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EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - At 2 a.m. on a frigid February morning in 1587, Mary Queen of Scots sat at her table and penned a last letter before her execution in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle in the English midlands.
"Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning," she wrote to her brother-in-law, the king of France.
Fragile with age but in remarkably good condition, the letter by one of the great tragic figures of Scottish history is making a rare appearance until Sept 21 at the National Library of Scotland.
Library spokesman Bruce Blacklaw said the library wanted to promote a new visitors' center and bring to public view treasures tucked away in the library's vaults.
"What we wanted to do is bring people in...There's no better way than to get one of the real iconic treasures from Scottish history out to be seen," he said.
He added Mary's last letter was unlikely to emerge again from its dark air-conditioned safe for "a long time."
Mary, who had been briefly queen of France, was ousted from the Scottish throne by a rebellious aristocracy and fled south in 1568 at the age of 25, throwing herself on the mercy of her cousin, England's Queen Elizabeth I.
Mary was an unwelcome visitor.
To many Catholics throughout Europe she had a better claim to the English throne than Elizabeth herself. She was confined in various English castles and prisons, convicted of plotting against Elizabeth, condemned to death for treason on charges she denied and finally executed in 1587.
In the letter, Mary complains she had been deprived of her papers with which to make a will. She asked the French king to pay the wages and pensions of her servants.
She was defiant to the end and met her fate bravely: "...I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime..."
The nervous executioner botched his task on the morning of February 8.
He swung his axe at least twice before decapitating her. He then seized her head to display it to the onlookers -- but only lifted an auburn wig the 44-year-old queen wore to conceal her greying locks.
In 1603, Mary's son James VI of Scotland acceded to the English throne as James I on the death of Elizabeth I, thus uniting England and Scotland under one monarch.
Mary's remains lie in London's Westminster Abbey, conveyed there by her son.
Her letter had been in the French royal archives and then the Scots College, a Catholic seminary in Paris, until the French Revolution in 1789. It went through various hands until it was bought by a group of subscribers in 1918 and presented to the Scottish nation.
Editing by Paul Casciato