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September 26, 1588 – Death of Sir Amyas Paulet

Portrait of Sir Amyas Paulet, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard
Portrait of Sir Amyas Paulet, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard

Amyas Paulet is best known for having been Mary Stuart’s gaoler for the last two years of her life…but he was a lot more than that, including Governor of Jersey, Ambassador to France, a member of the Privy Council, and, from 1587 until his death, Chancellor of the Order of the Garter.

The Order of the Garter is intended to celebrate chivalry, defined as the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak.” I want to focus on the incident that shows how much Paulet deserved that honor…

Let’s start with context: during the just-under-twenty years she was held captive in England, Mary Stuart was a polarizing figure, suspected time and again of treason. On numerous occasions, Parliament urged – and the Privy Council begged – Elizabeth to execute her, but Elizabeth consistently refused. Fast forward to 1587, when Mary Stuart went too far in her scheming and was caught, tried, and convicted. But Elizabeth was still having trouble signing her death warrant – she did not want to execute an anointed queen, her cousin, she was horrified at the message that would send. So she looked around for alternatives…and Mary’s gaoler came to mind: loyal Sir Amyas, an anti-Catholic Calvinist who vehemently believed Mary should die.

Here is the first of two letters I’ll present today, this one from Francis Walsingham:

After our hearty commendations,  we find by speech lately uttered by her Majesty that she doth note I you both a lack of that care and zeal of her service that she looketh for at your hands, in that you have not in all this time of yourselves (without other provocation) found out some way to shorten the life of that Queen [emphasis mine], considering the great peril she is  subject unto hourly, so long as the said Queen shall live. […] And therefore she taketh it most unkindly towards her, that  men professing that love towards her that you do, should in any kind of sort, for the lack of the discharge of your duties, cast the burden upon her, knowing as you do her indisposition to shed blood, especially of one of that sex and quality, and so near to her in blood as the said Queen is. […] We thought it very meet to acquaint you with these speeches lately passed from her Majesty, referring the same to your good judgments. And so we commit you to the protection of the Almighty.

This is the second letter I have for you – it’s Paulet’s reply, sent a mere hour after he received it:

Your letters of yesterday coming into my hands this present day at five in the afternoon, I would not fail according to your directions to return my answer with all possible speed, which (sic) shall deliver unto you with great grief and bitterness of mind, in that I am so unhappy to have lived to see this unhappy day, in the which I am required by direction from my most gracious sovereign to do an act which God and the law forbiddeth. My good living and life are at her Majesty’s disposition, and I am ready to so lose them this next morrow if it shall so please her, acknowledging that I hold them as of her mere and most gracious favour, and do not desire them to enjoy them, but with her Highness’ good liking. But God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my poor posterity, to shed blood without law or warrant. Trusting that her Majesty, of her accustomed clemency, will take this  my dutiful answer in good part (and the rather by your good mediation), as proceeding from one who will never be inferior to any Christian subject living in duty, honour, love, and obedience towards his sovereign.

Remember the definition of chivalry I included above? This checks off all the boxes: courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak. The one piece where he might have been lacking was in not complying with the postscript asking him to burn the letter after he read it…but you can’t really fault him for that minor self-preservation!

RIP to an honorable man


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September 26, 1588 – Death of Sir Amyas Paulet
Published inOn This DayInteresting Letters and Speeches

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