell in peace…
…Dreading the secret tyranny of some of those to whom you have abandoned me, I entreat you to prevent me from being dispatched secretly, without your knowledge, not from fear of the pain, which I am ready to suffer, but on account of the reports they would circulate after my death. It is therefore that I desire my servants to remain witnesses and attestators of my end, my faith in my Saviour, and obedience to His church… This I require of you in the name of Jesus Christ in respect to our consanguinity, for the sake of King Henry VII, your great-grandfather and mine, for the dignity we have both held, and for the sex to which we both belong.
I beseech the God of mercy and justice to enlighten you with His holy Spirit, and to give me the grace to die in perfect charity, as I endeavour to do, pardoning my death to all those who have either caused or cooperated in it; and this will be my prayer to the end…
Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered, wherefor from the earliest dawn of your comprehension we ought to dispose our minds to make things temporal yield to those of eternity.
Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner, Mary, Queen of Scotland.
On the 1st of February, 1587, Elizabeth signed the warrant for Mary’s death. On the third of February, Elizabeth’s privy council met, and decided that the warrant should be acted on immediately.
The document was then taken to Fotheringhay, where Mary was being kept. She was informed of her fate on the 7th of February.
She was executed the next day.
Perhaps the most discussed aspect of Mary’s execution is Elizabeth’s reaction, and whether she truly intended the warrant she signed to be acted upon immediately. Elizabeth claimed she had intended the document only to be held ready for immediate use in the case of any future plots or issues. The guy who she’d given the signed warrant to claimed she had made it clear it was to be acted upon immediately. Obviously, at the time, one of those person’s words held a lot more power than the other’s.
Whatever the case, letters had finally succeeded in bringing about Mary’s downfall, and she had finally ceased to be a threat to Elizabeth.
In 1603, Elizabeth, last of the Tudor monarchs dies, and Mary’s son becomes James VI of Scotland, and James I of England. The two countries are finally united under one ruler.
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Alternatively, write me an encrypted letter, forge a forged postscript, and then send it to me.
Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always, if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that has just managed to spend two episodes talking about plots to assassinate kings and queens without mentioning the word ‘regicide’.
The voice of Mary Queen of Scots was: Christina, of the Cults, Cryptids, Conspiracies podcast.
The voice in your ears has been: a central figure in Walsingham’s spy network.
- Adams, S., Bryson, A., & Leimon, M. (2009) ‘Walsingham, Sir Francis’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford Online.
- Collinson, P. (2012) ‘Elizabeth I’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
- Goodare, J. (2007) ‘Mary (Mary Stewart)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography*, Oxford Online.
- Graves, M. A. R. (2008) ‘Howard, Thomas, Fourth Duke of Norfolk’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
- Singh, S. (2001) The Code Book: How to Make it, Break it, Hack it, Crack it, Delacorte Press.
- Warnicke, R. (2006) Mary Queen of Scots, Routledge.
- Williams, K. (2018) Rival Queens, Random House.
- Williams, P. (2015) ‘Babington, Anthony’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.