SHE is one of the best known figures in Scottish history, her life encompassed by tragedy, scandal and romance.
But how many people know of Mary, Queen of Scots’ love of hunting, card games and playing the lute?
A major exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is, for the first time, bringing together a fascinating display of items from public and private collections in Scotland, England and France to explore the myth and reality surrounding the enigmatic figurehead.
Through a unique gathering of letters, paintings, jewellery, textiles, furniture, drawings, maps and documents, museum bosses hope to be able to present a compelling picture of the queen’s life.
Craig Fletcher, learning manager for National Museums Scotland, explains: “Mary, Queen of Scots is an interesting subject because people are fascinated by her.
“She is still a very popular figure because people are very intrigued about the myths surrounding her.
“Some people think she was cold and calculated and knew what she was doing, others think she was just a bit silly and naive.”
The exhibition 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.
Visitors to the exhibition will be able to view documentary evidence of Mary’s life in a “CSI style”, 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 a secret cipher, which was presented as proof of her association with the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and thus led eventually to Mary’s execution in 1587.
Contemporary evidence is used to tell the story of Darnley’s notorious murder – eyewitness accounts, official documents, drawings, biographies of the prime suspects.
“Her second husband, Lord Darnley, was supposed to have been blown up in Kirk o’ Field, which is actually underneath the museum and university,” says Craig. “However, he was actually stabbed and we are going to re-display the evidence almost in a CSI style. People can make up their own minds about whether she was involved or not.
“The evidence is compelling on both sides.”
Also on display are some of the finest pieces of jewellery associated with Mary, including a gold necklace and pendant locket, known collectively as the Penicuik jewels. These were said to have been given to one of her supporters during her captivity. The exhibition also explores the character and lifestyle of the young queen, in a challenging political and religious context.
She was raised in a sophisticated and glittering environment, loved fine clothing and amassed a spectacular wardrobe of elegant and fashionable dresses. While very little original costume survives from the period, sketches from Jasper Conran OBE for the costumes used in the 1998 English National Opera production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda are on show.
Craig says: “People might be surprised, when they look at some of the inventories from the royal wardrobes at the time, by the volume of possessions she had and how long it took to get her ready.
“Not a lot of items survived from that time because they were turbulent times. There are lots of myths about Mary, Queen of Scots and people claiming items belonged to her, but by taking samples and dating them, we can find the age of something. A lot of things have been found to be Victorian fakes. We have some really interesting, genuine items which is why it is an important exhibition.”
The exhibition will be supported by a series of public events, talks and lectures. There will also be a book to accompany it, featuring many of the stunning objects on display.
• Mary, Queen of Scots, which opened yesterday, runs until November 17 at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street. Admission is £9 for adults, £7.50 concessions, children (aged 12-15) £6.