Losing Our Heads (Online) – Mary Queen of Scots and 16th Century Surveillance

The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

“The executioner then picked up the severed head and, showing it to those present, cried out: ‘God save Queen Elizabeth! May all the enemies of the true Evangel thus perish!'”

Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots was beheaded about 8am on Wednesday, 8 February 1587 for plotting the assassination of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England (and Ireland).

Mary had not confessed to any crime. The evidence that led to her death came from her intercepted letters. Other letters implicating Mary in the murder of her second husband had led to a cold reception when she first arrived in England. Both cases give an insight into how insecure communication is by no means a modern worry – even if, hopefully, having your emails and Facebook posts read today doesn’t lead to an executioner’s axe.

Escaping conflict in Scotland in 1568, Elizabeth I and her advisers were unsure what to do with Mary Stewart. As a Catholic, with close links to France, and the heir to the English throne Mary was already a religiously and politically awkward guest. When Scottish rebels brought a small casket of letters to England, matters rapidly got murkier still.

Allegedly, the letters were written by Mary to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Intimate letters from a married woman to a man not her husband might have caused a minor kerfuffle. But letters asking why he hadn’t yet had her husband killed painted Mary as treacherous and dangerous. The fact that Henry Stuart, Mary’s husband had been blown to pieces shortly after the letters were (allegedly) written, and that Bothwell was widely suspected seemed to show her as an eager and cold-blooded accomplice to murder. 

The ruins of Sheffield Manor, where, along with the now destroyed Sheffield Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots was detained for fourteen years. [Photo by Brian Ward]

But were the letters real? Mary herself, and her supporters denied that they were. Historians have questioned their authenticity and suggested they were at the very least doctored to portray Mary in the worst possible light, if not actually outright forgeries. The letters themselves have long since disappeared, so the case as to their genuineness remains open.

  Their impact was undoubted. Mary was detained in various castles and country houses around England. In her absence, relations between newly Protestant Scotland and England grew much warmer. Unable to return to Scotland and prevented from leaving for Europe, as the years passed Mary became an inconvenience – and a threat.

Her supporters continued to try to secure her release by diplomatic means as well as more drastic measures. She was implicated in several plots and fearful rumours abounded of French or Spanish invasions intended to depose Elizabeth and install Mary as Queen of England. Elizabeth was reluctant to believe the allegations against her cousin, and her advisers could find no evidence to persuade her to act.

Sir Francis Walsingham by John de Critz, c. 1585

Most frustrated was Sir Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s closest advisers – and spymaster. At the centre of a web of agents and informers, he was convinced that Mary was a dangerous threat. Strong circumstantial information pointed to her involvement in the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, a plan for the French duke of Guise to invade England with Spanish support. But no compelling evidence was found. What was needed was written proof.

Anthony Babington and co-conspirators - From Thomas Nelson, A proper new ballad (London, 1586)

Walsingham’s spies brought him reports in early 1586 that more secret plans to rescue Mary were afoot, headed by Anthony Babington a minor Catholic nobleman.

Determined not to be foiled again, Walsingham ensured that well placed agents were in position in Mary’s household. One of these, double agent Gilbert Gifford, arranged for Mary to be able to communicate with her supporters by letters smuggled in beer barrels into and out of the house where she was detained.

The letters, of course, were closely monitored by Walsingham’s men. The coded messages were removed from the barrels, deciphered by experienced forger and gifted linguist Thomas Phelippes, copied and then allowed to reach the intended original recipients. Having set up the system to read all outgoing and incoming mail, it was only a matter of waiting for something to happen.

On the 6 July 1586 the wait for Walsingham and his men ended. Their surveillance uncovered a letter from Babington to Mary that was exactly what they were looking for:

“Myself with ten gentlemen and a hundred of our followers will undertake the delivery of your royal person from the hands of your enemies. For the dispatch of the usurper, [….] there be six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty’s service will undertake that tragical execution.”

On the 17 July, Mary replied to Babington:

“So as, if remedy be not thereunto hastily provided, I fear not a little but they shall become altogether unable for ever to rise again and to receive any aid at all, whensoever it were offered them. For mine own part, I pray you to assure our principal friends that, [….] I shall be always ready and most willing to employ therein my life and all that I have or may ever look for in this world”

Intercepted letter from Mary Queen of Scots. Deciphered by Thomas Phelippes, an expert forger, he also added a postscript seeking the names of Babington's accomplices. The original is now held by the National Archives, Kew.

By writing these words clearly encouraging and endorsing a plan to kill Queen Elizabeth, Mary had signed her own death warrant. Walsingham used the letter to finally convince his monarch to allow her troublesome cousin to be executed. Babington and his associates were arrested in August 1586. All were interrogated and confessed – most likely after torture.

On 20 September 1586 Babington (along with most of his co-conspirators) were executed by being hanged till nearly dead, cut down while still alive, and disembowelled with their entrails burned before their eyes. Once they were finally dead their bodies were butchered into four quarters.

Mary’s death followed five months later.

The question remains whether she and Babington were really guilty? Supporters and defenders have suggested that the entire affair was designed, propelled and controlled by Walsingham. Without his agents in place facilitating communication, nothing could have happened; there could have been no plot. Constant surveillance of every message ensured there was no danger – or more accurately only what danger Walsingham and his agents allowed to happen in letting the scheme build to the point where there was sufficient proof against Mary to bring about her death. Was the entire affair a case of entrapment engineered to entice the unwary into planning crimes they would never otherwise have thought of no less embarked upon?

Or, to bring these issues into the modern context, does it matter who’s reading, conveying and receiving your messages if you have nothing to hide? Was it Walsingham’s duty in 1586 to flush out potential threats and radicalising plotters by whatever means possible? Was England spared an invasion and bloody conflict through surveillance of communication?

The NSA PRISM Program which has brought much debate

Or where does the line between finding and creating threats lie? Is it permissible to alter emails, Facebook posts, and Tweets in the fashion that Walsingham’s agents manipulated Mary and Babington’s correspondence? Even a little for the sake of greater safety for all?

If you reveal intent to commit a crime online should you be stopped at the earliest possible opportunity by monitoring authorities? Or allowed to continue for a certain amount of time to ultimately permit a greater number of arrests?

If you’re innocent of any crime does any of this matter? Then again, online are we innocent until proven guilty? Or guilty until proven innocent?

The questions – and the technology – may be new, but history has some interesting light to shed on the thorny issues involved. Answers of course will be as difficult as ever to find….

Tom Byrne

Tom Byrne

Tom Byrne has been teaching, researching and writing history since finishing a PhD in History in 2006 - the title of his thesis was "From Irish Whig rebel to Bourbon diplomat: the life and career of Nathaniel Hooke (1664-1738)"

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