The Martyr Queen: Mary in a German Broadside

Dr Anette Hagan (Rare Books Curator, Early Printed Collections to 1700, National Library of Scotland) introduces us to a very rare German broadside featuring Mary, which is an excellent example of the European-wide cult of Catholic martyrdom that emerged in the wake of her execution.

A vast literature of martyrdom flooded Europe in the aftermath of Mary Queen of Scots’ beheading on 8 February 1587. One of its earliest specimens is a German broadside printed shortly after her execution. Mary the martyr queen was as popular with the engraver as with the literary propagandist, and this broadside is something of a Catholic and Counter-Reformation propaganda showpiece. 

The large and arresting oval portrait of Mary is by the German printer, publisher, engraver and cartographer Johann Bussemacher. Mary is shown wearing a crucifix, her portrait is surrounded by a border containing Latin phrases, and highly evocative details surround the actual portrait: a hand holding a palm leaf in the top left corner and one with a crown of flowers or laurel leaves in the top right corner. In classical art, the palm and the crown used to signify victory; from medieval times onwards, the palm branch was often paired with a crown as the symbol for martyrdom. In the bottom corners, two engravings show on the left Mary at the point of being beheaded, and on the right the executioner holding up her severed head with Mary’s body now lying on its back. The imagery leaves no doubt in the reader: Mary died a Catholic martyr’s death. In order to ensure that the German audience recognises Mary immediately without reading any text, the royal arms of France and Scotland appear inside the oval.

The oval portrait of Mary from the German broadside (image copyright NLS)

Mary was executed when she was 44 years of age, having spent twenty years in captivity; not in one place and certainly not in a cell, but mostly indoors and under unabating mental tension. The privations and stresses of these years clearly show in the portrait: this is not the face of a beautiful and youthful queen, but of a careworn, pensive older woman. Nevertheless, her look is still dignified and composed. 

Pope Clement VIII

The broadside was printed in Cologne, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s staunchly Catholic strongholds. The printer Johann Bussemacher, whose business flourished between 1580 and 1613, is famous for publishing and also engraving single-sheet portraits of biblical figures and religious rulers of his time, as for instance Pope Clement VIII. 

Whether Bussemacher was also produced the text of this broadside cannot be established. Its caption reads in English translation: ‘Mary Queen from Scotland’s actual image; also how and for which reasons she came from her kingdom to England and was beheaded there.’ The text that follows is unabashed propaganda for the Catholic martyr Queen.  

The caption and text below Mary’s portrait in the broadside

Directly addressing the reader in the familiar form “du”, the author explains that the portrait shows Mary at the eve of her beheading. Queen Elizabeth, at the behest of the Un-Catholic estates in Scotland and England, and despite the fact that they are blood relations, has ordered the execution. The broadside then sets out a brief and decisively edited account of Mary’s parentage and her life. It mentions the death of her father King James V when she was only eight days old, the Rough Wooing and her upbringing by her mother’s family in France in the piety of the Catholic faith, and explains that after the deaths of her husband Francis I and her mother, Mary returned to Scotland, which she found ‘defiled by an alien faith’. In order to put the country right, she married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, ‘a very Catholic gentleman’, but the Un-Catholic ones murdered him, blamed Mary for the deed and threw her into prison. She raised a ‘colossal war force’ against them but lost the battle and had to flee. Her Un-Catholic cousin Elizabeth wanted to bring the Catholic Mary under her control and enticed her to come to England, but as soon as she crossed the border she was apprehended and imprisoned. Meanwhile, the author claims, the Un-Catholics did with her son whatever they wanted until he reached the age of maturity. The broadside ends with a stark comparison: what Elizabeth did to Mary Queen of Scots is exactly what her father Henry VIII did to Anne Boleyn: to have her beheaded. And what Elizabeth failed to achieve with her own Catholic sister Mary, she finally accomplished with the other Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Strangely, the author here refers to Elizabeth as Isabella.  

Apart from the striking neologism “Un-Catholic”, which signals the refusal to even use the word “Protestant”, this biased biographical account also conveniently omits any mention of Mary’s marriage to the Protestant James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. 

The complete broadside

Only two copies of this particular broadside are known today: one is kept at the British Library and this one at the National Library of Scotland. The British Library copy preserves the Latin epitaph that has been lost from the foot of the presesnt copy. These verses, by William Crichton or George Crichton, read: ‘Illo ego, quae Fata sum regali stirpe parentum, / Hoc tumulo parva contumulata tegor. / Hucque meo constans generoso in pectore virtus, / Prissacque me torfit, nec temeranda fides / Stemmata nil faciunt, nil prosunt sceptra, sed una, / Dum vixit, pietas, gloria nostra fuit. / Vtque Petri cathedram revereri discas, ob illam, / En mea martyris colla refecta vides. 

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