It is 1587, and Mary, Queen of Scots, has been held prisoner at the Castle of Fotheringhay for the past month. Her jailer, Sir Amias Paulet, and his assistant ransack Mary’s rooms. Hanna Kennedy, Mary’s nurse, pleads with the men to spare the queen her few comforts; Paulet retorts that luxuries only distract Mary from repenting her sins. Among Mary’s numerous alleged sins from her scandalous past, Paulet refers to the queen’s reported incitement to regicide—the Babington Plot. He laments Mary’s presence in England, expressing his belief that the Catholic queen will provoke a civil war.
Mary relinquishes her possessions without dispute, but contests the fairness of the accusations against her. She explains that she can only be judged by her peers, and that her only peer in the country is Queen Elizabeth. She asks Paulet to take a letter to Elizabeth, requesting an audience with her. Mary asks that she may know the court’s judgment and her fate. Paulet confirms nothing but suggests that Mary make her peace with God.
Returning from the Continent, Paulet’s nephew Mortimer hands Mary a letter from her uncle, the French Cardinal of Lorraine. The letter explains that Mortimer is an ally. The young man tells Mary of his experience in Europe and his conversion to Catholicism. He shares what Paulet could not: the court’s guilty verdict. Mortimer insists that he is dedicated to Mary and tells her of a plan in place to free her. She gives Mortimer a letter to deliver to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who for decades is Elizabeth’s favorite among her courtiers and reputed love interest. Paulet returns with William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, High Treasurer of England, who delivers the news from the court and enters into a heated debate with the queen about the fairness of her trial.
Left alone, Paulet and Burleigh express regret over the predicament Elizabeth faces: kill her cousin and fellow queen, or grant Scotland’s queen her life and live in fear of an uprising in Mary’s favor. Burleigh suggests that Paulet should find a quicker, more private end for the queen. Astounded, Paulet assures that he will keep Mary safe until she is called for her execution.
At the Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth is attended by her courtiers and French diplomats. Count Bellievre, Envoy Extraordinary of France, implores the queen to consent to marry the French prince. Elizabeth replies that a marriage proposal at such a time is inappropriate—Mary’s impending death must not contend with the joy of approaching nuptials—and she discourses instead on the lonely existence and restricted life of a queen. Finally she gives the French envoy an answer—a ring for his master, suggesting a marriage at some future date. When the French ambassador, expressing his delight, still grieves that Mary cannot know such happiness, Elizabeth threatens to end England’s newly forged alliance with France.
Elizabeth’s advisors counsel her on Mary’s sentencing. Burleigh maintains that, for her crimes and for the safety of England, the Scottish queen should be shown no mercy. George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and Mary’s past warden, argues that, in the interest of England’s reputation, the queen’s life should be spared. And though his reasoning differs from that of Talbot, Leicester comes to the same conclusion. As Elizabeth announces her intention to weigh their opinions, Paulet and Mortimer enter the room; Paulet introduces his nephew and delivers Mary’s letter. Dismissing everyone except Mortimer, the two discuss Elizabeth’s quandary, concluding that Mary must die—and that Elizabeth must have no connection to her cousin’s death. Mortimer tells the queen that he will do her bidding.
Left alone, Mortimer reveals his continued dedication to Mary and his hatred for Elizabeth. He regrets ever having come to Court, believing that he could have saved Mary himself—and, in so doing, won her as a prize. Paulet reappears to warn his nephew against complying with Elizabeth’s crooked suggestion.
Mortimer gives Mary’s letter to Leicester, who reveals himself a supporter of the Scottish queen. Leicester explains his history with Mary to a shocked Mortimer, who in turn entrusts the courtier with his plans to free Mary. Upon hearing the young man’s plans, Leicester insists that the impatient Mortimer be more cautious. When Elizabeth returns, Leicester reassumes his façade of devotion. He suggests that Elizabeth go to see Mary, asserting that the English queen’s magnificence will put Mary in her place. Elizabeth hesitates at first; but she eventually agrees to the scheme as a favor to Leicester, who claims he was hurt by Elizabeth’s promise of marriage to the French prince.
Enjoying the fresh air on the grounds of Fotheringhay Castle, Mary attributes this hint of freedom to Leicester. Paulet arrives and reveals that he, not Leicester, is the cause of her expanded liberty. Elizabeth, he says, will meet Mary at Fotheringhay momentarily. Unprepared, Mary feels faint but then becomes enraged. Talbot arrives and advises Mary to regain her self-control.
When Elizabeth and her party appear before the prisoner, Mary tries to look unassuming and repentant. She kneels to Elizabeth and asks that she be lifted up. The English queen refuses and insists that Mary stay in her humbled place. Mary proclaims that neither she nor Elizabeth can be blamed for their rivalry, and that it is instead due to circumstance and the influence of others. Hoping to secure Elizabeth’s pardon, Mary asks her cousin to essentially hold court on the spot so that she may demonstrate her innocence. But Elizabeth remains unforgiving and eventually resorts to mockery. Mary’s careful composure cracks as she verbally attacks Elizabeth.
Shaken, Elizabeth withdraws, leaving Mary to celebrate her triumph. Alone with Mortimer, Mary asks after Leicester, but he dismisses the earl as a coward. He tells Mary that he and his men will free her by force, killing anyone in his path since he has been preemptively absolved of all sins. Believing Mortimer to be insane, Mary resists both his plans and his passionate words. Mortimer responds with force and attempts to assault her. She narrowly escapes when Hanna returns to warn the queen that armed men are closing in on the castle.
Paulet reports an attempt just made on Elizabeth’s life, and leaves in search of Mary. Mortimer is joined by his co-conspirator, who tells him that, because of the rogue assassin, the plan to free Mary has collapsed and all plotters must flee for safety.
At the Palace of Westminster, Burleigh instructs William Davison, Secretary of State, to draft Mary’s death warrant. As the Frenchman Aubespine rejoices in Elizabeth’s safety, Burleigh accuses the envoy of participating in the treasonous plot. Their ensuing dispute effectively ends the proposed English-French alliance. Aubespine is escorted out, to be summarily returned to France.
Burleigh and Leicester descend into an argument about the day’s events and the impending trial, and Burleigh implies that Leicester was behind the queens’ meeting at Fotheringhay. As Burleigh leaves, Mortimer arrives. Leicester, not wanting to be associated with a traitor, orders him to leave. Mortimer warns that Burleigh has discovered Leicester’s attachment to Mary. He tells Leicester that he plans to flee to Scotland, and entreats him to save himself and Mary. Leicester immediately takes Mortimer’s advice by betraying his co-conspirator to the guards. When the guards try to arrest him, Mortimer cries out his final words in support of Mary before killing himself with his own dagger.
Burleigh divulges to the queen Leicester’s relationship with Mary. Furious, Elizabeth condemns Leicester as a traitor and claims that she will never see him again. But Leicester bursts into the chamber despite Elizabeth’s insistence that he not be allowed in. Defending himself against her accusations, Leicester argues that he corresponded with Mary in order to uncover any malicious intentions on her part, and that Mortimer’s arrest is proof of his loyalty. Elizabeth hesitates until Burleigh suggests that Leicester be charged with carrying out Mary’s execution order. Leicester balks but ultimately agrees to the assignment.
As Davison returns, they hear the sounds of a growing uproar outside the palace—the London crowd demanding Mary’s head. Burleigh pushes Elizabeth to bend to the people’s will, but Talbot encourages the queen to do the opposite. Overwhelmed, Elizabeth demands to be left alone. The queen contemplates her next move; overcome by fear and anger, she signs the death warrant. When Elizabeth hands the order back to Davison without further instruction, he begs for an explicit command: deliver the order or keep it. She gives none, abdicating all responsibility. Burleigh returns to find a conflicted Davison holding the signed order. Determined to see Mary’s head roll, Burleigh takes the warrant and rushes away.
In Mary’s prison, Hanna weeps at the sight of her queen’s possessions, gathered for inventory. She and Melvil, the steward of Mary’s household, discuss Mary’s stoic reaction to the news of her death sentence, as well as her impassioned response to Mortimer’s death and Leicester’s betrayal. Their conversation is interrupted by Mary’s approach. The queen calmly tells them of her acceptance of her impending demise, and shares with them her final wishes.
Mary tells Melvil that her only regret is not accepting the sacrament from a Catholic priest before her death. He reveals to her that he was ordained as a minister of the Church, and Mary confesses her sins. She does not, however, admit to any involvement in the Babington Plot, the conspiracy for which she faces execution. Unconvinced, Melvil pressures her to make a full confession, but Mary insists that she has done so. Melvil completes the sacrament.
Joined by Burleigh, Leicester, and Paulet, Mary again dictates her last commands to the English noblemen. Hanna returns with the men who are to take the queen to her death. Mary sees Leicester and falls at the sight of him. Leicester catches her and, in a brief exchange, Mary says her last goodbye. Everyone but Leicester leaves—he stands in shock, expressing his own shame.
Talbot, returning from the Tower of London, reports to Elizabeth that the men who testified against Mary admit to giving false witness. He implores Elizabeth to reopen the case against her cousin. Agreeing, she demands that Davison hand over Mary’s death warrant. Davison tells his queen that Burleigh has taken the order to be fulfilled. Moments later, Burleigh enters with news of Mary’s death. Elizabeth appears furious at Davison and Burleigh for executing Mary without her direct and explicit command. She banishes Burleigh and calls for Davison’s imprisonment. She turns to Talbot as her only trusted advisor, but he asks to turn in his seal of office and departs. Elizabeth calls upon the Earl of Kent to summon Leicester. He informs the queen that Leicester has withdrawn to France, leaving Elizabeth completely alone.
—Brooke Sutter, a graduate of Loyola University, researched and wrote teaching resources for Mary Stuart as an intern with CST’s Education Department.