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Anna Jane Vardill

Annals of Public Justice

Queen Mary’s Cross

Historians allow such latitude to their imaginations, that we are not more certain of truth from those of ancient date than from the modern writer who selects his materials, as Voltaire merrily said to Diderot, to suit his system. But in speaking of Queen Mary, we find the most candid simplicity shewn by Holinshed. “For,” says he,

“when leaving her own country, she was nourished as a banished person; and after fortune began to flatter her in that she was honoured with a worthy marriage, it was in truth rather a shadow of joy to this queen than any comfort at all. But beneficial nature had endued her with a beautiful face, a well composed body, an excellent wit, a mild nature, and a good behaviour, which she had artificially furthered by courtly education and affable demeanour. Whereby at first sight she wan unto her the hearts of most, and confirmed the love of her faithful subjects.”

Henry Stewart, the cousin and husband of Queen Mary, has left, in his example, a lesson worth the study of later princes. For with an admirable person, an excelling grace in all courtly exercises, and a rare portion of the age’s best learning, his failure in those moral duties which men have agreed to call trivial in themselves, was the blight and wreck of his prosperity. But his greatest crime was that he lived in times when every nice offence bore its comment among three parties, each mortally adverse to the other, but equally eager to debase the Stewart-family. He was the blossom of a decaying tree, and perished not so much by his own canker as because the stem he grew on gave him no support. Whether his jealousy of an Italian menial was natural, or excited by one of those treacherous parties, is under the veil of time long past, but his tragical end was of more benefit to the friends of Mary than to her enemies. The charge of murdering her husband appeared so atrocious and improbable, that more credible ones were passed over and forotten.—Henry Stewart is said to have been strangled with a napkin after lingering in a long illness; and his body was found at some distance from the house he had inhabited after it had been blown up. In this transaction there was such needless and outrageous exposure of guilt, that Mary’s advocates were very well able to rest their defence not so much on the improbability of her connivance at her husband’s death as on the wanton absurdity of the deed itself.—They alleged the craft and ambition of her illegitimate brother, the furious and busy zeal of the new party in the church, and the gracious heedlessness of a generous woman educated in an easy court, as the true causes of the libels stirred up against her. It was too easy to find evil motives for those who misjudged her conduct, and they wisely left the couduct itself undenied. But the talents and the graces of Mary were not enough to guide her through the labyrinth of such entangled politics. She threw herself into the hands of the Lord Bothwell, a nobleman whose character seems to have combined all the levities of her first husband with the fierceness and fraud of her reputed brother. Her most partial historian tells us of the festivities and mock homage with which this politician contrived to feed her fancy and her vanity while he held her in his toils. Proud, open, and generous by nature, Mary would have been able to resist threats and bribes from the party called her enemies, but she was not on her guard against the flatteries of pretended friends. During her residence at the Lord Bothwell’s castle, her ears were incessantly beguiled by solacing declarations of attachment to her cause and person; and her eyes by the pageant-spectacles arranged to waste her time and degrade her character. She did not see her shackles till they were rivetted, and Bothwell insisted on a recompense for his zeal not less than the authority of a husband. Mary found herself compelled to yield it, and to make this desperate man, from whom she had gained nothing but a short period of false comfort, the master of herself and her destiny. This was the triumph of the faction who had employed him; and thus by decoying her into a shameful alliance with one of her husband’s suspected murderers, they at once prepared and justified her total ruin.

When Mary had degraded herself by this alliance, the nobility openly cast off their allegiance. But to procure from her the surrender of her crown, which was their secret aim, it was needful to divide her from Bothwell, who would not have parted willingly with the prize he hoped to share. Therefore one of their number was deputed to make overtures of submission, provided she renounced her second husband; and Mary, rendered timid and feeble by error, fell into this third snare, and committed herself on their own terms into the hands of the confederate nobles. Edinburgh had declared for them; and thither, with a semblance of respect and gratitude, they conducted a princess who had been in less than two years twice a wife, if Bothwell could be called her husband after lawlessly divorcing the mother of his only son.

