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.
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.
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:
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.
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  day of Marche anno 1565 ’ .
The same page records the later assassination of Lord Darnley:
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.
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