The conflict of policy and interest, with its considerable constitutional implications, was most dramatically demonstrated in the long-running saga of Mary, and especially in its dénouement in February 1587. The exclusion of Mary from the English throne was the lynchpin of Burghley's politics, and much desired by many. During the 1572 parliament, the bishops were particularly insistent that she should be executed, while in the Commons she was called ‘the monstrous and huge dragon, and masse of the earth’ and ‘the most notorious whore in all the world’ (Hartley, 1.312, 438). Mary was routinely identified with Jezebel, just as Elizabeth would become Jezebel in the eyes of Catholic Europe after Mary's execution. When Wentworth referred to Mary as Jezebel in his 1576 speech, he was told that she was a queen and that he ought to speak reverently of her, to which he replied: ‘let him take her parte that list: I will speake the truth boldly’ (ibid., 1.438).
Elizabeth's attitude to her cousin was naturally more ambivalent. She was well aware that Mary posed a constant threat, but no less aware of the risks involved in excluding her altogether from the complex equation of Scottish politics. Fundamentally, she was unreconciled to the dubious precedent of judging and executing an anointed sovereign prince, for whereas many contributors to the 1572 parliamentary debates regarded Mary as the former queen of Scots, legally and justly deposed (under the fiction of abdication) and therefore a private person, this was never Elizabeth's view. Perhaps deeper still was a justified fear for her own reputation, for if Mary were to die, international opinion would hold her accountable. Whether or not the bond of association was Elizabeth's idea, she would find it convenient to hide behind it, avoiding personal responsibility if Mary did have to die. At the time of the Throckmorton conspiracy in 1583, Elizabeth, in the opinion of Walsingham, overreacted in her angry denunciation of the French ambassador, Bertrand de Salignac de la Motte-Fénélon, who had been indirectly involved; and she was willing to throw the unfortunate double agent Dr William Parry to the wolves, perhaps to take the heat off Mary.
No such diversionary manoeuvres were possible in 1586, when the Babington conspiracy broke, with evidence of Mary's full collusion as clear as Walsingham and his code-master Thomas Phelippes could make it: a smoking gun. Under the terms of the 1584 Act for the Queen's Safety, Mary was now placed on trial before a special commission and found guilty, a sentence announced by proclamation on 4 December 1586. All that was now required was for Elizabeth to sign the death warrant. It would not be easy to obtain that signature. Three times in 1572 the queen had signed the warrant for Norfolk's execution, only three times to have second thoughts. This was why parliament was summoned, as Burghley wrote, ‘to make the burden better borne and the world abroad better satisfied’ (Neale, Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 1584–1601, 104), but also to place pressure on Elizabeth, who distanced herself from its proceedings. At this point, another biblical phrase, and precedent, came into play: ‘foolish pity’. When Mary's gaoler, Sir Amias Paulet, wrote ‘others shall excuse their foolish pity as they may’ (J. Morris, ed., The Letter Books of Sir Amias Paulet, 1874, 291), ‘others’ meant Elizabeth, and the reference was to the second book of Chronicles and the story of godly King Asa, who removed his idolatrous mother, Maachah, from the throne, but failed to kill her, despite Deuteronomy chapter 13, which forbade ‘pity’, glossed in the Geneva version as ‘foolish pity’, to spare even one's nearest and dearest, where idolatry was concerned.
The story of what happened next is one of the most familiar in all Elizabethan history, and yet its deeper constitutional implications have not always been explored. On 1 February 1587 Davison brought a sheaf of documents to Elizabeth for signing, including, somewhere in the pile, Mary's death warrant. According to Davison, the queen was fully aware of what she was signing, and sent him on his way to his boss, Walsingham, who was on sick leave, with a piece of black humour: she said ‘the sight thereof would kill him outright’ (N. H. Nicolas, 213). Davison was also to see that the warrant passed the great seal. Two days later, according to Davison, Elizabeth confirmed with an oath that the execution should be carried out, although he also said that it was his impression that she wanted nothing more to do with the matter, and favoured a hole-in-the-corner murder, which might have satisfied international opinion. However, according to Elizabeth, she signed the warrant only to be held in reserve against any new dangers and had not intended it to be dispatched to Fotheringhay Castle.
Davison, perhaps aware of the 1572 precedent, no sooner had the signed warrant in his hand than he took it to Burghley and Sir Thomas Bromley, lord chancellor, who attached the great seal at 5 o'clock on the afternoon of 1 February. On 3 February Burghley convened the entire privy council to meet in his private chamber at court, and secured their signatures to the commission under which the warrant was executed, Walsingham adding his from his sickbed. The documents were then taken to Fotheringhay by Beale's servant, George Digby. Mary was executed on 8 February.
There followed a storm which drove Burghley out of court and parliament for weeks. Camden wrote that Elizabeth conceived ‘or pretended’ great grief, and anger against Davison in particular, but then he thought better of ‘pretended’ and removed it from an intended second edition of his Annales (Camdeni annales, ed. Hearne, 2.546). If her strategy was to exonerate herself by shifting the blame on to her privy councillors, the self-preserving concern of those privy councillors, Burghley above all, was to make Davison the scapegoat. At his trial in the court of Star Chamber, the nub of the matter was Davison's word against the queen's (whether or not she told him to delay the matter), and against Burghley's (whether or not he had told Burghley that he could safely go ahead). In these circumstances it was inevitable that Davison should be found guilty, imprisoned in the Tower and fined 10,000 marks (a sentence later remitted). What is remarkable about the trial is that almost all the speeches were favourable to Davison, and the extraordinary procedure which Burghley and the privy council had followed. Arthur Grey, fourteenth Baron Grey of Wilton, thought it was Davison's simple duty to reveal such weighty matters to the privy council, ‘whom it specially concerned to know’ (BL, Add. MS 48027, fol. 675r), implying that the privy council also acted properly, in the interest of the safety of the realm. Only John Lumley, Baron Lumley, took up what was surely a constitutionally more correct position. It was a contempt, lèse-majesté, for the privy council to have met in the queen's very house, and to have resolved a matter of such consequence without her advice, or even knowledge.
Almost the last word was left to Richard Fletcher, the dean of Peterborough, who officiated on the scaffold at Fotheringhay, and who broke the stunned silence as Mary's head fell from her shoulders with the ringing cry: ‘so perish all the queen's enemies!’ His ‘Sermon preached before the queene immediately after the execucion of the queene of Scottes’, was remarkable both for its rhetorical dexterity and for its courage. He was not afraid to compare Elizabeth with the disciples, who slept while Christ prayed and groaned in the Garden of Gethsemane, which was to apply, and more directly, the trope of the negligent prince which is found in Sidney's Arcadia (Walker, 122–3).