29 January 2023
Where exactly was the Garden of Eden? Does it still exist? These are questions medieval scholars tried to answer by attempting to map Eden as a physical place on earth. In the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden (also known as the ‘earthly paradise’) is a place in which God creates the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their stay in Eden is short-lived, since Adam and Eve fled from the earthly paradise after they yielded to the serpent’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, and hid themselves in shame after their fall from grace.
Miniature of the Fall, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Southern Netherlands, 1486–1506): Add MS 18852, f.14v
As well as being a popular subject for illuminations in medieval Biblical manuscripts, the Garden of Eden also appears in medieval Alexander romances, Dante’s Purgatorio, and in medieval maps of the world known as mappae mundi. On maps, the Garden of Eden is usually represented by figures of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, and the four rivers at the top of the world, as shown in the ‘Map Psalter’.
Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers (England, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681 (‘The Map Psalter’), f. 9r
The upper part of medieval world maps typically represents Asia or the ‘East’, whereas Europe is drawn on the lower left and Africa on the lower right. This is part of a stylistic convention known as the ‘T-O map’. Isidore of Seville, an influential early medieval theologian, affirmed in his Etymologies that the earthly paradise could be located in Asia.
Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 6 C I, f. 108v
Certain medieval texts claimed that some individuals had even managed to rediscover the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. According to some of the romance legends of Alexander the Great’s world conquest, which contain interpolations of Alexandri Magni iter ad paradisum and the Voyage au paradis terrestre, the Macedonian king eventually reached the gates of the earthly paradise, near India, arriving by boat at the furthest point of his world conquest. However, when Alexander got to the gates of paradise, an angel forbade him from entering there. An old man is said to have appeared, giving the Macedonian conqueror a special item as a tribute. This episode is illustrated in a beautifully-decorated manuscript in our Alexander exhibition, on loan from the Bodleian Library.
Alexander visits paradise and is given an apple (Flanders, 1338–1344): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 186r
According to these medieval legends, the tribute Alexander received (sometimes an apple, a pearl or a polished stone) usually has a strange property. If you put it on a scale, it is always heavier than anything else you weigh, but if you cover it with soil, the scale's balance is restored. When Alexander asked the significance of this tribute, the old man would explain that the stone (or apple) represents Alexander himself: as long as Alexander is alive, no one can equal his power, but when he dies, and is therefore covered in soil, he will lose his power. This is a premonition of Alexander’s approaching death at Babylon, where he was tragically poisoned at his own coronation feast, according to the romance legends based on the Greek Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes.
An extended version of this episode is also found in Gilbert the Hay’s The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure, written in medieval Scots in the 15th century. In this version, an angel gives Alexander an apple:
‘With that ane angell to the wall couth cum,
Said, “Alexander, here art þow richt welcum –
For thai tribute ane apill here I the gif’
(ll.16296-8, edited by John Cartwright, 1990)
Detail from The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, early 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r
Dante was another famous traveller to the earthly paradise during the Middle Ages, appearing as his own protagonist in La Divina Commedia as a pilgrim of the Christian realms of the afterlife. Dante ascended Mount Purgatory with his mentor, Virgil, and encountered the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, before travelling to Heaven guided by Beatrice. Dante witnessed the lush landscape as he wandered around Eden for the first time. He described the beauty of ‘that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— / which tempered the new day before my eyes’ (‘la divina foresta spessa e viva, / ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno’) (Purgatorio 28.2-3, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Digital Dante).
Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise (Tuscany, 1444– c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 116v
Although Dante may have surpassed Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt at entering gates the verdant Garden of Eden, both texts have undoubtedly inspired beautiful and imaginative illuminations of the earthly paradise.
Our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
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20 February 2022
The earliest surviving detailed map of Scotland is now on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews, as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme. The map was compiled by John Hardyng, who was born in 1377 or 1378, probably in Northumberland, and lived most of his life during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He joined the household of Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) when he was 12 years old, and fought for the Percys in Anglo-Scottish border battles. He also served in France during the reign of Henry V, who sent him on a spying mission to Scotland in 1418. Hardyng is best known for his verse Chronicle of the history of Britain, in which he set out his fervent belief in the right of English kings to rule over Scotland. He was so determined to prove his case that he forged a series of documents purporting to provide corroborating historical evidence.
John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r
In 1457, Hardyng presented the first version of his Chronicle to King Henry VI of England, as part of his failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland. The Chronicle is accompanied by this colourful map, spread across two pages, which depicts a very rectangular Scotland with west at the top. Hardyng doubtless drew on his earlier years of reconnaissance in Scotland in compiling his map. It includes much more topographical information and many more towns right across Scotland than in earlier surviving maps. The castles and walls of the towns are remarkably varied, while at Glasgow and Dunfermline the churches are drawn instead. The rivers are very clearly marked, with the River Forth, bridged at Stirling, running from top to bottom, and almost cutting the kingdom in two.
Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v
The level of detail, which Hardyng hoped would help an invading army, is strikingly different from earlier maps of Scotland. There is very little detail relating to Scotland in the small map of the world that was copied in 11th-century England and preserved in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. East is at the top in this map, and the prominent islands to the north (on the left) are labelled ‘Orkney islands’ in Latin.
Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v
Matthew Paris (d. 1259) produced several maps of Britain from his monastery at St Albans in Hertfordshire. In this map, included in his Abbreviatio Chronicorum, Scotland is shown in two parts, joined by a bridge at Stirling. Rivers are prominent and many places are labelled, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Dundee, Arbroath and Aberdeen, as well as Galloway, Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney.
Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v
In the mid-1560s, just over a century after John Hardyng compiled his map, the antiquary Laurence Nowell was producing new maps of Scotland. Like Hardyng, Nowell put west at the top in this small map, but he included far more detailed information, making this the most accurate map of Scotland at that time. It has recently been on display at the British Library in the exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r
John Hardyng’s map is on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews from 20 February until 3 July 2022. The museum is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can find out more about Hardyng’s life, his Chronicle and his map in James Simpson and Sarah Peverley’s book.
The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth (a Cornish Passion poem) to Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall, as part of this programme, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.
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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
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10 February 2022
Following a large explosion at Kirk o’ Field outside Edinburgh at two o’clock on the morning of 10 February 1567, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was found dead in a nearby garden. Darnley is one of the most notorious figures in Scottish history. He was king consort of Scots, and his mysterious death caused a sensation both at home and abroad. Within days, painted placards were set up and handbills distributed in Edinburgh, openly accusing his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, and James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, of being lovers and of orchestrating Darnley’s murder.
Poem by Robert Sempill, The testament and tragedie of King Henrie Stewart, 1567: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 26r
The sensational news was reported even further, when broadside ballads began appearing in print penned by Robert Sempill. Intended to be sung to popular tunes, one of the first of these ballads, The testament and tragedie of vmquhile [the deceased] King Henrie, was printed in Edinburgh by Robert Lekpreuik. This survives in a unique copy currently on display in the British Library's exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. Taking the form of a a rhetorical device known as a prosopopoeia, by which Darnley’s ghost is represented as recounting his life, Darnley narrated how ‘Scotland I socht, in houpe for to get [Mary]’. Finding him ‘Sa perfyte, plesand, and sa dilectabill’, Mary married him, making Darnley king. Darnley claimed he was popular with the common people, while doing all he could to please and serve his wife: ‘Hir for to pleis I set my haill consait [conceit]:/ Quhilk [Which] now is cause of my rakles [reckless] ruyne’. Blinded by passion, he renounced his protestant faith and began attending catholic mass daily with Mary. Consequently, Darnley was damned, having ‘for hir saik denyit the God deuine [divine]’. His honour was diminished, his word doubted, his supporters deserted him. He became, by turns, depressed, anxious, angry and lethargic.
But all was not as Sempill depicted. While Darnley had charmed and dazzled Mary on his arrival in Scotland from family exile, once married to her in July 1565 he proved an arrogant, jealous and unreliable drunkard who alienated almost everybody, including his new wife. After Mary declined to grant him equal authority with her, Darnley’s resentment focused on her Italian favourite, her secretary David Rizzio, whom he accused of being her lover. On 9 March 1566, he participated in Rizzio’s brutal murder at Holyroodhouse in Mary’s own presence. Then, three days later, he betrayed his co-conspirators by helping her escape captivity shortly after midnight. Mary had won Darnley over by explaining ‘how miserably he would be handled, in case he permitted thir lords to prevail in our contrare [against her]’ (Alexandre Labanoff, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Marie Stuart, reine d’Écosse, 7 vols. (London, 1844), 1, p. 347). Fearing for his safety, at first Darnley kept in Mary’s favour, hearing mass with her daily. But in the months that followed his behaviour became more difficult and unpredictable, driving them further apart, even after the birth of their son, Prince James, in June. At the end of the year he sought safety in Glasgow with his father, but fell ill on the way, probably as a result of syphilis. Mary visited him while he convalesced, persuading Darnley to return to Edinburgh, where he was lodged at Kirk o’ Field at the beginning of February 1567.
Bird’s-eye view of the murder scene of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, by an unknown artist, February 1567: The National Archives, MPF 1/366/1.
On 10 February 1567, in the early hours before Darnley’s intended return to court, Kirk o’ Field was destroyed by gunpowder. The discovery of Darnley’s body alongside that of one of his servants, William Taylor, without a mark on either of them, only deepened the mystery. A shocked Mary ordered an immediate investigation, offering a reward to anyone coming forward with information about the murderers.
Surviving accounts, depictions and depositions make it possible to reconstruct how Darnley was murdered. On realising that the house was surrounded by conspirators, Darnley and Taylor appear to have lowered themselves out of a first-floor window onto a gallery below using a rope and chair. They then made their way through a door in the town wall on to Thieves Row, only to find themselves surrounded. Eyewitnesses overheard Darnley plead for his life. Taylor and he were almost certainly suffocated, then Kirk o’ Field was blown up.
Drawing of a placard depicting Mary, Queen of Scots, as a mermaid ensnaring James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, represented as a hare, February 1567: The National Archives, SP 52/13/60
Despite ordering the investigation into Darnley’s murder and passing an act of parliament against placards and handbills, anonymous public attacks on Mary and Bothwell continued. One placard even portrayed Mary as a mermaid (prostitute) ensnaring Bothwell, depicted as his heraldic beast the hare, within her net. Mary wrote to Darnley’s father, Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, promising ‘a perfite triall to be had of the king our husbandis cruel slauchtir’.
Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, 21 February 1567: Cotton MS Caligula B X/2, f. 408r
After Bothwell, the principal suspect in Darnley's murder, was acquitted in a rigged trial on 12 April, Lennox pursued a blood feud against him that culminated in Mary’s deposition from the throne three months later. Popular print would prove critical in turning public opinion against the queen, with Lennox recruiting Robert Sempill, Scotland’s foremost satirist, to write a series of widely read and sung broadside ballads in support of his cause. Darnley was a deeply divisive figure during his lifetime, but in death he became, in Sempill’s words, ‘the Sacrifice’ that sparked rebellion. Although cheap print, to be thrown away or recycled once read, Sempill’s Testament and tragedie is now as rare and precious as many a manuscript, not least for the impact it had on its first audience.
Group portrait of James VI, Matthew Stewart and Margaret Douglas, earl and countess of Lennox, and Lord Charles Stewart (‘The Memorial to Lord Darnley’) by Livinus de Vogelaare, 1567: Royal Collection Trust 401230 / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022
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.
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08 February 2022
The circumstances of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 8 February 1587, are well known. There is a detailed eye-witness drawing of Mary entering the hall at Fotheringhay Castle (Northamptonshire), disrobing, and placing her head on the block — you can see it in person in the British Library's major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, which is on in London until 20 February.
