It was difficult to not think about big newspaper headlines when walking around Edinburgh this summer, seeing banners promoting the exhibit on Mary Queen of Scots at the National Museum of Scotland on every lampost. Our hosts in Auld Reeky had heard good things about the exhibit, and we were warned that it took over 3h to visit. It did.
The exhibit managed to gather quite a number of unique pieces, both relating to Mary and to her contemporaries (I was surprised to find the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Coronation‘ portrait of Elizabeth I). After giving general background on the English Renaissance and a welcome picture of the flurry of queen regnants in the mid-sixteenth century, the exhibit followed Mary’s life chronologically.
As could perhaps be expected, most of the exhibit was organized as if it were a three-act tragedy, and an epilogue: Mary’s early years, the Darnley debacle, and her execution (the epilogue being a recollection of the manner in which Mary was then portrayed as a Catholic martyr). Her two decades of captivity where only briefly discussed.
The Darnley ‘mystery’ was literally at the heart of the show, with a 10mn video recalling the known facts of the death of the short-lived, ill-advised, garrulous King of Scots. The video’s narrator had a thick Scottish accent which was perhaps meant to give the impression to the audience that this tale was a blast from the past (sic). I liked the narrator’s voice and accent, but the video itself was a piece of cheap mystery, resembling much of what American television shows like to do (i.e. dilute and repeat, with generalizations and inconclusiveness). Even Agatha Christie would’ve written something better (and that says a lot).
For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to note here a few elements which got me thinking:
- I tend to forget how important jewelry was at the time. I couldn’t care less about jewelry, clothes or fashion, but at a time when there were no central banks and paper money was in its infancy, jewels and coins were truly essential to any negociation. These matters cannot be taken lightly (sic). The exhibit did a good job at explaining this, and although I’m still immune to the beauty of numismatics, I was happy to see a few coins recalling the different moments of Mary’s life (when she was Queen of France, then only Queen of Scotland, etc.). I have to see in what way she was portrayed (comparing the portraits as well as the mottoes).
- I had partly forgotten that Mary was mostly brought up in France as a child, when she was sent over by to France by her French mother, Marie of Guise, wife of James V, after she was betrothed to the Dauphin, then King Francis II (d. 1560). To what extent did Mary’s Continental upbringing influence her policies? I have to look into the way she was tutored (I am thinking of the influence of Juan Luis Vives’ manual, The Instruction of a Christen Woman, dedicated to Catherine of Aragon).
- One knows Scotland has had complicated relations with France, but I seldom remember that a Scottish queen was, at one point, queen of France. Of course, the marriage contract stipulated that she would not inherit the crown in case her husband died. Salic law, here we come…
Mary’s life is perhaps best remembered because of Mary’s death and execution on Feb. 8, 1587. What I find interesting here is not the reasoning which lead to her condemnation (although there are interesting documents justifying regicide in this period which I’d have to contrast with those of the 1600s), but the manner in which the religious debate took over shortly after death, partly thanks to Mary’s own efforts at explaining her death in martyriological terms, as evidenced in her last letter, written to her French brother-in-law, king Henri III.
“la religion chatolique & la mayntien du droit que dieu ma donne a ceste couronne [anglaise] sont les deulx poincts de ma condampnation & toutesfoy ilz ne me veullent permettre de dire que cest pour la religion catolique que ie meurs may pour la crainte du champge de la leur & pour preuue ilz mont oste mon aulmonier lequel bien quil soit en la mayson ie nay peu obtenir quil me vinst confesser ny communier a ma mort mays mont faict grande instance de recepuoir la consolation & doctrine de leur ministre ammene pour ce faict.”
Given the opposite manner in which the reasons for her death were portrayed, no wonder there is such interest in what we’d call today a romantic heroine!
After my Edinburgh trip, I have a bigger collection of biographies of Mary. Now I have to finish reading (and comparing) them!
- Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots, 1969. (Great style)
- Guy, John. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, 2004. (Great archival work)
- Plowden, Alison. Two Queens in One Isle: The deadly relationship between Elizabeth I & Mary Queen of Scots, 2003. (Popular read)