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The Art of Monarchy

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

François Clouet (c. 1520-1572)

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) c. 1558

RCIN 401229

In an exhibition, British Library [London]

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The Scottish Ambassador, Sir James Melville, recorded in 1564 a visit to Queen Elizabeth’s court, when the Queen: ‘took me to her bed-chamber, and opened a little cabinet, wherein were divers little pictures wrapped within paper, and their names written with her own hand upon the papers.’ One of the treasures revealed to Melville was a miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots, possibly the present item.

Melville’s account reveals the way in which such small-scale images were sequestered in cabinets for private enjoyment, if not worn on the body in lockets or ‘portrait-boxes’.  They were intended to celebrate a unique relationship between the sitter and the recipient, and were quite different from the full-scale formal portraits intended for public display.  The close family ties that bound Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, would be sufficient to account for Elizabeth’s desire to possess a portrait of her younger cousin. Elizabeth’s interest in Mary’s appearance seems to have taken a keener form, however, and her repeated questions to the Scottish Ambassador over which queen had the finest hair and was the fairest suggests a degree of rivalry which points to the complexity of their relations.

Painted by the French court painter, François Clouet, in watercolour on vellum, the miniature perhaps dates to 1558, when Mary, Queen of Scots married the French Dauphin, the future Francis II.  This is suggested by her action of placing her wedding ring on the fourth finger of her right hand.  Mary had been betrothed to the Dauphin since the age of five and had been raised at the French court in anticipation of her future role as a French royal consort.  The marriage was shortlived, and on Francis’s death in 1560, Mary returned to Scotland to take up her throne. The miniature is one of the few images in the canon of surviving portraits of Mary to convey her famous natural beauty; her later portraits tended towards the stylised, particularly after her execution in 1587.