Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587) is one of the most famous and colourful figures in Scottish history, yet there are surprisingly few surviving portraits of her which were made during her lifetime. The inscription on this picture declares that it was made in 1578, in the tenth year of Mary’s captivity in England. However, this is almost certainly a posthumous portrait, probably made several decades after the queen’s execution in 1587. It is one of a group of similar images that include paintings at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and the National Portrait Gallery in London. One of the series might have been painted from life, but it is also possible that they are all based on an original that is now lost or destroyed.
Our painting may not bear direct witness to the likeness of the queen but it is still a very potent and compelling image. Famed for her tall and elegant appearance, the captive yet dignified Mary seems to tower above us. She stands on a Turkish-style carpet and her pale and slightly weary features are set against a dark background, accentuated by her black velvet dress with its elaborate lace cuffs and a diaphanous cloak. One of the long slender fingers of her left hand is hooked into a rosary, while her right hand rests on a blood-red cloth as if to symbolise her eventual fate.
The full Latin inscription at the upper left translates as: ‘Mary by the Grace of God Most Pious Queen of Scotland. Dowager of France, in the year of her age and reign, 36, of her English captivity 10. In the year of the salvation of men, 1578.’ This handful of words evokes Mary’s tragic story in the most abbreviated form.
The daughter of James Vand Mary of Guise, she had inherited the throne of Scotland when she was just six days old. Raised in France, she was married to the French King Henri II’s heir, the Dauphin François in 1558. He succeeded to his father’s throne in 1559, making Mary Queen of France as well as of Scotland, but his reign was brief as he died just over a year later in 1560. After returning to Scotland, Mary ruled for only six years before a rebellion forced her to abdicate. She fled to England but was held captive for nearly twenty years before being executed for plotting to murder her cousin Elizabeth I.
Mary’s turbulent life was dominated by religious and political strife both north and south of the border between Scotland and England. Her son, James VI of Scotland, succeeded Elizabeth I as the first monarch to rule over both countries following the Union of the Crowns in 1603. He is said to have done little to support his mother during her captivity, but as king he was eager to rehabilitate her reputation. It is possible that our portrait was part of this process, and certainly all the details seem to carry symbolic significance, pointing to her piety and her innocence. The slender crucifix hanging from her necklace emphasises her dedication to the Catholic faith, while her rosary hangs from another ornamental cross that bears a tiny image illustrating the biblical episode of Suzanna and the Elders in which a wrongfully accused woman is saved from being put to death. A Latin inscription around the image translates as ‘beset on all sides’, as if to underline the political message. Mary, Queen of Scots is presented as victim and martyr in a picture that is carefully designed to evoke the maximum of sympathy for her fate.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.