Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-888d5979f-p9qdq Total loading time: 0.54 Render date: 2021-10-26T00:45:02.961Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Article contents

Arguments for an Execution: Queen Elizabeth's “White Paper” and Lord Burghley's “Blue Pencil”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

Get access


On the morning of 8 February 1587 (n.s.) Mary Stuart was executed at Fotheringay Castle in Northampton for her complicity in the Babington Plot—the last of the great conspiracies to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and to place her distant cousin Mary on the English throne in order to re-establish England as a Catholic state. Particularly because of remarks Queen Elizabeth allegedly made to William Davison, to whom the execution warrant was entrusted, nearly every modern historian who has written about the trial and death of Mary Stuart has speculated about the possibility that Queen Elizabeth, particularly in the days immediately preceding Mary's beheading, considered assassination of her cousin as a politic alternative to the axe. Although Elizabeth's chief councillor, Lord Burghley, wished to proceed with what (at least publicly) he regarded as a legal activity, it has not been at all points clear how he was able to persuade the queen to take the steps necessary to accomplish the execution; because Mary was her relative, because she was female, because the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings (to which Elizabeth frequently resorted as proof of her own authority) specified that monarchs were subject to God's judgment alone (and not civil law), and finally, because of the foreign policy implications of executing a woman who was French, Queen of Scotland, near heir to the English throne, and a devout Catholic, Elizabeth hesitated to proceed.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 24 , Issue 4 , Winter 1992 , pp. 591 - 604
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1992

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See, for example, Read, Conyers, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (New York, 1960), pp. 340ff.Google Scholar; for the parliamentary activities and chronology, see Neale, John E., Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 2 vols. (1957; reprint, New York, 1966), 2: 103144Google Scholar. Burghley's notes preliminary to the trial are in Lansdowne MS. 103, fol. 66, British Library, London (hereafter cited as B.L.). The notes make clear that Burghley's intent was to plan all aspects of the trial, including directions to Mary's jailer, possible sites, travel distances, the summoning of Parliament, and especially, how matters requiring the queen's decision should be presented to her.

2 In fact, Parliament had by this time not been sitting since March 1581, having been prorogued repeatedly until April 19, 1583 (Neale, 2: 415).

3 For example, in June 1584, around the time of Francis Throckmorton's execution, an anonymous pamphlet had been published detailing the treason, the confession and—in elaborate detail—the torture of Throckmorton. By year's end, a Latin translation had appeared on the Continent.

4 Binding the Nation: the Bonds of Association, 1584 and 1696,” in Guth, DeLloyd J. and McKenna, John W., Tudor Rule and Revolution (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 217234Google Scholar.

5 If the original intent of the Bond was propagandistic, “The Act for the Queen's Safety” represented its pragmatic extension. It may also be remembered that at the time the first version of 27 Eliz. I, c. 1 was introduced for the government, Burghley was trying to enact a statute providing for parliamentary supervision of an interregnum in the event of the monarch's death. The queen's disapproval ended the attempt before the bill got its first reading; yet, had it reached the House of Commons, in combination with 27 Eliz. I, c. 1, Burghley's bill would have accomplished the entire agenda of the Bond legally, since it would have placed the choice of a successor in the hands of a parliamentary commission. In other words, Burghley's participation in the propagandistic dimension of this final chapter in Mary Stuart's story did not deter him, when the possibility arose, from shifting the grounds of the game to take advantage of his unparalleled ability to maneuver the parliamentary bureaucracy.

6 Graves, Michael A. R., The Tudor Parliaments: Crown, Lords and Commons, 1485–1603 (London, 1985), pp. 130–52Google Scholar, summarizes Burghley's efficient use of Parliament to press his agendas; Hasler, P. W., The History of Parliament. The House of Commons 1558–1603, 3 vols. (London, 1981) 3: 257Google Scholar, documents Puckering's dependence on Burghley as well as his willingness to follow his directives.

7 D'Ewes, Simond, The Journals of All the Parliaments during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth… (London, 1682), pp. 375ffGoogle Scholar. See also Neale, , Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 2: 103ffGoogle Scholar. The queen was represented by Archbishop of Canterbury Whitgift, Lord Treasurer Burghley, and the earl of Derby. Marathon speechmaking against Mary was led by the queen's council, but many others, including Job Throckmorton (“Martin Marprelate”), got into the act. One must doubt that there was any room for dissent by the time everyone who wished to speak for Mary Stuart's execution had unburdened himself.

