Forget Saoirse Ronan – This Is What Mary, Queen Of Scots Really Looked Like
On 8th February 2019 – 432 years after she died on the same date in 1587 – a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots went on display at Hever Castle, in Kent.
The extremely rare painting of the monarch – whose life story has been dramatised in the hit movie, Mary Queen of Scots, with actress Saoirse Ronan portraying her – was unveiled in the castle’s Staircase Gallery by one of the world’s leading experts on Tudor history, Dr David Starkey.
Paintings of Mary created during her lifetime are few and far between, as Dr Starkey explained: “In Scotland, which she ruled in person as queen-regnant from 1561 to 1568, there were few painters of talent; while in England, where she spent the rest of her life, she was a political prisoner – though in 1578 she did manage to sit for an important portrait miniature by Nicholas Hillyard, which is the basis of almost all her subsequent images.”
Therefore, the majority of images portraying her are, for the most part, iconography – romanticised portraits commissioned by her son James I, following his accession to the English throne in 1603.
Hever Castle’s portrait was recently rediscovered in France, where it was unidentified and thought to date from the 17th century. However, dendrochronological examination of the oak panel on which the portrait is painted, revealed that it was created after 1547 (Mary was born in December 1542). Stylistic analysis further confirmed that this portrait was painted in the mid-16th century, making it a highly significant addition to her visual historical record.
The work is believed to come from the studio of François Clouet (c.1510 –1572), a French Renaissance miniaturist and painter, particularly known for his detailed portraits of the French ruling family.
The discovery of this contemporary likeness of Mary Queen of Scots is particularly important as there are only two portraits of her in mourning – the second one (in full mourning) is in the Royal Collection. The Hever work shows Mary in a form of mourning, but not the full mourning seen in earlier portraits.
It was around this period that the famous ‘en deuil blanc’ (in white mourning) type of portrait became popular – this was a less strict form of mourning, which might have been worn at a later date following a bereavement. It is thought that Mary wearing ‘en deuil blanc’ was occasioned by the death of three close members of her family within eighteen months: her father-in-law Henri II (July 1559), her mother Mary of Guise (June, 1560) and then her husband, François II (December 1560).
Although relatively faithful as likenesses, later portraits tended to romanticise Mary’s image and suggest that she was a Catholic martyr, whilst also seeking to justify James’ political position, and thus distort the historical reality. Hever Castle’s portrait is noticeably free of later political contrivances and affords a view of Mary, not as a politically ambitious threat to the English throne (which of course she became) but as a woman who has experienced loss – a theme which would soon, tragically and brutally, repeat itself.
As the grand-daughter of Henry VIII’s elder sister Margaret Tudor, Mary had a strong claim to the English throne, which was, until the death of her first husband François II, in 1560, supported by the French. Following François’ death Mary’s position at court quickly waned and she returned to Scotland in 1561, where she held the title of Queen of Scotland.
Unfortunately for her, Mary’s reign in Edinburgh was marked by a series of disastrous romantic liaisons. In 1565 she married her cousin, Lord Darnley, but the union was unhappy, and in 1567 he was murdered. Only weeks later, Mary married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was widely suspected of complicity in Darnley’s murder. Mary was soon the subject of a rebellion and forced to abdicate in favour of her son James VI (of Scotland), who was just one year old, and a regency was established under Lord Moray. Mary fled to England, seeking the protection of her cousin, Elizabeth I, whom she believed would help regain her throne.
Mary’s presence inevitably raised English suspicions, not least because of her Catholic faith and previous pretensions to Elizabeth’s throne, and she was placed under house arrest for 19 years. In the 1580’s, she was implicated in two plots, apparently encouraging the assassination of Elizabeth I and her own accession with Spanish help. After much prevarication, Elizabeth finally ordered Mary’s execution, which took place on 8th February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.
Last year, Hever Castle commissioned Tudor history expert and broadcaster Dr David Starkey to curate the rehanging of the Long Gallery, with eighteen original portraits to not only chronologically depict the dynastic saga of the Tudors – from the Wars of the Roses to the Reformation – but also demonstrate how such a gallery was intended as a teaching aid for young Prince Edward (later King Edward VI).
David said, “This elegant portrait shows the 19-year-old Mary, as she was on her return to Scotland at the beginning of an extraordinary adventure which turned two kingdoms upside down and ended in her own execution at Fotheringhay 26 years later.”
Hever Castle Chief Executive Duncan Leslie says “I am delighted that we have been able to purchase this painting and enrich the Tudor story we are telling here at Hever Castle. It has proven most fortunate that, unknown to us at the time of our purchase, a film would be released at the same time we have been able to hang the portrait, further increasing the public’s interest in this infamous Scottish Queen.”