After the death of her husband, Mary lost her title as queen of France and decided to return to Scotland. She arrived at the port of Leith on 19 August 1561 and although she was the Scottish monarch, she found her circumstances had dramatically changed.
In her absence a political revolution had taken place - Scotland’s parliament was now firmly Protestant. Mary, a Roman Catholic, found herself under attack from the Protestant leader, John Knox, and his followers. Yet she negotiated a compromise by maintaining the religious ‘status quo’ and appointed a number of moderate Protestants as her advisors.
In 1867 the Glasgow Art Union commissioned Herdman to paint four pictures to illustrate episodes from of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. The literary source for the pictures was the popular poem about Mary by the Glaswegian lawyer Henry Glassford Bell. In 1863 the Queen’s Theatre in Edinburgh had staged a series of ‘tableaux vivants’ based on Bell’s poem. The success of these performances may well have prompted the Art Union’s commission to Herdman. This is the second picture in the set. It depicts the young Queen’s ill-fated return to Scotland in 1561 after the death of her first husband François II of France. In 1868, the entire set was offered as first prize to subscribers to the Union’s annual lottery.
Herdman specialised in painting portraits and Scottish historical subjects, but also produced some notable landscapes in watercolour. He was a student of Robert Scott Lauder at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh and was encouraged to draw from nature. He was also strongly influenced by Lauder's admiration for the rich colour of Venetian painting and traveled to Italy at least twice. Herdman chose to stay in Edinburgh rather than move to London and established a successful practice. He was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1863.