Around eight o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, when it was light enough to see without candles, Sir Thomas Andrews, sheriff of the county of Northamptonshire, knocked on a door. The place was Fotheringhay Castle, about seventy-five miles from London. All that remains there now beneath the weeds is the raised earthen rampart of the inner bailey and a truncated mound, or “motte,” on the site of the keep, a few hundred yards from the village beside a sluggish stretch of the River Nene.
But in the sixteenth century the place was bustling with life. Fotheringhay was a royal manor. Richard III had been born at the castle in 1452. Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings, who had slain Richard at the battle of Bosworth, gave the estate as a dowry to his wife, Elizabeth of York, and Henry VIII granted it to his first bride, Catherine of Aragon, who extensively refurbished the castle. In 1558, Elizabeth I inherited the property when she succeeded to the throne on the death of her elder sister, Mary Tudor.
Despite its royal associations, nothing had prepared Fotheringhay, or indeed the British Isles, for what was about to happen there. Andrews was in attendance on two of England’s highest-ranking noblemen, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Henry Grey, Earl of Kent. The door on which he knocked was the entrance to the privy chamber of Mary Queen of Scots, dowager queen of France and for almost nineteen years Elizabeth’s prisoner in England.
The door opened to reveal Mary on her knees, praying with her bedchamber servants. Andrews informed her that the time was at hand, and she looked up and said she was ready.
She rose, and her gentlewomen stood aside.
She was only forty-four. Born and brought up to be a queen, she walked confidently through the doorway as if she were once more processing to a court festival. Almost six feet tall, she had always looked the part. She had been feted since her childhood in France for her beauty and allure. “Charmante” and “la plus parfaite” were the adjectives most commonly applied to her singular blend of celebrity. Not just physically mesmerizing with her well-proportioned face, neck, arms and waist, she had an unusual warmth of character with the ability to strike up an instant rapport. Always high-spirited and vivacious, she could be unreservedly generous and amiable. She had a razor-sharp wit and was a natural conversationalist. Gregarious as well as glamorous, she could be genial to the point of informality as long as her “grandeur” was respected. Many contemporaries remarked on her almost magical ability to create the impression that the person she was talking to was the only one whose opinion really mattered to her.
As a result of premature aging caused by the inertia and lack of exercise of which she had so bitterly complained during her long captivity, her beauty was on the wane. Her features had thickened and she had rounded shoulders and a slight stoop.
Her face, once legendary for its soft white skin and immaculate, marble-like complexion, had filled out and become double-chinned. But captivity did not alter all things. Her small, deep- set hazel eyes darted as restlessly as ever, and her ringlets of auburn hair seemed as lustrous.
Mary had been awake for most of the night and had carefully prepared herself. This was to be her grandest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail.
Her clothes set the tone. She appeared to be dressed entirely in black apart from a white linen veil.
Lace-edged and as delicate as gauze, it flowed down from her hair over her shoulders to her feet in the French style. Fastened to the top of the veil was a small white cambric cap. It just touched the tip of her forehead and was also edged with lace, leaving room for her curls to peek out at the sides. Her gown of thick black satin reached almost to the ground, where it was attached to her train. Trimmed with gold embroidery and sable, it was peppered with acorn buttons of jet, set with pearl.
A closer look revealed an outer bodice of crimson velvet and an underskirt of embroidered black satin, both visible where the gown was fashionably cut away. To bedeck it, Mary wore long, richly embroidered slashed sleeves in the Italian style, under which could be seen uncut inner sleeves of purple velvet. Her shoes were of the finest Spanish suede. Later someone observed that she wore sky-blue stockings embroidered with silver thread and held up by green silk garters, these on top of soft white stockings < that she used to protect her skin from chafing.
She carried a crucifix of ivory in one hand and a Latin prayer book in the other. A string of rosary beads with a golden cross hung from a girdle at her waist. Around her neck lay a silver or gold chain on which hung a pendant, a medallion bearing the image of Christ as the Lamb of God.
Led by Andrews and followed by the two earls, Mary walked along the corridor and into a larger room where her household was waiting to greet her and bid her farewell. An eyewitness (perhaps the Earl of Kent himself) wrote that she exhorted her servants to fear God and live in obedience. She kissed her women servants and gave her hand to her menservants to kiss. She asked them not to grieve for her, but “to rejoice and pray for her.” One of them afterward reported that she showed no fear and even smiled.
Mary then descended the stairs toward the great hall on the ground floor. Her legs were so swollen and inflamed by rheumatism, she leaned for support on the arms of two soldiers. When the procession reached the anteroom of the hall, they encountered Andrew Melville, her steward, who knelt and fighting back tears cried out, “Madam, it will be the sorrowfullest message that I ever carried, when I shall report that my queen and dear mistress is dead.” Mary answered, also weeping, “You ought to rejoice rather than weep for that the end of Mary Stuart’s troubles is now come.” “Carry this message,” she continued, “and tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman.” As Mary recovered her composure, her mood abruptly changed. She glanced back up the stairs and exclaimed that she was “evil attended.” She demanded “for womanhood’s sake” that her own servants should escort her. She harangued the earls, who became fearful that she would cause an even bigger scene and have to be dragged violently into the great hall.
Shrewsbury feebly claimed that he and Kent were simply following orders. Hearing this, Mary bridled: “Far meaner persons than myself have not been denied so small a favor.” “Madam,” replied Kent, “it cannot well be granted, for that it is feared lest some of them would with speeches both trouble and grieve Your Grace and disquiet the company . . . or seek to wipe their napkins in some of your blood, which were not convenient.” “My lord,” said Mary, “I will give my word and promise for them that they shall not do any such thing.” She could not stop herself adding, “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.” The earls huddled together, whispering inaudibly, then gave in to Mary, who was used to getting her own way. Her two favorite gentlewomen, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, and four of her gen...