But were you aware that, on the same day that Queen Elizabeth I signed her cousin's death warrant, she instructed Mary's keepers to assassinate her?
A contemporary drawing by Robert Beale of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1 (f. 650a recto)
On 1 February 1587, after weeks of prevarication, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and handed it to Secretary Davison. She commanded him to have the warrant passed immediately under the Great Seal and despatched. Within a day Elizabeth was developing cold feet, making ambiguous noises about the warrant, complaining about haste and keeping her distance from the business at hand. It was at this point that Lord Burghley, acting with a group of Privy Councillors, pressed ahead with despatching the warrant. They entrusted it to Robert Beale, Clerk to the Privy Council, swearing a mutual oath that they would tell no-one, including the queen, of their proceedings. Beale and the two noblemen to preside at the execution — the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent — arrived at Fotheringhay on 7 February. Mary was executed the following day.
In his notes and memoranda (Add MS 48027), Beale tells another story of how Mary might have died. At the same time as Queen Elizabeth gave the death warrant to Secretary Davison, she ordered him and his fellow Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, to write to Mary’s keepers, Sir Amias Paulet and Sir Dru Drury, asking them as good subjects to assassinate Mary.
The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22): © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)
Davison and Walsingham wrote to the keepers that Elizabeth found a ‘lack of care and zeal’ in them for not yet finding ‘some way to shorten the life of that Queen’. She took it ‘most unkindly towards her, that men professing that love towards her that you do, should in any kind of sort, for lack of the discharge of your duties, cast the burthen upon her, knowing as you do her indisposition to shed blood, especially of one of that sex and quality, and so near to her in blood as the said Queen is’.
‘God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my posterity, to shed blood without law or warrant’, was Paulet’s prompt response. Walsingham acknowledged Paulet’s reply ‘wrytten effectuallie & to good purpose’ in a letter about expediting the process of Mary’s execution with as much secrecy as possible (Add MS 48027, f. 644v). It transpired that the men whom Elizabeth approached had no problems with arranging Mary’s death — far from it — indeed, there was a case to be made that killing her was justified under the Bond of Association against those who sought Elizabeth’s death. But in their mind Mary's death should be by due form following the sentence at her trial, not common murder. For Elizabeth's part, assassination would have allowed her a rather desperate degree of (not very convincing) deniability.
Portrait of Sir Amias Paulet (c. 1533–1588), 1576–78, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard: Rothschild Family collection
Beale takes up the story. Paulet and Drury ‘dislyked that course as dishonorable and dangerous: And so did R[obert] B[eale] and therfore thought it convenient to have it don according to lawe in suche sorte as they might justifie their doinges by lawe’ (f. 639v). Beale reports elsewhere (ff. 640r-641r) how, when he came to Fotheringhay, Paulet and Drury told him ‘that they had been dealt with by a lettre if they could have been induced her to have been violently murdered by some that should have been appointed for that purpose’. Beale named a potential assassin, ‘one Wingfeld (as it was thought)’ – presumably Robert Wingfield, a Nothamptonshire gentleman who would write an eye-witness account of the execution. Beale reported that the Queen ‘wold have had it done so rather then otherwise’ and ‘would fayne have had it so’: she claimed that it was a course advised by the Scottish Ambassador.
It was thought that the Earl of Leicester most supported assassination, but that both Walsingham and Davison ‘misliked’ it. The matter was talked over whilst Beale was at Fotheringhay, but ‘by the example of Edward the 2d. or Rychard the 2d.: it was not thought convenient or safe to proceed covertly: but openly, according to the statute of 27’ — that is, the Act of 1585 by which Mary had been tried and condemned. Edward II and Richard II were powerful and damning precedents to conjure with, stories of the hole-in-the-wall murder of kings, whose resonances are captured in the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare just a few years later. The keepers were also understandably doubtful about carrying out this action even with the promise of a pardon from Elizabeth.
