Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots

Steve - May 9, 2019

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

3. Correct: Expressing accurately the difficulty placed upon Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen was nevertheless compelled to sign her cousin’s death warrant after Mary became closely implicated in an assassination plot against the English monarch

Neglected for the most part by Mary, Queen of Scots, the period of Mary’s imprisonment, and accordingly the series of plots against Elizabeth I, received limited airing. Executing the Duke of Norfolk after discovery of the Ridolfi Plot – a scheme to replace Elizabeth with Mary through the aid of Spanish troops – in 1571, following the Throckmorton Plot in 1583 the Bond of Association and Act for the Queen’s Safety was passed. Sanctioning the death of any individual who plotted against Elizabeth, the Babington Plot of 1586, which sought to assassinate Elizabeth, was to be Mary’s ultimate downfall.

Consenting to the plot in letters intercepted by the Queen’s men, although Mary protested the words were not written by her hand but instead forged, the Babington Plot wished to supplant Elizabeth and restore a Catholic monarchy in England. Arrested whilst out riding, Mary was placed on trial for treason in October 1586. Continuing to assert her innocence, as will be discussed Elizabeth did not desire her cousin’s death. However, part of Mary’s defense was her status as a queen, placing her above the judgment of English courts, inexcusably putting Elizabeth in an awkward position. Relenting at last, Elizabeth was forced to order Mary’s death for her alleged crimes.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Focus Features.

2. Wrong: Elizabeth did not sign the death warrant of Mary Stuart surrounded by councilors in a special meeting, nor did the English Queen probably intend for her cousin to be executed at that time

As depicted in Mary, Queen of Scots, overlooking the nineteen years of Mary’s captivity in England, hastily compressed into only a couple of scenes at the end of the movie is the eponymous character’s death. Concluding with Mary’s execution, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth finally signed a death warrant for her cousin and entrusted it into the care of William Davison. Unlike in the film, however, Elizabeth did not sign the warrant with any pomp or circumstance, nor did she in front of her privy councilors. Instead, it is likely the order was signed as part of a routine series of documents in private without special comment.

Similarly ignored by Mary, Queen of Scots was the immediate aftermath of the execution itself. Having been called, in secret, a meeting of some members of the privy council on February 3, it was agreed to carry out the execution immediately. Beheading Mary on February 8, the sentence was performed without Elizabeth being informed of the proceedings. Reportedly becoming outraged and irate, it is unclear whether Elizabeth’s anger was merely for show as a form of plausible deniability or if she had not actually intended to kill her cousin. Imprisoning Davison in the Tower of London, the unfortunate noble was only released after other councilors interceded on his behalf.

Major History Mistakes Made in the Movie Mary, Queen of Scots
Still from Mary, Queen of Scots, depicting the execution of Mary I of Scotland in 1587 (2018). Focus Features.

1. Wrong: Cutting to black with a swing the executioner’s ax, implying the sudden beheading of Mary Stuart, the execution of the former Queen of Scotland was, in fact, a botched affair

Informed on the evening of February 7, 1587, that she was to die the following morning, Mary Stuart walked freely and with dignity onto the scaffold erected in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle. As depicted accurately in Mary, Queen of Scots, two servants removed their mistresses outer garments to reveal a crimson petticoat: the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church. Accepting a blindfold, unlike in the film whereupon she refuses it, Mary, Queen of Scots ends by cutting to black as the executioner swings his ax down upon the neck of the condemned and praying Mary.

Strongly implying Mary’s sudden death, the real-life execution of the Queen of Scots was far less clean. Having accepted per convention the apologies of the executioner, replying “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”, the pardoned soul incompetently bungled his task. The first blow failed to behead the slender woman, missing Mary’s neck and striking instead the back of her head. Unsuccessful with his second swing, the next attempt severed Mary’s neck albeit not entirely, remaining connected by pieces of sinew. Forced to cut through the remnants with his ax, the executioner finally completed his gruesome objective.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Mary Queen of Scots”, Antonia Fraser, Delta Publishing (1993)

“‘My Heart is my Own’: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots”, John Guy, Fourth Estate Publishing (2004)

“Why Mary Queen of Scots Isn’t Another All-White Biopic”, Rebecca Farley, Refinery 29 (December 10, 2018)

“Mary, Queen of Scots”, Jenny Wormald, George Philip Publishing (1988)

“Elizabeth I: The Golden Reign of Gloriana”, David Loades”, The National Archives (2003)

“The Life and Times of Elizabeth I”, Neville Williams, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1972)

“These Letters Tell the Inside Story of Mary, Queen of Scots’ Imprisonment”, Brigit Katz, The Smithsonian Magazine (January 8, 2018)

“Mary Queen of Scots”, Retha M. Warnicke, Routledge Publishing (2006)

“Queen Elizabeth I”, Susan Doran, British Library (2003)

“Elizabeth I”, Christopher Haigh, Longman Pearson (2000)

“Elizabethan England: History of Fashion and Costume Book Three”, Alex Woolf and Kathy Elgin, Facts on File (2005)

“Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare: 1564-1616”, Sarah Jane Downing, Shire Publications (2014)

“Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley”, Alison Weir, Ballantine Books (2003)

“Elizabeth I”, Anne Somerset, Anchor Books (2003)

“Queen Elizabeth I: A Biography”, J.E. Neale, Jonathan Cape (1934)

“Elizabeth the Queen”, Alison Weir, Ballantine Books (1999)

“Scotland’s Story: A New Perspective”, Tom Steel, William Collins Sons and Company (1984)

“Darnley: A Life of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots”, Caroline Bingham, Constable Publishing (1995)

“Mary, Queen of Scots”, Rosalind Marshall, National Museums of Scotland (2013)

“The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots: A Brief History With Documents”, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Bedford Publishing (1999)

“Mary Queen of Scots and French Public Opinion, 1542-1600”, Alexander S. Wilkinson, Palgrave Macmillan (2004)

“The Reign of Elizabeth: 1558-1603”, J.B. Black, Clarendon Publishing (1936)

“Elizabeth I”, Patrick Collison, Oxford University Press (2007)

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