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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87)

Embroidered panel c. 1569-84

RCIN 28224

Mary, Queen of Scots' Outer Chamber, Palace of Holyroodhouse

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This embroidered panel, of cruciform shape, which depicts a ginger cat and a mouse, bears the cipher of Mary, Queen of Scots. Although Mary spent time on needlework throughout her life, most of her embroideries were carried out between 1569 and 1584, when she had left Scotland and was kept in captivity in England.

As a child Mary’s hand in marriage had been sought by her uncle Henry VIII for his son Prince Edward (the future Edward VI) in order to unite England and Scotland. The Scots, however, turned to France and at the age of five, the young Queen was sent by her mother, Mary of Guise, to be brought up at the French court. It was here that she probably learned the art of embroidery. She married the Dauphin and when he succeeded as Francis II in 1559, Mary became Queen of France. The accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 also made Mary heir presumptive to the throne of England. Following the French king’s death, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 and took up residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, a Catholic in a strongly Protestant country.

Mary married her second husband Henry, Lord Darnley in 1565, and the following year her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered in front of her at the palace, a few months before the birth of her son, the future James VI of Scotland. After the death of Darnley and her disastrous third marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her young son. She fled to England and put herself at the mercy of her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I. The English Queen feared that Mary would be the focus of Catholic conspiracies against the throne and so kept her in captivity. Mary was placed in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury in various locations. She initially worked on embroideries with Shrewsbury’s wife, Elizabeth (Bess of Hardwick) and together they devised many pieces, usually small panels of canvas work that could be worked easily in coloured silk threads on a portable frame. These were used to decorate hangings and other furnishings. Many of the embroideries depicted animals and birds and often conveyed hidden messages. It is possible in this panel that Mary was alluding to Queen Elizabeth as the cat and herself as the mouse, held captive by the cat’s paw on its tail.

Finally, in 1587, after the discovery of the Babington plot against Elizabeth, Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle.