Lambeth Palace Library Buys Mary Queen of Scots Death Warrant

By Caroline Lewis | 18 February 2008
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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

The only contemporary copy of the piece of paper that sent Mary Queen of Scots to her death has been bought by Lambeth Palace Library, bringing a huge sigh of relief that it will not be sold outside of the UK.

The document is the only surviving copy of the Royal Warrant for the execution of Mary, as ordered by Queen Elizabeth I. An export bar was placed on the document in November 2007, giving UK institutions a chance to raise the £72,485.50 asking price for it, bearing in mind its importance to British history.

Lambeth Palace Library took up the challenge and has now purchased the document with the combined generosity of the Friends of the National Libraries, the Friends and Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

“The Library is delighted to have played its part in saving this document for the nation,” said Dr. Richard Palmer, the Lambeth Librarian. “The warrant is now reunited with the papers with which it belongs and accessible for the benefit of all.”

close up of part of the document showing the signature Elizabeth R

Queen Elizabeth's signature. Courtesy MLA

It is appropriate that Lambeth Palace Library should take possession of the warrant, as it already holds the covering letter that originally accompanied the death knell. The historic library and record office of the Archbishop of Canterbury was founded in 1610, and holds significant archives relating to Mary Queen of Scots – a famous Catholic.

Mary Queen of Scots, with her claims to the crowns of England and Scotland, her beauty and charisma, her marriages and love affairs, and years of imprisonment, has long been a heroine in the popular imagination. Her execution on February 8 1587, after great agonizing by her cousin Elizabeth I, is one of the best known events in British history.

Robert Beale, principal clerk to the Privy Council of the time, was responsible for bearing the warrant to the commissioners who were instructed to ‘repair to our Castell of Fotheringhaye where the said queene of Scottes is in custodie and cause by your commaundement execution to be don uppon her person’.

detail of part of the document

Courtesy MLA

Elizabeth I signed the warrant, but claimed afterwards that she had given no instruction for its enactment. The original warrant disappeared in the recriminations which followed.

This copy, which includes Beale’s annotation, was delivered by him to Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, one of the two commissioners tasked with organising the execution. It was accompanied by a covering letter to the Earl from the Privy Council which has long been part of the collections of Lambeth Palace Library. These two documents, which played a central role in the drama, are now reunited in the Library’s care.

Lambeth Palace Library is one of England’s oldest public libraries. Its entire collections are designated by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as outstanding in national and international importance.

The Library holds significant archives relating to Mary Queen of Scots, including papers not only of Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, but of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, who was for many years custodian of the Queen in her captivity and the second commissioner responsible for her execution. The Library also holds the sermon which was to have been preached at the execution, but which Mary declined to hear.

An illustrated subject guide to these sources on the Queen is accessible on the Library’s website, at www.lambethpalacelibrary.org. The copy of the warrant will now be available for research and exhibition, including loans for exhibitions on both sides of the Scottish border.

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