Robert Beale’s account of the circumstances of the warrant for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, written after August 1588: Add MS 48207, f. 640r
Beale’s notes expand on the illegitimacy of assassination. First, he described the formal and lawful processes of the execution itself. He then gave examples of those who had since said that it would have been better to have had Mary assassinated. In August 1588, he was told by an English diplomat that the Count of Arenberg had said ‘that it had bin better don to have poisond her or choked her with a pillowe, but not to have putt her to so open a death’ (f. 640v). Another diplomat, William Waad, who had been sent to explain the execution to the French court, reported that the King, Henri III, and others were of the same mind.
Finally, Beale’s notes circled back to Fotheringhay on the night before the execution. As Paulet and Drury plucked down her cloth of state, and having been told to prepare to die, Mary ‘mentioned the murder of King Rychard the second. But Sir Dru answered that she needed not to feare yt, for that she was in the charge of a Christian gentleman’ (f. 641r). The honour of a Christian gentleman, but not, as Beale’s notes leave hanging in the air, such an honourable queen.
Detail showing Robert Beale’s concluding note: Add MS 48027, f. 641r
The fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, is featured in our exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be purchased either in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
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05 February 2022
On 17 July 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from captivity at Chartley Hall (Staffordshire) to the English catholic gentleman Anthony Babington. Beginning innocuously enough, ‘Trustie and welbeloved. According to the zeale and entier affection which I haue knowen in you towardes the common cause of relligion and mine’, her letter to Babington is one of the most famous written in the 16th century. Now known as the ‘Gallows Letter’, it is the key document in the 1586 Babington Plot, which is explored in the British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
A contemporary copy of the ‘Gallows Letter’, the closest version to the original letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Anthony Babington on 17 July 1586: The National Archives, SP 53/18/53, on display in the exhibition
As she dictated her letter, Mary was unaware that her words would entrap her. But Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, knew of the plot from the outset, even before Mary did. His spies intercepted Mary’s letter, passing it on to his cryptographer Thomas Phelippes, who had been waiting patiently for his opportunity to strike. Upon deciphering it, Phelippes drew a gallows on the address leaf, indicating that its content would condemn Mary to death for plotting against her cousin Elizabeth.
The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22): © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)
Back in autumn 1581, Mary had proposed a scheme whereby she would be freed to return to Scotland in order to reign jointly with her son James VI. By then she had been imprisoned in England for 13 years, ever since fleeing her homeland. James, who had just overthrown his last regent and begun exerting his independent authority as king, had no desire to share power with his mother or with anybody else. Nonetheless, Mary periodically renewed the scheme. In September 1584, she told Elizabeth that, if granted her freedom, she would openly support Elizabeth’s right to rule, while opposing papal interference in both England and Scotland. ‘Then none … will dare tooche thone Realme for religion without offending both’ (Add MS 33594, ff. 52v–53r). Elizabeth ‘shall never fynd [me] false to her’, Mary reassured her. Mary even offered to relinquish her claims to the English and Irish successions, if Elizabeth would let her either live freely in England or return to Scotland. The Queen of England proved open to this idea, but in spring 1585, James, who was then almost 19, finally rejected his mother’s scheme outright. Mary was devastated.
It was after this bitter disappointment that Mary turned in earnest to plotting against Elizabeth as her only hope of escaping. In spring 1585, her keeper, Sir Ralph Sadler, was replaced by Sir Amias Paulet. Whereas Sadler had treated her honourably, Paulet took a harder line, keeping her more closely guarded and restricting her correspondence severely. Mary began fearing for her life, which made her seek out desperate courses. Therefore, when Anthony Babington proposed ‘the dispatch of the vsurper [Elizabeth] by six noble gentlemen, who for the zeale they beare to the Catholick cause and your Maiesties service will vndertake that tragicall execution’, Mary was ready to listen (The National Archives, SP 53/19/12).
