Mary Queen of Scots: The art of marriage and murder

Mary Queen of Scots Blairs Memorial Portrait Mary went from being a 'humble and obedient daughter' to a woman under suspicion

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Three marriages, three dead husbands, intrigue, plotting and murder.

Amid the theatrics of the Edinburgh Festival the real life drama of one controversial monarch is drawing the crowds from the Royal Mile.

The turbulent story of Mary Queen of Scots is captured in a remarkable collection of 200 objects at the National Museum of Scotland.

"It is one of the most dramatic and tragic stories in Scotland's and arguably England's history," says broadcaster Kirsty Wark, "It is the killing of one queen by another, her cousin.

"She was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, she escaped to England dressed as an ordinary woman, and never saw Scotland or her son again."

Kirsty Wark

Scots-born Wark explores the exhibition for BBC Four's The Review Show.

Obedient daughter

Wark admits she has a passion for the ill-fated queen, who was beheaded at the order of Elizabeth I.

The unique gathering of paintings, jewellery, textiles, letters and other documents chart Mary's reign as an infant from 1542 until her abdication in 1567.

It was carefully assembled from the archives of National Museums Scotland, as well as loans from major public and private collections in England and France.

Why is this assortment of 500-year-old artefacts captivating visitors from both sides of the English border?

Cameo pendant from National Museum of Scotland Mary is depicted on a heart-shaped cameo pendant

"It offers insights into the intense turmoil which infused the first twenty five years of her life," says Kirsty.

"It is wonderful to see a letter she wrote from France to her mother Mary of Guise, aged just eight, signed, 'your very humble and obedient daughter, Mary'.

"Then to juxtapose that with the inventory of books, ornaments and masquing clothes she left behind when she fled to England."

Gold necklace

The young Queen also boasted a magnificent jewellery collection. Many items were brought back to Edinburgh in 1561 after her first husband, King Francis II of France, died of an infection.

Wark is particularly impressed by the 16th Century gold necklace, locket and pendant set known as the Penicuik Jewels.

"The exquisite Penicuik Jewels include a gold filigree necklace of pomander beads, and a double-sided priceless cameo pendant depicting Mary herself," she says.

"One of the most beautiful exhibits is an enamelled gold necklace said to have been presented by Mary to her most faithful lady-in-waiting, Mary Seton."

The life of a Queen

Mary mourning
  • Mary Stuart became queen of Scotland at just six days old. She reigned from 1542 until 1567.
  • She was promised in marriage to Henry VIII's son, but her Catholic guardians instead made a marriage pact with Francis II of France.
  • When Francis died Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 and was remarried to the Earl of Darnley.
  • Darnley was murdered and Mary married the Earl of Bothwell - who was implicated in his killing.
  • Mary was jailed, then fled Scotland to seek help from Elizabeth I. But Elizabeth held her captive for 19 years - wary of her claim to the English throne.
  • She was executed in 1587 following a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary in her place.
  • Mary's son James VI and I became King after Elizabeth in the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

The items on display capture the shock and tragedy of Mary's life.

Deadly affair

She remarried in 1565 to the Earl of Darnley. Soon after, Mary's secretary David Rizzio was stabbed to death by her new husband and a group of nobles.

They accused Rizzio of having an affair with Mary to gain influence in court.

As Mary's relationship with Darnley broke down she became close to her advisor, the Earl of Bothwell.

Mary and Darnley had a son in June 1566, but a year later her husband was killed following an explosion in Edinburgh.

Suspicion for the murder fell on Mary and Bothwell. This situation wasn't helped when Mary took Bothwell as husband number three just months after Darnley's death.

Wark picks out one item which suggests Mary's cousin Elizabeth I was keeping a close eye on these deadly affairs.

Royal espionage

"There is a fascinating satirical placard depicting Mary as a mermaid - a symbol, then, of prostitution," she says.

"Bothwell is represented as a hare, part of his family crest, referring to their alleged adulterous relationship. The little card was sent to Elizabeth I's ministers by an English spy."

Elizabeth and her supporters were wary of the Scots Queen, as Mary had a claim to the English throne through her great-grandfather Henry VII.

George Dalgleish, the National Museum of Scotland's Keeper of Scots History and Archaeology, says the placard is one of many artworks related to this 16th Century espionage.

Kirk o' Field map The Kirk o' Field map depicts the night of the Earl of Darnley's murder

"One of our most important objects is the map of Kirk o' Field," says Dalgleish. "It is a spy's map of the night of Darnley's murder.

"But it's more than just a map, it's a recording of the events of the night with cartoon-like drawings showing what happened. You can see Darnley's body lying in the field.

"It was made by agents reporting to Elizabeth's spymaster William Cecil.

"It also gives a real sense of place - it happened at the location of our museum in Edinburgh today."

Mary In Edinburgh after Darnley's murder

After Darnley's death and Mary's third marriage, Scotland's nobles turned against her.

Teenage drama

Mary was jailed and Bothwell was exiled. Mary's infant son James became king. Mary escaped prison and sought help from Elizabeth, but she held her captive for 19 years.

Catholic Mary was eventually condemned to death after becoming the focus of a plot to assassinate her Protestant cousin. She was beheaded on 8 February 1587, at the age of 44.

Five centuries on, fascination with the objects in Edinburgh suggests public interest in Mary is showing no sign of waning.

Her story is even set to be retold as a big budget drama for teenage audiences in the US.

"People still get very exercised about Mary," adds Dalgleish. "Some saw her as a martyr for her cause, others as a jezebel in the pay of the Pope.

"Even today people still ask what side was she on. Was she complicit in what was going on around her?"

"She has a universal appeal. She was a strong and brave person, and was a woman in a man's world. Many of the issues from Mary's life still resonate today."

Edinburgh Festival: A Review Show Special is on BBC Four at 20:00 GMT on Sunday 11 August 2013, then afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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