A Prayer Book Owned by Mary, Queen of Scots, Is Up for Sale

The ill-fated monarch inscribed the gift from her great-aunt with an affectionate inscription

Prayer book
The prayer book is written in Latin and French and features 40 miniature illustrations. Courtesy of Christie's

The life and death of Mary, Queen of Scots, continue to fascinate almost 500 years after her reign. Crowned queen of Scotland at just six days old, the Stuart monarch’s tenure was marked by conflicts with England, her cousin Elizabeth I and competing Scottish nobles. Oftentimes, religion was at the crux of these controversies.

As Christie’s announced last week, the queen’s personal prayer book will be sold at auction in late July. The text includes miniature illustrations and an inscription, signed with her motto and monogram, in Mary’s own hand.

“This is a fleetingly rare opportunity to acquire a lavishly illustrated royal prayer book that was owned and affectionately inscribed by one of the most intriguing figures in Scottish and European history,” says Eugenio Donadoni, a Christie’s specialist in medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, in a statement.

Mary’s great-aunt Louise de Bourbon-Vendôme, Abbess of Fontevraud, sent her the prayer book between 1558—the year the young queen married the French dauphin, Francis II—and 1561, when Francis died unexpectedly at age 16. Per the Financial Times’ James Pickford, Mary’s French inscription is addressed to Louise. It reads, “Since you wish that I remember you in your prayers, I want you first to remember what part you have in my affections.”

Following her husband’s untimely death, Mary returned to her native Scotland, likely bringing the prayer book with her. She arrived in her home country after a 13-year absence, a devout Roman Catholic ill-equipped to oversee the newly Protestant nation. Still, the queen “formed compromises that enabled her to maintain authority without infringing on the practice of either religion,” wrote Meilan Solly for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

Mary, Queen of Scots,
Mary, Queen of Scots, after Nicholas Hilliard, 1578 National Portrait Gallery, London

The prayer book, which is written in both French and Latin, features 40 illustrations created by an artist known only as the Master of François de Rohan, reports Amy Woodyatt for CNN. Another religious text illustrated by the anonymous master is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections.

According to the British Library, prayer books gained popularity in the 13th century as a means of developing routines for personal devotion. Books of Hours, so-called for their scheduled prayer sequences, were the most popular text of the late Middle Ages.

Mary received her prayer book shortly before her life took a series of dramatic turns. In July 1565, she married her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a weak, vicious and power-hungry man whose main appeal was his distant claim to the English throne. (The union—which strengthened Mary’s already strong claim to the throne as the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s older sister, Margaret—greatly displeased Elizabeth I, whose hold on the English crown was tenuous as is.) A year into the couple’s marriage, Darnley orchestrated the murder of Mary’s beloved secretary, David Rizzio; one year after Rizzo’s killing, Darnley himself died under highly suspicious circumstances.

Three months after Darnley’s death, Mary married the man who’d been accused of—and acquitted of in a legally suspect trial—his murder: James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Shortly after, the increasingly unpopular monarch was forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her infant son with Darnley, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England.

After a final attempt at regaining power failed, Mary fled to England, where she was placed under house arrest for 18 years. Implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, the deposed queen was beheaded on February 8, 1587.

According to Christie’s, Mary’s prayer book was rebound by a family from Halifax, England, in the late 18th or early 19th century, and later passed to a different family in Gloucestershire.

As the Financial Times notes, the prayer book is one of around 14 surviving manuscripts owned by the Scottish queen. Almost all are held in museums or libraries. This copy—the first of its kind to go on the market in at least 50 years—is expected to sell for an estimated £350,000, or roughly $434,000 USD.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.