Medieval manuscripts blog

24 August 2021

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens

Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (8 October 2021–20 February 2022). This will be the first exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots together, putting both women centre stage and giving them equal billing.

Using original documents and contemporary published sources, the exhibition will take a fresh and revealing look at the extraordinary story of two powerful women, bound together by their shared Tudor heritage and experience as fellow sovereign queens, but divided by their opposing Protestant and Catholic faiths and their rivalry for the English and Irish thrones.

Elizabeth I’s signature
Detail showing Elizabeth I’s signature: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 367r
 
Mary, Queen of Scots’ signature
Detail showing Mary, Queen of Scots’ signature: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

Despite their fates being intertwined, the two queens never met in person. Instead, their relationship was played out at a distance, much of it by letter. These thrilling documents, written in their own hands and recording their speeches, lie at the heart of the exhibition and will enable visitors to step back into their world and understand how, from amicable beginnings, Elizabeth and Mary's relationship turned to suspicion, distrust and betrayal. 

The exhibition will demonstrate how the queens’ relationship also reflected a much broader story. It will explore the context of the religious reformation that divided Europe between Catholics and Protestants, revealing how Elizabeth and Mary’s battle, first for dynastic pre-eminence within the British Isles, and then for survival, became inseparable from the national religious struggles of their respective kingdoms. The exhibition will further show how the queens’ rivalry over the throne profoundly shaped England and Scotland’s relations, both with each other, and with France and Spain.

Elizabeth and Mary will highlight the rise of state surveillance and the development of a sophisticated intelligence network during a time of plots, treason and rebellion, and the ever-present fear of international conspiracy and foreign invasion.

At the core of the exhibition will be highlights from the British Library’s outstanding collection of 16th-century royal autograph manuscripts, historical documents, printed items, maps and drawings. These will be accompanied by a number of exceptional paintings, objects, jewellery and textiles borrowed from collections across the UK.

To whet your appetite, here is a small selection of some of the items that will be on display: 

• Elizabeth’s handwritten trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545), which was a gift for her father Henry VIII: British Library, Royal MS 7 D X

Elizabeth’s handwritten trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545)

• Elizabeth I’s mother of pearl locket ring (c. 1575), which opens to display miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn: ©The Chequers Trust

Queen Elizabeth’s locket ring  c.1575 (c) The Chequers Trust

• Bird’s-eye view map of London, Westminster in Middlesex, and Southwark in Surrey, by William Smith, 1588: British Library, Sloane MS 2596, f. 52*r

Bird’s-eye view map of London, Westminster in Middlesex, and Southwark in Surrey, by William Smith, 1588

• Richard Lee, bird’s-eye view of Edinburgh (May 1544): British Library, Cotton MS Augustus I II 56

Richard Lee, bird’s-eye view of Edinburgh (May 1544)

• Letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I to announce her arrival on English soil (1568): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

Letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I to announce her arrival on English soil (1568)

• Portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to George Gower, 1567: © Private collection

Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower  c.1567  on loan to the exhibition from a Private Collection

• Elizabeth I’s speech dissolving parliament in 1567, in which she attacked MPs' questions about the succession as ‘lip-laboured orations out of such jangling subjects’ mouths’: British Library, Cotton Ch IV 38 (2)

Elizabeth I’s speech dissolving parliament in 1567

• Rare printed copy of the papal bull known as Regnans in Excelsis, issued in Latin in 1570, announcing Elizabeth I’s excommunication on grounds of heresy: British Library, 18.e.2.(114*)

Rare print survival of the papal bull known as Regnans in Excelsis, issued in Latin in 1570

• Ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1570): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C II, f. 74r

Ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1570)

• Mary, Queen of Scots’ longest letter, sent to Elizabeth I to complain about her sufferings in prison (1582): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C VII, f. 81v

Mary, Queen of Scots’ longest letter, sent to Elizabeth I to complain about her sufferings in prison (1582)

• Cipher used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to communicate with Anthony Babington (1586): ©The National Archives, Kew, SP 12/193/54, f. 123r

Cipher used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to communicate with Anthony Babington (1586)

• The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22) © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)

The Blairs Reliquary (front), containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots

• Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587), depicting her entering the hall, disrobing, and placing her head on the block: British Library, Add MS 48027, f. 650*r

Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587)

• Drawing of Elizabeth’s funeral procession (early 17th century): British Library, Add MS 35324, f. 37v

Drawing of Elizabeth’s funeral procession (early 17th century)

• James VI, Basilikon doron (1599), written for Prince Henry, on successful kingship and printed in Edinburgh: British Library, G.4993., sig. [A]3v–[A]4r

James VI, Basilikon doron (1599)

The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly-illustrated catalogue, edited by Professor Sue Doran, and available for purchase from the Library’s online shop from 8 October.

The cover of the illustrated catalogue, edited by Professor Sue Doran

A full programme of public lectures, talks, panel discussions and cultural events will also accompany the exhibition.  Tickets for the first three events are now on sale:

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will be on show at the British Library from 8 October 2021 to 20 February 2022. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary.

 

Andrea Clarke

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