“The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow”
Elizabeth I, from her sonnet ‘The Doubt of Future Foes’
referring to Mary Queen of Scots
During her lifetime Mary Queen of Scots was a highly controversial monarch and she continues to divide opinion today. When we consider her reign, we often focus on the tragedy of her captivity and execution. These events tend to colour how we view her life, as if its trajectory was an inevitable journey towards the executioner’s block. This is not helped by the two melancholy portraits of Mary which are the most well-known: Clouet’s portrait of her in her white mourning (‘deuil blanc’) after the death of her first husband, Francis II, and the posthumous portrait showing the Queen as a Catholic martyr, now in the Blairs Museum. In the early years of her personal reign in Scotland, however, her success and personal popularity were such that no-one could have predicted her end.
Mary grew up at court of Henry II of France, one of the most spectacular Renaissance courts in Europe. It was a gilded life, if not perhaps the best preparation for dealing with the factionalism and turbulence of the Scottish nobility. Her French experience at the heart of the royal court imbued her with the concept of the court as the centre of government, as a means of controlling the nobility, as the backdrop for magnificent entertainments as well as a centre of patronage and the arts. It was the template on which she drew on when she returned to Scotland.
Four documents appearing in the forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe exhibition ‘Famous Scots from the Past’ will put a spotlight on this period of Mary’s reign. There will be a rare opportunity to see Mary’s earliest surviving letter, written to her mother, Mary of Guise, when she was only 7 or 8. Mother and daughter were reunited in France in 1550.
Also on display will be the list of Mary’s much-envied collection of jewels annotated by her, before the birth of her son James, with the names of the beneficiaries should she and her child die. This important document was only discovered in August 1854 among some unsorted legal papers in General Register House. Jewellery during the Renaissance performed a number of functions: beautiful items in themselves, the wearing of them was a powerful indicator of status, but they were also hugely valuable. Royal collections of jewellery were treasure stores to be plundered for gifts given out to inspire and reward loyalty, but also useful assets to be pledged or sold.
To complement this exhibition there will also be a short talk and introduction to these objects from NRS’s Dr Alison Rosie, ‘The Early Reign of Mary Queen of Scots’, on 21 August. Come along and discover more about Mary and the unique records held in our archives.
Dr Alison Rosie, Registrar
National Register of Archives for Scotland, National Records of Scotland