mary queen of scots portrait
Portrait of Mary I of Scotland, late 1550s

The movie Mary, Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie premieres today in Edinburgh, so we asked NRS archivist Dr Alison Rosie to look at the real Mary I and at what our records reveal about the Kingdom of Scotland’s most famous and (spoilers!) tragic Queen.

National Records of Scotland holds many documents which underpin the work of historians examining Mary’s reign. They range from routine records of government, administration and justice, to those which record the dramatic events of her life. These remnants of Mary’s reign are our link to the world in which she lived.

Mary’s return to Scotland in 1561 was an opportunity for her to reassert and re-establish royal authority. In this era, monarchs had to rule through the force of their personality and Mary’s charm stood her in good stead. Mary showed herself to her people through a series of royal progresses.

Her first was to Inverness, where she purchased some tartan plaids, and then on to Aberdeenshire, where she triumphed over the outlawed Earl of Huntly.


Account of the expenses of the Queen’s stables from August 1563 during her progress to Glasgow, Argyll and the south west.  On 1 August, Mary stayed with the Earl of Eglinton and the Earl of Cassillis, so the charges for hay and straw for the Queen’s hackneys and mules is nothing – “neant”.  It took 27 horses to carry Mary’s belongings.  NRS Exchequer Records: E34/28/2

The relationship between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I is at the centre of the new film, as it was during Mary’s life.

In early 1562 the two made plans to meet each other in England, either at Nottingham or York. The meeting never took place, cancelled after the massacre of French Protestants at Vassy by Mary’s Guise relations.

Our records include a letter in May 1562 from Mary to the earl of Cassillis concerning the proposed meeting with Queen Elizabeth, requiring her to be accompanied by a suitable retinue and asking him to prepare for the journey.

(It being) ‘expedient for the common wele of our realme that we and our gude sister the queen of England sall meit this somer at sum place near the borderis of baith the realms To the end we may be sic familiarite Intertein the peax [peace] and Incres forder amytie [friendship] betuix ws.’  NRS Record: Kennedy, Earls of Cassillis: GD25/2/122/1]

Extravagance in dress was a sign of princely magnificence and was expected of a queen. It is clear from the surviving royal inventories that Mary had a wardrobe of clothes and collection of jewellery which far surpassed that of any of her subjects and rivalled that of her fellow monarchs. After her imprisonment at Lochleven, Mary handed over some of her jewels for safekeeping to her half-brother, the Earl of Moray… who promptly sold her magnificent strings of pearls to Elizabeth I.

Before the birth of her son, the future James VI, in June 1566, Mary marked up this inventory of her jewellery with her bequests.  Necklaces, pendants and earrings are garnished with rubies, diamonds and pearls primarily but also coral, amethysts and garnets.  Exchequer records: E35/3/3


e35-3 detail.jpg
From the same document – Names of recipients appear in Mary’s handwriting on the left.  Her French Guise relatives, the four Maries and other Scots friends featured strongly.   Exchequer records: E35/3/3

The lavish court spectacle and entertainments held at Stirling Castle to celebrate Prince James’ birth was used by Mary as an opportunity to reconcile her divided nobles. Mary raised a tax of £12,000 Scots for the first time to cover the expenses of the baptism. The monthly household accounts in the run up to the event ran to £5,500 Scots. The entertainments included a firework display and a mock attack on a besieged fort:

E23 3 45.png
Accounts showing payments for 28 goatskins made into clothing for “four highland wildmen” who held fireworks in their hands.  Exchequer records: E23/3/45

Mary’s marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley was rocky even before the birth of their son. Easily manipulated, the nobles fuelled his jealousy of the Queen’s secretary and favourite, David Riccio.

Death entry for David Riccio, secretary to Mary I of Scotland.  NRS Ref: OPR 685-3/1

Riccio’s gruesome death is recorded in this difficult to read entry in the register of deaths/burials of Canongate parish: ‘Monsieur Seignior David Wes slane in Halyrudhous the ix [9] day of Marche anno 1565 [1566]’ .

The same page records the later assassination of Lord Darnley:

Death entry for Henry, Lord Darnley: ‘The Kyng’s grace blawen up with buder [gunpowder] in the Kirk of Field the x [10th] of Februar 1566′.  NRS Ref: OPR 685-3/1
Mary’s marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, whom many accused of the murder of her husband, shocked her countrymen and her cousin Elizabeth. Our records show that on 12 May 1567 Mary made a formal declaration to the Lords of Session concerning her seizure and imprisonment by Bothwell, announcing that she had forgiven him for,

‘all hatrent concevit be hir Majestie for the taking and impresoning of hir at the Tyme forsaidis And als declaris hir Majestie to be at hir Fredome and Liberte’

(“all hatred conceived by Her Majesty for the taking and imprisoning of her at the time foresaid and also declares Her Majesty to be free and at liberty”)

[CS1/2/1 Court of Session Acts of Sederunt [folio 155 r and v]]

After her escape from Lochleven and defeat at the Battle of Langside, Mary fled to England hoping to win Elizabeth’s support to regain her throne. She arrived in Carlisle on 18 May 1568. By the following month, she was recreating her household.

e107 106
Certificate by the sieur Jacques Hambletoun (Sir James Hamilton), ordinary master of the Queen’s household, that he has taken the oath of  Jehan Hambletoun (John Hamilton) as equerry of the Queen’s stable.  At Carlel (Carlisle) in England, 22 June 1568.  (Exhequer records: E107/106)

Mary’s story did not, of course, end with her confinement in England but sadly NRS holds fewer documents directly relating to her later life.  To learn more about Mary’s later years, you would have to consult records held elsewhere – or maybe even watch a certain movie that’s opening today across Scotland!

You can find more documents relating to Mary Queen of Scots at the NRS website.

Dr Alison Rosie

National Register of Archives for Scotland

National Records of Scotland

One thought on “From the NRS Archives: Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

  1. There is an oral tradition from the Laidlaw family of shepherds, who continually were shepherds on a farm, SYART, from 1600s to mid 1900s, that Mary was riding with the Duke of Buccleuch, and she was reported to have said, “See the Hart”, henceforth the name of the farm, at the far eastern end of St. Mary’s Loch, Ettrick valley. Not likely a verifiable tale, but one handed down through the centuries by Laidlaw shepherds on SYART.


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