On a cold morning of February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots – the former Queen of Scotland, second cousin of Queen Elizabeth I of England and widow of King Francis II of France, faced her executioner.
No doubt Mary asked herself how her life of 44 years could have ended this way.
A crowd of 300 witnesses gathered at Fotheringhay Castle situated 100 km north of London as the crow flies waited for the axe to fall at 8AM sharp.
Mary was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and granddaughter of Henry VII of England.
Her claim to the English throne as a member of the Tudor dynasty was voided by legislation established by Henry VIII which forbade the Catholic Stuarts from claiming the English crown.
Upon defeat at the Battle of Langside on May 13, 1568, Mary escaped across the Firth of Forth from Scotland to England with the expectation that Elizabeth I would restore her to power.
To ensure the security of the English crown, Elizabeth placed Mary under house arrest for 18 years to her final day in this world.
Religious turmoil persisted between the Catholics and Protestants for decades following the English Reformation where the Church of England split from the Catholic Church over the issue of Henry VIII’s divorce from wife Catherine of Aragon. The Religious Settlement of 1559 did not put an end to the danger to Elizabeth’s reign from France, Spain, English Catholics and the Pope.
Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary and chief Intelligence officer constructed a spy network spanning across Europe. Under his employ was the code breaker par excellence Thomas Phelipps. The network and code breaking capabilities gave Walsingham access to top secret information such as the content of the Pope’s letters to the King of Spain.
Spies, double agents, W (instead of M), code breakers, plots against the Queen, threats of foreign invasions, a license to kill and acquiring support of allies – James Bond would feel right at home!
The double agent Gilbert Gifford – an ordained Catholic priest under Walsingham’s employ was agent No 4. Gifford offered his pledge of allegiance to Mary Queen of Scots. Mary accepted his pledge and appointed him as her courier.
In 1586, Mary signed a letter in support of overthrowing Elizabeth, claiming the English throne as Queen of England and restoring Catholicism as the state religion.
Cryptography is the art and science of securely communicating a message sent from A to B without the meaning of the message exposed to an interloper. Mary’s letters were encrypted and handed to Gifford for delivery. Walsingham received a copy. The letters were easily deciphered by Phelipps.
The Babington plot conspirators mentioned in letters sent to Mary were rounded up, confessed their involvement and executed.
Mary stood trial on the charge of treason on Saturday, 15 October 1586. Her case was dependant on her assumption that by encrypting the message of support of the plot would prevent her treasonous action from being revealed.
Alas, Mary was presented at the trial the deciphered text. Verdict: Guilty as charged!
Convinced or Mary’s guilt, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant but ordered it not to be delivered. Elizabeth’s order was ignored. Mary was summarily executed.
Using today’s terminology, Walsingham hacked Mary’s secure communication system using a Man in the Middle attack. Gifford, posing as a trusted person, obtained the messages sent to Mary by the plot conspirators and messages sent by Mary. Phelipps deciphering handiwork enabled Walsingham to read Mary’s messages.
The moral of the story being always use the strongest form of encryption available, ensure the encryption codes are regularly changed and trust no one.
The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots