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Visual arts: Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens at the British Library

05 November 2021

Nicholas Cranfield revisits a story of faith and power

© The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collection

Miniature portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Blairs Reliquary (front), unknown artist, 1586; framed 1610-22. More photos in the gallery

Miniature portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Blairs Reliquary (front), unknown artist, 1586; framed 1610-22. More photos in the gallery

BY THE the end of the millennium, there were some seventy operas based on the plays and poetry of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). More than 270 are based on Shakespeare.

Schiller wrote his intense and emotional drama Mary Stuart in 1800. Thirty-four years later, it was transformed, rather less subtly, by Gaetano Donizetti into an opera, Maria Stuarda, set in 1587. The beginning of act three is one of those visceral moments in which, with all the expectation of reconciliation between the imprisoned Mary and her captor, the last Queen of England, it all goes wrong.

Elizabeth, out hunting near Fotheringhay Castle (Northamptonshire), where Mary is incarcerated, is brought face to face with her royal cousin, who flings herself to the ground and begs for mercy. Haughtily and increasingly impatiently, the Virgin Queen takes little attention of the hysterical, wronged woman at her feet. A shouting match descends into near-violent hysterics as Mary shrieks, in Donizetti’s untranslatable way, “Vil bastarda.”

The truth finally is out of the bag; everyone knew that Anne Boleyn conceived Elizabeth before she married Henry VIII, and voices always sought to condemn her as illegitimate. There was never any doubt of Mary’s legitimacy.

What this new and fascinating display at the British Library shows repeatedly is the strength of both women protagonists, using their letters, reported speeches, and portraits. Many of Elizabeth have not been shown publicly, and offer rare examples that do not follow a stereotype that the Queen herself had insisted upon throughout her reign.

Unlike Elizabeth, Mary was born to be a queen, and, indeed, became Queen of Scotland at the age of just six days old, when her father, James V, died unexpectedly, leaving his widow, Mary of Guise, as Regent. Mary herself married the French Dauphin and became Queen of France the following year, within six months of Elizabeth’s taking the throne at Westminster on the death of her half-sister, Mary Tudor, in November 1558.

As early as August 1559, William Cecil, a much-trusted court adviser and machiavel, wrote a memorandum proposing the union of both the kingdoms of Scotland and England, claiming the “earnest desire of both queens to meet and make a perfect amity for both their own lives”. That was never to be. Schiller was writing fiction.

According to the English ambassador in France (August 1560), Mary wished to tell her cousin, “There is more between her and me for we both of one blood of one country, and in one island.” Circumstances and political machinations drove them apart.

Cousins once removed, both were direct descendants of Henry Tudor of Lancaster, whose married Elizabeth of York in 1485. That event is captured in the illuminated borders of entwined red and white roses around the commemorative nuptial poem penned by the English Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Gigli. Henry VII nominated him to be Bishop of Worcester, but he died in Rome (1498) before he was consecrated.

Claims and counterclaims find visual expression in two extraordinary coats of arms on show; the first are those of the Dauphin when he married Mary, which were denounced by Cecil as “false arms”. Mary “the nobbilest Ladie In earth”, was styled Queen of Scotland, England, and Ireland, as “God haith providit so.”

Opposite hangs the wooden triptych from the Suffolk church of Preston St Mary, with the fancifully elaborated arms of Edward VI, later overpainted for Elizabeth. In addition to the harp of Ireland at the foot, the quarterings include SPQR, the crest of St Edward the Martyr, and the cross of St Edward the Confessor!

Elizabeth remained convinced of her own decision not to marry despite the demands both of her Parliaments and the various suits of princes from as far afield as Sweden and Angoulême. Perhaps the nearest that she came in 1561 was to consider a morganatic marriage with Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester (1564), thereafter proposing that he might rather marry the Scots queen.

Dudley, seen in a formidable portrait by Steven van der Meulen (Rothschild Family), refused to do so in March 1565. Was it out of frustration that, within months, Mary married her cousin Darnley, who, as Henry Stuart, also had strong claims to the throne? On a medal struck to commemorate the event, King Henry is ranked first, as had been King Philip over his Queen Mary in 1554 in England. The marriage soon soured, as the queen refused to give precedence to her husband.

When their son James was born at Stirling Castle (19 June 1566), Darnley boycotted the Catholic baptismal service (December). The list of New Year gifts made in 1567, however, reveal that the godmother Elizabeth sent a gold font as a christening gift to the boy who would ultimately succeed her in 1603.

Elizabeth was a Protestant and yet retained certain Catholic sensitivities; she preferred senior clergy to remain unmarried, kept a silver crucifix on the holy table in her private chapel, and wanted a uniform Bible and not a Genevan translation. She would not have tolerated the private masses that her widowed “sister Queen” held in Scotland at her return from France in 1561 and which led to her forced abdication in favour of her son and fleeing to asylum in England.

Mary never regained her liberty nor met her nemesis; she had asked to be buried in France, but was interred in Peterborough Cathedral; on the scaffold (8 February 1587), she had refused the prayers of the Dean, Richard Fletcher.

Years later, her son, by then James I of England, built her a splendid tomb in Westminster Abbey close to that of Elizabeth, who also lies alongside her half-sister. Uneasily, Protestantism became the official religion of both kingdoms.

“Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens” is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, until 20 February 2022. For bookings, phone 01937 546546; or visit www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary

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