Medieval manuscripts blog

6 posts from December 2021

29 December 2021

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

If you have seen the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, and are watching repeats of Bond classics over the Christmas period, then you might also like to visit the British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. There are more connections between the two than one might think.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens charts the relationship of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, from amicable beginnings to suspicion, distrust and betrayal. The crisis years of the 1580s, which saw an embattled, Protestant England threatened with foreign invasion in support of the Catholic Mary, form the exhibition’s penultimate, climactic section. Faced with grave threats to the survival of Protestant England, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, understood that effective use of intelligence networks was critical to ensuring the queen’s safety and they therefore greatly expanded the Elizabethan secret service.  

A portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham

A portrait of Elizabeth I’s ‘spymaster’, Sir Francis Walsingham, by an unknown artist after John de Critz the elder, dated 1589: Private collection

As Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Walsingham established an impressive network of agents, cryptographers and counterfeiters. He is widely considered to be the first intelligence chief in British history. The red roses in MI5’s heraldic arms are a nod to Walsingham who used the rose on his personal seal. And in a fascinating twist, this Elizabethan M actually used the codename ‘M’ in his correspondence. 

The MI5 crest

The MI5 crest featuring red roses in honour of Sir Francis Walsingham

In the exhibition, ciphered and deciphered documents and letters describing intelligence-gathering and encryption techniques demonstrate how Walsingham and his agents thwarted several plots, before the most famous Elizabethan surveillance operation of all uncovered the 1586 Babington Plot, which entrapped Mary and brought her to trial and execution in 1587.

A letter from Arthur Gregory to Sir Francis Walsingham

Letter from Arthur Gregory to Sir Francis Walsingham, 1586: Harley MS 286, f. 78r

A photograph of the hidden writing in a letter by Arthur Gregory

Multi-spectral imaging revealing the secret postscript in Arthur Gregory's letter (©Christina Duffy)

In this letter Arthur Gregory, a skilled counterfeiter, informed Walsingham that he had discovered a technique using alum to create secret writing. He wrote, ‘The writing with alum is discovered divers ways … but most apparently by rubbing of coal dust thereon.’ Gregory used the letter’s postscript to demonstrate his secret writing technology. Enclosing a packet of coal dust, he told Walsingham, ‘If your honour rub this powder within the black line the letters will appear white.’ As the black smudge at the foot of the letter demonstrates, Walsingham followed these instructions, using the black coal dust to reveal white letters. Although Gregory’s secret writing is no longer visible with the naked eye, the British Library’s Imaging Scientist, Christina Duffy, has used multispectral imaging to recover it. Translated from Latin, Gregory’s message addressed his ‘excellent master’ Walsingham, and wished ‘health and many successes’ for his ‘brother, cousin and dear friend’.

A cipher used in the Babington Plot, 1586

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

The cipher set out on the lower half of this page is the one used by Mary in her treasonous communications with Anthony Babington. It consists of twenty-three symbols which could be substituted for letters of the alphabet (with the exception of ‘j’, ‘v’ and ‘w’) and thirty-five symbols that represented individual words or phrases, such as ‘letter’, ‘bearer’, ‘send’, ‘receive’, ‘from’, ‘by’, ‘majesty’ and ‘pray’. The difficulty of the cipher was increased by the addition of four ‘nulls’ or blanks that had no meaning, and another symbol that signalled that the next symbol represented a double letter. However, for Walsingham’s master cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes, cracking Mary and Babington’s ciphered correspondence presented little trouble as demonstrated by the deciphered letter below, which along with the cipher document is displayed in the exhibition thanks to a generous loan from The National Archives.

A ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Patrick, Master of Gray, October–November 1584: The National Archives, SP 53/14/30

A document security system known as letterlocking was used widely during the period. This video shows the intricate process of locking and sealing a letter, by which means the sender could make it more difficult for anyone to open and read their letter undetected (courtesy of Jana Dambrogio, Daniel Starza Smith, and the Unlocking History Research Group). Both Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I had trusted clerks and secretaries to lock letters on their behalf.

The modern world of Bond, guns and gadgets is exciting, but if you want to step back into a 16th-century world of espionage, plots and treason, then visit Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens exhibition at the British Library, which is open until 20 February 2022.