The Queen’s procession through Edinburgh to Holyrood was thronged as usual with gazers and followers; nor was the strong influence of her enemies sufficient to suppress or controul the acclamations she always excited. On this occasion she rode on one of her favorite palfreys decked richly with silver fringe, and her veil of embroidered gauze hung over her face enough to tantalize without disappointing curiosity. A woman of ordinary talents would have attempted to interest the populace by retirement, mourning weeds, and a face full of sadness: but this princess, acting on principles of shrewder policy, took care to present herself among her enemies with an aspect even gayer and more alluring than usual. She had in her train the best accoutred nobles of her court, and her tirewoman had neglected nothing to adorn her person. Crouds of men, women, and children, poured from every wynd in the city, and hung in clusters on the housetops, to see what resembled more the pageant of a triumphant sovereign than a suspected and degraded widow’s. The affability and the confiding carelessness of her demeanour, if it did not convince her enemies of her innocence, had at least the charm of an implied reliance on their mercy. A few of Knox’s more austere adherents slunk away from the croud, and those who condemned the parade remained to wonder at it, till they were forced to join the clamour of applause. She rested on her way at the Earl of Morton’s house in Edinburgh and while she leaned from his balcony to throw largess among her subjects, a troop of women came to kiss the hem of her mantle as it hung over, and to lay petitions at her feet. The Lord Athol, or as others say Kirkaldy of Grange, took up one, offered by the meanest of the groupe; and when the noise of the rebecks ceased, the queen bade him continue the music of her people by reading their addresses to her. He obeyed, and opening the first he had taken up, found it in the form of this letter.

“Fayer & good queene.

“This cometh fra’ one who wishethe you all helth and joie inasmuch as youre joie much conforts all grieved and doubted wives. For if your Majestie can be thus gleesome and praised by loyalle foulk, there is no distressed or misused woman who may not claim to be thocht guileless, and bear an open face in all places. Therefore I praie your good Majestie to make known how moche and how long womynkinde may suffer and how far they may synne withouten blame. This I rather aske than praie, for if oure queene taketh from us the marke and stamp of what is fitting, it beseemeth her to give us a new order for our guidance, lest there be none that know what is holie or unholie.—Your most fayre and royalle self hath had a nobyll husband of whom his enemies saie onlie that he shewed the synnes of a free and bountiful nature; which if in hymme they needed such deadlie rebuke, need it also in a wyfe and a queene: Your Majestie hath taken awaie from patient and meek wyves the glorie of meekness and the recompense of a praised name: inasmuche as it now seemeth better to be brave in aspect and liberalle in courtesie, than to have an unsoiled name and quiet homestead. Therefore it befitteth your Majestie to provide means and lodgment for free-hearted wyves, lest not havinge riche apparelle and rare beautie they may fall into contempt; and that braverie be scoffed at in ugliness and a stuff kirtle which hath praise in beauty and broidery.

“Let your royalle self compell those men who stand at your righte-hand to judge of their wyves and sisters as it hath pleased them to judge their mistresse: and if peradventure there be one of them who hath a nephew riven of his birthright and his Mother’s good name, let him not tread on both lonelie and weak woman hath had (it may be) such misgivings as are but comelie accidents in your good majestie.

“Nor let this be cast awaie because it cometh fra’ one who hath neither husband nor good name, for by those accidents I am made worthie to compare with your Majestie. Moreover in an ill repute there is no shame, sith your good self beareth it so lightlie; and if the truth be in it, there it still no evil, as hath been proven by the Manie that see none in your Majestie, and by your own high grace and favor to him who hath caused these mischances to his poor wyfe and your liege serwante

Ann Bothwell.”

Kirkaldy of Grange, to do him justice, was confounded and amazed at the unexpected contents of this letter. He cast an indirect glance at the Earl of Morton, who stood, favored by his low stature, unobserved behind the queen. His sinister eye gleamed at once with his natural delight in sarcasm, and with the hope of building his own triumph as a libertine on the Queen’s abasement. But Mary read the eyes of both her courtiers; and taking her son James, then little more than a year old, into her arms, she beckoned the bringer of this bold letter towards the balcony. Instead of skulking among the croud, the person who had delivered it stood still firmly in her place, with her garments muffled round her, but her head uncovered, except by a widow’s curch. Mary fixed her large blue eyes on the stranger; and putting a cross of jewels into her infant’s hand, said, with that sweet smile which painters and historians have loved to imagine, “Petitioner, the queen has nothing left to give, but her son promises by this cross to amend all things.”—The unknown woman looked up, and at the same instant the little prince dropped the cross from his hands into her bosom; on which she bowed her head lowly, and answered, “My benison on ye! The cross is a comforter, and the red rose and the thistle may knit together round it.”

Mary was no stranger to Earl Bothwell’s divorce from the Lady Ann, for whom the legendary ballad[1] which bears her name has excited more interest than even the historical facts relating to her. She looked earnestly at this strange and meanly dressed, woman; and was surprised to see beauty not inferior to her own. The gloomy Earl of Morton smiled at the blush of shame and remorse which reddened Mary’s brow, and withdrew her from the gaze of the croud—the last that ever beheld her in Edinburgh as their queen.