8 The fair copy is B.L., Cotton MS. Caligula IX, fols. 616–617 (renumbered 664–65); a text of the full petition is included in D'Ewes, , Journals of All the Parliaments, pp. 380–82Google Scholar; Puckering's holograph draft is Ellesmere MS. 1191 (Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.). Two editorial hands are present in Ellesmere 1191: Burghley's and a second hand, which Mary Robertson has suggested to me is probably that of Solicitor General Thomas Egerton. Egerton was serving as Puckering's notetaker in these sessions. Because of the editorial pattern of the changes and of evident time limitations for working on the draft, it is probable that the men pored over the petition together, with Egerton and Burghley each making changes in his own hand. Whether Egerton's services were editorial or purely secretarial, we cannot know. Yet, since Hasler tells us that on another occasion Burghley had written a speech for Puckering, and since Puckering's draft is long on sincerity but rather short on political savvy, it is possible that Puckering himself had little to do with the changes. My facsimile transcription of Ellesmere MS. 1191 is contained in Lord Burghley, Speaker Puckering and the Editing of HEH Ellesmere MS 1191,” The Huntington Library Quarterly 51 (Summer 1988): 211–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The existence of this document is noted by Neale and Read but, possibly because of its location, it was apparently not read.

9 See Neale, , Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 2: 115Google Scholar; Burghley's letter is State Papers Domestic, Elizabeth, 195/12, Public Record Office, London. To show Elizabeth the petition in advance of its formal presentation had, by this time, become standard procedure. Because the ostensible purpose for this audience was presentation of Parliament's petition, the queen's speech in this case would take the form of a response to that petition. Yet, if she wanted to talk about the Bond of Association, someone else (i.e. Puckering) would have to mention it first. Under the best of circumstances the Bond would be difficult to draw into a public speech; the Association was supposed to be a kind of secret, and in fact, the queen liked to pretend that she had had no knowledge of its circulation prior to the arrival, at Hampton Court, of a trunkload of sworn statements. It looks as though Burghley's tactic was to deprive the queen of an easy opening to this discussion by eliminating Puckering's statement on this subject.

10 The holograph text of Puckering's introductory remarks is B.L., Cotton MS. Titus F.I., pp. 282–86 (orig. 302–06). Although the subsequent published version of this text includes the word, “association,” Puckering on this occasion refers simply to “an oath,” which he says will be violated if the queen permits Mary to live (pp. 284–85). Rhetorically, the effect of his statement is to put Parliament's moral burden on the queen; in effect, their oath will be violated if she does not act. The text of Elizabeth's speech at Richmond is preserved in MS. G.g.3.34, pp. 304–08, Cambridge University Library (hereafter cited as C.U.L.). All references to this version of the speech are taken from the transcription of this text in my forthcoming edition of Queen Elizabeth's speeches and follow its line numbering. Here and throughout this essay, passages quoted from manuscript sources preserve their orthography where possible; expanded abbreviations are shown in italics and superscript letters silently lowered. A second text descended from the same exemplar, equally good, is B.L., Harleian MS. 158, fols. 156–57. The text eventually published as The Copie of a Letter to the Right Honourable the Earle of Leycester… was taken from a fair copy, now lost, of a text descended from B.L., Lansdowne MS. 94, 87–88. The printed copy is STC 6052; its French translation, published in the same year, is STC 6053.

11 C.U.L., MS. G.g. 3.34, p. 307, 11. 130–31.

12 Ibid, 11. 141–47.

13 Ibid, 11. 103–30.

14 Ibid, 11. 148–52.

15 Ibid, 11. 156–62.

16 Ibid, p. 308, 11. 171–77.

17 An alternative explanation for Elizabeth's interest in the Bond (and thus her mention of it in this speech) is that it was a politically useful symbol of patriotic feeling. But the absolute centrality of the extended reference in this text, when compared to the altered and muted reference in the public text, inclines me to believe that Elizabeth's reason for requesting inclusion of a reference to The Bond of Association in the parliamentary petition was that she planned to talk about it.

18 Huntington Library, Ellesmere MS. 1191, 11.71–78; cancelled passage shown lined through. Line numbers follow the lineation in the manuscript and correspond to my transcription (see note 8). A cancel of the same sort occurs in the text at 11. 94–95, where Puckering had spoken of the need to proceed by statute “or by some lyke course to be devysed” to execute Mary. Burghley clearly did not want to leave anything in this text that the queen might construe as a promising loophole.

