Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) 

Circle of Francois Clouet 

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), Circle of Francois Clouet
Oil on Panel
16th Century
11 x 8 1/3 inches, 28 x 21 cm
French Private Collection
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Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most tragic and ironic figures of the sixteenth century; tragic because she was as much the victim of others as her own misjudgement, ironic because the object that led to her execution, the English crown, was gifted to her son James I without question barely two decades after her death.

Mary was unexpectedly proclaimed as Queen of Scotland just six days after she was born, following the death of her father King James V at the Battle of Solway Moss against the English in 1542. By 1560 Mary had briefly added the title of Queen of France, before the untimely death of her husband King Francis II. The present portrait follows the likeness made at about that time by Francois Clouet, the French court painter. Clouet’s original drawing is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, while a miniature version, also by Clouet, is in the Royal Collection. Here, Mary is described as Queen of Scotland and France, but, interestingly, not England, for the action which would haunt Mary for the rest of her life - and which would be instrumental in ending it - was her assumption of the title of Queen of England, under French encouragement, after the death of Mary Tudor in 1588.

Mary’s death in 1558 left a confused succession in England. Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, had been declared illegitimate in 1536 at the death of her mother Anne Boleyn, and although she had been restored to the succession by Act of Parliament in 1544, her bastardy had not been technically revoked. Hypothetically, this left Mary heir to the throne, particularly in the eyes of those enemies of England in Europe such as France and Spain. For Catholic monarchs such as the now widowed Philip II, Henry VIII’s marriage with Anne Boleyn without papal authority could never be recognised, and no temporal power could make Elizabeth queen. Mary’s father-in-law, King Henri II, also recognised that there was considerable political capital to be made from pressing his Mary’s claim. Immediately on Mary's death he proclaimed Mary Stuart Queen of England and Ireland, and caused her to assume the English royal arms in addition to those legitimately borne of Scotland and France.

French commentators considered the pretension entirely just, and Jean de Baif and Pierre Ronsard celebrated the accession to the triple crown in verse. In 1559 the canopy carried over Mary's head at Francis II’s coronation bore the arms of England, France and Scotland. In addition the Cardinal of Lorraine had a set of silver plate engraved for the queen bearing the arms of England, and a great seal struck in the same year depicted Francis II and Mary with a description as King and Queen of England, France, Scotland and Ireland. When peace was concluded between England and France in 1560 these 'injurious pretensions' were diplomatically dismissed as the ambition of Mary's family, the House of Guise, rather than the policy of the French Crown. They would not be forgotten, however, and at Mary's trial in 1587, one of the charges made by Lord Burghley related directly to her assumption in 1558 of the Royal titles and arms of England.

French enthusiasm for Mary waned after Francis II died, and in 1561 she returned to Scotland. However, her 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. Immediately afterwards, Mary married James 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, who was just one year old, and a regency was established under Lord Moray. Mary then fled to England seeking the protection of her cousin, Elizabeth I, whom she believed would help her regain her throne.

Mary’s presence south of the border inevitably raised English suspicions, both concerning her Catholic faith and her previous pretensions to Elizabeth’s throne. She was kept under various forms of house arrest for 19 years. In the 1580s, she was implicated in both the Ridolfi plot and the Babington plot, apparently 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.

When Mary’s son, James I & VI, became king of England in 1603, he sought to suppress her poor reputation. His succession to the throne depended on his descent from Mary, who in turn was descended from Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor. To have his mother remembered as a flawed, if cunning, political opportunist could only harm James’ position. Hence the flamboyant and regal tomb erected to her memory in Westminster Abbey in 1606, as well as the profusion of early seventeenth century portraits which very consciously elevate Mary into the status of pious victim – martyred, misunderstood, magisterial – usually by displaying her in black and adorned with crosses.

The present portrait, however, is unusual in being a contemporaneous sixteenth century likeness of Mary. Mary’s damaged political status in England and Scotland meant that there was very little demand for her portrait. However, in France, where this likeness was painted, Mary was viewed as a potentially useful pawn in the struggle against England until her death, as well as being the unquestioned Queen Dowager of France.

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