Anna Turnham and Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 December 2021

Christmas gift ideas from medieval manuscripts

Christmas is the season of giving. This involves choosing appropriate gifts for our relatives and friends – not an easy task. Medieval manuscripts may give us inspiration, though in many cases the gifts would probably be way out of our price range. Here are some ideas for different situations.

For that special person

The scene of the Magi presenting their gifts to Christ on the feast of Epiphany is often included in cycles of images found in medieval liturgical books. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh signify that the infant is a future king, priest and sacrifice. One could follow the example of the Magi and give something expensive and shiny made of gold such as a crown or a goblet, or beautifully fragrant like frankincense or myrrh. Or if you’re looking for a cheaper option, perhaps a scented candle?

The three Magi present gifts to the Christ Child, seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary
The three Magi in the margin present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child, who is seated with the Virgin Mary within the initial 'E'(cce), in a Roman Missal (Provence, 1275-1325), Add MS 17006, f. 18v
The Magi present gifts to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s knee
The Magi present a crown, a goblet and two vessels to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s knee and holding up his fingers in blessing, in the Scandinavian Psalter (?Paris or Reims, c. 1250-1260), Add MS 17868, f. 17r

What to give the person who has everything

This was the problem faced by the Queen of Sheba. In the Old Testament (I Kings 10) we are told that she visited King Solomon to test his reputation for wisdom, prosperity and holiness. The magnificence of his court and the copious offerings he made to the Lord took her breath away. So she presented him with 120 gold coins, unprecedented quantities of spices, and various precious stones. This was perhaps not the best solution for someone who already had everything. But what to do?

The Queen of Sheba presenting a gift to King Solomon
The Queen of Sheba presenting a gift to King Solomon, in the Bohun Psalter and Hours (?London, after 1356, and probably before 1373), Egerton MS 3277, f. 85v

The Biblia Pauperum, a picture book that juxtaposes scenes from the Old and New Testaments, shows the Magi and the Queen of Sheba side by side presenting their gifts. But though gold and riches might be suitable for Solomon, are they really an appropriate gift for a baby? In this charming depiction of the Nativity, the Christ child appears to be trying to grasp the golden objects from the kneeling Magus, scattering them to the floor, while looking back at his mother to see her reaction.

The Magi before Christ and the Virgin (left), and the Queen of Sheba presenting a gold goblet to Solomon (right)
The Magi before Christ and the Virgin (left), and the Queen of Sheba presenting a gold goblet to Solomon (right), in a Biblia Pauperum (?The Hague, Netherlands, c. 1405), Kings MS 5, f. 3r

Corporate gifts

Receiving gifts from managers and business associates can be a mixed experience, and choosing them is even more difficult. Medieval kings were gift-givers par excellence, giving gifts to symbolise their wealth and power and to cement alliances with their subjects. They also donated large amounts to the Church in return for eternal salvation for themselves and their families. An early example is represented in a drawing of King Cnut and his wife Aelfgifu (or Emma) presenting a magnificent gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester, as a symbol of their patronage.

King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu place a large gold cross on an altar
King Cnut and Queen Aelfgifu (also called Emma) place a large gold cross on an altar; below are monks looking upward within arches, in the New Minster Liber Vitae (Winchester, 11th century), Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Alexander the Great was both a giver and receiver of gifts, according to medieval accounts of his life. Here he is shown receiving gifts from Darius along with a threatening message from the Persian king.

Alexander enthroned, receiving gifts sent by Darius
Alexander enthroned, receiving gifts sent by Darius in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose (Paris, c. 1420), Royal 20 B XX, f. 24r

Sometimes monarchs expected gifts in return from their loyal subjects. Gold goblets seem to be a popular choice in these circumstances. 

Jeanne, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, receiving gifts from her subjects
Jeanne, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, receiving gifts from her subjects, in Boccaccio, De Cleres et nobles femmes (Rouen, c. 1440), Royal MS 16 G V, f. 127v

It seems that manuscripts are rather short on gift ideas, if gold goblets are not to our taste. But wait – there is another option that many of us will resort to once again this Christmas… books!

Gifts for everyone

There are so many different types of books out there – something for everyone. And in the Middle Ages books were popular gifts too for kings, queens and princes. A most magnificent example is the Talbot Shrewsbury Book presented to Margaret of Anjou on her betrothal to Henry VI of England by the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury.

