Queens bearing gifts: The material legacy of the Marian Court in the V&A

In today’s blog, Freya Purcell (Design historian and Victoria & Albert Museum/Royal College of Art History of Design Masters graduate) examines three objects with Marian connections in the V&A collection and discusses the political language of gift-giving at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots.

What do a box of DVDs, a segway scooter and a horse have in common? No, it’s not the start of a bizarre joke, but rather some of the diplomatic presents British prime ministers have received in the last 30 years. This sort of ritualised gift-giving has long been present in the world of politics, resulting in some astounding gifts, ranging from potatoes to portrait rugs. The court of Mary, Queen of Scots was no exception to this and performative gift-giving formed a key part of the political language of the period. Within the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (V&A), we can see the material legacies of these complex, political relationships.

In glass cabinets sit two beautiful objects which are the subject of this blog post: a Medieval champlevé enamelled ciborium c.1150-1175, and a Chinese blue and white porcelain cup mounted in English silver gilt from c.1573-1585. Both are thought to have been gifted by Mary to nobles during her lifetime (1542-1587); the first given to Sir James Balfour of Pittendreich (1525-1583), and the latter a gift to the 2nd Baron North (1530-1600). While these objects originate from different temporal and geographical spaces they have been twice brought together. First, through the world of sixteenth-century politics and Marian gift exchange, and now, as they both sit in the museological space of the V&A.

Display of objects, including Chinese blue and white porcelain cup mounted in English silver gilt from c.1573-1585 in glass case in the Gilbert Galleries in Victoria & Albert Museum in London

While the importance of gift exchanges in the sixteenth century was not limited to the world of the elites, they were a particularly important tool of governance for monarchs.[1] Gift-giving —as endorsed by Mary—allowed rulers to display their munificence to the court. These exchanges were a sensitive affair: give something too valuable and you risked placing the recipient in an impossible position, as they would be unable to pay it back. Contrastingly, if a present was too inexpensive, you risked offending the opposite party. Imagine any anxiety you have ever had regarding office secret Santa—how much should I spend? Is a scented candle okay? Now add these anxieties to issues such as land titles and court politics and you have a sense of the delicacy of these exchanges!

Balfour Ciborium, Enamelled Metal, made ca. 1150-1175, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (M.1:1, 2-1981). Image ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Whilst, theoretically, gift exchanges could take place at any time, certain days or events held particular significance; such as visits by dignitaries or New Year’s day; a day where both monarch and courtiers would expect (often expensive in the monarch’s case) gifts.[2] Perhaps it was on such an occasion that Mary gifted Balfour the ciborium, a vessel for holding the consecrated host during catholic mass, which, in time, came to bear his name. Mary herself probably received the ciborium sometime in 1562, following the defeat of the Earl of Huntly. Huntly was a Scottish noble, Cardinal and member of lords of the congregation who earned Mary’s ire after barring her entry to Inverness castle and refusing her summons. In the following years, Balfour became a key figure in Mary’s court and a favourite of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley.[3] Born to a noble family, Balfour was trained in the legal branch of the Church of Scotland, before acting first as Mary’s secretary and later as a privy councilor (however later the pair would come into conflict). In short, he was precisely the sort of person who might receive such a magnificent New Year’s day gift as the ciborium.

Balfour Ciborium, Enamelled Metal, made ca. 1150-1175, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (M.1:1, 2-1981). Image ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This largesse was more than merely the grease that kept the court wheels turning. In a world where masquerades could be key political tools, the theatricality and symbolic elements of gift-giving must also be examined. Gifts often held their own meanings. So what might the ciborium have symbolised? It is a deep dish and cover, typical of the Medieval period and most likely made in the west of England in the twelfth century. At the time Mary gifted the ciborium to Balfour it would have already been about 400 years old, a fact that would have been made clear from its anachronistic shape and decoration. The ciborium’s original purpose was as a container for the Eucharist at Catholic mass, with a different biblical story illustrated in each disk. Given its sacred function and aesthetic value, the religious significance of this gift would have been inescapable when Balfour received it. Especially at a time when–despite the obstacle her Catholic faith posed to her ascent as Queen of England–Mary might be seeking to present herself as a pious and worthy potential heir to the English throne. It is tempting, therefore, to read this gift as a message to the wider court–particularly to those who sympathised and supported the restoration of a Catholic monarch–and an effort to remind them of their sovereign’s commitment to the faith and to the length and the legitimacy of her royal line; as well as her loyalty to her subjects, whom she graciously rewarded. Though, in the case of Balfour, this “loyalty” would not be reciprocated with Mary, years later, calling him “arch traitor”.[4] But that is a blog post for another time…

Cup, porcelain, ca. 1585 (made), Silver mount c.1585 (made), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (LOAN:GILBERT.50-2008). Part of The Gilbert Collection. Image ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

What then can we make of the porcelain cup that Mary gifted to Lord Roger North of Cambridgeshire? If the ciborium spoke of heritage and religiosity, the ceramic cup speaks perhaps to a different (possibly more global) side of Mary; to an individual who was in tune with the fashions and cosmopolitan delights of the sixteenth century. Jingdezhen potters had been making large blue and white pottery since at least the 14th century. However, such wares were novel in Europe, only starting to arrive in Britain in the mid-16th century through new Portuguese trade routes.[5] It would not be until later, with the development of the East India Companies, that Europe would see the explosion of porcelain consumption. Instead, during Mary’s time, such an item would be alluringly rare, destined to be collected as part of a wunderkammer or schatzkammer, as it was seen as an item of alchemy and global connections. Indeed such items were often mounted in silver to further highlight their rarity (as was the case with the cup). The value of such a gift, therefore, lay not only in its rarity but also its novelty and fashionability. By gifting such an object Mary appears to be presenting herself as a woman of taste and refinement, who was connected to the new cultures of global consumption, something most befitting for a potential future Queen of England.

