Zoomable Image of Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87)

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87)

French School , Mid-Seventeenth Century

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87)

French School , Mid-Seventeenth Century

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Oil on canvas


32.5 x 26.3 in (82.5 x 66.7 cm)


Private Collection, France


Inscribed: ‘Maria Stuarta / Regina Scotiæ / Morti Occurrens’

Mary had three funerals in the decades following her death, and her painted image became one of a catholic saint...

Posthumous portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots such as this were created during the reign of her son James VI & I in order to rehabilitate Mary’s reputation and legitimize his claim to the throne.

Mary Stuart or Mary, Queen of Scots as she is often known, is one of the most compelling and tragic figures of the sixteenth century. Spending the majority of her life confined to secure castles and manor houses, she was a political pawn for English Catholics until her execution in 1587, by her cousin Elizabeth I. Mary didn’t have one funeral but three in the decades following her death and portraits of her transitioned from images exploring her political and religious ideas to fictitious portraits, portraying her as the figure of a catholic saint.

Mary was the only surviving child of James V of Scotland (1512-1542) and Mary of Guise (1515-1560) and following her father’s death in 1542, Mary became heir to the Scottish throne at only 6 days old. Mary’s infancy was rather disjointed, first being transported from Linlithgow to Stirling Castle by her mother where she was hastily crowned on 9th September 1543, and then moved to the island priory of Inchmahome after the Scottish defeat at Pinkie. Not long after, aged just five, Mary was taken to France, with the ‘four Marys’ and two illegitimate half-brothers, whilst Scotland was ruled by regents.[1] In 1558 Mary married Francis, the Dauphin of France, who later became King Francis II in 1559 with Mary as his Queen Consort. Francis’ reign, however, was short, and following his death the following year Mary, who had failed to retain royal favour after her husband’s demise, soon returned to Scotland.

In 1565 Mary entered into an unhappy marriage with her first cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who only two years later was found murdered in his garden whilst an explosion destroyed his country estate. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell was believed to have murdered Darnley, but was soon acquitted and just one month later married Mary. Following an uprising against the queen that same year, Mary abdicated in favour of James, her son with Darnley, who was just one year old. Mary tried to reclaim the throne but failed and fled to England to seek the protection of her cousin Elizabeth I.

Initially Elizabeth I tolerated Mary’s presence but tensions soon grew and Elizabeth saw Mary, considered by many as the legitimate heir to the English throne, as a threat. Mary was kept under various forms of house arrest for nineteen years. In the 1580s, she was implicated in both the Ridolfi plot and the Babington plot, supposedly encouraging the assassination of Elizabeth I and her own accession with Spanish help. Historians are still divided over the extent of Mary’s actual involvement, but after much prevarication, Elizabeth finally ordered her execution in 1587 at Fotheringay Castle. Mary’s last letter, written on the morning of her execution, shows her fondness and allegiance to France, she writes to her brother-in-law Henry III and asks to be buried in Rheims.

Ironically, following Elizabeth I’s death, the English crown was passed without dispute to Mary’s son, James I, and although he never knew his mother, James sought to suppress Mary’s poor reputation as a cunning, political opportunist. He erected an ornamented tomb in her memory in Westminster Abbey in 1606 and several portraits were commissioned to portray Mary as a victim, misunderstood and martyred, often wearing black, as she is in this portrait, and adorned with symbols of her Catholicism. This portrait, therefore, is as much an exercise in redemption as a record of her likeness.

Although the artist of this portrait is at present unknown, the existence of a larger full-length version of this composition in a private collection[2] confirms it was not a one-off commission. It was quite common, especially with posthumous royal portraits, for an artist or studio to introduce a ‘new’ portrait composition by taking an established head-type and fusing it with elaborate costume and emotive symbolism. In the case of the present work, the head-type derives from Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Mary painted c.1576, a version of which is in the collection at Windsor.

The artist or studio who painted this portrait wasted little space on the canvas and purposely included multiple symbolic references to Mary’s faith and convictions; we notice, for example, a crown on the table to her left, and behind it a sword – a possible reference to her execution, or as we would be led to believe, her martyrdom. In her left hand she holds a crucifix, possibly the same crucifix owned by Mary said to contain a piece of the true cross, from which hangs a rosary.[3] In the top right corner we see Mary’s royal coat of arms, with the French arms blazoned with that of the Scottish arms. Beneath the arms is the motto ‘IN DEFENCE’, an abbreviated version of In My Defence God Me Defend - the traditional Scottish coat of arms motto.

[1] Four girls, all called Mary, were the daughters of some of the most powerful men in Scotland: John Beaton of Creich, George 4th Lord Seton, Malcolm 3rd Lord Fleming and Alexander 5th Lord Livingston.

[2] Last recorded in 1930 in the collection of a ‘Herr Harnoss’ and known only from a black and white photograph in National Portrait Gallery Archive, London

[3] Ed. H.B. Wheatley and S. Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, (London, 1665), p.402.

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