Elizabeth refused to attend the state opening of her sixth Parliament, summoned as it was with the sole purpose of condemning her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who had been a prisoner in England since 1568. The 1584-5 Parliament stood prorogued when the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth, including incontrovertible evidence of Mary’s complicity, was discovered in late August 1586. Under the terms of the Bond of Association and an Act passed in 1585 Sir Anthony Babington and thirteen co-conspirators were convicted of treason and put to death in September. A special commission unanimously found Mary guilty but the legality of executing the deposed head of a foreign state remained uncertain, while Elizabeth was deeply reluctant to proceed against one ‘of that estate and quallity soe nere of her bloud and of her owne sexe’.2 Ultimately only Parliament could clarify the legal situation so rather than wait until the recall date set for 14 November it was dissolved and writs were issued to instead summon a new assembly as quickly as possible. The Privy Council attempted to further speed things along by instructing constituencies to re-elect the same Members that had sat in 1584; as a result 52% of the Commons in 1586 were veterans of the preceding Parliament.3 Eight privy councillors found themselves seats in the Lower House, and John Puckering was selected to serve a second term as Speaker, despite the difficulties he had previously encountered in enforcing Elizabeth’s restrictions on religious debates. Records of this Parliament are frustratingly patchy. The only surviving private diaries are both anonymous and incomplete, namely an account of proceedings relating to Mary dated 15 Oct. to 2 Dec. 1586, and a journal of daily business after her execution covering 23 Feb. to 8 Mar. 1587.
The urgent need for Parliament to overcome Elizabeth’s scruples and secure the execution of Mary was addressed during the opening days of the session in speeches to the Commons by Sir Christopher Hatton, Sir Walter Mildmay, Sir Ralph Sadler and John Wolley, all privy councillors, and resulted in a joint petition with the Lords to Elizabeth that was delivered on 12 November.4 She responded in person the same day and again on 24 Nov. to delegations from both Houses. On each occasion she stalled for time, being evidently unable to reach a decision either way, and eventually produced an ‘aunswer aunswerles’.5 It was not until the Parliament was adjourned on 2 Dec. that she finally conceded to their petition and allowed Mary’s death sentence to be publicized in a Proclamation under the great seal. This was not yet the end of the matter, however, for Elizabeth still desired to stay the execution indefinitely if possible. Following rumours of a further plot she signed the death warrant on 1 Feb. 1587 but then attempted, too late, to call it back; Mary was beheaded on 8 Feb., leaving Elizabeth distraught and furious with her secretary William Davison and others she held responsible including Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil).
Once Parliament had resumed sitting Sir Walter Mildmay