The story of Elizabeth I, daughter of Ann Boleyn and Henry VIII, and Mary, Queens of Scots, is well-known from films and TV series, but this exhibition at the British Library (October 2021–February 2022) approaches these two monarchs from the point of view of documentary evidence – and much more. Bearing in mind how fragile much of these papers must be it is quite amazing how many have survived in good condition and are exhibited here. But don’t be put off by ‘boring’ letters and charters, there is much else here to excite the eye, but this post will focus on the written word.
But starting with images, here are two glorious miniatures of the two Queens painted by the incomparable Nicholas Hilliard. On the left, Elizabeth I in 1580–5, and on the right Mary, Queen of Scots in 1576. These are both really small and show well the amazing skill of the great artist. Both are in the Royal Collection Trust.
Elizabeth’s handwriting when she was young was neat, precise and very clear. There is certainly an Italic feel to this with the letter a, but there is also a touch of Humanistic Minuscule with the arches on the letters n and h. This is a translation into Latin, French and Italian of English prayers and meditations put together by Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. It was presented by Elizabeth to her father, the king, in December 1545.
By 1563, though, the precise and careful script of Elizabeth has deteriorated to what is described in the excellent catalogue as being written in her ‘atrocious cursive or ‘business’ hand, which had replaced the elegant italic hand of her youth’. Here she is reserving the right to choose whether she would ever marry, but had not decided not to marry!
The ‘scrawl’ of Elizabeth contrasts with the still precise handwriting of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1571. This is written by her to Elizabeth after the Ridolfi Plot had been discovered and Mary is writing in despair at her continued imprisonment, saying that if she can’t get support from Elizabeth then she must turn to other sources. Her neat and unadorned signature is at the bottom right of this letter – ‘Marie R’.
The famous signature of Elizabeth I and the ways in which she embellished with flourishes the descenders is well demonstrated here, in contrast with that of Mary. It seems to be pretty consistent throughout her life and was used here on a document which supported the Earl of Mar being regent to James VI in 1571. The script used for the body of the text – Gothic Cursive – contrasts with Elizabeth’s Italic signature. Note the four vertical slits on the left-hand side which indicate where the document would have been sealed after folding.
Mary was involved in plotting, if only to escape imprisonment, and codes were often used. Documents in code were also sent from the Tudor court. This document, though, is by Mary herself and written to Patrick, Master of Gray, as Scottish ambassador in 1584 to England. Mary wanted to return to Scotland or remain in England but to be free. This, of course, never happened and this letter was intercepted by one of Sir Francis Walsingham’s spies and deciphered by Thomas Phelippes.
This superb exhibition is certainly well worth seeing to give greater insight and background to these two queens, and the exhibition catalogue is, typical of the British Library, beautifully designed and a joy to read through, with thorough, well-researched text – and absolutely worth buying if you can’t make the exhibition.