Mary Stuart, more commonly known as Mary Queen of Scots, was believed to be the legitimate heir to the English crown presenting a threat to the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. Mary Stuart, being under threat from Protestants in Scotland, travelled to England in 1568 seeking help and protection.
When Mary arrived in England, Elizabeth had several options; Elizabeth could have embraced Mary as the cousin that she was, let her roam England, send her back to Scotland, put her on trial for Darnley’s murder or send her into exile. However, all of these options presented drawbacks. To have embraced a controversial Catholic Queen as her cousin, Elizabeth would have risked angering Protestants even if committed Protestants were only still a small minority in Elizabeth’s reign. Whilst Catholicism maintained its hold on many English people, the threat was nonetheless existent. Mary also posed a threat roaming free in England due to the potential trouble she could cause and both this option and sending her back to Scotland meant putting Mary in danger that Elizabeth could have been blamed for. However, providing support for Mary to return to Scotland with would put Elizabeth under threat of losing her throne due to Mary’s claim. Furthermore, Mary could gain foreign support if sent into exile and there was no evidence to put a fellow Queen on trial. This left Elizabeth no choice but to imprison her for nineteen years; despite the many plots made against Elizabeth, it is debated whether Elizabeth was right to execute her on the grounds of the threat she posed to the Queen.
Theoretically, English Catholics supported Mary, however in practice they actually stood by their Queen. Elizabeth offered stability and prosperity to England, not forgetting the obvious patriotism of the time; even devout Catholics would rather see a Protestant English monarch than a Scottish Catholic on the throne. Mary was not necessarily a threat to Elizabeth; most English Catholics were horrified by plots to assassinate Elizabeth. Furthermore, these plots never worked. The papal Bull was too late to give moral courage to Catholic conspirators involved in the Northern Rebellion. The rebellion of the Northern earls was not really a threat as it was easily put down due to the lack of foreign support. The real threat to Elizabeth was Spain, not Mary, and initially Spain had reason to fear Mary’s accession to the throne because of the French-Scottish alliance. Due to this, Spain was unlikely to overthrow Elizabeth to put Mary on the throne. Additionally, Mary was not likely to gain the support simply due to the fact that Mary was involved in scandals, was utterly discredited and was hated in Scotland. She had been excluded from the throne by Henry VIII making any possible accession more unlikely. On the surface, Mary appeared to not be a threat because she was imprisoned and Elizabeth’s reluctance to deal decisively with her suggests that she had her doubts about the extent of her threat.
An alternative view is that Elizabeth was justified and correct to execute Mary Stuart on the grounds of the threat she posed to the Queen. The most significant threat that Mary posed to Elizabeth, was the threat of her accession. She had an unimpeachable claim to the throne; her marriage to Darnley made this even stronger. Elizabeth had no heir, and she refused to name one – this led to an unsettled accession and strengthened Mary’s position as an heir. According to Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate. Since Mary was a Catholic, Catholics abroad or in England might seek to enforce Mary’s claim and as such was seen as the root of the Catholic threat. There were still may Catholics living in England during Elizabeth’s reign; committed Protestants were still only a small minority. Moreover, the excommunication of Elizabeth was worrying. The government did not know how Catholics would respond, and the possibility of Mary’s accession exacerbated the situation. Various plots centred on overthrowing Elizabeth and putting Mary on the throne; if it wasn’t for Elizabeth’s spy, Walsingham, it is unsure how far those plots could have gone.
To conclude, Elizabeth was justified and correct to execute Mary Stuart on the grounds of the threat she posed to the Queen. Mary had previously been accused of murder and had a scandalous past; during Elizabeth’s reign, the government felt compelled to pass the ‘Bond of Association’ in 1484-5 to protect the Queen’s life. Whilst there is undoubtedly question surrounding the issue of whether Mary or her followers would have ever achieved their goal of killing the Queen, Elizabeth rightly protected her own safety by eliminating the threat.