Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Mary, Queen of Scots c.1560

Studio of Francois Clouet (c.1516-72)

Mary, Queen of Scots, Studio of Francois Clouet
Oil on oak panel
16th Century
13 ½ x 10 in (28 x 21 cm)
Private collection, France
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Paintings of Mary, Queen of Scots painted in her lifetime are extremely rare, and for the most part her iconography consists of later, romanticised portraits commissioned by her son James VI & I following his accession to the English throne in 1603.

This portrait was recently rediscovered in France, where it was unidentified and thought to date from the seventeenth century. Dendrochronological examination however suggests an historical creation date from 1547 upwards, which, combined with stylistic analysis, confirms this portrait of Mary was painted in the mid-sixteenth century, making it a highly significant addition to her visual historical record.

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 in 1560 of Mary’s first husband François II, openly supported by the French. Following François’s death however, Mary’s strong position at court waned and, after a number of failed marriage proposals, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, where, since days after her birth, she had held the title of Queen of Scotland.

It was around this time that the famous ‘en deuil blanc’ (in white mourning) portrait-type was circulated. This type, which is thought to derive from a drawing in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris uses the same head-pattern as our portrait, however, Mary is shown in full mourning with a pleated gauze barbe beneath the chin. It is generally thought that the mourning attire in the deuil blanc portrait-type was occasioned by the death of three close members of her family within eighteen months: her father-in-law Henri II, her mother Mary of Guise and then her husband François II. It has been suggested that the attire seen in the present work is a variant, less strict form of mourning, which she might have worn at a slightly later date.

The majority of Mary’s more familiar likenesses date from long after her death, following the accession of her son James VI and I in 1603. Although relatively faithful as physical likenesses, these later portraits tend to romanticise her image and convey an underlying message of Mary as martyr, manipulated to justify James’ political position, and thus distort the historical reality. The present work, therefore, free of these later political contrivances, allows a more intimate glimpse at Mary, not as a politically ambitious threat to the English throne, which of course by now she was, but as a woman who has experienced loss – a theme which would soon sadly repeat itself.

Unfortunately for Mary, her reign in Edinburgh after leaving France 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, 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 nineteen 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 February 1587 at Fotheringay Castle.
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