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July 17, 1586 – Mary Stuart’s Fateful Letter

Mary Stuart in her cell, as imagined by Philippe-Jacques van Bree
Mary Stuart in her cell, as imagined by Philippe-Jacques van Bree

Mary Stuart is an incredibly controversial character with a history of making bad decisions. She signed away carefully-negotiated Scottish rights in a secret addendum to her marriage contract with the boy who would become Francis II of France     She allowed her powerful uncles to insist that she be styled “Queen of France, Scotland, and England” and eat off plates emblazoned with those arms – a claim that soured her relationship with Elizabeth I.   She doubled down on that claim by marrying Henry, Lord Darnley – a man she came to hate and perhaps helped to murder. She married James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell (who definitely participated in Darnley’s murder). And when her people revolted and forced her to abdicate, she fled to England thinking that Elizabeth would help restore her to her throne.

As we all know, Elizabeth did not support Mary’s fight – instead, Elizabeth worked to manage the threat that Mary presented by keeping her confined in various castles and manor houses in England….for eighteen years. Towards the end of this era, Mary was working harder and harder to escape, to get some throne back (Scotland or England, she wasn’t picky). After a long time of getting away with everything, she finally got careless and committed her participation to writing. Ciphered writing, to be sure, but writing – to a recipient who was already being watched. Another terrible decision, which she doubled down on by getting incredibly detailed…

I’m going to give you the full letter. If you make it all the way to the end, you can also see the postscript that Walsingham had added to tie a ribbon around this gift – a request for the actual names of the people who would be engaging in these treasonous activities…

According to the zeal and entire affection which I have known in you towards the common cause of religion and mine, having always made account of you as a principal and worthy member to be employed in both, it has been no less consolation to me to understand your estate as I have done by your last, and to have found means to renew my intelligence with you, than I have felt grief all this while to be without the same. I pray you therefore from henceforth to write to me as often as you can of all occurrences which you may judge important to the good of my affairs, whereto I shall not fail to correspond with all the care that is in my power.

For divers great considerations, which are too long to be deduced here, I cannot but greatly praise and commend your desire to prevent in time the designs of our enemies for the extirpation of our religion from this realm, with the ruin of us all. I have long ago shown to the foreign Catholic Princes, and experience proves it, that the longer we delay to put hand to the matter on this side the greater leisure have our enemies to prevail over the said Princes, as they have done against the King of Spain.

In the meantime the Catholics here, exposed to all sorts of persecution and cruelty, daily diminish in number, force, means and power, so that, if remedy is not hastily provided, I fear they will become altogether unable to rise again and to receive any aid at all, whenever it were offered them. For my own part I pray you to assure our particular friends that, albeit I have not any particular interest in this cause—that which I may pretend to being of no consideration to me, in respect of the public good of this state, I shall always be ready to employ my life and all I have or may ever look for in this world therein.

Now to ground this enterprise substantially and bring it to good success, you must examine deeply:

1. What forces on foot and horse may be raised amongst you all, and what captains you will appoint for them in every shire in case a general in chief cannot be had.

2. Of what towns, ports, and havens you may assure yourselves in the north, west, and south, to receive succour from the Low Countries, Spain and France.

3. What place you esteem fittest and of great advantage to assemble the principal company of your forces, and the same being assembled, whether or which way you are to march.

4. What foreign forces on horse and afoot you require from the three said foreign Princes—which would be compassed according to the proportion of yours—for how long paid, what munition and forts fittest for their landing in this realm.

5. What provision of armour and money, in case you want it, you would ask.

6. By what means do the six gentlemen deliberate to proceed.

7. Also the manner of my getting from this hold.

Having taken the best resolution upon these points amongst you who are the principal authors and as few in number as you can, my advice is that you impart the same with all diligence to Barnardino de Mendoza, ambassador for the King of Spain in France, who, besides his experience of the state of this side I assure you will employ himself therein most willingly. I shall not fail to write to him of the matter with all the earnest recommendations that we can, as I shall do also to any others who may be needful.

You must make choice, for managing this affair with Mendoza and others out of the realm, of some faithful person to whom only you must commit yourselves to the end things may be more secret, which for your own security I commend to you above everything.

If your messenger bring you back again sure promise and sufficient assurance of the succour you demand then—but no sooner—for it were in vain—take diligent order that all those of your party on this side make as secretly as they can provision of armour, fit horse, and ready money wherewith to hold themselves in readiness to march as soon as it shall be signified to them by their chief and principals in every shire.

