You Are There: Season 2, Episode 33

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (February 8, 1587) (18 Apr. 1954)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama | History
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18 April 1954 (USA)  »

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Unkissing Cousins
6 January 2007 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

As I sit here about to describe the historical background of this episode of "You Are There, I keep thinking of a sketch by Monte Python's Flying Circus where there is a B.B.C. series of the same name: "The Execution Of Mary, Queen Of Scots". We hear a door open and a voice says(remember this is "episode one"), "Ayr yer Mary, Queen of Scots?" One of the troop (Terry Jones?) answers softly, "Ay, I am!!". Suddenly all pandemonium breaks loose, and we hear what sounds like ax blows and mayhem and a woman screaming all over the place. Then silence. The man's voice says, "I think she's dead!!" Mary answers indignantly, "No I'm not!!". And the mayhem is repeated. And she says, "Missed me!!". And so it goes on. And then the episode ends with them still unable to catch her and kill her.

In reality the story is tragic, but it was a tragedy due to the characters of three people: Mary herself, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Elizabeth's leading adviser Sir Francis Walsingham.

Mary's whole life was surrounded by facts that she could not control or direct. Her father died in the aftermath of a Scottish military disaster in 1542, just before she was born. So Mary was the sole heir of her father James V of Scotland and her mother, a sister of the French Duc de Guise. Her grandmother was a sister of Henry VIII, so Mary had a claim to the British throne, as well as to the Scottish one. However, her early years she was in France, married to the Dauphin. He eventually became King Francois II in 1559, but he died in 1560, just as Mary was becoming an adult. She returned to Scotland to rule her own kingdom.

But Mary was a Catholic, and while half the nobles were Catholics the other half were Presbyterians. They followed the teachings of John Knox, who looked very dimly at female rulers (even his sometime ally Elizabeth I of England) and totally loathed Catholics. Had Mary married a Protestant lord maybe it would have solved the problem. But she married a distant Tudor cousin, Lord Henry Darnley, to strengthen her potential claim to the English throne. Unlike Elizabeth Mary was willing to have children and a husband, for dynastic purposes. Eventually Mary and Darnley have a son, named James (who in time became King James VI of Scotland, and James I of England).

Mary's reign was precarious due to the antics of English agents (who paid off the Presbyterian nobles to threaten her). Darnley turned out to be a selfish, paranoiac fool, who helped engineer the murder of Mary's secretary David Rizzio in 1566 at Holyrood Palace. Mary soon met James, Earl of Bothwell, who was handsome and clever - but as unscrupulous as Darnley. In 1567 Darnley was blown up and strangled in the palace of Kirk-o-field, most likely by Mary's orders through Bothwell, whom she married. Within a year the other nobles revolted and forced Mary and Bothwell to split (he went to the continent and never saw her again). Mary fled to England, and begged her astonished cousin Elizabeth for asylum.

Keep in mind that Elizabeth had helped keep the Presbyterian Lords against Mary by bribes, and here her cousin was begging for her help. Elizabeth took custody of Mary and locked her up in a series of fortress castles in England. Elizabeth was fully convinced that her ambitious cousin wanted to replace her on the throne. She was aware that the King of Spain (Phillip II) would be willing to put the Catholic Scots Queen on the English throne if he could. A series of plots began to appear, all centering around Mary replacing Elizabeth.

Time passed. By 1585 nearly two decades of prison life was all Mary had for her stay under her "dear" cousin's protection. Ironically the two women (both of whom were always curious about each other) never met (despite the scenes in "Mary Of Scotland" and "Mary, Queen Of Scots"). Elizabeth feared she'd pity her cousin, and she felt if she did not know Mary she could treat her like a prisoner. But Elizabeth's adviser in charge of her security, Sir Francis Walshingham, had other ideas. He hated this perpetual security threat in the middle of England. Sir Francis helped allow Mary to entrap herself with a hair-brained Catholic noble named Anthony Babbington and his associates in a plot to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. When written proof of Mary's involvement was produced, Walshingham rounded up the Babbington Conspirators, tortured them, tried them, and executed them. Then he produced his evidence that Mary was involved.

Elizabeth let the courts continue, and Mary was arrested and tried for treason. She was found guilty. Elizabeth hesitated, but finally Walshingham managed to get her signature on Mary's death warrant. At Fotheringay Palace on February 8, 1587, Mary was beheaded. It was far more tragic than the Monty Python sketch, with her little pet dog crying after the ax fell on Mary's neck. While most people realize it was necessary for Elizabeth's security and English peace from the threat of Civil War, the death of Mary remains the biggest blot on Elizabeth's reputation.

Although I never saw this episode, I imagine that Mildred Natwick probably played Queen Elizabeth I.


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