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February 8, 1587 – The Last Letter of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart’s last letter (Creative Commons License via the National Library of Scotland)

Mary, Mary, Mary. As much as she was a victim of circumstance and a pawn of ambitious people around her, she really did dig her own grave when she conspired against Elizabeth…Six hours before she was executed, Mary Stuart wrote her final letter – to Henri III of France, the brother of her first husband. In it, she continued to maintain that she was innocent of the charges against her, and that she was being persecuted only because of her Catholic faith. Perhaps she was not aware of how clear the case was against her – give the coded letters written by her own hand sanctioning the assassination of Elizabeth – or perhaps it was all bravado. Either way, her attention was now clearly on her legacy.

To the most Christian king, my brother and old ally.

Royal brother, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

Wednesday, at two in the morning
Your most loving and most true sister  

Mary R  


National Library of Scotland, with their full collection of manuscripts and archives. They also have a series of pages dedicated to this letter – showing the images of each page, the French transcription and the English translation. Please go visit – it is sublime!

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Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches


    • I do believe the Casket Letters may well have been forgeries – the Scottish lords did want her gone! But I don’t think there was ever any question about her involvement with Babington. That was the letter that got her killed….

  1. I think Belloc raised Catholic ire but really blamed Cecil and Walsingham. Belloc had an underlying grudging respect for Elizabeth (“nevertheless we must admit her greatness. A warped distorted, diseased greatness, but greatness none the less.”).

      • That is exactly where I had a half memory about Belloc disagreeing.

        I could be wrong, he could have justified Mary Queen of Scots simply by the ONLY fact that Elizabeth was an usurper and a tyrant.

        That is why I asked what Belloc had written on the subject.

  2. Or, wait, was Babington plot AFTER her incarceration?

    In that case Belloc’s justification may have been simply that Elizabeth had started the treasons, by putting her in prison when she sought political asylum.

    • You just answered your own question! Babington was after she’d been incarcerated for a while, it was what led directly to her execution- and Belloc did blame Elizabeth for Mary’s treason!

      • Well, if Elizabeth was illegitimate, if on top of that she was betraying the trust of a person seeking help who was legitimate heir, but who had waivered her claims so as to get help, it is hardly treason, is it?

        However, was Belloc admitting she knew of Babington plot including an attempt of assassination?

        I have a half memory she had been kept in the dark about that part, due to her being a lady, but as said it was ten years ago and more, so I could be wrong.

  3. Sorry, I’m not an expert on Belloc – he’s not known as a reliable contemporary source 😉 My answers have been gleaned from the quotes and the references I was able to find, but he may well have said more on the subject (his writings were extensive!). My understanding is that there was no issue of the authenticity of the letter, written in Mary’s hand. Rather, the Catholics simply viewed every aspect of this as unfair and illegal – not only, as you note, because they believed Mary was the legitimate Queen of England, but also because the Babington Plot had no chance of succeeding yet Elizabeth’s ministers allowed it to play out – well after they’d discovered it – for the express purpose of trapping Mary. But I understand that you are struggling with a very particular reference and I don’t want to steer you wrong.

    I did find a blog that might be able to help you – because it’s about Belloc specifically! I didn’t inquire to the blogger myself because I thought the two of you would enjoy this conversation…Please let me know what you discover, my interest is piqued!

  4. Being a Catholic myself, I agree Elizabeth was not legitimate Queen.

    But “because the Babington plot had no chance of succeeding” might be what I recalled.

    Not sure the Belloc blog deals specifically with that chapter in his History of England, but I will enjoy it anyway.

  5. Linda Root Linda Root

    Janet, as you know from our discussions, I believe the casket letters to be a cut and paste job. But once she fled to England they became almost irrelevant. Even Elizabeth declared herself unable to resolve issues of their origin. But as time passed and Elizabeth aged without giving birth to an heir, the mystigue of Marie Stuart made her a greater threat. She was always impetuous, and frustrations over her situations caused her to relax her guard, Then came Walsingham and the clever Cecils. She had resisted responding to offers to liberate her and place her on the English throne until the Bablington plot developed but yes, there is no question she willingly endorsed it.

    • On your recommendation, I read John Guy’s biography. Amazing, thank you. I agree that the Casket Letters were falsified, but Marie’s judgment was often flawed: Darnley, Bothwell – all the times she tried to embrace the feminine model. And yet, she ensured the dynastic future. In her end was indeed her beginning. It was redemption.

  6. Barbara Cross-Nicolosi Barbara Cross-Nicolosi

    Hiya: New subscriber here; so a bit late in replying to this post.

    In John Guy’s excellent biography, ‘Queen of Scots’ he writes prolifically on the casket letters and asserts ample evidence of the letters being highly amended (words erased and added) by Mary’s enemies and passed off as her own. I feel that Mary, especially from the time she arrived in Scotland, was conspired against from so many sides that she never really had a chance to succeed. Of course she did some reckless things and made mistakes by virtue of her doubtless being so miserable and hopeless at various times in her life. That being said; Elizabeth had the power to save her from disgrace and death; but in end chose not to do so.

    • Welcome! And I totally agree that the Casket Letters were likely amended…but when I speak of the evidence against her, I’m talking about her decision to participate in that final plot with Babington. That is what finally forced Elizabeth’s hand.

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