Mary’s books and the iconography of her Memorial Portrait

Flemish School; Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587); Blairs Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mary-queen-of-scots-15421587-166446; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The Memorial Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots is a highlight of the collection at Blairs Museum, Aberdeen. It was produced somewhere between c. 1604 and 1618 by an unknown artist in the city of Antwerp and commissioned by Elizabeth Curle, one of the ladies-in-waiting who accompanied Mary to the scaffold at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587. It is a variant of the ‘Sheffield type’ portrait of Mary, which has specific iconography and features. A full-length depiction of Mary dominates the painting’s foreground: the Scottish queen is dressed in black with a contrasting white ruff, headdress and veil to complement the chiaroscuro effect of the entire piece; a crucifix hangs from her neck and a rosary from her waist; she holds another crucifix in her right hand, and a white bound prayer book in her left (with her fingers marking particular passages). Elizabeth Curle is depicted to the left of Mary in a background vignette, along with another of Mary’s attendants, Jane Kennedy, whilst an inset scene to the right depicts Mary kneeling on the block with the executioner and his axe poised to strike another blow to her already-bleeding neck. The royal arms of Scotland are presented in the top left hand corner, and the visual imagery is glossed throughout by three Latin inscriptions documenting Mary’s imprisonment in England, the bloody execution process (it took three strikes of the axe to sever Mary’s head from her neck), and devotion to the Catholic faith. In sum, The Memorial Portrait is designed to present Mary Queen of Scots as a martyr.

Strikingly, The Memorial Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots is one almost fifteen images from the sixteenth through to twentieth century depicting the Scottish queen with a book.[i] Other early examples include an eye-witness ink and pencil sketch of the execution by Robert Beale, where Mary and her two ladies-in-waiting stand alongside a prie-dieu with open prayer book and crucifix, and two woodcut illustrations from the martyrologist Adam Blackwood’s Histore et martyre de la Royne d’Escosse (Paris, 1589) – one showing Mary reading aloud to her ladies when she is interrupted by delivery of her death warrant, the second showing her at prayer prior to her execution, three books and writing tools at a table alongside her. Later examples include Ford Madox Brown’s The Execution of Mary (1842) showing a prayer book and rosary at Mary’s feet, and John Duncan’s 1929 Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay, where a composed Mary sits with her hands and rosary on the open page of a prayer book, alongside the aforementioned Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, who are shown in poses of grief and anger respectively.

Most of the images depicting Mary with a devotional book are part and parcel of the same repeated attempts to present her as a martyr to the Catholic faith, but they are also entirely appropriate given that she owned a diverse collection of books during her lifetime. Indeed, although we know of odd volumes purchased by and associated with earlier members of Scotland’s royal family, Mary Queen of Scots is the first Scottish monarch for whom we have evidence for the existence of a royal library (or even libraries) at Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse. From inventories compiled during and after her life, we can link some 285 books to Mary, many in several volumes, and the topics covered are notably diverse.[1] So, we find: a large body of body of vernacular literature (although mainly in French or Italian, rather than Scots/English), mainly verse or romance; works by classical writers, in Greek and Latin as well as in translation; histories and chronicles; treatises on government and policy; philosophical works; religious literature; scientific and geographical texts; works connected to leisure pursuits, including a ‘buik of hunting’ and ‘Thre buikis of musik’; and texts relating to Mary’s own family. Despite the fact that Mary owned all of these volumes, it nevertheless remains difficult to comment too extensively on her tastes, since the contents might reflect a mixture of her own interests and/or the influence of those who gave or bequeathed books to her.

Very few of the texts listed in the inventories can be identified with surviving books, but unsurprisingly when they do resurface they attract significant attention. On 9 December 2014, for instance, a copy of Appian of Alexandria’s second-century Roman History (Romanarum Historiarum), printed in Basel in 1554, sold for £16, 250.[2]  The guide price had been lower (£8000 to 12,000) but the book gained higher bids purely because of its provenance. A similar phenomenon surrounds a good number of books, scattered throughout the world’s libraries, which have in common a claim to have been present with Mary at the scaffold. Most of these volumes in fact contain only later notes of ownership, unsupported by further internal or external evidence, but in the case of some of the books Mary definitely owned it might just be possible.

Contemporary accounts of the execution confirm that Mary did carry a prayer book with her to the scaffold, as well as a crucifix and rosary, and even though after the execution Mary’s clothes and ornaments were burnt so that no relics could be acquired by her Catholic supporters, the prayer book she held may have escaped this fate if Mary had gifted it to one of her ladies.  Alternatively, even if Mary’s own book was burnt, others carried by or given previously to her female attendants may not have been.

One probable contender for such a volume is a book of hours (a type of prayerbook) printed in Lyon in 1558 by Robert Granjon (1513-89), now owned by the British Jesuit Province and kept at Stoneyhurst College, Lancashire.[3] Previously, the volume was housed at the English Jesuit Seminary at Liège and before that at the Scots College in Douai.  In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the rector of this college was one Hippolytus (or Hugh) Curle (1595-1638), nephew of the aforementioned Elizabeth Curle who was depicted alongside Mary in the Blairs portrait.

It is of course ultimately impossible to prove for certain whether any surviving prayer books associated with Mary were present with her at the scaffold, but rather than trying to prove this we might instead interrogate the continuing romantic desire to associate a specific volume with the moment of Mary Queen of Scots’ execution and thereby transform that book into a relic of Mary’s ‘martyrdom’.  At the beginning his The Books of Henry VIII and his Wives, James P. Carley wrote of how he was struck by the way in which the surviving volumes he examined appeared ‘as relics, material links with the great names of the past’,[4] and this is certainly true of the books associated with Mary. It has been a highlight of my career to date to travel to libraries around the UK and in Europe in order to study books owned by – and even written in – by Mary, and I don’t mind admitting to feeling a frisson of excitement as I turn pages once turned by Scotland’s most famous queen.

Emily Wingfield, University of Birmingham

E.L.Wingfield@bham.ac.uk


[1] See Scottish Libraries, ed. John Higgitt [with an introductory essay by John Durkan], Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, 12 (London: British Academy, 2006), S11, S16 and S17.

[2] http://www.sothebys.com/content/sothebys/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/english-literature-history-childrens-books-illustrations-l14408/lot.26.html [last accessed 31 May 2020].

[3] Jan Graffius, ‘The Stuart Relics in the Stonyhurst Collections’, Recusant History, 31 (2012), 147-69 (pp. 148-52).

[4] The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives (London: British Library, 2004).


[i] See Helen Smailes and Duncan Thomson, The Queen’s Image: A Celebration of Mary, Queen of Scots (Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1987).


1 thought on “Mary’s books and the iconography of her Memorial Portrait”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *