By 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots had spent almost two decades as a prisoner. Although she had abdicated as ruler of Scotland, Mary remained a heroine to many English Catholics, who saw her as the rightful sovereign of England. To her cousin, Elizabeth I, she seemed a dangerous challenger – which is why she was kept under house arrest.
But at the end of 1586, Mary was implicated in the Babington Plot to murder Elizabeth, seize the English throne and restore Catholicism to England. On 1 February 1587 Elizabeth finally signed her death warrant.
It was not until six days later, at Fotheringhay Castle, that Mary was told to prepare for her execution. When she rose the next morning, having spent the night in prayer, she dressed in velvet, brown and crimson – the colours of martyrdom – and was led to the great hall. There, according to a French observer, she “entered the room full of grace and majesty, just as if she were coming to a ball. There was no change on her features as she entered.”
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Blindfolded, Mary knelt on a cushion on the specially erected scaffold and began to pray in Latin. Then came the executioner’s blow. Unfortunately, he missed and hit her on the head, not the neck. The second blow almost severed her neck, but for “one little gristle”. On the third stroke, however, her head came off completely.
The executioner raised it to the crowd.
“God save Queen Elizabeth!” he cried. As if on cue, the head’s auburn wig fell off, revealing Mary’s short grey hair. Standing over her body, the Earl of Kent said solemnly: “Such end of all the queen’s and the gospel’s enemies.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
8 February 1693
King William III and II and Queen Mary II granted a charter to establish the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The college is the second-oldest in America, after Harvard, although the original plans for its foundation date back to 1618.
8 February 1828
French author Jules Verne is born in Nantes. His 54 published novels will include Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days.
8 February 1861
At a conference in Montgomery, Alabama, delegates from the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana signed the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America.
8 February 1872
Richard Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo and viceroy of India, was inspecting the convict settlement at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands when he was stabbed to death by an inmate.
8 February 1879 : Cricket match slips into carnage
Players lash out with stumps as Australian crowd invades pitch
The place is Sydney, Australia, the date 8 February 1879, and in the warm sunshine, thousands have gathered to watch New South Wales play cricket against a touring English 11. What could be better? The gentleman’s game, the stuff of fair play and unswerving sportsmanship! On the other hand, this was Australia against England.
The trouble began in the late afternoon, when one of the home batsmen was adjudged to have been run out. Encouraged by local gamblers, the crowd roared with disapproval. The two captains – Dave Gregory of New South Wales and Lord Harris for the English – began to argue. Then the mood turned ugly.
A few hundred, then thousands of people surged onto the pitch. In the melee, somebody hit Lord Harris with a club or a whip. One of his teammates, an amateur boxer, weighed in, but had his shirt almost ripped from his back. Two of Harris’s teammates grabbed stumps for protection and escorted their captain from the field. But on their way into the pavilion, they were pushed and jostled by hundreds of spectators; by the time they had reached safety, they were covered with cuts and bruises.
To the Australian press, the riot was a moment of utter shame. It was a “national humiliation”, declared the Sydney Morning Herald, which thought it would remain “a blot upon the colony for some years to come”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
8 February 1949
Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty is sentenced to life imprisonment by his country’s communist authorities after being tortured and drugged into confessing that he was guilty of treason. He had angered them by opposing the secularisation of the country’s Catholic schools. His trial and conviction causes worldwide outrage and is even condemned by the United Nations. He will be set free during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, but when the communists regain control of the country he seeks asylum in the US embassy in Budapest and will remain there voluntarily for 15 years.
8 February 1981
While leaving the derby between Olympiakos and AEK Athens, 21 Greek football supporters are killed in a crush outside Gate 7 at Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus.