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Letter written by Mary Queen of Scots hours before execution goes on display

Mary Queen of Scots
Exhibitions officer Ciara McDermott at the National Library of Scotland with last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, written just hours before her execution 430 years ago. (Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

THE last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, written just six hours before her execution, has gone on display to mark the anniversary of her death.

The 430-year-old handwritten letter is said to be one of the most powerful documents in Scottish history, and marks the end of a life that has since been immortalised in novels, film, poetry, drama and song down the centuries.

For preservation reasons, the letter is only on display between 10am and 7pm on Wednesday, at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Long queues formed the last time the letter went on public display in 2009.

The document was written at 2am on Wednesday February 8, 1587 as Mary, aged 44, prepared to meet her death at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.

Writing to Henri III, king of France and the brother of her first husband, she said: “I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning.”

Her “crime” was her loyalty to her Catholic faith which, together with her claim to the English throne, made her a threat to her cousin, Elizabeth I of England.

She also expresses concern for the servants she will leave behind who had loyally served her during her 19-year imprisonment in England.

Towards the end of the letter, she asks King Henri to have “prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions.”

Although born in Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian, Mary spent the early part of her life in France and was given a French education.

Dr John Scally, national librarian said: “The life of Mary Queen of Scots has fascinated people of all ages for generations. She is one of Scotland’s most famous monarchs.

“The National Library is pleased to provide this opportunity to see the last letter she ever wrote only hours before her execution. This is a rare chance to see a remarkable piece of Scottish history.”