Marriage and murder: Mary, Queen of Scots at Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland

By Jenni Davidson | 02 July 2013

Exhibition preview: Mary, Queen of Scots, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until November 17 2013

A photograph of a gold and jewelled pendant held in a gloved hand
The Darnley Jewel (circa 1571-8). Gold, enamel, rubies, emerald and blue glass© Royal Collections Trust
Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most beloved figures in Scottish history. Her dramatic life story reads like a work of romantic fiction and lends itself perfectly to this wide-ranging, biographical exhibition.

Brought up in France from the age of five, she was married to the teenage heir to the French throne when she was 15 and briefly became Queen of France.

After her young husband’s early death, she returned to Scotland where, as a Catholic queen during the Reformation, she came into conflict with many of the Scottish nobles - particularly with Protestant reformer John Knox.

She fell in love with and married her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, but the marriage wasn’t a happy one. When he died in mysterious circumstances, there were suspicions about her involvement in his murder.

Her rash marriage to James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, just three months after Darnley's death proved the final straw for many of the Scottish nobility.

Hepburn was suspected by many of having killed Darnley and Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her baby son.

A painting of Mary, Queen of Scots, dressed in black holding a crucifix
Blairs Memorial Portrait© Blairs Museum Trust
She fled to England seeking the protection of her cousin Elizabeth I, but Elizabeth, fearing Mary as a rival to her own throne, imprisoned her for 19 years in England before ordering her execution in 1587.

While she may have ruled Scotland for only a short time and made some unwise decisions during her reign, Mary was still a pivotal royal figure; she was the mother of James VI, who united the crowns of Scotland and England, and the ancestor of the current royal family.

Mary was also a very accomplished Renaissance queen who spoke six languages, played the lute, loved hunting and hawking, enjoyed masques and dancing and was accomplished in needlework. She was also known for her love of beautiful dresses and spectacular jewellery.

Her many diverse interests and her turbulent life and times are reflected through a range of objects in the exhibition, which re-examines her life against the background of the turbulent period of change she lived through - a time of religious reform, advancement in learning and scientific discovery, fear of witchcraft and lavish decoration and costume.

A photograph of a heart-shaped pendant with a cameo of Mary, Queen of Scots in it
Heart-shaped locket with a cameo of Mary, Queen of Scots (late 16th century)© National Museums Scotland
The exhibition also contrasts Mary with her female contemporaries: Mary of Guise, Mary Tudor, Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I.

Among the 200 objects on display are the earliest surviving letter written by Mary, examples of the Casket Letters, which were used to incriminate her in the murder of Lord Darnley, a coded letter that was used as proof of her involvement in the Babington plot to kill Elizabeth I and the signed warrant for Mary’s execution.

As well as documents, there are paintings, costumes, jewellery, furniture and maps associated with Mary’s reign.

The most famous jewels from Mary’s collection are the Penicuik jewels - a gold necklace and a pendant locket said to have been given to the Queen by one of her supporters during her captivity.

These are on show alongside iconic portraits, the Marian hanging - a tapestry completed by Mary during her time in England - and a replica of Mary’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Although very few original costumes survive from the 16th century, sketches by Jasper Conran for the 1998 English National Opera production of the opera Maria Stuarda give a taste of the period.

In a strange quirk of fate, the National Museum of Scotland is built almost exactly on the site of Kirk o’ Field, the place where Lord Darnley was killed.

Visitors to the exhibition can examine the evidence surrounding his death for themselves, with eyewitness accounts, official documents, a 1567 bird’s eye view of the site and an audio-visual display that recounts the different versions of events.

With items on loan from museums, galleries and libraries across Scotland, England and France, including the Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Library of Scotland and the National Archives at Kew, the exhibition presents a unique chance to see such a collection of documents and objects relating to Mary, Queen of Scots, on show in one place.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission £6-£9 (free for under-12s. Book online.
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