Skip Navigation or Skip to Content

2013 Archive: Mary, Queen of Scots

The exhibition runs from Friday 28 June to Sunday 17 November 2013 at National Museum of Scotland. Press View: Thursday 27 June, 11.30am – 1pm.

This summer National Museums Scotland presents a major exhibition on the life of Mary Stewart (1542-87), Queen of Scots.

This summer National Museums Scotland presents a major exhibition on the life of Mary Stewart (1542-87), Queen of Scots. The exhibition, showing only in Edinburgh, will explore the myth and reality that surround one of the most enigmatic and romanticised figures in Scottish history through a unique gathering of paintings, jewellery, textiles, furniture, drawings, maps and documents.

Significant loans from major public collections in Scotland, England and France and from private collections build on the Scottish history collections of National Museums Scotland to create a rich and detailed picture of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Visitors will be able to view documentary evidence, from the earliest surviving letter written by Mary to the warrant for her execution signed by Elizabeth I, which is on display in Scotland for the first time since it was acquired by Lambeth Palace in 2007. Other key documents include examples of the “Casket letters”, which were used to incriminate her in the Darnley murder, and a letter with secret cipher, which were presented as proof of her association with the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and thus led eventually to her execution in 1587.

Some of the finest pieces of jewellery associated with Mary will also be on show. She owned a spectacular collection of jewellery and a gold necklace and pendant locket, known collectively as the Penicuik jewels, will be on display. These were said to have been given to one of her supporters during her captivity, jewels being useful gifts to bind supporters to the Crown.

Mary, Queen of Scots at the National Museum of Scotland traces Mary’s story through the dynastic alliances at the heart of Renaissance Europe, following her life from birth in Scotland, childhood in France, to ruling both France and Scotland as Queen, her imprisonment in England and eventual execution. Mary’s legacy is also considered: through her son, King James VI and I, she is the direct ancestor of the present royal family.

George Dalgleish, Keeper of Scottish History & Archaeology at National Museums Scotland, said,

“Following our acclaimed exhibition exploring the life and collections of Catherine the Great, we are proud to present Mary, Queen of Scots, an extraordinary exhibition which investigates a celebrated figure through compelling and remarkable objects. More remarkable still is the fact the Museum sits on the location of one of the most controversial events in Mary’s story- the murder of Darnley.”

Portraits, sketches, jewels, letters and personal effects introduce the key characters in Mary’s story, her family (the Stewarts of Scotland and the Guise and Valois families of France), her friends, her supporters and her husbands, as well as her detractors, rivals and enemies.

The exhibition examines Mary’s key position in Renaissance Europe, alongside some of her female contemporaries: Mary of Guise, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I of England, and Catherine de Medici. Mary was sent to live in France at 5 years old, to join one of Europe’s most powerful and flamboyant courts. There she became, briefly, queen of France before her young husband, the Dauphin François, died.

She returned to Scotland a striking young widow in 1561; tall, with auburn hair and a fine pale complexion, illustrated by a fine portrait by Francois Clouet from the Royal Collection Trust. The exhibition explores the character and lifestyle of the young Queen, in a challenging political and religious context. Mary’s youth and joie de vivre enriched the existing Renaissance character of the Scottish court of her mother, father and grandfather. Raised in a sophisticated and glittering environment, Mary loved fine clothing and amassed a spectacular wardrobe of elegant and fashionable dresses. While very little original costume survives from the period, there will be sketches from Jasper Conran OBE for the costumes used in the 1998 English National Opera production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

She played the lute, was an exceptional needlewoman, enjoyed card games long into the night, and loved hunting and hawking as well as masques, dancing and playing music. A range of objects represent these pursuits, including a gaming board with silver tablemen and gold dice said to have been presented by Mary to her friend and confidante, Mary Seton, one of the so-called ‘four Maries’, her closest female attendants. During this period, the reckless Mary is known to have taken to the streets of Edinburgh disguised as a young man and accompanied by the four Maries.

Renaissance maps and scientific instruments such as a 15th century French astrolabe and 16th century table clock show the context of Europe moving towards an era of rapid scientific advancement, exploration and discovery. And yet, elsewhere, the 1563 Witchcraft Act shows that this was not yet an age of reason. Her allegiance to her Catholic faith and her tolerance of her Protestant subjects drew her into dangerous waters. John Knox, a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation, took every opportunity to verbally denounce her and damn her in print. This is particularly illustrated by Knox’s 1558 “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, in which he attacked the rise of female, Catholic rulers in Europe.

Supported by investment managers Baillie Gifford, the exhibition also explores Mary’s complex and controversial later marriages. Under political pressure to produce an heir and advance her claim to the English crown, in 1565 she married Henry, Lord Darnley. The union was a disaster, with Darnley’s immature behaviour making him a political liability, and Mary began to exclude him from affairs of state.