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, kneeling and presenting a magnificent book of romances to Margaret of Anjou
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, kneeling and presenting a magnificent book of romances to the future queen of England, who is seated in a palace beside the king, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, c. 1445), Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v
Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria
Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, The Book of the Queen (Paris c. 1410), Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

Notice the dogs in both these images – they were a symbol of fidelity in medieval imagery. For us they are maybe a reminder not to forget our pets this Christmas – they need gifts too! Perhaps a tasty bone would be just the thing.

A dog with a bone
A dog with a bone, from a book of hours (England, 14th-century), Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

All of us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library wish you a very happy festive season!

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 December 2021

A gift fit for a king

This week, many of us will be searching for the perfect gifts to give to friends, family and the person who seems to have everything. As a 12-year-old, Princess Elizabeth came up with the perfect present for her father, King Henry VIII. Visitors to Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens can see the prayer book that she gave to him as a New Year’s gift on 1 January 1546. 

A portrait of Portrait of the young Elizabeth, with a book on her lap

Portrait of the young Elizabeth, by an unknown artist after William Scrots, 16th century: Private collection

Elizabeth had received an excellent humanist education and her present showcased the fruits of her learning. The small volume’s 117 pages contain the young princess’s trilingual translation of her step-mother Katherine Parr’s published Prayer and Meditations from English into Latin, French and Italian, all written out in her beautifully neat italic handwriting.

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: Royal MS 7 D X, ff. 5v–6r

The prayer book’s dedicatory epistle, dated 30 December 1545 and addressed from Hertford, where Elizabeth and her half-brother Prince Edward Tudor were probably then living, is the princess’s only surviving letter to her father. In it Elizabeth wisely praised Henry, referring to him as ‘a king whom philosophers regard as a god on earth’ and acknowledged his ‘fatherly goodness’ and ‘royal prudence’. But just one year after her restoration to the succession, Elizabeth also took the opportunity to draw attention to her royal descent and status as the king’s daughter. She explained that ‘it was thought by me a most suitable thing that this work … an assemblage by a queen as subject matter for her king, be translated into other languages by me, your daughter, who by this means would be indebted to you not only as an imitator of your virtues but also as an inheritor of them’.

The epistolary preface to Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations

Epistolary preface to Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: Royal MS 7 D X, f. 2r

The elaborate embroidered cover is also thought to be Elizabeth’s own handiwork. It incorporates Henry and Katherine’s entwined monograms sewn in silver and gold threads, with a white rose, the emblem of the princess’s namesake and paternal grandmother, Elizabeth of York, stitched in each corner.  

The binding of the prayerbook, probably embroidered by Princess Elizabeth

Binding probably embroidered by Elizabeth as a cover for her trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: Royal MS 7 D X, right cover

In the exhibition the prayer book is displayed open to showcase Elizabeth’s proficiency in foreign languages, but the British Library imaging team has worked with Cyreal, a 3D technical company, to capture the prayer book in 3D in order to enable visitors to view the binding in virtual reality. Using a process called photogrammetry, a large number of photographs of the prayer book were taken from multiple angles.

The prayerbook being photographed at the British Library

Imaging set-up at the British Library

This image shows the prayer book and the position of each of the photographs. The photographs were then analysed by a computer programme using a software that is able to identify key features and then match them across all the images. Using complex mathematics, the software works out where in space the feature is and then marks the point in digital space. It does this many millions of times, building up a picture of the prayer book’s structure. It then joins these points together using lines to create a polygon mesh. 

Computer generated point-cloud

Computer generated point-cloud.

Polygon mesh creating the digital structure

Polygon mesh creating the digital structure.

The software creates a mosaic of the photographs and wraps the mosaic with the digital mesh

The software creates a mosaic of the photographs and wraps the mosaic with the digital mesh.

The final 3D digital model can be viewed from any angle.

We hope that you enjoy watching the 3D animation of the binding.

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 December 2021

Collating Cicero in Cologne

Our work on revising the online descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection continues apace. One manuscript that has recently had its online description updated is Harley MS 2682, an 11th-century volume known as the ‘Cologne Cicero’. It has been recognised for centuries as an important witness to a number of the works of the famous Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (d. 43 BCE).

