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Newly Discovered Letters Show a Different Side of Mary, Queen of Scots

When she wasn’t embroiled in political strife and intrigue, Mary still had to deal with the daily practicalities of running a kingdom

A letter signed by Mary and her husband, James Hepburn, which grants ground for the making of salt to London businessmen. (Museums & Galleries Edinburgh: Museum of Edinburgh)
smithsonian.com

The short life of Mary, Queen of Scots was rife with extraordinary moments: her assumption of the crown when she was just six days old, the mysterious murder of her second husband, her forced abdication from the Scottish throne, her 19-year imprisonment in England and her embroilment in a dastardly plot against Elizabeth I, which led to her execution at the age of 44. But 15 handwritten documents recently discovered at the Museum of Edinburgh highlight the realities of Mary’s reign between these dramatic episodes, when she was immersed in the administrative details of running her kingdom.

According to Brian Ferguson of the Scotsman, the 16th-century documents, some of them signed by the queen, were found at a museum storage facility not far from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where Mary ruled upon her return to Scotland from France at the age of 19. (Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, was French, and had sent her daughter to be brought up in her home country.) The BBC reports that the papers were gifted to the museum in 1920, but had somehow disappeared within the institution’s holdings. Curators re-discovered the documents while conducting inventory and conservation work.

The papers date from 1553 to 1567, spanning Mary’s time in both France and Scotland. This in turn suggests that she kept a close eye on domestic affairs, even when she was abroad. Some of the documents bear Mary’s signature, others were signed by her third husband James Hepburn and still others by James, Duke of Chastlerault, Mary’s regent until 1554. Among the newly unearthed trove is an order from 1567, signed by both Mary and James Hepburn, granting ground for salt-making to London merchants. Another extends privileges to “fleshers” selling meat, and yet another deals with the rights of deacons and tradesmen.

It’s not the zestiest content, but the documents offer some insight into Mary’s reign, Vicky Garrington, history curator at the Museum of Edinburgh, says in a statement. “We all know the story of Scotland’s Queen, her eventful life and eventual execution, but in these documents, we see a different side to Mary. Here, she can be seen carefully managing the everyday affairs of Edinburgh and Scotland,” Garrington says.

Additional revelations were made when museum workers removed the papers from their frames. Two of the documents are stamped with watermarks that can only be seen when they are held up to the light: one features a goat, the other a hand holding a flower.

The Museum of Edinburgh's history curator Victoria Garrington said that the museum can't speak to the significance of the watermarks yet; curators plan to work with archival experts to further study the documents. A conservator's assessment is also needed. While the papers are currently too fragile to be placed on display, the museum hopes to eventually feature the documents in an exhibition. For now, some of the papers can be viewed online, an opportunity to take a closer look at the everyday matters that once demanded the attention of Scotland's ill-fated queen.

“It’s incredible,” Garrington muses, “to think of Mary, Queen of Scots reading through these documents before carefully applying her signature.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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