Mary Stewart became Queen of Scots on the death of her father James V in 1542. Raised in France from 1547, she returned to Scotland in 1561 following the death of her first husband, King Francis II. Mary exercised direct personal control over Scotland for just six years from 1561 until 1567, when a coalition of nobility forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son James. Escaping to England in 1568, she spent the rest of her life in English captivity until her execution for treason against Elizabeth I in 1587.

More than four centuries after her death, Mary continues to polarise opinion and to hold a fascination for the general public, particularly in Scotland. Her legend has been extensively depicted in popular culture and immortalised in music, books, plays, art, and on coins and medals.

Since 1895, the extraordinary life and death of the sixteenth-century queen has also been told and retold on the big screen, most recently in Mary Queen of Scots (2019) starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I.

Now a project led by the University of Glasgow brings together some 40 academics and curators to help understand how her legend has impacted on Scottish society and culture in the intervening years.

Dr Steven Reid, a Scottish Historian based at the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts, and Anne Dulau-Beveridge, a curator at The Hunterian have been awarded funding for a two-year research network project on Mary from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Dr Reid said: “Our project will look at what is it about Mary’s life and her story that gives it such appeal and endurance – why does she remain such a source of fascination and debate? Why do historians, authors and artists continue to re-imagine her? To date, there have only been a handful of works exploring Mary’s posthumous reputation.

“This project will undertake a detailed and holistic assessment of Mary’s reputation and depiction in popular culture, from the end of her personal reign in Scotland through to the present.

“It will focus on objects held in Scottish archives and national collections. Through this corpus, it aims to explore and understand how Mary has been remembered and what the changing representations of Mary tell us about evolving attitudes to gender, monarchy and religion as well as Scotland’s own perceptions of its history.”

Already the University of Glasgow team have found hundreds of objects about Mary in its own Archives, Special Collections and Hunterian collections.   This includes a rare medal commemorating the marriage of Mary to Lord Darnley in 1565 and a Mary Queen of Scots Thirty-Shilling Piece from 1555 (Mary’s coinages were the first to feature portraits of a female monarch).

A key text in the University’s Archives is a letter of gift (dated 13 July 1563) from Mary, offering much-needed financial support in the form of land grants and endowments to the university.  The installation of a Scottish Protestant parliament in 1560 and the disintegration of Catholicism jeopardised the University’s very existence, and Mary’s grant played an important role in keeping the University solvent through this difficult period in its history.

One of the most significant Queen Mary pieces in The Hunterian’s collection is a romanticised painting by Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) called The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots. This painting was what inspired the team at the University of Glasgow to look more in-depth at Mary’s posthumous reputation.

The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots by Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798)held in The Hunterian's Collection.

Ms Dulau-Beveridge said: “This project grew from a simple idea to explore the making and meaning of the depiction of Mary Queen of Scots by Gavin Hamilton.

“The painting was commissioned by James Boswell, the eighteenth-century author and biographer, in 1765. Surviving correspondence between the artist and the patron for the ten years that followed highlights their desire to identify the most accurate sources available to help with the depiction of Mary on canvas.

“I think both were aware of the importance the painting would acquire in later years, as it was the first history painting depicting the life of Mary.”

She added: “It soon became apparent that this commission was only one sign of a renewal of interest in the life of the Queen in 18th century Britain. Another was The Hunterian’s own founder Dr William Hunter’s gathering of key texts about Mary.

“This led to discussions with colleagues across the University and the decision to take this further by looking at Mary’s reputation and depiction in popular culture not just in the eighteenth century, but across time.

“Having now established that the University owns one of the most significant collections of Mary Queen of Scots materials in Scotland, we are looking forward to discover what other interesting facts and finds this new research, generously supported by The Royal Society of Edinburgh, will reveal.”

The areas that the project will look at over the next two years include:

• The role of Mary in the British Civil Wars and the Jacobite Rebellions;  
• The collection and consultation of Marian memorabilia by famous intellectuals including William Hunter and Sir Walter Scott; 
• The explosion in eighteenth/nineteenth-century engravings of Mary, featuring wildly varying portraits; 
• The industry of commemorative objects relating to Mary, and Marian tourism; 
• The Victorian mania in the 19th century for formal staged photographs of young women as Mary and her attendants, a collection of which are housed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Mary Timeline:

  • Mary Stuart is born in December 1542 in Linlithgow Palace just a week before the death of her father James V of Scotland.
  • She is taken to France in 1548 to be the bride of the Dauphin, the young French price, in order to secure a Catholic alliance against England.
  • During this time Scotland is ruled by a series of regents, including Mary’s own mother Marie de Guise.
  • In December 1560, Mary’s husband (now King Francis II and still in his teens) dies after a year on the French throne.
  • Mary returns to Scotland in 1561 to exercise direct rule as Queen of Scots.
  • In 1565 she marries her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
  • On 19 June 1566, at Edinburgh Castle, Mary gives birth to her son James (the future James VI).
  • Lord Darnley  is murdered at Kirk O’Field in February 1567.
  • In April 1567, Mary is abducted by James Hepburn, fourth earl Bothwell. They are married the following month.
  • In July 1567, Mary is forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son James VI of Scotland.
  • In 1568, after an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, Mary flees to England seeking the protection of her cousin Elizabeth I.
  • In England, Mary is held in captivity for 18 years before she is executed at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587, aged 44.
  • Mary’s son James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England in 1603

Project Partners

• Dr Steven Reid, Senior Lecturer in History, GU

• Anne Dulau Beveridge, Curator, the Hunterian

• Dr Patricia Allerston, Deputy Director & Chief Curator, Scottish National Gallery

• Deborah Clarke, Senior Curator, The Royal Collection Trust 

• Dr Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator, National Museum of Scotland

• Dr Anette Hagan, Rare Books Curator, National Library of Scotland

• James Hamilton, Research Principal, Signet Library

• Dr Antonia Laurence-Allan, Curator, National Trust for Scotland

• Dr Anthony Lewis, Curator, Glasgow Museums

• Dr Alison Rosie, Head of the National Register of Archives for Scotland