In spring 1586, Babington had been recruited to a catholic plot against Elizabeth. With Spanish support, a rebellion would break out simultaneously with the queen’s assassination, and Mary would be crowned in her place. Walsingham had long regarded Mary as Elizabeth’s greatest threat. Learning of the conspiracy from one of his double agents, he saw an opportunity and opened a channel of communication between Mary and Babington, using ciphered letters hidden in beer barrels. These letters were intercepted, unsealed, and deciphered by Phelippes, before being resealed and carried to their intended addressee. In this way Walsingham read all Mary’s correspondence.
Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, by an unknown artist after John de Critz the elder, 1589: private collection, on loan to the exhibition
Mary wrote the ‘Gallows Letter’ on 17 July 1586, authorising the plot and making recommendations. Fatefully, she agreed to Elizabeth’s assassination: ‘sett the six gentlemen to woork’. Mary also desired the overthrow of her son James VI and ‘some sturring in Ireland’. She warned Babington that, if he failed, Elizabeth would, ‘catching mee againe, enclose mee for ever in some hole, forth of the which I should never escape, yf shee did vse mee no worse’. He burned the ‘Gallows Letter’ after reading it.
Seeking to draw Babington out, before it was sent Walsingham had several passages to the ‘Gallows Letter’ amended and a postscript added, asking Babington to name the six assassins and to say ‘how you proceed and as soon as you may’. Hearing nothing further, on 3 August he ordered Babington’s arrest, but feared that this postscript had tipped him off. He wrote to Phelippes the same day, confessing ‘you wyll not beleve howe mych I am greved with the event of this cavse and feare the addytyon of the postscrypt hathe bread the iealousie [suspicion]’.
Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Phelippes, 3 August 1586: Cotton MS Appendix L, f. 143v
Evading arrest for some days by hiding in St John’s Wood (Middlesex), Babington was eventually caught. Mary’s secretaries were also arrested and interrogated. They confessed to writing the ‘Gallows Letter’ at her command, while Babington confessed to the plot.
Cipher bearing Anthony Babington’s signed confession that ‘this last is the alphabet by which only I have written vnto the Queene of Scotes or receaved letteres from her’, July 1586: The National Archives, SP 12/193/54, on loan to the exhibition
Evidence of Mary’s complicity could not be suppressed, as it was needed to convict Babington and his co-conspirators, who were found guilty of treason. Babington himself was hanged, drawn and quartered on 20 September 1586. After that everyone watched and waited to see what the queen would do next: would she commit regicide by bringing Mary to justice?
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29 January 2022
The British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, charts the relationship and the lives of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the significant figures who were part of their courts and inner circles. One of the concluding sections of the exhibition explores the final years of Elizabeth’s reign and looks ahead to the accession of Mary’s son James to the English throne following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. The exhibition features a significant item written by James himself: a work known as the Basilikon Doron (literally meaning the ‘King’s Gift’ in Ancient Greek.
The opening of the Basilikon Doron, written by King James for his son Henry Frederick, the future Prince of Wales: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. 3r
The Basilikon Doron is a treatise on government. Written in the form of a letter addressed to his eldest son Henry Frederick (1594–1612), James’s work sets out the guidelines for how to be an effective monarch. The text is divided into three books. The first is concerned with being a good Christian, love and proper respect for God, and the study of Scripture. The second is focused on the law, the nature of justice and the practical mechanisms of governance. The third is devoted to the daily life of the monarch and the strict codes of conduct that a ruler should follow, covering everything from sleeping habits and wardrobe choices to personal grooming.
A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick, for whom the Basilikon Doron was written, painted by Robert Peake the Elder, c. 1610: National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4515
The British Library is home to an autograph copy of this work, written in King James’s own hand. It was most likely a working copy of the text: there are numerous erasures, corrections and revisions visible throughout. After James’s accession to the English throne, this autograph manuscript became part of the Royal library (now Royal MS 18 B XV), where it was given an elaborate binding, made from purple velvet, and featuring the royal initials ‘IR’, and the Scottish lion and decorative thistles in gold (though some of these elements have since been lost). The book can now be read in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, lower cover
James had an unusually high literary output for a king. He was known to retreat to his study regularly to read and write. He was a patron of poets and playwrights. On his accession to the English throne in 1603, he granted the royal patent which authorised the formation of the King’s Men, the acting company of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). James was also a poet in his own right, and in 1584, at the age of only 19, he set out the rules and traditions of Scottish poetry in a work known as the Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie.
