Export Bar Slapped On Mary Queen Of Scots Execution Warrant

By Caroline Lewis | 15 November 2007
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yellowed handwritten document with Elizabeth R written in the top left corner

The rare copy of the execution warrant is in good condition. Courtesy MLA

While Cate Blanchett parades in finery across cinema screens as Queen Elizabeth I in The Golden Age, time is ticking for the raising of funds to keep an outstandingly important document relating to this period of British history in the country.

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge has placed a temporary export bar on the document that sent Mary Queen of Scots to her death in 1587, in order for the asking price of £72,485.50 to be found.

The paper is the only contemporary copy of the Royal Warrant for the execution that is known to survive (the original was destroyed). It has thus been given a starred rating by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, meaning that every possible effort should be made to raise enough money to keep it in the UK.

“This document played an integral part in one of the most dramatic episodes in British history,” said Christopher Wright, a member of the Reviewing Committee.

photo of a sculpted tomb depicting a prostrate Elizabethan woman

A replica of the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. GFDL

Mary Queen of Scots, next in line to the English throne after Elizabeth I, has long been a heroine of the popular imagination due to her beauty, charisma and disastrous marriages. Her execution, ordered because of her alleged involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate her cousin Elizabeth, took place at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire, where she had been imprisoned.

The two-page copy of the warrant, dated 1586/7 was one of five made by Robert Beale, principal clerk to the Privy Council of Elizabeth I, for sending out to the commissioners responsible for organising the trial and execution.

The commissioners were instructed to “repair to our Castell of Fotheringhay where the said queene of Scottes is in Custodie and cause by your commaundement execution to be don vppon her person.” In Beale’s copy, certain passages have been underlined to emphasise the responsibility of the commissioner.

painting of the Tudor Queen in elaborate dress with large neck ruff

Elizabeth I, English School, formerly attributed to John Bettes the Younger, about 1590. © National Maritime Museum, London

The document was retained by Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, who may well have referred to it during the execution. It then passed on to the antiquary and jurist John Seldon (1584-1654) and stayed in the family of his executor, John Hale, until the 1930s. Since then it has been held by several collectors and was last sold at Sotheby’s in 1996.

The original warrant, signed by Elizabeth I and sealed with the great seal, is thought to have been destroyed shortly after the execution. Elizabeth agonised over the event before and after, reacting violently against all those involved.

The licence for export bar lasts until January 13 2008, and may be extended to April. Anyone interested in making an offer to purchase the manuscript should contact the owner’s agent through: The Secretary, The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, MLA, Victoria House, Southampton Row, London WC1B 4EA.

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