Stage or Scaffold?

My post on Mary Queen of Scots prompted me to think about why her case seems so dramatic, in the literal sense of the word, and why it gave rise to several theatrical adaptations. In this post, I’d like to provide one answer: Mary was executed on a scaffold and scaffolds were also among the first stages used for theatrical performances1. Contemporary accounts of her trial and execution are telling: both usually picture a square table or scaffold in the center, as if it were a stage in which was performed the final act of Mary’s tragedy. But the pictures themselves are more than just snapshots of a momentous episode of British history: they are actually built as plays with a narrative structure.

The narrative quality of these pictures is striking and suggest that the story of Mary’s execution is not just about the end-result, i.e. a decapitated head, a lifeless corpse, or the advent of a new martyr. By incorporating a narrative to the pictures, the scaffold takes on a dramatic structure, one in which a story is told in several stages (or acts) such as Mary’s arrival to the execution room, her preparations, the beheading, and the aftermath.

In the various depictions of her execution, for instance, although the scaffold takes center stage, it is often accompanied by other sequences. In a contemporary drawing, the artist represents Mary’s arrival on the left, accompanied by her waiting-women, and her preparations on the scaffold, when she famously took off her black coat to uncover the red colored-coat of a Catholic martyr:

A drawing of Mary's execution at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587
A drawing of Mary’s execution at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587

Here, the audience is numerous but mostly anonymous, save for a few people pointed out with Roman numerals, while Mary is almost alone in facing the viewer (the numbers also refer to the different scenes, or stages, or moments, of Mary’s execution). The forefront, with the two dark arches and laticed windows, recalls the fact that the execution took place in a confined room in Fotheringhay Castle which was rather grim, according to Antoine de Montchrestien, a French dramatist:

Une grand’ salle estoit funebrement parée,
Et de flambeaux ardans haut et bas esclairée,
D’vne noire couleur esclatoit le paué,
L’eschaffaut paroissoit hautement esleué.2

Although Montchrestien’s ‘flambeaux ardans‘ are absent from the following watercolor, the Dutch artist represented not only Mary’s beheading, but also the subsequent burning of Mary’s clothes, in a (Protestant) attempt to destroy potential relics:

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Dutch watercolor 1613
The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Dutch watercolor 1613

The quality of the watercolor gives us a different view of the proceedings, with Mary in the foreground and the rest of the witnesses facing the viewer. The lifelike effect is heightened by the men prodding the flames on the left and the executioner wielding his axe, about to strike off the Scottish queen’s head.

In the famous portrait commissioned by Elizabeth Curle (pictured on the right), Mary’s execution appears as an inset, with the prominent red kirtle of the martyrs, accompanied by equally prominent Catholic crosses and various explanatory notes:

The "Curle portrait", Blairs Museum Trust, c. 1605
The “Curle portrait”, Blairs Museum Trust, c. 1605

These narrative pictures must be contrasted with other representations of beheadings taken from Biblical tales such as Judith and Holofernes, or Salomé and St John the Baptist, or from pagan representations such as Perseus with the head of Medusa, to name but a few.

But they must also be contrasted with more recent, partly romanticized versions of Mary’s execution, in which the painters resorted to what one could call a ‘classical’, ‘iconic’, or ‘generic’ depiction of a beheading, in which a tableau replaces the vignettes of yore.

John Francis Rigaud. Execution de Marie Stuart, Reine d'Ecosse, en sept estampes. [London?, 1791]. RB.m.520
John Francis Rigaud. Execution de Marie Stuart, Reine d’Ecosse, en sept estampes. [London?, 1791]. RB.m.520
Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, by Abel de Pujol Alexandre-Denis, Musée de Valenciennes, 19th c.
Abel de Pujol Alexandre-Denis, Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Musée de Valenciennes, 19th c.

In Rigaud’s drawing, for example, the scene could well be taken from any decapitation scene, with the head at the apex of the picture and no discernible hint that this is the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

In Alexandre-Denis’ painting, the artist eschewed historical accuracy in favor of what one might call ‘choric drama’, with Mary’s mourning waiting-women surrounding the queen (dressed in black, not red) lying down sideways, exposing her white (i.e. pure, innocent, etc.) flesh to the executioner’s axe. In this version, the pathos is clearly gendered, as impassible, bearded men in the background surround the prostrate, grieving women whose purpose is to heighten the viewer’s pity (and perhaps horror). If these pictures are ‘dramatic’, it is only in the most ordinary acception, as they excite the viewer’s emotions. But they do not tell us the various stages or episodes of her story, as in the contemporary accounts mentioned earlier.

Contemporary accounts of Mary’s trial were similarly dramatic in structure, as suggested by the following drawing showing commissioners examining her case sitting around a square table, surrounded by other commissioners, a few onlookers, and Mary, the proceedings being symbolically chaired by the absent queen, Elizabeth I:

The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots, 1587. From a drawing in Beale's MSS., in the possession of Lord Calthorpe
The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots, 1587. From a drawing in Beale’s MSS., in the possession of Lord Calthorpe

Whether they be called premonitory or symbolic, the visual parallelisms between the trial and execution only highlight the drama I mentioned in the opening lines. The manner in which one interprets this drama is another question—depending on whom you ask, one would rejoice or bewail her execution, call it a farce or a tragedy. To this day, Mary remains a divisive figure. In the words of Jayne Lewis:

For every Protestant who saw Mary as a bloodthirsty harlot there was thus a Catholic to see her as a pious martyr. For every Scottish person who had heard she was a Frenchified interloper, there was a French one who understood her to be the rightful unifier of the thrones of England, Scotland, and France. For every man who loathed and repudiated her as a Jezebel, there was a woman to love her as a composite of the biblical Marys who participated in Christ’s passion.3

In future posts, I’ll return to the Biblical figure of Jezebel, and on a few contrasting dramatic rendings of Mary’s life and death.

Cite this blog post
Yan Brailowsky (2013, October 22). Stage or Scaffold? Murderous Queens on Stage. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from

  1. On the ‘théâtre de l’échafaud’, see Christian Biet, “Naissance sur l’échafaud ou la tragédie du début du XVIIe siècle“, in Intermédialités, n. 1, printemps 2003, p. 75-105, DOI : 10.7202/1005446ar, and Christian Biet et Charlotte Bouteille-Meister, Théâtre de la cruauté et récits sanglants en France: XVIe-XVIIe siècle, Paris, R. Laffont, 2006. []
  2. Antoine de Montchrestien, L’Escossoise ou La Reine d’Escosse, 1604, act 5. []
  3. Jayne Lewis, “The Reputations of Mary Queen of Scots“, Études écossaises, March 2009, p. 41‑55, §2. []

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