The opening of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron is prefaced by one of James’s sonnets, written in Middle Scots. Addressed to Henry Frederick, it reads:
Loe heir my son a mirror viue and fair
Quhilk schwa is the shadow of a vorthie King;
Loe heir a booke, a paterne dois zow bring
Quhilk ze sould preas to follow mair and mair.
This trustie friend the treuthe will never spair,
Bot give a guid advyse unto zow heir.
How it sould be zour chief and princelie cair
To follow vertew, vyce for to forbeare:
And in the booke zour Lesson vill ze leire
For gyding of zour people great and small;
Than, as ze aucht, gif ane attentive care
And paus how ze thir preceptis practise sall:
Zour father biddis zow studie heir and reid
How to become a perfyte King indeid.
(Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto)
The dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto
In addition to this handwritten draft of the text, printed copies of the Basilikon Doron were also produced. The first edition of the work was made in Edinburgh in 1599 by the English printer Robert Waldegrave (1554–1603), who had previously worked on several of the king’s other texts, including his literary thesis Poetical Exercises (1591) and his Daemonologie (1597), a treatise concerning the practices of necromancy and black magic. Only seven copies of the Basilikon Doron were made in this initial print run, one of which can now be found at the British Library (G.4993).
A second edition of the text was published in London in 1603, immediately after the death of Elizabeth I and James’s accession to the thrones of England and Ireland. Unlike the 1599 edition, which was clearly intended for a select, private audience within the king’s inner circle, this edition was intentionally public, circulating widely in England, Scotland and across Europe, with thousands of copies sold.
The first edition of the Basilikon Doron, printed by Robert Waldegraue in Edinburgh in 1599: G.4993, sig. [A]3v-[A]4r
Unfortunately, Henry Frederick did not live long enough to be able to put his father’s instruction into practice. In 1612, eight years after the second printing of the text, James’s son died from typhoid fever, at the age of only 18, leaving his brother Charles to take his place as Prince of Wales and eventually become James’s successor as King of England and Scotland, taking the throne in 1625.
You can see both the autograph and printed copies of James’s Basilikon Doron in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, on at the British Library until 20 February.
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13 November 2021
In Tudor England and Stewart Scotland foreigners were termed ‘aliens’ or ‘strangers’. They settled mainly in southern and eastern England and eastern Scotland, either for short periods or more permanently. While often welcomed for their skills and experience or because they filled a gap in the labour market, immigrants could find themselves subject to both prejudice and discriminatory legislation. In 1521, for example, the mayor of London forced an Italian immigrant to place a lattice over his shop window and hang no sign above, as ‘he is but a Foreiyn’ (London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/01/01/005, f. 182r). 15 years later the printer Jean le Rous, originally from Normandy, found himself targeted during an anti-French riot on Fleet Street, in which the native Londoners shouted ‘down[e,] down[e] w[i]t[h] the frenshe dogg[e]s’ (London, The National Archives, SP 1/112, M. f. 223r). (In the late Elizabethan play, The Book of Thomas More, there is a scene set in the year 1517, and reputed to have been written by William Shakespeare, which describes a mob of Londoners demanding that the 'wretched strangers' in their midst be expelled.) After she returned to her homeland in summer 1561, many of her protestant subjects regarded Mary, Queen of Scots, with suspicion and hostility as both French and catholic.