Something more than twenty years passed between this period and the time of Mary’s fatal trial. Her long absence and imprisonment had mollified her common enemies;—the regent Earl of Morton had perished by assassination; Buchanan was no more, and the flame excited by their zeal against her was sinking under the usual influence of time and changing interests. But of all the partisans that maintained her innocence, none were more strenuous than the uncle and brother of Lady Ann Bothwell, the divorced wife of the ruined and expatriated Earl. Of their sister’s fate they chose to know nothing: it was believed that she had withdrawn into one of the few convents still left in existence, and her infant son had been heard of no more. Forsaken and disinherited, this unhappy boy would have had few chances of notice from the family of his proscribed father, and his mother’s seized the opportunity afforded by her divorce, to usurp the lands which should have been his birthright. His mother gave him the Queen’s cross, and advised him to assume a name less hated. Near one of those ruined convents, in the night of an unruly October-day, three men assembled at the sound of a whistle blown by a young shepherd, whose flock were browzing on the dark brown heather which then clothed the valley of Dundrennan. “The moon is up again in the west,” said the youth, as he fanned into a flame the red faggot under a nook of the cloister—“the moon is up, and the queen has escaped!”

“Escaped!” answered the Lord Maxwell, sheathing his dirk in the earth on which he sat—“then let the dry sod keep it bright, for there will be use for it—Mary escaped from Elizabeth’s clutch—what now becomes of the baronies of Bothwell?”

“To whom,” said Herries of Caerlaverock, “could she have given them better than to the brother of his father—There is small need, Maxwell, to be doubting who will have the forest when the doe is in our hands.—Have ye made the bed ready, Fahm, and all gear fitting for a lady?”

“Fresh heather and new hay,” returned the lad, to whom the name of Fahm was given not unaptly. For the most grim and deformed imp created by Scottish superstition is called thus, and the companions of this young man had accustomed him to bear it in derision, because his distorted shape and wild countenance accorded fully with their notion of night-goblins. Presently another and softer whistle was blown among the cloisters, and the two Scotch nobles ran out to receive their comrades. The foremost made a sign expressive of their full success; and lifting a woman from the horse that bore her, they placed her on the ground, and vanished among the shadows of the valley.

“You are welcome, our lady and mistress,” said Caerlaverock, “to this place, which gave you shelter on a worse journey. The wild fox and the roe have lived here where the altar-stone stood, but we will swear faith on our swords.”

The queen seemed faint with her long and toilsome journey, and sat down on the bed of heather prepared for her in the cloister. By the red light of the torch which her adherents ventured to place near it, they saw her hair had grown grey and her face wan with suffering. The clear keen blue eye remained, but the lovely roundness of the cheek and chin, the smooth alabaster forehead, and the lips so enchanting in their promise, were all faded into ghastliness.

“Be of good cheer, madam.” rejoined Herries:—“this is not Dundrennan as it was when you reposed here on your way to England—this is a ruin such as poor Scotland is, but it has gallant hearts in it, and its queen’s presence makes it holy again.”

The queen put her hood aside, and raised herself on an arm still full of beauty. “Methinks,” she said, looking composedly round her, “my court is small, and there might have been more to welcome me. But I am not so rich in friends as to cast away even the ungracious, else I might say the Lord Maxwell seemeth as if he had not wished my safe coming.”

“No, madam,” said Lord Maxwell, sternly, “I have not wished it. For this is the second trial that hath befallen you, and it pleases brave men better to see courage than cunning. And I had rather that my queen had met her judges with a quiet and firm spirit, than dealt with thieves and brawlers to buy their help.”

“That is,” replied Mary, “my Lord Maxwell is ill pleased that I have taken aid from poor and unlettered men when great ones had none to spare me.”

“Service is not always friendship.” answered the Scotch knight: “and safety is not among knaves. There were noble and true men in Scotland who would have helped their mistress if she had trusted them and helped herself. But she put her secrets into the hands of serving-men, and took counsel among ruffians. They who have helped her back to Scotland, have need of her as a corner-stone for their own fortunes, and then they will hew it into pieces.”

“And what fortunes has Lord Maxwell built,” returned Mary, “that he needs no help from me?”

“My name is Adam Hepburn, and my father’s name was Bothwell.”

The queen seemed palsied by this answer. Yet though her lips trembled and grew dark, her eyes had a sunny brightness in them—“Thou art Bothwell’s son,” she exclained—“yet thou comest here to serve Mary Stewart!”

“Why should I not serve Mary Stewart?” said the young man, haughtily. “It was not by her crime that my mother was divorced and cast aside. It was my father’s frailty that made him a buyer of false witnesses and a teacher of perjury to set himself free. My mother was stained and degraded by plotters, yet she was innocent— therefore I will believe Mary Stewart may be guiltless. My mother’s good name was sold for a price, and her most innocent deeds wrested and shaped into harlotry—why may I not think my queen wrongfully accused?—I avenge my mother by defending all that are persecuted.”