A further layer of complexity is added to this gift by the fact that it is not clear when or why Mary might have gifted this porcelain object to Baron North. North was a courtier of Elizabeth I and he frequently represented the English queen on diplomatic envoys.[6] In tracing when the gift was presented, its production provides us with a clue: the V&A dates the porcelain to c.1573 and and its mounting in English silver to c.1585. This date is significant, as by this point Mary had been placed under house arrest by her cousin Queen Elizabeth. She was no longer in control of the Scottish court or crown, yet she continued to maintain a small household at Tutbury and receive visitors (until this particular privilege was revoked in 1585 the year the cup was mounted in silver).[7] Yet, as this cup demonstrates, even while Mary was held captive she continued to engage in the political language of the period, exchanging gifts that showcased her refinement and modernity until the end.

Both gifts provide a glimpse into the inner workings of Mary’s court, and in many ways act as jigsaw pieces in a far larger puzzle of 16th-century relationships. It is curious to note that Mary and her ownership does not noticeably feature in the V&A’s interpretation of these objects. Although the provenance is highlighted more prominently with the ciborium interpretation, the cup on the other hand is focused on gifting of a rather different kind. In the contemporary V&A museum space the cup’s significance lies not in its connection to Mary but to its place in the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Wunderkammer collection gifted to Britain in 1996 and now on display as part of the celebrated Gilbert Galleries. While the Gilberts were 20th-century collectors, they sought to curate their own cabinet of wonders. Such a collection and its subsequent gift to the nation echoes the actions of Mary centuries before as it once again demonstrates the importance which material legacies could have through the process of gift exchange.

Label for Cup, porcelain, ca. 1585 (made), Silver mount c.1585 (made), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (LOAN:GILBERT.50-2008). Part of The Gilbert Collection.

Today both objects are celebrated for their aesthetic and material refinement; the Ciborium is displayed within the Medieval & Renaissance Rooms while the cup forms part of the Gilbert Galleries. Yet each object reflects the dynamic gifting cultures of Marian society. Of a queen navigating the tricky world of the 16th century, with gifts that carefully crafted her image; a pious queen who, nevertheless, engaged with the new dynamic cultures of cosmopolitan consumption. A woman who was aware of monarchical traditions, fashions and who was determined to situate herself within a fast-changing world.

Alessandro Masnago, Cameo, Onyx and Gold,  ca.1575-1595 (made), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (LOAN:MET ANON.2:5-1998) . Image ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

But, these are not the only items currently in the V&A collection which are entwined with the life of Mary and the delicate world of court gift exchanges. There is one final sister item that sits a few floors away, in the British Galleries: a simple cameo that delicately depicts the myth of Perseus and Andromeda loaned from Berkeley Castle. This was not a gift to Mary, nor was it a gift from her. Rather, it was a gift from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, to Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, the man who acted as the commissioner at Mary’s trial. It is tantalising to consider when it was exchanged and we perhaps can speculate that it was a gift given following Mary’s execution, in recognition of services he had performed.[8] Today this cameo sits, in a slightly macabre way, alongwith the cup and ciborium on public display within the V&A. Each piece tells a story of the hopes, desires and connections of court life, a glimpse into the complex relationship of two queens, gift exchange and the agency and legacy of objects within this.

Freya Purcell is a design historian who focuses on consumption patterns, the role of global objects, and urban living in the early modern period. She has just completed her research MA dissertation under Dr Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth (V&A/RCA) for the History of Design Masters with V&A Museum and the Royal College of Art. Freya’s dissertation was entitled: ‘The Ephemeral Saloop Stall: Examining the Stall, the Seller and Space in Georgian London, 1700-1820’. Follow her on Twitter at @FolderolFreya

[1] For examining the importance of the gift exchange in the early modern period three works proved invaluable: Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) and  Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, The Culture of Giving : Informal Support and Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Linda Levy Peck, Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England. (Routledge, 2016).

[2] Krausman Ben-Amos, The Culture of Giving, pp.205-7. Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts p.92.

[3]Alison Weir, Mary, Queen of Scots: and the Murder of Lord Darnley (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), p.176 (apple books)

[4] Ibid, p.881.

[5] Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art : Cultures of Porcelain in World History (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2010), p.160, 254.

[6] J Castell, “Roger North (2nd B. North of Kirtling),” <http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/RogerNorth(2BNorth).htm> [accessed 28 April 2021]

[7] For more information on Mary’s house hold in her later years provides an interesting analysis of her Household in 1573 A Lang,  “The Household of Mary Queen of Scots in 1573.” The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 8, 1905, pp. 345–355 (p.. JSTOR, <www.jstor.org/stable/25517645> [Accessed 28 Apr. 2021] and Weir, Mary, Queen of Scots, p.1355.

[8] Krausman Ben-Amos, The Culture of Giving, p.70

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