Sunday, November 16, 2008

Question from Zinna - Legality of Mary Queen of Scots' execution

How could Mary Queen of Scot be executed as a traitor if she was not Elizabeth's subject?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mary Stuart had been residing in England as a "guest" (prisoner) of the Crown for almost 20 years by the time she was charged and executed. Though not a subject of the English Crown, her longtime residency in England required her to obey English law nonetheless, just as any foreigner living in England had to obey English law. Mary violated English law by allegedly plotting the death of the monarch, a capital offense.

I have never seen the original indictment, so I have to wonder whether Mary Stuart was charged with "treason" precisely, or was instead charged with "plotting Elizabeth's death," without using the word "treason" in the indictment. It's outside of my period of study, so I don't know. But it would certainly make sense. Foose, I have the suspicion that you may know? Or perhaps KB?

Foose said...

I appreciate the confidence, but I always found Mary's trial and its legal foundations very murky myself, as she was not Elizabeth's subject and a sovereign queen in her own right.

I'm not sure she was charged with treason -- the structure of her trial was modelled on a Tudor treason trial (no defense lawyer, no calling of defense witnesses, no examination of hostile witnesses by the accused), but I understand she was actually tried by a special commission authorized by Parliament as part of the "Act for the Queen's Safety." In the words of historian John Guy:

"The 'Act for the Queen's Safety' ... dealt ... with two contingencies, each devised with Mary in mind and paving the way for her trial and execution. The first concerned a claimant to the throne (i.e. Mary) who was involved in an invasion, rebellion, or plot. In such a case, a commission of Privy Councillors and other Lords of Parliament, assisted by the judges, was to hear the evidence and promulgate its verdict by royal proclamation."

After that, it was a matter of waiting for Mary to conspire, or to encourage her to conspire.

Diane said...

I imagine that Elizabeth had to finally concede that Mary Stuart did have a legitimate claim by blood to the English throne through her descent from Henry VII. Since Elizabeth would not acknowledge the Grey sisters as her heirs, Mary was next in line. Thus she could claim that Mary was in a sense her subject even though Mary was also a Queen in her own right. So when Mary was found guilty of plotting to murder Elizabeth to gain the English throne that gave Elizabeth the right to execute Mary as she would any other subject who'd plotted against her.

Tracey said...

I think Elizabeth felt the entire situation was murky, too!

kb said...

Echoing Foose - thanks for the vote of confidence.

I've held a long fascination on the legality issue under discussion. Essentially, the law was changed in order to make it legal to execute Mary. This was a long struggle between the more protestant forces around the queen and Elizabeth herself. The context is also important as William of Orange had recently been assassinated by a catholic bullet.

While Elizabeth was conservative on the rights of monarchy, her council was less so. The Bond of Association that eventually turned into the Act for the Queen's Safety explicitly called on those who joined (signed the bond) to kill anyone who threatened the queen. Elizabeth modified the bond so that heirs to the throne were not automatic targets.

When I first looked at this issue I decided that the law was changed in order to make Mary's legal execution possible. That was a long time ago. I'll see if I can track down the wording.

Olivia said...

yes, i agree for the most part
she was a "resident" if not a permanent one, of england and the time, and as such, the queen had the power of life over her. she also, i think, put her safety to elizabeth's charge when she fled scotland. but i agree, she was a queen in her own right, AND elizabeth's cousin..hmm

Tracey said...

It would be interesting to look at this from the stand-point of today...if country Number One's leader was 'a guest' of Country Number Two's leader and Number One was declared guilty of trying to assassinate Number Two...all with the total indifference of Number One's constituency and with sufficient evidence (of which supposedly there was against Mary, QoS).

My opinion, although we are asking about the real legality of a real execution, would be that Number Two was within their rights to have Number One executed.

djd said...

Legal or not, Elizabeth sure did not want to be held accountable for it. Although she signed the warrant, she told the person she gave it to not to deliver it quite yet. Well, we all know it was delivered and the execution completed. I read that Elizabeth even threw some of her own men in the tower for being part of implementing the death warrant. I think she was brilliant and cleverly eliminated a serious threat to her life and thrown, while saving face with those who might take great offense - like her son, James.

kb said...

From the Bond of Association for the defense of Queen Elizabeth, 1584,
'...and finding of late by divers parts from credible persons well known to her majesty's Council and to divers others, that for the furtherance and advertisement of some pretended titles to the crown of this realm it hath been manifest that the life of our gracious sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, hath been most traitorously and devilishly sought...'

So clearly aimed at Mary QoS (pretended titles) and the use of 'traiterously'.

In a contemporary copy of Elizabeth's reply to Parliament who was urging Mary's execution [November 12, 1586]

'And now, as touching that person which with so foul treasons hath stained her estate and blood as I cannot think of her but to my grief, ... after these last conspiracies and treasons were discovered unto me, of myself I sent and wrote unto her....'

Then later in the same speech Elizabeth goes on about the legality of the situation, haranguing Parliament that they lose the meaning of the law in following the words and syllables to closely. Her point being that although common law would have required an open trial with a jury of common men she overrode this and appointed jurors of ancient nobility (not so ancient peers actually).

I believe it was Davison that she imprisoned. He was the secretary who delivered the signed execution order to the privy council without, so Elizabeth claimed, explicit instructions to do so.

Anonymous said...

Please correct me if I am wrong (I fear I may be) but hadn't Mary been forced to abdicate the throne by this point in favor of James? Not that this changes the issue of her not being an English subject; but it is a bit different than executing a reigning monarch.

djd said...

Yes, Mary QOS had abdicated - I think she was pretty much forced to do it. If I remember correctly, Elizabeth was troubled about executing Mary because she was an annointed queen and her first cousin. I think Mary had been trying to get Elizabeth to assist her in reclaiming her thrown in Scotland, but all the conspiracy theories were getting in the way.

kb said...

Actually Mary was Elizabeth's first cousin once removed. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were Elizabeth's great-grandparents while they were only Mary's grandparents.

And Elizabeth didn't have a problem so much with the relationship, after all she had her first cousin once removed Thomas Howard duke of Norfolk executes, as she was with Mary being an anointed queen and the possible political ramifications.

Lara said...

KB - I think you got that flipped - H7 and E of Y were Elizabeth's grandparents and Mary's great-grandparents. :)

kb said...

Probably - thanks for catching that Lara. I've been having several of these 'dyslexic' moments recently. I'm writing it off to post thesis/dissertation exhaustion.

Lara said...

A perfectly legitimate reason! Heck, my brain is still mush after 4 days of hearing talks on Galaxy Evolution...