The Many (Wax) Faces of Mary Stuart

In today’s blog Emily Hay, an MPhil Scottish Literature research student at the University of Glasgow, looks at the history of wax effigies of Mary, used to educate and entertain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular, and at the postcards used to publicise them as Marian ‘artefacts’ in their own right.

Why does one visit Madame Tussaud’s? Today, the answer to that question is more likely to be to view effigies of celebrities, sports personalities and the current royal family than it is to gain a historical education, but this hasn’t always been the case. Since opening at its first permanent site at Baker Street in the 1830s, Tussaud’s was keen to project an air of respectability compared to other wax museums, and it did this by highlighting its family and educational aspects.1 In its earlier days, the exhibitions at Madame Tussaud’s played an important role in the popular Victorian love affair with history. It is perhaps this combined with Queen Victoria’s own famous interest in Mary Queen of Scots which led to the various iterations of Mary housed within Tussaud’s waxwork collections. 

The first mention of Mary at Madame Tussaud’s that I can find comes from an 1842 catalogue which lists Mary beside Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as well as John Knox, John Calvin and Martin Luther.2 Despite containing two other monarchs, this entire grouping of the exhibition was focussed upon Mary, with the catalogue referencing that the group “represents the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots reproved by John Knox”. By 1865 she is joined by her second husband Lord Darnley and the two remain beside the three religious reformers whilst Elizabeth and Henry are moved elsewhere. The 1865 catalogue listings for Mary and Darnley are as follows: 

115. MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. This unfortunate princess was a daughter of James V., King of Scotland, and was born in 1542. By the decease of her father, she became Queen when only eight days old. In 1559, she was married to Francis, Dauphin of France, who in 1562 became King of France, and two years afterwards left Mary a widow. She was next married to the Earl of Darnley, but the union was productive of great unhappiness.  

116. LORD DARNLEY, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was basely murdered in the Canongate, Edinburgh, the house in which he slept having been blown up by gunpowder. Bothwell, who afterwards forced the Queen to marry him, was the supposed assassin.3 

In ‘A Visit to Madame Tussaud’s: Capturing a Child Audience in Victorian and Edwardian England’ Barbara Gribling states that Tussaud’s aimed to give visitors, children in particular, a guide to royal figures which echoed the popular views of these characters at the time. We can see that the snippet they chose to promote of Mary cuts quite the tragic figure, describing the shocking events of her life as happening to her rather than describing actions by her. It also seems significant that Darnley is the only one of her three husbands to be featured alongside her, suggesting that the Victorian intrigue with Mary was more than a little bit centred around the dramatic controversy of his murder. However, their focus on Mary as an “unfortunate princess” seems to attempt to absolve her of any accountability in the scandal. 

This interest in the tragedy of Mary’s life at Madame Tussaud’s did not stop there. In 1884 a new exhibition, the Hall of Tableaux, was added to the attraction allowing the museum to offer not only the likenesses of famous historical figures, but to recreate famous scenes from history. Popular tableaus included the signing of the Magna Carta, the murder of the princes in the tower – and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Exact dates are difficult to come across, but the execution tableau seems to have first appeared at some point between the attraction opening in 1884 and 1900, and appears to have still been in place into the 1930’s.4 Photographic evidence does however show the scene changing quite significantly throughout the time it was displayed.

An earlier photograph (c.1900) depicts the execution scene set upon a floor covered in straw as Mary is surrounded by weeping servants, a minister and the executioner, whilst a later one (from a catalogue c.1928-1935) dispatches with the weeping servants but slightly more historically accurately depicts the execution as taking place upon a scaffold.5 The religious element is again present in each iteration: in the earlier photograph, there is a dark crucifix lying at Mary’s knees, whilst in the later one a white crucifix stands on a small altar to her left. There is something particularly interesting in the fact that a tableau, a static snapshot of a solidified moment in history, could change so much over time. It attests to both the longevity of the fascination with Mary’s life story and the constantly shifting nature of her memorialisation – there is no one solid iteration of her, even in wax.  

Photographic Views of Madame Tussaud’s (1900), National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield
A group of people posing for a photo

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The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots as depicted in a c.1930s Tussaud’s exhibition catalogue 

To hammer home the Victorian infatuation with Mary as a tragic figure, not only was her execution on display for visitors to Tussaud’s to gaze upon, they could also take it home with them in the form of a souvenir illustrated postcard. As an artistic interpretation of the 1900 Tussaud’s scene rather than a photograph the postcard allows us to view more clearly the tableau as it was intended for visitors of the time. In it we are able to see the colours used in the costumes which we cannot glean from black and white photographs – Mary’s famous red martyrs petticoat, for instance, stands out sharply against the more neutral tones of those around her. 

A group of people standing in front of a building

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Illustrated postcard depicting the Tussaud’s tableau of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots as it appeared in the 1900 photograph

I am unsure how many of the exhibitions from the Hall of Tableaux had souvenir postcards produced to coincide with them, but what I have found is that this was not the only postcard, nor the only wax tableau, of Mary at Tussaud’s at the turn of the twentieth century. She also featured in in a scene entitled ‘The Scots Group’ where she is seated, surrounded by a lady in waiting and four men. One man starting towards her reminds of the typical image of John Knox chastising the Queen, whilst Mary herself sits demurely with head inclined and crucifix prominent on her chest. Although I have not found a postcard of this scene personally, I have seen evidence that one existed in a similar style to that of the execution – again an exact copy of the scene as depicted in the photograph. 

A vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera

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Photographic Views of Madame Tussaud’s (1900), National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield

These postcards raise interesting questions as to the relationship of this kind of souvenir to the original attraction and to Marian memorialisation in general: is the postcard only of any worth as a reminder of the Tussaud’s exhibitions, or as Marian souvenirs in themselves? Do they count as works of art separate from the waxworks, or photographs, they copy? Neither, of course, claim to be commemorations of the actual historical moments they portray, if they can even be seen as in any way accurately portraying historical moments at all. They were, rather, meant as mementos of the wax artworks housed at Tussaud’s. Yet, I for one would never have looked into these wax versions of Mary had I not come across the execution postcard by accident whilst browsing a second-hand bookshop. So, it now appears that the souvenir which was once supplementary to the main exhibit is able to exert a more enduring influence than those popular attractions long past. Where the tableaus once served as a mode of historical education, recreating Mary’s life and end for a Victorian and early twentieth century audience, these postcards now serve as quirky reminders of the endurance of Mary’s myriad commemorations throughout the centuries. 

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