Manuscript page showing the beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam

The beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam (western Germany, 2nd half of the 11th century): Harley MS 2682, f. 115r

The first person to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ — the process of comparing different manuscripts of a work in order to establish its correct text — was François Modius (1556–1597), a Flemish jurist and humanist classical scholar. With the help of the Cologne theologian, Melchior Hittorp (c. 1525–1584), Modius was given access to the manuscript before 1584 when he published some of his collations. At that point, it was in the library at Cologne Cathedral, and it seems that it was originally made in the scriptorium there. The next scholar to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ was Janus Gulielmus, or Johann Wilhelm (1555–1584), who called it the optimus (‘best', 'most useful’) of the three manuscripts he was using. In 1688, the manuscript was taken from Cologne Cathedral by the German classical scholar, Johann Georg Graevius (1632–1703). Graevius’s library, including our manuscript, was bought in 1703 by Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine (1658–1716). The Wilhelm library was bought in turn by the merchant and diplomat Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni (d. 1753), sometime before 1724, from whom the 'Cologne Cicero' was purchased on 20 October 1725 by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), librarian to Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741).

As well as being collated intensively in the 1500s and 1600s, Harley MS 2682 is testament to the interest in studying Cicero’s works in the 11th century. It seems to represent the oldest attempt at bringing together all of Cicero’s works in one volume. What is more, it is an example of medieval textual criticism since the three so-called ‘Caesarian speeches’ were copied twice, in two different versions. The first version seems to have been imperfect, only containing the first half of the third speech, Pro rege Deiotaro (On behalf of King Deiotarus before Caesar). It seems that the compiler(s) of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ realised this shortcoming of the first exemplar for the ‘Caesarian speeches’, and found another manuscript — with the full text — from which to copy the three speeches once again.

Medieval manuscript page with a nota mark in dark ink extending down the entire outer margin

The beginning of Cicero's De petitione consulatus, with a nota mark extending down the entire outer margin: Harley MS 2682, f. 53r

The pages of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ also show marks of continued use during its medieval history. There are numerous marginal annotations and so-called nota marks, drawing attention to a particular sentence or paragraph. Some common forms of nota marks are little pointing hands, manicules, or monograms of the word nota itself. On one page marking the beginning of De petitione consulatus (On running for the consulship) (f. 53r), the nota monogram runs down the entire outer margin. Someone must have found this page especially important!

To read more about the attention that medieval scholars and readers paid to the texts of the Latin classics, see our article on ‘The Latin Middle Ages’.


Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 December 2021

Princess Elizabeth and her governess

‘We are More Bound to Them that Bring us up Well Than to Our Parents’

On 7 March 1549, the 15-year-old Princess Elizabeth wrote to the most powerful man in England, the lord protector, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset. She petitioned him to release her governess, Katherine Ashley, from the Tower of London. Ashley had been imprisoned there for conducting secret marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and Thomas, Lord Seymour.

A portrait of Princess Elizabeth, wearing a red dress and a pearl necklace

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after William Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

Two days before Elizabeth wrote her letter, Thomas Seymour was found guilty of treason for plotting against the government. For Elizabeth the stakes were high: despite being Somerset’s youngest brother, Seymour was condemned to death. Although she did not ‘fauor her iuel [evil] doinge’, in a display of rhetorical skill that was a product of her advanced education, Elizabeth made a strong case for Ashley in her letter to Somerset (Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r). Ashley had long served her, she said, taking ‘great labor, and paine in brinkinge of me vp in lerninge and honestie’. It seems that Ashley had taught Elizabeth needlework, deportment, manners, music, and perhaps the rudiments of Latin. In her letter Elizabeth emphasised her debt to Ashley by alluding to St Gregory of Nazianzus’s ad 379 funeral oration on St Basil the Great, that we are more bound to those who bring us up well than to our parents. She then explained to Somerset how Ashley would never have encouraged Seymour’s marriage suit if Ashley had not believed that Seymour had the privy council’s consent. Lastly, if Ashley was not released, ‘it shal and doth make men thinke’ she had sacrificed her own freedom to protect Elizabeth’s. ‘Thus hope preuailinge more with me than feare hathe wone the battel, and I haue at this time gone furth with it.’

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, 7 March 1549: Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r

Seymour’s interest in Elizabeth stemmed from her status. Following the destruction of her mother Anne Boleyn in May 1536, Elizabeth had been declared a bastard and excluded from the succession. However, in 1544, as a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war against France, her father, King Henry VIII, restored both Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, to the succession, but he did not legitimate them. In his last will, Henry directed that each daughter should receive a dowry of £10,000 when she married, but could be offered less if she did so without the consent of his executors. Both were also provided with an estate valued at £3,000 a year while they remained unwed. After Henry’s death in January 1547, these executors duly became the privy council of his 9-year-old son and successor, Edward VI, headed by lord protector Somerset.

Portrait miniature of Thomas, Lord Seymour

Portrait miniature of Thomas, Lord Seymour, by an unknown artist, c. 1545–47: National Maritime Museum 42085

In spring 1547, Elizabeth went to live with Henry’s widow, Queen Katherine Parr. Katherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, quickly became unduly solicitous towards her young charge. He sometimes visited Elizabeth in her bedchamber before she had risen or was dressed, and would ‘strike hir vp[p]on the bak or on the buttock[e]s famylearly’ (Hatfield House, Cecil Paper 150/85). Elizabeth was smitten with the charming, glamorous and roguish Seymour. She would sometimes blush at the mention of his name. On one occasion Katherine helped him as he cut Elizabeth’s dress ‘yn a c [100] peces’ as they all frolicked in the garden at Hanworth in Middlesex (London, The National Archives, SP 10/6/21, M. f. 55r); on another, she found Elizabeth ‘in his armes’ (Cecil Paper 150/79). After this, Elizabeth was sent away to form her own household, headed by her cofferer, Thomas Parry, and her governess, Katherine Ashley, servants she trusted completely.

Following Thomas Seymour’s arrest in January 1549, Elizabeth and her household came under investigation. Parry and Ashley were dismissed from her service and imprisoned in the Tower, where they were regularly interrogated. Even Elizabeth and her brother Edward were questioned, as the government tried to get to the bottom of Seymour’s treason. Elizabeth wrote to Somerset five times between 28 January and 7 March, petitioning him to issue a proclamation against ‘the slaunderouse rumor, sprong vp’ that she was pregnant with Seymour’s child, requesting an audience with the king, and for her servants to be reinstated (Private Collection, f. 9r). At first she was rebuffed. One of her letters elicited an acid rebuke from Somerset, penned by his secretary, William Cecil. Her plight increased. On 20 March Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill at the second stroke of the axe. He ‘dyed very daungerously, yrkesomlye, horryblye’, his confessor recorded (Hugh Latimer, The seconde Sermon … preached before the Kynges maiestie ([London, 1549]), sig. M2r). Afterwards it was discovered that he had tried to secretly communicate with Elizabeth from the Tower.


Hugh Latimer, The seconde Sermon … preached before the Kynges maiestie ([London, 1549]): RB.23.a.7820.(2.), sig. M2r

But Elizabeth’s persistence paid off. The government issued a proclamation scotching the pregnancy rumours and Ashley was eventually released and reinstated. Elizabeth and Ashley remained particularly close, their relationship founded on Ashley’s unswerving loyalty and on their deep emotional bond. When she became queen, Elizabeth appointed Ashley chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, and granted her a unique level of trust and favour. Ashley’s death in July 1565 robbed Elizabeth of one of her closest companions, one who had played a formative role in her childhood and youth: ‘our brinkers up ar a cause to make us liue [live] wel in [the world]’, Elizabeth once said of her (Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r).

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 December 2021

Proclaiming Mary’s conviction in London

Proclamations were printed royal directives. Their reading was a public and ritualized business, attended by local officials, held at prominent sites and often heralded by trumpets. Royal policy and royal authority were declared, ending with the exhortation to ‘God save the Queen’ (or King). Proclamations could also present the rationale of royal policy — or at least the rationale thought fit for public consumption. They were occasions of civic ritual, both to declare royal power and to present news and policy in ways persuasive to the public.

a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots, set in an oval gold frame

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 proclamation read in the City of London on 6 December 1586 is a powerful example of this at a particularly charged moment: A true Copie of the Proclamation lately published by the Queenes Maiestie, vnder the great Seale of England, for the declaring of the Sentence, lately giuen against the Queene of Scottes, in fourme following, dated as at the manor of Richmond on 4 December, and printed in London by the Queen’s printer, Christopher Barker. The copy currently on display in our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, belonged to Robert Beale, Clerk of the Privy Council. Beale had long been concerned with the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots — he had been on four missions to the imprisoned Queen and was regarded as an expert on the case against her by his superiors. He had been present at her trial (drawing a sketch of the court) and in February 1587 would deliver the commission for her death to Fotheringhay Castle and read it at her execution. He would also provide another drawing of her execution (also displayed in the exhibition). The public proclamation of Mary’s trial and conviction was an important stage in the process of moving towards her execution. Beale was aware of the importance and solemnity of the proclamation, and recorded its reading in the City of London: ‘Looke ye howe solemnly this was proclaymed in the presenc[e] of the L[ord] Mayor and divers of his brethern’.

  A pen-and-ink drawing by Robert Beale of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Mary sitting on a chair in the upper right-hand corner

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Robert Beale: Add MS 48027/1, f. 569*

An eye-witness drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Eye-witness drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1, f. 650*

A contemporary account expands on the reading of the proclamation as an act of publicity and civic ritual (The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, ed. by John Nichols, 3 vols, London: John Nichols and Son, 1823, II, 497). ‘The Lord Mayor, assisted with divers Earles, Barons, the Aldermen in their scarlet, the principall officers of the citty, the greatest number of the gentlemen of the best account in and about the citty, with the number of eighty of the gravest and worshipfullest cittizens in coates of velvet, and chaines of gould, all on horsebacke in most solemne and stately manner, by sound of foure trumpets, and ten of the clock in the forenoone, made open and publique proclamation and declaration’ of Mary’s sentence. The Town Clerk openly read the proclamation, whilst the Serjeant-at-Arms ‘with loud voyce solemnly proclaimed’ it at four places in the City. At the same time, the proclamation was read by the Sheriffs of Middlesex in Westminster and London outside the City. The proclamation was met with ‘the greate and wonderful rejoycing of the people of all sorts, as manifestly appeared by the ringing of bels, making of bonfires, and singing of psalmes, in every of the streets and lanes of the Citty’. 

The proclamation laid out at length — over three sheets (pasted together by Beale) — the legal and political basis for Mary’s trial and conviction. It declared Elizabeth’s ‘great griefe’ at Mary’s involvement in conspiracy, ‘tending directly to the hurt and destruction of our royal Person, and to the subversion of the Estate of our Realme, by forrein invasions, & rebellions at home’; that she had agreed to the trial demanded ‘by sundrie Lordes of our Nobilitie, and others our loving subjectes’; and that she had let her desire for clemency be overborne by the advice and requests of her subjects in Parliament. She was overcome by her grief at Mary’s conspiracy against her life, ‘but also overcome with the earnest requests, declarations and important reasons of all of our said Subjectes, the Nobles and Commons of our Realme, whose judgement, knowledge and naturall care of us and the whole Realme. wee knoweth dothe farre surmount all others being not interessed therein, and so justly to bee esteemed’. The measured tones of the proclamation, presenting a story of a reluctant Queen bowing to the demands of her loyal and loving subjects, downplayed the anger in Parliament and the depth of Elizabeth's resistance. Her prevarication over actually executing Mary would continue for another two months.

The printed proclamation of the death sentence against Mary, Queen of Scots

The printed proclamation of the death sentence against Mary, Queen of Scots

The printed proclamation of the death sentence against Mary, Queen of Scots

The Proclamation lately published declaring the Sentence, lately giuen against the Queene of Scottes (London, 1586): Add MS 48027, ff. 448r, 449r, 450r

The text also downplayed another aspect of the proclamation. In the ‘Act for the Queen’s Safety’ of 1585 (under which Mary had been tried), Elizabeth had inserted a proviso: that publication of the proclamation enabled anyone to kill Mary, without the Queen’s execution warrant. This is perhaps hinted at — no more — in the passage describing her acquiescence to the execution for the sake of the Realm and her subjects, where she states ‘howe desirous we were to have some other meanes devised by [our subjects] in their several places of Parlament, to withstand these mischiefes intended against our selfe and the publique quiet state of our Realme, & suretie of our good subjects, then by execution of the aforesayde sentence, as was required’. Assassination by a loyal subject would remain an option Elizabeth preferred even as she signed the death warrant.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Tim Wales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval