Materialising Mary Queen of Scots at National Museums Scotland: A Renaissance Queen

In today’s blog, Dr Anna Groundwater (Principal Curator, Renaissance and Early Modern History, National Museums Scotland) walks us virtually through the Renaissance Gallery, at the National Museums Scotland in Chambers Street, Edinburgh, and reflects on the various Maries we create from objects.

A Google Street View of Mary Queen of Scots tomb and jewellery case, in the Renaissance Gallery, Kingdom of Scots, Level 1, National Museums Scotland, Chambers Street, to accompany the blog can be found here: https://bit.ly/3gmc5v2  

There are few known physical relics of Mary. At her execution in Fotheringhay Castle, a fire was burning, and her clothing was immediately consigned into it. The English state was determined to suppress the memory of Mary, any proliferation of material relics, and her mortal remains were swiftly buried. However, over the longer term these Elizabethan measures proved ineffective against the perpetuation of her memory.  

Instead – what has achieved huge currency are the objects associated with her, her jewellery and tapestry-work (often of dubious provenance), the beds she slept in, the gifts she made, the things she might have touched; and mementoes, particularly jewellery, created to memorialise her.  

In this process Mary herself was active: throughout her life she gave presents to seal alliances, in the royal tradition of gift-giving, often objects with her own image which acted as physical representations of Mary in her bodily absence. As she approached her death, these gifts were made consciously to project that presence beyond her mortal life, to secure a lasting reputation as a royal martyr. We have some of these objects here at National Museums Scotland. 

Mary, a Renaissance queen 

Image: Anna Groundwater 

This is the Renaissance gallery where the objects relating to Mary Queen of Scots are displayed within the ornate furnishings of the houses of the Scottish elite in which she moved. This is a world in which we highlight the Renaissance: Mary’s setting is a Renaissance one, and we present her as a Renaissance queen. More than this, it’s a Renaissance world that suggests her European connections, binding both her and Scotland into European cultural and diplomatic networks. Mary is thus a European Renaissance queen.  

Our Marian objects are surrounded by extravagantly carved wooden doors, cupboards and panels, some of which have loose associations with Mary or her mother Marie de Guise, and one of which is almost certainly French (the Hepburn cupboard on the left of the bottom image). 

The focal point of this gallery is the life-size plastercast, made in 1928, of the tomb built for Mary at Westminster Abbey by her son James VI, after his succession to the English throne. It’s a particularly regal representation of Mary, and a particularly attractive one too – a youthful and serene portrayal of the 44-year old queen, in contrast to the aged face of her cousin Elizabeth that lies near in the abbey. Mary triumphing here over Elizabeth in death, as she so signally failed to do in life. Our display of it emphasises Mary’s English ambitions, her British contexts, and her legacy through the English kingship of her son James.  

Embodying Mary 

Image: Anna Groundwater 

The Marian objects that we have are displayed in one two-sided case adjoining this physical representation of Mary. There’s an implicit connection made by this juxtaposition between an embodied Mary, even if in death, and the jewellery with which she made have adorned herself, given to seal friendship or to sustain her monarchical reputation. It suggests the close relationship between these pieces of jewellery and the queen, in her lifetime, and in her afterlife as an iconic figure of Scottish history.  

Image: Anna Groundwater 

The pomander beads, number 2 in the case, are known with the locket (number 3) as the Penicuik Jewels. Scientific analysis has shown that there are traces of perfumed resin inside the beads, which Mary gave before her execution to Gilles Mowbray, one of her lady attendants. That lady’s descendant married into the Clerks of Penicuik family, who preserved the jewels as a relic of Mary into the twentieth century, when they were bought by the museum. Might the remains of ambergris or myrrh found in the beads relate to Mary’s wearing of them? 

Image: Anna Groundwater 

An even more splendidly encrusted locket (number 1 in the case) contains a cameo of Mary, possibly one of several commissioned by her for distribution amongst allies. Its original Italian setting was in the later sixteenth century mounted in an elaborate locket made possibly by an Edinburgh goldsmith, several of whom were then working at this highly skilled level. These are evocative objects and they help to give a sense of Mary as she lived her life, and perhaps they stimulate an emotional connection between the viewer and the long-dead queen. 

On the other side of this case, we have more visual portrayals of Mary in the coinage minted to commemorate her union with the Dauphin Francois of France, and subsequently with Henry, Lord Darnley. These coins speak of her monarchical position, and her illustrious European connections. They titillate with the coin that carries Henry’s name before Mary’s in 1565 (on the left), which was swiftly replaced, and the enigmatic emblem of the tortoise climbing up the crowned palm tree – what does this mean, we are still not sure?  

Alongside these we have objects that suggest the significance of her religious convictions: the tortured body of a crucified Christ, found in what was reputed to be her chamber in Craigmillar castle, and another crucifixion on a locket presented by Mary, just before her execution, to Thomas Andrews, High Sheriff of Northamptonshire.  

Which Mary? 

All these objects suggest the various Marys as she was seen then and now: the Catholic martyr, innocent victim of her English cousin and councillors? Mary, the scheming enemy to Scottish Protestantism, and the triumphant Presbyterian revolution? Mary the guilty accomplice in the murder of Darnley? Mary, the vibrant, sophisticated but ultimately tragic European queen? Mary the human being, with all the frailties and inconstancies? Evocative objects indeed.  

Film Review - Mary Queen of Scots (2018 | Mary queen of scots ...

We input our own understandings of Mary into these objects, giving them new meanings now, as she gave them then. We frame these objects within our own narratives of Mary conditioned by our reading, historical fiction, drama and film. Current audiences empathise with or denigrate a Mary we’ve created in our minds.  

Martyr, victim, schemer, criminal, we all make Mary who we want her to be.  

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