In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots faced condemnation and controversy amid accusations she had abetted her husband’s murder so she could marry another man. The case hinged on a set of mysterious letters and sonnets purportedly found in a lavish silver box, known as a casket. The so-called casket letters are contentious even today—and now, centuries later, Scotland has acquired the box that contributed to the doomed queen’s downfall.
The silver container cost more than $2.2 million (£1.8 million), with the purchase price split between the Scottish government, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and donations from the public.
It’s now on view at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and, starting in November, will become part of the museum’s permanent exhibition on the Kingdom of the Scots.
Historians believe a talented goldsmith made the small box in Paris sometime between 1493 and 1510, and that Mary’s first husband, Francis II, gifted it to her during their short marriage. The lid is covered in “strapwork,” a design featuring three-dimensional scrolling leaves, flowers and smaller flowerlets. Animals dot the sides, including a running stag, birds and a rabbit.
The box purportedly contained documents that appeared to show Mary’s complicity in the murder of her second husband. Questions about their authenticity remain, however, with some historians arguing that the letters and poems were forged or doctored.
The casket was used during a hearing ordered against Mary by her cousin Elizabeth I in 1568. Though the proceedings ultimately amounted to nothing, the 1571 leak of the letters further damaged Mary’s already tarnished reputation with the public.
In 1674, Anne, Duchess of Hamilton bought the casket and it stayed with the family for more than 300 years, per the museum. Lennoxlove House has owned the box since the mid-20th century, reports the London Times’ Lucinda Cameron.
“Quite apart from the colorful history associated with the item, given the belief that it belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots, the silver casket is a stunning work of art in its own right,” Neil Gray, Scotland’s culture minister, says in a statement, as reported by the BBC.
Born in 1542, Mary became Scotland’s enthroned ruler as a newborn—her father, James V of Scotland, died just six days after she was born. Mary’s French mother, Mary of Guise, sent her as a child to France, where she grew up with the large family of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici. At 16, she married Francis II, who became king of France in 1559, which made Mary the country’s queen consort. But their marriage was short-lived, and Mary became a widow at age 18 following Francis II’s death.
Meanwhile, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth Tudor became England’s queen in 1558. But the reign was shaky from the beginning, because English Catholics believed that Mary, a Catholic, should be heir to the throne instead of the Protestant Elizabeth.
This set the stage for a decades-long struggle for power between the woman, who became fierce rivals, even though they never met. Elizabeth was furious when the widowed Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565 without first asking her permission. Three months after Darnley’s 1567 assassination, Mary married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell—the man suspected of committing Darnley’s murder.
After her second marriage, Mary became increasingly unpopular and, in 1567, was forced to abdicate. Now secure in her reign, Elizabeth I imprisoned Mary for the next 18 years and, after discovering a 1586 plan to assassinate her and restore the Queen of Scots to power, ordered her beheading in 1587.
As Meilan Solly writes for Smithsonian magazine, Mary’s severed head served “as a warning to all who defied Elizabeth Tudor.”
As for the casket that likely contributed to Mary’s undoing, it survived for the past 450 years precisely because of its association with the controversial queen, per the museum. It’s unique for another reason, too: Because Louis XIV ordered the melting of silver objects to pay for his armies in the late 1600s, there are “no other comparably fine French caskets known to exist from this period,” according to the museum.
A 300-year-old, handwritten note stored with the silver casket details its connection to Mary. But as the museum notes, “it cannot be categorically proven or unproven that the Mary, Queen of Scots Casket belonged to Mary, or that it was the ‘Letters’ Casket.” Nor were the letters within ever conclusively proven to be authentic.
Still, Scottish officials consider the casket a national treasure, one that helps tell the story of the country’s long, complicated history.
“Venerated as a relic of Mary for centuries, it is believed to represent a momentous and disastrous moment in her turbulent life,” Chris Breward, National Museums Scotland’s director, says in a statement. “Beyond this, the magnificence of the piece speaks to a queen at the height of her powers, wealth and position.”
“The Silver Casket” is on view at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh through November 1, 2022.