“Adam Hepburn,” said the queen, raising her voice to a shrill scream, “tell me truly if it was thy means brought me hither?”

“Mary Stewart,” answered Bothwell’s son—“To think thee an unhappy woman, and a queen worthy our country, is not the same. Thy familiar courtesy has made men fools; and the folly which a homely matron ought not to nourish, a queen should both fear and scorn. Men will not dally for smiles alone when a woman’s hand holds the key of an exchequer: and I will not be one of those who would give thee a crown to play with, though I am here to defend the last stake thou hast left thyself.”

As the young knight spoke, the grisly shepherd-boy, who had witnessed the queen’s arrival, suddenly threw the torch from its place. In an instant the ruined cloister was filled with armed men, to whom his treachery had given this signal. Herries sprang from the hearth where he had kept watch, and joined his dirk to the Lord Maxwell’s, but their desperate courage was vain. Mary was conveyed back to Fotheringay-castle, and her brief escape known only to the few who soon after witnessed her death upon a scaffold. Some wandering foragers, perhaps the band whose base aid Mary had fatally trusted, found and buried the body of her second husband’s unfortunate son, covered with mortal wounds, and distinguished only by the cross of jewels which she had given to Lady Ann Bothwell in that day when the graces of her bounty almost atoned for her errors. And those errors were more than fully atoned by her long miseries and warning example. Fahm, the treacherous agent of these ruffians, received the cross as his share of their booty, and secured also a paper found under the buff coat worn by one of the slain. The seal and part of the envelope were crushed and steeped in blood, but he decyphered this remnant of the contents, and thought himself richly repaid by what seemed a letter from Mary to her brother’s son.

“I thank you for shewing me in my day of trouble the strength and truth of your affection. Your father also had his days of trouble, which shewed him who were his real friends. In those times he found shelter, comfort, and help from his sister. But it fits men to forget when they dare not be grateful.

“Your father’s sister returns to this country to ask justice, not alms. What she demands would not impoverish her opponent—but that opponent is gracious and splendid—she is only a defenceless woman, grown old in years and affliction—widowed in the truest sense of that word; and she returns after long absence to a place where those who loved her are dead, and those who know her best are feeble and poor.

“She thanks her kindred for leaving her alone in the struggle. They have helped her to shew what courage will do for integrity and time for justice. For all this she thanks them; and while she forgets their unkindness, she will also forget that she designed them to partake her prosperity.”—The rest was illegible, and the torn envelope seemed a copy of Lady Ann Bothwell’s letter to the queen.

Fahm determined to preserve this relic as a step to his future fortunes. By extracting a diamond from the cross, he found means to reach England, and to subsist in secret till the accession of Queen Mary’s son, James I. called forth all her friends. By decent attire and sufficient courage he procured access to Secretary Cecil, as he journeyed to pay his court to the new sovereign. Though Cecil had been the prime-minister of Mary’s enemy, it was well-known that he had reason to expect favor from her son. Fahm humbly represented himself as a servant of the Stewart-family, and shewed the cross, the letter, and its bloody envelope, as tokens of his truth. The Secretary looked shrewdly at the paper, and replied, “How knowest thou that this letter is Queen Mary’s?—Might it not have been as fittingly written by the Lady Ann Bothwell to her brother who shut his door on her?”—“Ay, sir,” said the bold rogue—“but your excellency knows it would be for the queen’s credit to shew this abroad, and say nothing of the Lady Ann’s letter to her grace, which was a nipping one, and did her much harm. They be both good brands to light a fire with among the folk: but a queen’s wrongs are more than a gentlewoman’s.—and the queen’s letter is wittier than Lady Ann’s.”—“Thou liest,” answered the Secretary of State—“I wrote them both myself.”

Fahn was seized the next day as a thief, and history informs us he was the only man hanged by James I. without a trial; a retribution rash in an English King, but well worthy a place in the Annals of Justice.


  1. “Balow, my babe, lie still and sleep,
    It grieves me sair to see thee weep;
    If thou’ll be silent, I’ll be glad,
    Thy moaning makes my heart fu’sad-
    Balow, my babe!—thy mither’s joy!
    Thy father breeds me sair annoy.


    When he began to seek my luve,
    And with his sacred words to move,
    His feigning fause and flatt’ring cheer
    To me that time did nocht appear.
    But now I see that cruel he
    Cares neither for my babe nor me.


    Balow, my sweet one! spare thy tears
    To weep when thou hast wit and years:
    Thy griefs are gathering to a sum—
    God grant thee patience when they come!
    Born to proclaim a mother’s shame,
    A father’s fall, a traitor’s name.”

The European Magazine, Vol. 78, December 1820, pp. 489-494