A letter from Sir William Cecil to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 26 August 1561, describing the arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her French servants in Scotland: Add MS 35830, f. 189r
Yet, England and Scotland could be surprisingly diverse and tolerant places. Contemporary records suggest that 1% of Tudor England’s population was immigrant (a figure not exceeded until 1901). Lack of evidence makes it impossible to determine immigration levels in Stewart Scotland, but foreigners were certainly present. For example, they could be found at court, both as visitors and as permanent household members. Many of Mary’s servants had been with her since her days in France. Similarly, the English crown welcomed talent from abroad, like the Bassano family of Venetian Jewish musicians and instrument makers. One of the Bassano brothers, Baptista, taught Princess Elizabeth Italian and how to play the lute between 1545 and 1552. In 1537 another Italian immigrant was even licenced to open a tennis court in London. Immigrants also prospered beyond the capital and the court. The Spanish goldsmith Martín Soza, who was probably a converso (a Jewish convert to Christianity) became sheriff of York in 1545.
Most immigrants came from neighbouring countries: in England they were from France, the Netherlands, and Scotland; while in Scotland they were usually English, Irish and Netherlandish in origin. Individuals from further afield like Luke de la Ark, who said he was from Cappadocia in Ottoman Turkey when he became an English denizen in 1541, were very rare. He was probably Orthodox Greek and perhaps originally named Loukios tis Erkilet. French people living in England traditionally held a wide variety of occupations, including as priests, servants, tailors and ironworkers. A significant number were skilled masters like surgeons, clockmakers, and bookbinders. One was a parchment maker, Guillaume du Quesnay. The Netherlanders, though more numerous, usually made more modest livings, for example as coopers and brewers, cobblers, weavers, and the like. Scots worked as farmhands, shepherds, labourers, and servants, mainly in the north-east. Immigrants in Scotland are mostly recorded as servants, but there were some masters like artists, moneyers, and gun founders.
Part of a map of Ireland, England and Scotland, c. 1564–65, made by Lawrence Nowell for William Cecil, entitled ‘A general description of England and Ireland with the costes adioyning’: Add MS 62540, f. 4r
During Elizabeth I’s reign many immigrants were protestant refugees who had fled their homeland after the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion or the Dutch Revolt. Most were skilled craftsmen and women working in the cloth industry and the cloth trade. Natives generally remained tolerant of these newcomers.
Diego Homem, ‘Map of the Whole World’, from the Mary I Atlas, 1558: Add MS 5415 A, f. 8r
The expansion of English overseas exploration during the 16th century, from its origins in coastal trading at the beginning to Francis Drake’s voyage of circumnavigation in 1580, led to direct encounters with people from distant lands. The first native Americans were brought on return voyages from Newfoundland in 1501 or 1502. But Africans were already settled in the British Isles by the 11th century; and there is growing archaeological evidence of Africans in Roman Britain. During the early 16th century most Africans came to the British Isles from the Maghreb, Northwest Africa, via Spain and Portugal — like John Blanke, trumpeter at the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII between 1507 and 1512. Blanke seemingly arrived from Spain in Katherine of Aragon’s household in 1501. Like Catalina de Motril, one of Katherine’s servants, he too may have been an enslaved person, whose origins were morisco (a Muslim Moor convert to Christianity). Because the condition of their enslavement was not recognized in English common law, Blanke, de Motril, and presumably other moriscos would have become free when they landed in England. The same appears to have been true in Scotland, where Scots law permitted native serfdom but not enslavement. In 1549 a Moor was recommended to Mary of Guise’s service in the war against England, being as ‘scharp ane man as rydis [rides]’ (Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, 1543-60, ed. A. I. Cameron (1927), no. 206).
Detail of John Blanke from the Westminster Tournament Roll, by an unknown artist, 1511, by courtesy of London, College of Arms
Over the course of the 16th century people from South, East and Central Africa, as well as from the Maghreb, could be found in the British Isles. A man called Diego, probably originally from Senegambia in West Africa, joined Drake’s crew in the Caribbean in July 1572, returning with him to England as his servant. Africans dwelt in London, Edinburgh, and other big settlements, but also in towns and villages like Blean in Kent. By the close of the century we know that people of African descent were born, lived, and died in England, among them Helen Holman, who was baptised in St Andrew, Plymouth, on 2 May 1593.
The reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Mary, queen of Scots, and the relationship between these two rulers, are the subject of a major British Library exhibition. Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is on in London until 22 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.
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