There’s so many early modern history related exhibitions on in London at the moment that seeing them all is making me feel a bit like I’m doing my Master’s again, which is maybe why it’s taken me so long to write up some of these posts – it’s too much like doing schoolwork! I’ll get around to a couple of the other exhibitions in future posts, but for now, let’s talk about “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins Rival Queens” at the British Library. Admission is £16 or £8 with Art Pass, and the exhibition runs until 20th February 2022.
I’ve been over the Tudors for quite a while now (they’re just so overdone), and I feel kind of bad saying this because it’s not very feminist of me, but even when I was into the Tudors, I was always much more interested in Henry VIII than Elizabeth I. There was just so much more drama! But I would still say I know quite a lot more about Elizabeth than I do her Scottish contemporary. Most of my knowledge of Mary, Queen of Scots actually comes from works of fiction. I used to be obsessed with Judith Merkle Riley’s books (I only just saw she passed away in 2010 when I was looking her up for this post), and though The Oracle Glass was always my favourite (because witches), I also loved The Master of all Desires, which was about Catherine de Medici and Nostradamus, and featured Mary, Queen of Scots as a secondary character, a teenager who was engaged to the sickly dauphin. I also have always remembered the vivid description of the murder of David Rizzio, one of Mary’s closest advisors, in The House with the Clock in its Walls, where Rizzio is described as spurting blood like a plum spurting juice.
All of this is to say that the sections on Mary were definitely more eye opening than the sections on Elizabeth. For example, I didn’t realise that Mary was only 44 when she was executed. I knew she had been imprisoned for a couple decades before she died, so I just assumed she was a tad more elderly (I don’t know why, because I’ve definitely read descriptions of her execution that must have mentioned it, but only the part about her wig falling off her decapitated head and her dog emerging from her skirts after she died only to have its face shoved in her blood by the executioner stuck in my mind, and I guess the wig aspect had me picturing an older woman), but nope, she was just did a whole lot of living, including two failed marriages (three, counting the dauphin) in the brief period of relative freedom between her childhood in the French court and being dethroned at the age of only 24.
The exhibition was divided up into roughly chronological sections taking us through Elizabeth and Mary’s lives (Elizabeth was nine years older), and although we encountered the usual slow-moving crowd at the start of the exhibition (why does the British Library seem to attract almost exclusively older people? Not that it’s a problem, but I think it’s odd that it’s rare to see someone under the age of 70 in their exhibitions) that meant a bit of queuing, the crowds completely thinned out after the first couple of sections, so we could move about fairly freely, which I always appreciate.
As with most exhibitions at the BL, the strong point here was without a doubt the vast array of original documents, many of them written in the respective hands of Elizabeth and Mary themselves, including one where Mary apologises for her poor English, as she had never written anything in the language before. Spending her childhood in France had not equipped her well for ruling Scotland, not least because her staunch Catholicism did not endear her either to Protestant Elizabeth or the majority of her subjects. There were also a number of hand-drawn maps, including the one, above left, that shows a bird’s eye view of Lord Darnley’s murder scene. Darnley was Mary’s second husband and was murdered under mysterious circumstances that left Mary herself under suspicion. He was a real jerk though, and Mary would have been well rid of him had she not immediately married the Earl of Bothwell, who very likely had been the one to murder Darnley, and also probably raped Mary, which is why she was forced to marry him so suddenly in the first place (she mentioned being “ill-used” by him or words to that effect in one of her letters). This marriage was also what led to Mary’s downfall. Bothwell was a controversial figure, hated by many nobles, and the marriage divided the country, triggering a rebellion that forced Mary to flee to England, where she was taken into custody on the orders of Elizabeth, who saw her as a potential threat.
She was also ill-used (in a different way, I hasten to add) by her jerk of a son James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) who was eager to take Elizabeth’s side if it meant she would make him her heir. I might just be prejudiced by what I know of the adult man, but he comes across as a slimy little toad, albeit one fairly accomplished in languages, judging by some of his beautifully lettered schoolboy work (above right). Although, since he had never really known his mother, who was imprisoned when he was still a baby, I guess it’s understandable that he wouldn’t have felt any particular loyalty to her.
Ultimately, Mary was a victim of her religion, poor choice in men, and her own poor judgement in plotting against her cousin Elizabeth (not a smart move when you’re in prison and all your letters are surveilled). At the start of her imprisonment, Mary was still trying to reach out to Elizabeth as a fellow queen and cousin to enlist her help in getting the Scottish throne back, but she quickly became disillusioned and attempted to ally with anyone who might be willing to help, including the governments of various Catholic countries and English noblemen with Catholic sympathies. It was her association with the Babington Plot, which aimed to have Elizabeth assassinated and Mary crowned in her place, that led Elizabeth to wash her hands of her cousin and consent to her execution (though Elizabeth apparently tried to have Mary quietly bumped off by one of her keepers so she wouldn’t have the shame of signing a fellow queen’s death warrant. Nice). The letter above right, shows the code used in the letter that implicated Mary in the plot, which was cracked by Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham. The left image is the quilt Mary made in her captivity, since twenty years of it meant she had a lot of time on her hands in between plotting.
Maybe it’s just because Mary seemed to have a more interesting life, so I paid more attention to the Mary content, but this exhibition seemed skewed towards Mary, focusing only on Elizabeth in relation to her interactions with Mary, which was fine with me. I might have watched too much Blackadder or just absorbed the misogyny of various history books, but Elizabeth has never struck me as a particularly charming individual, whereas Mary seemed to have too much charm and too little agency over her own life. I loved looking at all the hand-drawn maps and letters actually written by these monarchs – the British Library’s collections are indeed spectacular. If I had a complaint, it would have been that some of the text was fairly dry, and the story wasn’t always told in the most engaging way. For example, the story I told about Mary’s execution at the start wasn’t mentioned here, maybe because the story about the dog was only included in a later account, so may not be historically accurate, but the wig part did definitely happen (it was mentioned by various people present at the execution) and is the kind of grisly little fact I love. More interesting historical tidbits like that, as well as the inclusion of more types of artefacts, might have made this more broadly appealing to the general public, but for a history nerd like me, it was still pretty enjoyable. 3.5/5.