16 February 2022
A man on a commission
Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens tells the story of the complex and evolving relationship of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Drawing on documents, letters and speeches written in the queens’ own hands, as well as the courtiers closest to them, the exhibition reveals how, from cordial beginnings, their relationship turned to distrust and betrayal.
The exhibition catalogue for the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition
In 1561, when the recently widowed Mary, Queen of Scots, returned to Scotland to take up direct rule, the two queens were both young and infinitely curious about each other — anything but mortal enemies. They exchanged expensive gifts and letters full of sisterly affection and expressed an earnest desire to meet and make a perfect amity. Mary hoped that a personal meeting would result in her being recognised as Elizabeth’s heir presumptive, and she frequently reminded her cousin that they were not only fellow sovereign queens but also ‘of one blood, of one country, and in one island’. When their plans to meet in 1562 were aborted, Mary lost her opportunity to persuade Elizabeth in person to settle the succession, turning her thoughts to marriage as a means to strengthen her claim to the English crown. Elizabeth quickly made it known that a marriage to one of her powerful European rivals would be seen as a hostile act and instead proposed her favourite, Robert Dudley, as a suitable husband. But she would still not name Mary as her heir.
Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561: by kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)
Elizabeth’s suggestion that Mary marry her ‘horse master’ — to use Mary’s own words — caused great offence and coincided with a deterioration in relations between the two queens. In late September 1564, Mary sent her ambassador, Sir James Melville, on a nine-day visit to the English court to smooth things over. His autograph memoirs (held at the British Library as Add MS 37977) record how ‘hir Maieste plesit to confer with me euery day, and somtymes thrys vpon a day’, and provide a vivid account of their conversations.
During Melville’s first audience with Elizabeth, she requested an update on the Dudley marriage proposal, keen to point out that ‘sche estemed him as hir brother and best frend, whom sche suld have married hir self, had she not been determined to end hir lyf in virginite’. Instead, ‘sche wissit that the quen hir sister suld mary him, as metest of all vther, and with whom sche mycht find in hir hart to declaire the quen second personne’. Elizabeth insisted that Melville witness Dudley being ennobled as Earl of Leicester. He wryly observed that, as Dudley kneeled before the queen, ‘sche culd not refrain from putting hir hand in his nek, to kitle [tickle] him smylingly’. On another occasion, in Elizabeth’s private chambers, the Scottish ambassador was ‘accidentally’ shown a miniature of Dudley, labelled ‘My lordes picture’. Elizabeth declined his request to take it for Mary as ‘sche had bot that ane of his’.
Sir James Melville’s autograph memoirs, c. 1600: Add MS 37977, ff. 33v–34r
Melville’s memoirs provide a fascinating insight into Elizabeth’s preoccupation with her Scottish cousin and the human curiosity and rivalry which lay at the heart of their relationship. Over the course of his visit, Elizabeth bombarded Melville with questions about Mary’s appearance. When quizzed about which of the two queens was fairest, he tactfully replied that both were ‘the fairest ladyes off thar courtes, and that the quen of england whas whytter, bot our quen was very lusome [attractive]’. On hearing that Mary was taller, Elizabeth retorted that Mary ‘was ouer heych, and that hir self was nother ouer hich nor ouer laich’. Further questions about Mary’s accomplishments followed, and Elizabeth was interested to hear that her cousin played the virginals ‘raisonably for a quen’. Later that evening, Elizabeth had a courtier escort Melville to a gallery where she was playing the virginals ‘excellently weill’. When pressed by Elizabeth to declare which queen played the virginals better, Melville ‘gaif hir the prayse’.
Melville’s memoirs are on display in the British Library’s major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
Anna Turnham and Andrea Clarke
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