She had agonized over signing the death warrant for almost two decades. However, on Feb 1, 1587, Queen Elizabeth I ordered the execution of her cousin Mary, the rightful ruler of Scotland and arguably the English Crown. Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded on Feb 8, 1587. Nearly five centuries later, Mary’s death still captures our imagination. Questions surrounding her death shed light on one of history’s greatest stories of intrigue and perhaps paranoia.

Who Was Mary Queen of Scots?

Officially, Mary was executed for conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Her trial records show Mary was included in the Babington Plot— a plan hatched to put Mary in power. Mary was writing letters to Roman Catholic nobleman Anthony Babington that were intercepted and then used as evidence. Mary was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. There is only one problem—killing a royal family member was taboo.

Unfortunately for Mary, she was always going to be a leadership threat to Queen Elizabeth I because of who she was. Mary was a baby when she became Queen of Scotland. But she grew up in France as Scotland was ruled by regents. Mary married into French nobility, which among some was treacherous because of the politics of the day between France and England. This, when Mary returned to Scotland to claim her crown, she was defeated and forced to abdicate. Mary fled to England, where she spent about nineteen years imprisoned by Elizabeth I. Mary was imprisoned because she had the ability to inspire her followers.