19 Considering Elizabeth's treatment of Davison and Burghley following Mary's execution, it may be supposed that the queen might declare she had been misunderstood and turn on her cousin's killers.

20 Scottish Calendar, 8: 701Google Scholar; quoted in Neale, , Elizabeth and Her Parliaments, p. 104Google Scholar.

21 Neale (ibid. p. 139), discusses the position taken by Henri III, Aremburg, and others, and mentions that Leicester and Whitgift were thought by Beale to be in favor of murdering Mary; yet elsewhere, Neale suggests (Queen Elizabeth I [1934; reprint New York, 1955], p. 278Google ScholarPubMed) that the queen's moods of vacillation in this time period were due to symptoms of menopause, which he decorously refers to as her “climacteric”; for the record, it was actually Froude, J. A., (History of England, 12 vols. [London, 18561870; reprint New York, 1870], 6: 584–85Google Scholar), who first described the queen's “tenderness” in regard to Mary (as an example of Elizabeth getting everything exactly backward). The general argument appears to be that because the queen did not readily agree to follow Burghley's bidding, she demonstrated weakness as a monarch. This conclusion seems to remove the possibility of a second point of view on the issue or that the queen's vacillation might have been part of her strategy.

22 C.U.L., MS G.g. 3.34, pp. 312–16, 11. 20–24; subsequent quotations from this text are taken from my transcription and follow its line numbering. As in the case of the preceding speech, there is an equally good text in B.L., Harleian MS. 158, fo. 158–60, which descends from the same exemplar as C.U.L., G.g.3.34. The text revised and published for propaganda descends from the lost fair copy of B.L., Lansdowne MS. 94, 86–88.

23 B.L., Lansdowne 94, fol. 86v, 1. 38.

24 C.U.L., MS. G.g. 3.34, p. 313, 11. 37–43.

25 The method of arranging for this publication is explained in Neale, , Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 2: 129–30Google Scholar; it was the set of texts used for this “White Paper” that the chronicler John Stow—whose connections with Burghley are well-known—used for the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicle. The practice of publishing the queen's public speeches had begun early in the reign. See, e.g., Grafton, Richard, Abridgment of the Chronicles (London, 1570), pp. 179–81Google Scholar, for a text of her 1559 speech to Parliament. As the queen's reputation as a speaker grew, so grew the practice of providing copies of her speeches to interested persons such as Stow. Yet, the selectivity of this practice demonstrates that its utility in shaping popular opinion was well-understood. There was a similarly orchestrated publication of the so-called “Golden Speech” in 1601, when the queen and her government were under fire for abuse of the system of patents and monopolies.

26 C.U.L., MS. G.g.3.34, pp. 305–06, 11. 78–88. Language quoted in the paragraph above is taken from page 305 of the same manuscript in this sequence: 11. 46–47, 70–71, 75–77.

27 The separate sheet of corrections, which also contains alterations to the succeeding speech, is B.L., Lansdowne 103, fol. 64. Although the manuscript evidence for the intermediate stage of composition is missing, the diction of the revised text in Lansdowne 94 is unmistakably the queen's. There is, in addition, a curious manuscript copy of the text represented in Lansdowne MS. 94 as it would have been construed prior to the queen's editing of it. That text is among the Francis Alford papers, Petyt MS. 538/10, fols. 6–7 (Library of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, London). There is a good likelihood that the text represented in the Lansdowne and Petyt manuscripts is descended from notes or a draft written by the queen before she actually held the audience at Richmond on November 12.

28 Here and following, references to the “edited” or public text are taken from fol. 83 of Lansdowne MS. 94.

29 Although all the corrections in the Lansdowne MS. 94 text of this speech are in Elizabeth's holograph, the heading of the speech has some changes, at least one of which is almost certainly in Burghley's hand. The simplest explanation for the otherwise quite remarkable consonance of Burghley and Queen Elizabeth's editing strategies is that Burghley was himself present during some part of the editing session.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Arguments for an Execution: Queen Elizabeth's “White Paper” and Lord Burghley's “Blue Pencil”
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Arguments for an Execution: Queen Elizabeth's “White Paper” and Lord Burghley's “Blue Pencil”
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Arguments for an Execution: Queen Elizabeth's “White Paper” and Lord Burghley's “Blue Pencil”
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *