24 August 2022
On 2 September 1572, Francis Walsingham, then Ambassador to the French Court, wrote a letter from Paris to Sir Thomas Smith, Secretary of State, the scrawled, messy draft of which survives as Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, ff. 163v–164r. The letter's crossings-out and insertions bear witness to trauma and anger.
The beginning of the draft of Walsingham's letter: Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 163v
A week before, in the early hours of 24 August (St Bartholomew’s Day), a massacre had begun in the city which left some 3,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) dead. Many more would die as the violence spread to the provinces. This letter reports Walsingham’s audiences on 1 September with King Charles IX and the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. The massacre had wound down only two days before, and Walsingham had been escorted to the Louvre through the still uneasy streets by the king’s brother, Henri, Duke of Anjou, a mark of the esteem in which the French court held its alliance with England. Anjou had also played an important part in the decision-making which sparked the massacre.
The massacre had two components. Charles IX and his Council had ordered the pre-emptive killing of 70 or so leading Huguenot nobles as threats to (and it was later claimed, conspirators against) King and State. The presence of the King’s death squads in Paris triggered the wider massacre, as the Catholic militants of the city turned against their Huguenot neighbours. Royal orders failed to stop the mass killing.
A painting of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois (1529–1584): public domain image
Walsingham's letter addresses both aspects of the massacre. It reports in fairly neutral tones what the King, and later the Queen Mother, declared, that Huguenot conspiracy had forced them to act. Charles said that he had been ‘constrayned to his great greafe to doe that w[hi]ch he dyd for his savetes sake’. Charles promised to provide the evidence of the Huguenot conspiracy to Queen Elizabeth, with Walsingham replying that she ‘woolde be glad to vnderstande the grow[n]d of the matter’. If the alleged conspirators were guilty, ‘none shoolde be more gladde of the pvnishement’ than the Queen.
Portrait of King Charles IX of France, after François Clouet: public domain image
Yet the draft shows one passage of real anger. Walsingham raised the issue (‘I made him understande’) that three English subjects had been murdered and others plundered during the general massacre. When the King promised to punish the guilty if they could be found, Walsingham replied that this would be hard to do, ‘the dysorder beinge so generall, the swoorde being commytted to the common people’. This in itself was an astonishingly blunt thing to say to a King — that he had let his God-given sword of justice and authority fall into the hands of the mob. It is also a surprisingly blunt thing to put down on paper. In the days immediately after the massacre, Walsingham had cause to be wary of letters falling onto the wrong hands. His next two reports were delivered verbally by the messenger. But in this letter Walsingham the diplomat clearly could not contain himself: the whole exchange is squeezed into the margin, added after the rest had been written.
The second page of the draft letter, with Walsingham's incendiary comments in the left-hand margin: Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 164r
The letter was informed by what Walsingham knew about the events of the previous days. On 26 August, he had sent a note to the Queen Mother, stating that he had heard reports of unrest in Paris, but professing that he was very reluctant to believe them and requesting the truth. The English embassy lay in a suburb where many Huguenots lived, but for much of the massacre it had been protected by a ring of royal troops.
Portrait of Francis Walsingham attributed to John De Critz the Elder (c. 1589): courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery NPG 1807
Yet Walsingham had more direct knowledge of the massacre than he admitted in that note. The embassy was itself attacked and the crowd pacified by a Catholic nobleman who summoned the royal troops. A number of English found refuge in the embassy, carrying news of the violence outside, including the young Lord Wharton, whose tutor had been murdered. Some Huguenots also escaped to the embassy, such as the leading nobleman, François de Beauvais, sieur de Briquemault, whose son had been killed in front of him. Briquemault sneaked past the royal guards into the embassy disguised as a butcher and was hidden in the embassy stables. At the very same time that the King was assuring Walsingham that he had been forced to act for his own safety, the latter was shielding one of the very leaders the King wanted dead.
Briquemault was discovered a few days later. Despite Walsingham’s pleas for his life, he was duly executed for the conspiracy which he denied to the end on the gallows.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
14 July 2022
One of the questions that we consider in our current Gold exhibition is ‘where did the gold come from?’ In medieval Europe, natural deposits of gold were limited so most gold had to be either recycled by melting down older objects or imported by long-distance trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, the kingdoms of West Africa were major suppliers and traders of gold, which was carried by camel caravans across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there, the gold travelled with merchants into the Middle East and Europe. Some of it ended up illuminating manuscripts thousands of miles away.
Medieval Europeans had little reliable information about West Africa, but they did know that it was an abundant source of gold. One account that made it all the way to medieval Europe was of the phenomenally wealthy Mansa Musa (r. 1312 to 1337), emperor of Mali, whose empire covered an area larger than Western Europe. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing so much gold with him that it devalued the price of gold in Egypt, where he stopped on the way, for years afterwards. He is sometimes said to have been the richest person in history. In Europe, tales of this gold-drenched ruler made such an impression that he was portrayed on luxurious illustrated maps from the 14th to 16th centuries.
The earliest surviving map to depict Mansa Musa is the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30). This manuscript is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a 14th-century Jewish cartographer from Majorca. It includes a picture of Mansa Musa seated on a throne, wearing a gold crown and holding a sceptre and a round gold object, perhaps an orb, coin or nugget of gold. An accompanying caption in Catalan explains:
‘This Black ruler is named Musse Melly (Musa of Mali), lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and noblest ruler of this whole region because of the abundance of gold that is found in his lands’.
From then on, the figure of Mansa Musa sometimes appears on luxurious illustrated maps, always with emphasis on his vast riches of gold. In the Gold exhibition, you can see an example from the Queen Mary Atlas. This impressive volume, probably made for Queen Mary I of England and her husband Philip II of Spain, was completed by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem in 1558. You can read more about it in a previous blogpost.
While the detailed outlines and place names along the coasts reveal the extent of Portuguese exploration of Africa by sea, the interior of the continent is depicted more vaguely. Some of the information is based on centuries-old traditions, including the pictures of African rulers, labelled in Latin: ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’ (ruler of the kingdom of Kongo). Although not specifically named, the ‘Emperor of Mali’ is probably intended as Mansa Musa, given the long tradition of portraying him on illustrated maps. The depictions emphasise the wealth and power of the African rulers, with their prominent golden crowns, sceptres and jewellery.
Another example is on a map showing Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made around 1529 by cartographer Conte di Ottomanno Freducci, who was based in Ancona, Italy (active 1497-1539). Unusually Mansa Musa is represented with white skin, wearing European-style clothing and playing a stringed musical instrument.
The image of Mansa Musa on this map is accompanied by a caption in Latin which praises him as a ruler and emphasises his great wealth in gold:
‘This king Mansa Musa rules the province of Guinea and is no less prudent and knowledgeable than powerful. He has with him excellent mathematicians and men versed in the liberal arts, and he has great riches, as he is near the branch of the Nile which is called the Gulf of Gold. From this is brought a great quantity of gold dust or tibr, and this is a passage through his kingdom, and these regions abound in all the things that there are above the ground, particularly in dates and manna, and the best of all other things that can be had — they only lack salt’.
(Translation from Chet Van Duzer, 'Nautical Charts, Texts, and Transmission', eBLJ 2017, p. 32, available online)
Despite the whitewashing of the image of Mansa Musa on this map, the caption does seem to contain some authentic information about the trans-Saharan trade in gold. It refers to the Arabic word for gold dust ‘tibr’, and correctly identifies salt as one of the major commodities exchanged for gold in West Africa.
A further example is on a map attributed to Jacobo Russo, a cartographer who was active from 1520 to 1588 in Messina, Sicily. On this map, the rulers are not captioned but their identities are implied by the cities they are pictured beside. The figure of a Black ruler holding two large gold rings next to a city labelled ‘Guinea’ is most likely intended as Mansa Musa. The large gold rings suggest his wealth in gold, while the camels and camel-riders pictured nearby hint at the importance of this region for trading caravans.
These 16th-century maps stand at a turning point in the history of relations between Europe and West Africa. On the one hand, they illustrate the trans-Saharan trade in gold which had flourished for centuries. On the other, they show that Europeans had already managed to bypass the caravan routes by establishing direct overseas trade with West Africa. Initially their main goal was to obtain gold, but increasingly also people to enslave. In the following centuries, West African gold would become marginalised and the region devastated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet these depictions of medieval African rulers are a vivid reminder of an earlier time when West Africa was a centre of wealth, power and global connections, celebrated the world over for its glorious gold.
If you would like to find out more about medieval West Africa, we recommend the article Building West Africa on the British Library’s West Africa webspace, and the companion website for the past exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time by the Block Museum of Art.
The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs from 20 May to 2 October 2022 and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.
28 May 2022
A major new exhibition, The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, is now on display at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It brings together a significant number of the most famous Tudor portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, paintings from the Walker Art Gallery’s own collection and Tudor objects from around the UK. The exhibition presents the story of the five Tudor monarchs — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth — and explores life at the Tudor court, its cultural influences, family ties and political connections, as well as considering the Tudor dynasty’s legacy. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Westminster Tournament Challenge to this show, the only manuscript of its kind known to survive in England.
Westminster Tournament Challenge, decorated with shields, Tudor roses and pomegranates and signed by King Henry VIII, 12 February 1511: Harley Ch 83 H 1
On 1 January 1511, Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, gave birth to a son. London was filled with celebrations: guns were fired from the Tower of London and the city bells were rung. Beacons were lit across the country to announce the royal birth. Henry VIII himself proclaimed that a two-day Burgundian-style tournament be held in Katherine’s honour at Westminster.
The Westminster Tournament Challenge was issued on 12 February 1511 and explains the tournament’s over-arching allegorical theme. The text begins by introducing four knights or ‘challengers’ sent by Queen ‘Noble Renown’ of the kingdom of ‘Noble Heart’ to joust in England against all ‘comers’ or respondents in honour of the ‘birth of a young prince’. Henry VIII played the star role of ‘Ceure Loyall’ — Sir Loyal Heart — and wore a costume covered in the gold letters ‘K’ and ‘H’. Leading courtiers Sir Thomas Knyvet, Sir William Courtenay and Sir Edward Neville rode as ‘Vailliaunt Desyre’, ‘Bone Voloyr’ and ‘Joyous Panser’ respectively.
The four knights entered the tiltyard on a magnificent pageant chariot decorated as a forest with a golden castle in the centre and pulled by a golden lion and a silver antelope. Their shields, which were presented to Katherine on the first day of the tournament, are shown in the left-hand margin of the Tournament Challenge, each bearing the initials of the knights’ allegorical sobriquets and surrounded by roses and pomegranates to represent Henry and Katherine. The tournament rules are set out in the middle section of the document. These would have been read aloud by heralds, before being signed by the four challengers and all the respondents, who, in reality, were leading courtiers and Henry’s tiltyard companions. Henry VIII’s large signature can be seen in the centre of the lower portion of the Tournament Challenge alongside other members of his court, including Charles Brandon, Thomas Howard and Thomas Boleyn.
Section of the Westminster Tournament Roll showing Henry VIII running a course as Sir Ceure Loyall, as Katherine of Aragon watches from the pavilion, 1511: the College of Arms, London
According to contemporary accounts, the tournament was the most lavish of Henry’s reign and a great spectacle of Tudor pageantry. The whole occasion was commemorated in the illustrated Westminster Tournament Roll preserved at the College of Arms, London. This impressive document is also displayed in the exhibition, presenting visitors with a rare opportunity to view the Tournament Challenge and Roll side by side.
Tragically, Prince Henry died just days after the tournament was held, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Katherine was stricken with grief, but Henry seemed less concerned. Both he and his wife were still young and the possibility of another heir did not seem remote. The king threw himself into preparing for war against France. He could not have known at this stage that Katherine would never provide him with a male heir.
The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics runs at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool from 21 May to 29 August 2022.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
23 May 2022
The British Library is currently digitising some of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, from the period between 1100 and 1600. You can read more about the project on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.
The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, the oldest autobiography in English: Add MS 61823, f. 1r
As part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the funders, Joanna and Graham Barker, are providing financial support for a six-month PhD placement, starting in summer 2022. The successful candidate will be based for the duration of the placement with the Library’s Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at St Pancras, London. They will gain experience of cataloguing pre-1600 western manuscripts, and they will promote the Library’s collections by writing blogposts and text for the British Library website.
This placement will provide the successful candidate with a broader understanding of curatorial roles in a major research library, as well as experience of working with manuscripts (including rolls and charters) in a variety of genres and languages. They will gain insight into the Library’s digitisation processes, and they will benefit from day-to-day contact with the curators and hands-on access to the Library’s collection of pre-1600 manuscripts. During their time at the Library, the placement student will also have access to a wide range of workshops, talks and training.
The Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD placement is intended to support early career development and is suitable for students who may wish to pursue further academic research or are considering a career in a library, museum or similar heritage organisation. Students who have undertaken previous doctoral placements or internships with the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library have subsequently gone on to hold academic positions at universities in the UK and USA, to become curators, cataloguers and researchers in major libraries, or to work in heritage organisations.
Applicants for this position should be engaged in doctoral research at a university or higher education institution in the United Kingdom. International students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa residency requirements. Their field of research should be in a discipline related to the study of medieval and early modern manuscripts, such as history of art, history, languages and literature. The ability to read Latin and other western languages is an advantage, as is knowledge of medieval and/or early modern palaeography and codicology. The Library will provide training in cataloguing western manuscripts, and in writing blogposts and other interpretative text.
The seal of the Empress Matilda (1140s): Add Ch 75724
Prospective applicants should submit the attached form, in which they are asked to answer the following questions:
- Title of your PhD
- Please provide a brief summary of your research for a non-specialist audience (maximum 100 words)
- Please explain why you are interested in a placement at the British Library in particular (maximum (100 words)
- Please describe why this placement appeals to you, and what skills you will gain from it (maximum 400 words)
- Please outline any relevant skills, experience and interests you would bring to this placement (maximum 300 words)
- Please provide any additional information that you think would strengthen your application (maximum 200 words)
You should obtain approval from your PhD supervisor before submitting the application. The placement is for a maximum 6 months and should be undertaken before 31 March 2023. This is a funded placement (£1,600 per month, to a maximum £9,600).
How to apply
Please ensure that you have carefully read the Application Guidelines before completing and submitting the Application Form.
The deadline for applications is 11.59pm on Monday 13 June 2022. Online interviews for the shortlisted candidates will take place in the second half of June.
11 May 2022
We are pleased to announce the availability of a fully-funded collaborative doctoral studentship from October 2022, in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA), under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme.
The library of Robert Cotton (1571–1631) has been described as 'the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual'. This CDP offers a unique opportunity to produce an original piece of research on the origins and/or 17th-century development of Cotton's extraordinary collection.
A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.
This project will be supervised by Dr Thomas Roebuck and Dr Katherine Hunt, University of East Anglia, who are experts in early modern scholarship and collecting practices; and Julian Harrison and Dr Andrea Clarke, curators of Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library. The award holder will be based at UEA, and will also be based at the Library for a significant proportion of the studentship. At UEA, they will join a thriving Medieval and Early Modern research community and have access to a host of training opportunities, and at the British Library they will benefit from behind-the-scenes access, learning from other professionals across the Library, and an extensive internal training offer. They will also join the wider cohort of CDP-funded students across the UK, and will be eligible to participate in CDP Cohort Development Events. This studentship can be studied either full- or part-time.
The Cotton library contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta. This collection was perhaps the most important single means by which pre-Reformation textual culture was preserved: it became a repository of memory and a site of nation-making. But the origins of the library — how and why it was assembled — remain tantalisingly obscure. Its development and usage over the course of the 17th century also offers huge opportunities for fresh research into the history of antiquarian scholarship and its religio-political ramifications. This CDP offers the successful applicant a unique opportunity to produce a ground-breaking piece of research into the origins or development of the Cotton collection which is rooted in close study of Cotton's manuscripts themselves.
Research questions might include:
- Where, when, and how did Robert Cotton (and his descendants) acquire the manuscripts that make up the Cotton collection?
- How did Robert Cotton shape his collection? How did the coins, stones and printed books he collected complement his manuscripts?
- To what extent is the Cotton library distinctive, compared to other libraries assembled in Europe at the same time, and what characteristics does it share with similar contemporary collections?
- Is there any evidence that women had access to the Cotton library or made donations to it?
- How was the library used in Robert Cotton's lifetime, and how did its usage change and develop over the course of the 17th century? What kinds of scholarly projects did it inspire?
- How was the library used to intervene in contemporary political debates? How was the library itself shaped by the political and religious controversies of the 17th century?
- How did the collection come to be regarded as a national library?
- What role did Cotton's library play in the development of the idea of Britain's 'middle ages' or its national identity?
We encourage the widest range of potential students to study for this CDP studentship and are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area.
Applicants should ideally have or expect to receive a relevant Masters-level qualification, or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting. Suitable disciplines may include, but are not limited to, English Literature, History, Art History, Classics, Modern Languages, and Library and Information Science. All applicants must meet UKRI terms and conditions for funding.
The deadline for applications is 8 June 2022. More details can be found on the UEA website.
23 March 2022
We recently put out a request for readers to suggest manuscripts for our Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project. The call is now closed, but we wanted to say a HUGE 'thank you' to everyone who contributed. We have been thrilled by the response. We received over 60 nominations for manuscripts that have some connection with the lives of women in Britain and Europe between 1100 and 1600. And we were extremely gratified by all your kind comments about our project, either added to the blogpost or sent via Twitter or email.
One manuscript nominated for Medieval and Renaissance Women is this copy of the Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibylla von Bondorff (Swabia, c. 1480): Add MS 15686, f. 32r
We are currently collating these suggestions, and assessing them against our criteria for selection (such as the condition of each manuscript and its suitability for digitisation). We are keeping a list of all the nominations, so that even if they are not selected this time round, we will bear them in mind for future projects, if funding allows. It was great, in any case, to see such a wide variety of manuscripts put forward, in so many different languages, from across the whole period, and relating to so many different subjects, from women's education to domestic and economic life to female health. We are delighted to have so many different ideas to choose from.
Another nomination is a manuscript of the Revelations of Bridget of Sweden, which has several marginal illustrations (England, 15th century): Harley MS 612, f. 78v
The British Library would once again like to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous support for Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will be updating you on this Blog over the coming months about the progress of the project.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
19 February 2022
As the British Library’s major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, draws to a close, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the final space in the exhibition, which is a symbolic recreation of the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, where both Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, are buried. A series of hanging paper shapes evoke the chapel’s ornate pendant fan vault ceiling beneath which lie replicas of Elizabeth and Mary's tomb effigies.
Image showing replicas of Elizabeth I’s Effigy in Westminster Abbey, originally sculpted by Maximilian Colt, 1605–07, and Mary, Queen of Scots’ Effigy, originally sculpted by Cornelius and William Cure, 1607–13, on display in the British Library exhibition
When Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603, Mary’s son, James, was immediately proclaimed king of England, unifying the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland as James VI and I. Although James I showed little enthusiasm for building a tomb to Elizabeth, he was persuaded to do so by his Principal Secretary, Robert Cecil, who oversaw its construction between 1605 and 1607. Elizabeth’s tomb effigy is thought to have been copied from the funeral effigy that was placed on the hearse that carried her to Westminster Abbey. Her face, copied from a death mask, was described as lifelike.
Drawing of Elizabeth I’s funeral procession, showing the full-sized funeral effigy of the crowned queen, dressed in her parliamentary robes and holding an orb and sceptre, early 17th century: Add MS 35324, f. 37v
By contrast, James was determined to commemorate his mother Mary, whose final wish to be buried in France had been denied. In 1612, he had her remains removed from Peterborough Cathedral and reinterred at Westminster. Completed four years later, her tomb was more costly, larger and more magnificent than Elizabeth’s, containing details that emphasised Mary’s martyrdom.
We are immensely grateful to Her Majesty the Queen and the Dean of Westminster Abbey for granting permission for replicas of Elizabeth and Mary’s effigies to be made especially for display in the exhibition. They were created by model maker Michael Whiteley, who started the process by visiting Westminster Abbey to take laser measurements and photographs of the originals. The figures were then both sculpted in clay with all the filigree work on the clothing and the cushions being reproduced exactly as it appears on the original tomb effigies. The next stage involved casting the clay sculpts using silicone rubber with a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) jacket to reproduce every fine detail. This material is also used for many Disney projects and has the highest fire rating available. Once complete, the surface layer of resin gel coat was mixed with marble powder to recreate the finish of the originals, while bronze powder was added to the resin gel coating for the cross on Elizabeth’s orb and her sceptre. Finally, the figures were cleaned and suitably aged before being installed in the exhibition.
The model of Elizabeth I’s effigy being sculpted in clay © Michael Whitely
The final space in our exhibition is one of peaceful sanctity, much lighter than the rest of the gallery and filled with 16th-century choral music. A semi-transparent wall allows visitors to see the shadows of the surrounding architecture and hints of the turbulent journey they have just been on. The space invites them to linger and reflect, and it serves as a fitting reminder that, although Elizabeth and Mary never met in person, in death they finally rest in close proximity, two of the most famous figures in British history.
Image showing the replicas of Elizabeth I and Mary’s Queen of Scots’ tomb effigies in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens
Andrea Clarke and Karen Limper-Herz
16 February 2022
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
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Medieval and Renaissance Women: full list of the charters and rolls
- Lost and found: in praise of Cardinal Wolsey
- Inventing a royal past
- Lady Lumley’s literary endeavours
- Managing a medieval household
- Inside a Tudor woman's home
- A Tudor autograph book
- Showcasing the latest research on Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and drawings
- Medieval and Renaissance Women: full list of the manuscripts
- Mary had a little lamb