ON THIS DAY: 8 February 1587

Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot, which involved the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. She was convicted of treason by a court of 36 noblemen, including The Lord Burghley, William Cecil; George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury; and Francis Walsingham. Although Mary had been convicted on 25 October, Elizabeth did not sign the death warrant until 1 February because she was unsure of the reaction of her subjects.

The scaffold, draped in black cloth, was erected in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle. Mary, 44 years old, had spent nineteen years in prison. She was disrobed of her outer garments and blindfolded with a white veil before she knelt on a cushion in preparation. Unfortunately, it took several blows to sever her head, with the first blow striking the back of her head. The second blow did not completely sever the head, and the executioner was forced to finish the job using a different axe. As the executioner held Mary’s head up high, declaring ‘God Save the Queen,’ the auburn wig she had been wearing fell to the ground, revealing Mary’s short, grey hair, humiliating her further.