Sarah Whitley, Partner at investment managers Baillie Gifford said:

‘Baillie Gifford is delighted to be supporting the National Museum of Scotland’s major summer exhibition for the second year running. We have a strong track record in helping to promote events that send powerful messages to the people who live, work and visit this much-loved city. Edinburgh has always been home to some truly remarkable people. Mary’s own story is yet more proof of this.’

Contemporary evidence is used to tell the story of Darnley’s notorious murder: eye witness accounts, official documents, drawings, biographies of the prime suspects. The National Museum of Scotland sits virtually on the original site of the lodgings at Kirk o’ Field where Darnley was killed, and a 1567 bird’s eye sketch of the site will be on show, accompanied by an audio-visual display which recounts various versions of the events surrounding the murder and other key objects including the Darnley Memorial painting and the Darnley Jewel.

Mary’s third marriage, to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, shocked the Scottish nation, and the country spiralled into civil war. Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James. Pursued, hunted and defeated she sought sanctuary from her cousin Elizabeth I. She fled from Scotland to England, where she would face 19 years of captivity, at the age of only 26. The Marian Hanging from Oxburgh House, is a spectacular tapestry which Mary worked on during her period of imprisonment.

‘In my End is my Beginning’ is the motto that Mary embroidered on her cloth of estate while imprisoned in England, symbolising eternity after death. The subject and focus of numerous plots, Mary’s life ended on the 8 February 1587. Dressed in crimson, the colour of Catholic martyrdom, she was beheaded at Fotheringhay castle on the orders of Elizabeth I. The exhibition includes the Book of Hours which was said to be in Mary’s possession at the time of her execution and one of the most iconic images of Mary, the Blairs Memorial Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, which represents her in preparation for the executioner’s block.

The exhibition will be supported by a series of public events, talks and lectures. There will also be a book to accompany the exhibition, featuring many of the stunning objects on display. Significant lenders to the exhibition include the V&A, Musée du Louvre, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, the National Archives at Kew, the Royal Collections Trust, the National Records of Scotland and Blairs Museum.

Admission: £9 adults, £7.50 concession, children (age 12-15) £6. Entry is free to National Museums Scotland Members and children under 12.

For further information and images please contact Bruce Blacklaw, Susan Gray, Esme Haigh. Tel 0131 247 4165, email

Notes to Editors

  • National Museums Scotland is one of the leading museum groups in the UK and Europe and it looks after collections of national and international importance. The organisation provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display.

  • The National Museum of Scotland reopened in summer 2011 following a three-year, £47m redevelopment. Since then it has entered the top ten most popular UK visitor attractions (ALVA), becoming the most popular attraction in the country outside of London. With nearly 1.9 million visitors in 2012, the Museum has just entered the top 20 most popular art museums and galleries in the world (The Art Newspaper).

  • Baillie Gifford, the Edinburgh based investment management group, employs over 750 people and had assets under management and advice of over £84 billion as at 31 December 2012. Founded in 1908, Baillie Gifford acts globally, managing investments on behalf of pension funds, financial institutions, charities and retail investors. Baillie Gifford plays an active role in the community by supporting projects in the areas of education, social inclusion, and the arts. For examples of Baillie Gifford’s active role in the community please visit its corporate citizenship webpage.

Back to Press archive
Previous story Next story

Latest News

World’s largest Jurassic pterosaur unearthed on Scottish island
A spectacular fossil of a huge flying reptile known as a pterosaur, that was found on the Isle of Skye, is the largest of its kind ever discovered from the Jurassic period.
Find out more
Prayer book inscribed by Mary, Queen of Scots to go on display at the National Museum of Scotland
An illustrated prayer book featuring a poem handwritten by the young Mary, Queen of Scots, is to go on display at the National Museum of Scotland from Thursday 31 March.
Find out more
Galloway Hoard yields another exciting discovery, the name of a Bishop Hyguald inscribed on rare rock crystal jar
A rare rock crystal jar found wrapped in textiles as part of the Galloway Hoard has been conserved, revealing a Latin inscription written in gold. The inscription says the jar was made for a bishop named Hyguald.
Find out more
National Museums Scotland gifted rare collection of 17th century Scottish silver
National Museums Scotland have acquired a trio of exceptionally rare silver objects created in Scotland in the 1600s. The quaich, trumpet bell and mazer are important examples of 17th century Scottish craftsmanship and have been donated to the National Collections by Ron and Rosemary Haggarty.
Find out more
New book gives fresh perspective on Scotland’s Viking-age foundations
Crucible of Nations reveals Medieval Scotland as a melting pot of ideas.
Find out more
Back to top