For the better colouring of the matter—reserving to the principal the knowledge of the ground of the enterprise—it will be enough for the beginning to give out to the rest that the said provisions are made only for fortifying yourselves in case of need against the Puritans of this realm, the principal whereof, having the chief forces of the same in the Low Countries have, as you may let the bruit go, designed to ruin and overthrow the Catholics on their return home, and to usurp the Crown not only against me and all other lawful pretenders thereto, but against their own Queen that now is, if she will not altogether commit herself to their government alone.

The same pretext may serve to found amongst you all an association and general confederation as if done only for your own just preservation and defence as well in religion as in lives, lands and goods against the oppression and attempts of the said Puritans, without touching directly by writing anything against that Queen, but rather showing yourselves willing to maintain her and her lawful heirs after her, unnaming me.

The affairs being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both without and within the realm, then it will be fit to set the six gentlemen to work, taking order upon the accomplishment of their designs, I may be suddenly transported out of this place, and that all your forces at the same time be in the field to meet me in tarrying for the arrival of the foreign aid which then must be hastened with all diligence.

Now since there can be no certain day appointed for accomplishing the said gentlemen’s designs, to the end that others may be in readiness to take me from hence, I would that the said gentlemen had always about them, or at least at Court, four stout men furnished with good and speedy horses, to come with all diligence as soon as the said design is executed, to advertise those who shall be appointed for my transporting, to the end they may be immediately hereafter at the place of my abode before my keeper can have advice of the execution of the said design, or at least before he can fortify himself within the house, or carry me out of the same.

It were necessary to despatch two or three of the said advertisers by divers ways to the end that if one is stayed the other may come through, and at the same instant it were also needful to assay to cut off the post’s ordinary ways. This is the plot I find best for this enterprise, and the order whereby you should conduct the same for our common securities.

Stirring on this side before you are assured of sufficient foreign force were but to put yourselves in danger of following the miserable fortune of such as have heretofore travailed in like occasions. And to take me forth from this place before being well assured to set me in the midst of a good army or in some very good strength where I may safely “stay on” the assembly of your forces and arrival of the said foreign succours were sufficient cause given to that Queen, in catching me again, to enclose me for ever in some hole from which I should never escape, if she used me no worse, and to pursue with all extremity all who had assisted me, which would grieve me more than all the unhappiness that might fall upon myself.

Therefore must I once again admonish you to look and take heed most carefully and vigilantly to compass and assure all that shall be necessary for effectuating the said enterprise so well that with the grace of God you may bring the same to a happy end, remitting to the judgment of our principal friend on this side, with whom you have to deal, to ordain to conclude upon this present—which shall serve you only for an overture and proposition—as you shall find best amongst you. And to yourself in particular I refer to assure the gentleman above mentioned of all that shall be requisite on my part for the entire execution of their goodwill.

I leave also to your common resolutions to advise—in case their designs do not take hold, as may happen—whether you will or not pursue my transport and the execution of the rest of the enterprise. But if the mishap should fall out that you might not come by me, being set in the Tower of London or in any other strength with greater guard, yet, notwithstanding, do not “leave” to proceed in the rest of the enterprise. For I shall at any time die most contented, understanding your delivery from the servitude wherein you are held as slaves.

I shall essay, at the same time as the work is in hand in these parts, to make the Catholics of Scotland rise and put my son in their hands to the effect that from thence our enemies here may not prevail by any succour. I would also that some stirring in Ireland were laboured for, to be begun sometime before anything were done here, to the end the alarm thereby on the flat contrary side that the stroke should come from.

I think your reasons to have some general head or chief are very pertinent, and therefore it were good to sound obscurely the Earl of Arundel or some of his brethren, for the purpose, and to seek the young Earl of Northumberland, if he is at liberty. From over the sea the Earl of Westmorland, whose house and name may do much in the north may be had, as also Lord Paget, of good ability in some shires hereabouts. Both may be brought home secretly, amongst which some more of the principal banished may return if the enterprise be once resolute.

