The Palace of Westminster
Queen Elizabeth I contemplates a marriage proposal from the King of France, which she is considering for political gain, while secretly pining for the Earl of Leicester, whose absence from court she notices. Talbot tries to plead for Mary, former Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle since fleeing from Scotland. But Elizabeth is reluctant to pardon and free her cousin.
Leicester arrives and Elizabeth asks him to deliver a ring to the King of France as an acceptance of the marriage proposal, he obeys and seems unmoved by the commission. Leicester receives a letter from Mary in which she expresses her wish to meet with Elizabeth in hopes of reconciliation. He gives Elizabeth the letter, and enthusiastically pleads for her to accept Mary’s request. Elizabeth suspects that he is in love with her rival and reluctantly agrees to the meeting.
The Grounds of Fotheringhay Castle
Accompanied by Anna, Mary walks in the park, recalling the happy days of her youth in France. The horns sound the approach of Elizabeth terrifies her, and she regrets her request of a meeting. Leicester arrives and convinces her to stay and face her.
Elizabeth experiences mixed feelings, on one hand rejecting Cecil’s urging for executing Mary and on the other hand enraged by the fervor with which Leicester argues her rival’s case. Asking for forgiveness, Mary takes Leicester’s advice and kneel before Elizabeth. After receiving an earful of insults from Elizabeth, despite Leicester’s attempts to calm her, Mary accuses Elizabeth of being a bastard and therefore an imposter to the throne. The confrontation ends in an acrimonious quarrel. The furious Elizabeth tells Mary to expect her death sentence.
The Palace of Westminster
Although bitterly affronted, Elizabeth hesitates to sign the death warrant. Cecil tries to convince her that her peace of mind and the safety of the realm depend on Mary’s death. Leicester’s arrival arouses intense feelings of jealousy in Elizabeth. She signs the death warrant and orders Leicester to witness the execution.
Mary’s apartment in Fotheringhay
Cecil brings the death warrant and announces the sorrowful news. Mary confesses to Talbot her involvement in the murder of her husband, and also admits her consent to a plot to assassinate Elizabeth.
A room next to the execution chamber
Mary’s friends lament her fate. She extends her love to Leicester and prays for a blessing on Elizabeth and the kingdom. As the cannon sounds the signal for her execution, she walks toward the executioner.