Heritage & Culture

Remembering Mary

Thanks to a new, award-winning film, Mary Queen of Scots is back in the public consciousness. But did you know she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral? Erica Kendall looks at the life of the ill-fated monarch, ahead of a special Cathedral event celebrating her life...

Mary, Queen of Scots, was buried at Peterborough Cathedral in August 1587.

On 8th February 1587, Mary Queen of Scots was executed in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, after 19 years of captivity in England. Her body was embalmed, her entrails secretly buried within the grounds, and she then lay in a lead coffin within the Castle for nearly six months. Queen Elizabeth at last ordered her burial, which was to be in Peterborough Cathedral, denying Mary’s request to be laid to rest in France next to her first husband, King François ll. The Burial Register contains this entry for the year 1587:

The Queene of Scots was most sumptuously buried in ye Cathedral Church of Peterburgh the first day of August 1587 who was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castell the eight of February before

Despite Mary’s suspected involvement in plots against her, Elizabeth had been very reluctant to condemn a fellow anointed sovereign and cousin to death and she had been furious with the councillors who had carried out the death warrant, against her wishes, she claimed. Mary at least received a grand funeral, although as a devout Roman Catholic she would not have appreciated the Protestant burial service and grudging sermon by the Bishop of Lincoln.

Queen Elizabeth’s household officers and heralds arrived in Peterborough in late July to choose the burial place, which was to be opposite that of Katharine of Aragon. A rich hearse was erected near the first step of the Quire and the whole interior festooned with black hangings. On Sunday 30th July between 1am and 2am the body was brought from Fotheringhay Castle by torchlight in a chariot hung with black velvet, adorned with Queen Mary’s ensigns, and attended by the Bishop and Dean of Peterborough, other officials, and members of Mary’s household. The body was laid in the vault. Then on Monday afternoon a bevy of lords and ladies arrived for a great supper at the Bishop’s Palace, also hung with black. Early the following morning, clergy, lords and ladies gathered in the Cathedral for a somewhat perfunctory sermon by the Bishop of Lincoln, who expressed the not-very-confident hope that Mary was saved despite having died a Catholic. Mary’s officials then, according to tradition, broke their staves and put them into the grave, the mourners had yet another feast, and after that everyone went home. A helmet, sword and shield were later installed to hang above the tomb.

The Queen’s body was exhumed 25 years later by her son James l and laid in an ornate marble tomb in Westminster Abbey next to her cousins Elizabeth l and Mary Tudor. What remained of the empty tomb in Peterborough Cathedral was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1643 when they despoiled the building on their way to attack the Royalist garrison at Crowland.

Mary, Queen of Scots: A Monologue by Lesley Smith

Friday 3 May, 7.30pm at Peterborough Cathedral

Meet the tragic queen during her final imprisonment at Tutbury Castle and share her hopes and fears as her dramatic tale approaches its bitter conclusion.

Lesley Smith is Curator of Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, where Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner on four occasions. She has appeared in over 120 TV programmes including The One Show and Bargain Hunt. She is well known for her entertaining and compelling costumed monologues.

£10 per person (no children under 16). Book online at www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk or call 01733 452336.

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