Lord Paget is now in Spain, and may there treat with all you may commit to him touching this affair, by his brother Charles or directly by himself. Beware that none of the messengers you send forth from the realm carry over any letters upon themselves, but make their despatches be conveyed either after or before them, by some other. Take heed of spies and false brethren amongst you, especially of some priests already practised by our enemies for your discovery, and never in any way keep any paper about you that may in any sort do you harm, for from like errors have come the only condemnation of all such as have suffered heretofore, against whom nothing could otherwise have been provided.

Discover to the French ambassador, now “lieger” in London, as little as you can of your names and intentions, for although he is, I understand, a very honest gentleman of good conscience and religion, yet I fear his master entertains with that Queen a course far contrary to our designs, which would move him to cross us if he should happen to have any particular knowledge thereof.

All this while past I have sued to be removed from this house, and for answer only the castle of Dudley has been named to serve the turn, so that by appearance I may go thither before the end of the summer, Therefore advise as soon as I may be there what provision may be had about that part for my escape from thence. If I stay here there are for that purpose but these three means following to be looked for:—

First, that at a certain day appointed in my “walking” abroad on horseback on the moors between this and Stafford, where ordinarily you know very few people pass, fifty or three score men well horsed and armed, come to take me there, as they easily may, my keeper having with him ordinarily but eighteen or twenty horsemen with daggers only.

The second means is to come at midnight or soon after to set fire to the barns and stables which you know are near to the house, and whilst my guardian’s servants shall run to the fire, your company— having a mark whereby they may know one another at night—might surprise the house, where I hope with the few servants that I have about me to give you correspondence.

And the third. Some that bring carts hither ordinarily, coming early in the morning, their carts might be so prepared with such cart-leaders that being just in the middle of the great gate the carts might fall down or overwhelm, and thereupon you might come suddenly with your followers to make yourself master of the house and carry me away. So you might do easily before any number of soldiers, who lodge in sundry places forth from this place, some a half and some a whole mile off, might come to the relief.

Whatsoever issue the matter takes, I do and will think myself obliged towards you as long as I live for the offers you make to hazard yourself as you do for my delivery, and by any means that I may ever have I shall do my endeavours to recognise by effects your deserts herein.

I have commanded a more ample alphabet to be made for you which you will receive herewith. God Almighty have you in protection. Your most assured friend for ever. [Cipher]. Fail not to burn this present quickly.

And, as promised, here is the postscript (which was NOT cleaned up and put into Letters and Papers – it was the piece that was forged, after all!):

I w be glad to know the names and quelityes of the sixe gentlemen which are to accomplish the dessignement, for that it may be I shall be able uppon knowledge of the parties to give you some further advise necessarye to be followed therein…… as also from time to time particularlye how you proceede and as son as you may for the same purpose who bee alredye and how farr every one privye hereunto.

Oh, Mary….


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July 17, 1586 – Mary Stuart’s Fateful Letter
Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches


  1. If Mary, Queen of Scots wanted to leave Scotland to France by giving it to Francois the Second, that was her right as Queen and his wife. I do not believe she murdered nor had any hand in the murder of Lord Darnley. Her bad mistakes were in wedding with Bothwell and in fleeing to England when she lost Scotland. She should have flown to France She was Dowager Queen of France and would have been treated with respect, even though Catherine de Medici was still alive. She had lands in France from which she drew income. She was bad at dissembling, especailly when she came up against a manitpulate and dissembling vixen like Elizabeth. She should have had nothing to do with Elizabeth. If I was in Mary, Queen of Scots’ postion, I would not have had anything to do with Elizabeth. I would have fled to France. But regardless her mistakes, the ones I listed, she was a good Queen and ruled Scotland well while she ruled between 1561 and 1567. She was a Catholic Queen ruling a Presbyterian country which was a milestone at the time. Elizabeth did not allow Catholics to breath while she sat on the throne.

    • This is one of those topics where people have very different opinions…I respect yours, and I agree she should have gone to France…

  2. Pat Pat

    Wow! Did Mary understand what the impact of this letter could be or was she so frustrated she didn’t care. Thank you for these posts!

    • I know, right? Then-princess (technically “lady” but…) Elizabeth was almost executed in the aftermath of Wyatt’s rebellion for sending a verbal “thanks for your concern” message…getting this detailed in writing was just nuts!

  3. Mary M Mary M

    I read the letter aloud in order to better take in the contents. When I reached where she gets quite specific about what was to be done, the words, “Oh, honey, no. . . ” came out.

    This is a fascinating post. Thank you so very much for making it available!

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