3.20 PM Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London. One of the pivotal moments in the film is being shot today in this beautiful 12th century church – the execution by beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary was executed on the morning of 8th February, 1587 at the now ruined castle of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire in a scene of high drama. She had only been told of her impending death the previous evening after dinner but, being aware that she had been condemned in a cursory trial the previous October, she had prepared herself for a spectacular and iconic death. She had spent the night composing her will and writing final letters, before lying on her bed for a few hours without sleeping. At 8 AM the Sheriff had come for her and escorted her to the great hall of the castle.
At one end stood a low scaffold about two feet high and twelve feet square on which was placed a stool and a cushion and by the oak block stood the executioner and his assistant. Mary mounted the scaffold and asked for her chaplain. When this was refused she seated herself on the stool whilst the warrant was read out. Throughout this she showed no emotion, appearing according to some, to be in a kind of reverie.
The Dean of Peterborough now stepped forward and asked Mary to renounce her sins and accept protestant absolution. She refused and several times interrupted his rather long winded speech, insisting that she would die in the faith she had always known. Eventually the Dean relented and he and the audience prayed in English whilst she prayed out loud in Latin.
The prayers done, Mary stood and placed the crucifix on her stool. Two of her ladies Elizabeth Curle and Jane Kennedy stepped forward to help her remove the outer layers of her clothes. As her black outer dress fell away, it was revealed that she was wearing a stunning red petticoat – the colour of Catholic martyrdom. The onlookers were amazed. Taking the Agnus Dei from her neck she gave it to her servants and embraced them asking them not to cry. She then turned and stood before her executioners. As was usual, even at such barbarous events, the men knelt before her and begged her forgiveness for the act they were about to perform. This she gladly granted.
The white cloth tied over her face, she was then lead to the block, which was so low that she was forced to lie in front of it. Silence fell across the hall. As the executioner was about to strike, his assistant noticed that she was resting her head on her hands to help her to breath. Realising that they would be cut off when the axe fell he took them and held them behind her back. Mary whispered one final Latin prayer, and finished saying:
“Into thine hands I commend my spirit”
The axe fell. The executioner was nervous however and the blow missed her neck, striking her on the back of the head. She let out a groan but after a second blow she was dead. It took still one more stroke to sever her head from her torso. Amid the bloody butchery Mary’s little dog is said to have emerged from under her skirts and placed himself resolutely between her head, whose lips continued to murmur and twitch for a further fifteen minutes, and her bleeding body. Drenched in her blood, he was eventually dragged off and washed. It was about eleven o’clock.
We have to condense these three horrific, magnificent hours into just few minutes of film so Shekhar has picked the key moments from the recorded events and woven them into a master shot that sees Mary enter, ignoring the Protestant prayers of the Dean of Peterborough, mount the scaffold, disrobe revealing the crimson shift beneath her black dress, grant her executioner forgiveness and place her head on the block. The scaffold is plain, clean, grim – we haven’t used the various stools that were on the real scaffold so as to enhance the sense of detached isolation. For the same reason only one executioner awaits her. Nor have we given Mary a blindfold – we need to see her – see that extraordinary last performance. Mary is serene, stately. Even though it’s a film the scene has a startling effect on both the crew and the 100+ actors and extras in the room. Despite the lights and cameras I think most of us feel we are actually witnessing the execution. Over this silent scene rises the musical theme A.R. Raman has composed for the movie, which arrived only this morning and which Shekhar has asked for on playback during the scene. It echoes round the ancient walls of the church as Mary takes her last steps.
We don’t see the moment of her death – we don’t need to. Mary has approached her last hours as a queen and she dies a queen.