Mary’s Wardrobe

No spoilers, but just a quick insight of the talk I’m giving tomorrow about Mary Queen of Scots’ Wardrobe.

Blair-smallSometime late last year, Loura Brooks of Edinburgh University’s Open Studies launched the idea of a combined course on Mary Queen of Scots to coincide with the major exhibition being held this summer at the National Museum of Scotland.  Above, you can see the cover of the exhibition catalogue by Rosalind Marshall.  There’s plenty of time to see the exhibition since it runs until 17 November.

The course is called “Mary Queen of Scots: From Every Angle“, and it covers… well, most of the important facets of her life: politics and religion, her image, jewellery and costume.

My contribution on Mary’s wardrobe will focus on the fabrics and their production, the tailoring and fashions of Mary’s time, as well as the rituals of dressing and undressing, and the care of clothes and, moreover, their reuse.

During the years she spent at the French court Mary became accustomed to the very best of elite fashion and the richest fabrics.  By the mid-sixteenth century some of these silks, velvets and brocades were being manufactured in France, but many continued to be imported from Italy, where exceptionally skilled Florentine, Genoese and Venetian spinners and weavers had produced these complex fabrics since the fourteenth century (think of the dresses in Ghirlandaio’s frescos for the Tornabuoni chapel, late fifteenth century).

TornabuoniMary brought her French wardrobe with her to Edinburgh and when she arrived in 1561 her subjects had never seen such costly and fabulously embellished garments: some years later, Bishop Lesley commented that,

“Attour the Quenes Hienes fornitour, hingingis, and appareill, quhilk wes schippit at Newheavin and careit in Scotland, was also, in hir awin cumpanye transportit with hir Majestie in Scotland, mony costlye jewells and goldin wark, precious stanis, orient pearle, maist excellent of any that was in Europe, and mony coistly abilyeamentis for hir body, with meikill silver wark of coistlye cupbordis, cowpis, plaite.” (History of Scotland)

Those costly garments were restricted to the nobility by detailed sumptuary legislation, but in Mary’s case such ostentation and display, although expected of royalty, nonetheless attracted the criticism of John Knox, who was always ready to pen stinging remarks aimed directly at a woman whose rule, or regiment, he deemed immoral.  Such finery and “superfluous apparell”, he wrote, was evidence of the “stinking pryd of wemen”!

Summer Exhibition 2013: Mary Queen of Scots

The news has been out for some time, but now that 2013 is here the opening date for this exhibition on 28 June 2013, at the National Museum of Scotland, does not seem so far away.


It is billed as “a fresh, innovative approach”, and will apparently draw heavily on material goods from the period and those associated with the queen – her jewels, textiles, furniture, documents and portraits. For years, Mary’s dramatic story and this fascinating period in Scottish history have been exploited for all that they’re worth. However, if this exhibition really does achieve a fresh look, then it should be very instructive indeed.  What’s clear anyway is that will offer an opportunity to air anew the controversies that have long divided scholars regarding a woman who, arguably, was “one of the most enigmatic figures in Scottish history. Her story arouses strong emotions: was she betrayed by those she trusted, condemned to die a Catholic martyr or was she a murdering adulteress with her husband’s blood on her hands?”

Edinburgh does, of course, have plenty of fascinating material, ranging from Mary’s last letter, now in the National Library of Scotland, written to Henri III of France on 8 February 1587, barely six hours prior to her execution at Fotheringay Castle, to the full length portrait by an unknown artist, commissioned by her son some twenty years later, and now in the National Portrait Gallery.  Of course, there’s also Holyrood Palace itself, which is preparing a special tour to coincide with the exhibition.

I imagine the jewels and textiles referred to earlier will include the Lennoxglove ring, as well the Penicuik jewels. However, I’m looking forward to seeing what else will be included.  More later….