The Catholic Afterlife of Mary Queen of Scots, Part 1: Early Images of a Martyr

After a post-Christmas break, the ‘In Search of Mary Queen of Scots’ blog is back and ready for what we might term season 2. We have a range of content coming up, from a series of blogs on ‘teaching Mary’ from the perspective of both educators and their students, through to a mother’s day special on Mary and her son James. Kicking us off is a series of articles providing a precis of our own Steven Reid’s talk to the Scottish Catholic Historical Association, examining how Mary’s Catholicism shaped the material culture of her afterlife.

Although several popes including Benedict XV (1914-22) apparently had an interest in Mary, she has never been formally recognised as a martyr to the church or, as far as I am aware (though I’m sure our readers can correct me), been the subject of a process of canonisation.[1] There is little surprise in this. Mary was an avowed Catholic for her entire life, and maintained that her imprisonment and ultimate execution by Elizabeth were because of her faith; but her reputation was forever tainted by the open questions over her involvement in Darnley’s death, whether she had committed adultery with Bothwell, and by the rather inconvenient fact of her entrapment in the Babington Plot.

Despite this, a large part of the reason that Mary has endured in popular culture is down to the image of her as a devout Catholic Queen, wrongly put to death. Although the French popular press took little interest in her after the death of her first husband Francois II in 1560, on her death in 1587 there was a huge outpouring of devotional material lamenting her execution, encouraged by the Catholic League in their ongoing struggle against the policies of toleration enacted by Henri III.[2] An exceptional range of plays and tragedies were performed and published on the tragic circumstances of her life across Europe in the century after her death, from ­Jean De Bordes’ unpublished Maria Stuarta Tragoedia (first performed at the College of Brera in 1589-90) through to ­Edme Boursault’s Marie Stuard (1683).[3] Even in the eighteenth century, as Mary’s story began to transition from recent history into the realm of literature and romance, the Jacobite cause (as Cailean Gallagher and others have shown) maintained a fervent interest in Mary as another example of an illegally deposed Stewart monarch, with a brisk trade in the reproduction and circulation of Marian portraits and authors like James Steuart (and later Walter Goodall) staunchly defending her reputation.[4]

This devotion was reflected in material culture relating to Mary. Firstly, from the moment of her death (and even prior to it, albeit to a much more limited extent, in the engravings of her in John Leslie’s publications) images of Mary took on a loaded devotional aspect with its own language of iconography. The most well known example of this is the Sheffield portrait type, featuring Mary in full length in her trademark black dress with cap, ruff, and rosary with crucifix, which was reproduced several times in the decades either side of 1600. There has been considerable debate over whether the original model for this painting was completed in Mary’s lifetime under her direction, whether it was based on the famous miniature of Mary by Nicholas Hilliard, or had some alternate provenance.[5] Regardless, the most elaborate versions of this portrait type can be found in both the Blairs Museum Collection in Aberdeenshire and in a copy in the Royal Collection Trust at Holyrood.[6] Both feature Mary’s handmaids at the execution, Janet Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle (the latter of whom was believed to have originally commissioned this version) and a tableau of her execution at Fotheringhay (Aula Fodringhamii in Latin); both also feature a sequence of didactic panels providing an account of her life, deploring the illegality of both her removal from the throne of Scotland and execution at the hands of Elizabeth the ‘butcher’ (carnifex), and asserting that she had died defending her faith and that ‘she always was and is, without doubt, a daughter of the Roman church’ (Romanae Ecclesiae se semper fuisse et esse filiam palam planeq[ue] testantur).

Copyright Blairs Museum. Licensed under Creative Commons
Copyright Royal Collection Trust

These works were produced for private and wealthy patrons, as can be seen from the Blairs portrait which also proudly claims Mary as the ‘first parent and founder, while she lived, of the Scots College’ at Paris (prima quoad vixit col. Scot. parens et fund.)’ for her contributions to it via her agent Archbishop James Beaton while in prison.

But commemoration of Mary in image form was also much in evidence at the other end of the social spectrum, with engravings appearing in pamphlets describing her death and as standalone devotional images. The beauty of this art form was its flexibility. Engravings could be highly complex, such as those seen in Adam Blackwood, Histoire et martyre de la Royne d’Escosse…Avec un petit livret de sa mort (Paris, 1589), and in Richard Verstegan’s Theatrum crudelitatum haereticorum nostri temporis (Antwerp, 1587), with the latter featuring a devotional poem similar to the text found at the bottom of the memorial portrait.

Adam Blackwood, Histoire et martyre de la Royne d’Escosse…Avec un petit livret de sa mort (Paris, 1589), opposite p. 12
Richard Verstegan, Theatrum crudelitatum haereticorum nostri temporis (Antwerp, 1587), p. 85 

The texts could also be as simple as a rough sketch of Mary, and while the portraits varied in quality, with vastly differing features, the Marian accessories of cap, ruff and crucifix always firmly identify her. The symbolism on these images could be tweaked depending on the audience, though for what purposes we still have to investigate fully. Some feature her coat of arms, and even the coats of France, England, and Ireland, apparently to emphasise her royal status; others feature her with angels and other icons of sainthood:

Engraving of Mary Queen of Scots after Thomas de Leu (post-1587)
Adam Blackwood, Martyre de la Royne d’Escosse (1587) GU Sp coll cn 3.36. Copyright Glasgow University.
Jan Wierix, late 16th-early 17th century

My personal favourites (if a bit grim) show her with skeletons and the axe which dispatched her:

J. Leipold, late 16th-early 17th century
Hunterian Collections, TEMP.2072:Print of Mary Queen of Scots, from engraving by G Vertue, lent by John Kirsop. 1735.

We still have to tabulate the full extent of these images, and collate known copies to see if there is a pattern to their creation and distribution. However, one thing has already emerged clearly in my work on these for the project – they are without doubt the most widespread and enduring form of transmission of Mary’s image in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

[1] For an intriguing, if outdated, discussion of this issue see John Quinlan, “Was Mary Stuart a Martyr?” The Irish Monthly, vol. 61, no. 725, 1933, pp. 665–670. JSTOR,

[2] Alexander S. Wilkinson, Mary Queen of Scots and French Public Opinion, 1542-1600 (2004).

[3] Stefano Villi, “From Mary Queen of Scots to the Scottish Capuchins: Scotland as a Symbol of Protestant Persecution in Seventeenth-Century Italian Literature”. The Innes Review 64:2, 2013, pp. 100-119:

[4] Forrest P. Chisman, “The Portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, ‘En Deuil Blanc’: A Study in Copying.” The British Art Journal, vol. 6, no. 2, 2005, pp. 23–27. JSTOR,; Jayne Lewis, Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation (2005 edn), pp. 195-197.

[5] Jeremy L. Smith, “Revisiting the Origins of the Sheffield Series of Portraits of Mary Queen of Scots.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 152, no. 1285, 2010, pp. 212–218. JSTOR,; Jeremy L. Smith, “The Sheffield portrait types, their Catholic purposes, and Mary Queen of Scots’s tomb.” British Catholic History, 33(1), 2016, pp. 71-90. doi:10.1017/bch.2016.6.

[6] I am aware of a recent discussion of these portraits, but have not been able to access it due to COVID. See Marguerite A. Tassi, “Martyrdom and memory : Elizabeth Curle’s portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots”, in Debra Barrett-Graves, The emblematic queen : extra-literary representations of early modern queenship (2013), pp. 101-132.  

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