Scottish academics will explore why Mary Queen of Scots legend has endured

In my end is my beginning is a quote Mary Queen of Scots is known to have frequently used.

By Julie Currie
Thursday, 24th January 2019, 1:15 pm
Updated Thursday, 24th January 2019, 1:19 pm
The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots...painting by Gavin Hamilton has resulted in a two-year research project, studying the monarchs enduring hold over the publics imagination. (Pic: University of Glasgow)
The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots...painting by Gavin Hamilton has resulted in a two-year research project, studying the monarchs enduring hold over the publics imagination. (Pic: University of Glasgow)

Seeing herself as a martyr, she believed her legacy would live on.

But even Mary couldn’t have envisaged how much passion she would still elicit in others more than 400 years after her death.

She continues to polarise opinion and hold a fascination for the public, as last week’s movie release by Universal Pictures about Mary’s life ably testifies.

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Mary Queen of Scots film, starring Saoirse Ronan, has been praised by Dr Steven Reid for depicting Mary based on her early portraits, which is most likely what the monarch actually looked like. (Pic: Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Now, the reasons for the public’s fascination with the Scottish monarch will form the basis of a two-year research project.

In My End Is My Beginning is the brainchild of Dr Steven Reid, a senior lecturer in Scottish hitory at the University of Glasgow, and Anne Dulau-Beveridge, a curator at the university’s Hunterian Museum, the oldest in Scotland.

The pair have been awarded just under £14,000 from the Royal Society of Edinburgh for a two-year research network project.

It will bring together some 40 international academics and curators to help understand how Mary’s legend has impacted on Scottish society and culture.

Mary's iconography is so recognisable that this rubber duck, sold by the National Gallery, is clearly identifiable as depicting the Scottish monarch. (Pic: The National Gallery)

But it all started with one painting which Anne wanted to find out more about.

She said: “The project grew from a simple idea to explore the meaning of a romanticised painting by Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) called The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots.

“The painting was commissioned by James Boswell, the 18th century author and biographer.

“Boswell and Hamilton corresponded for more than 10 years to decide on which sources should be used to help with the depiction of Mary on canvas.

Charting history...This gift from Mary helped save the University of Glasgow in the 1600s. (Pic: University of Glasgow)

“I think both were aware of the importance the painting would acquire in later years, as it was the first history painting depicting the life of Mary.

“It soon became apparent that this commission was only one sign of a renewal of interest in the life of the Queen in 18th century Britain. This included The Hunterian’s own founder Dr William Hunter who gathered key texts about Mary.”

Anne contacted Steven to discuss the painting in a bit more detail.

Steven said: “Anne was interested in doing a small exhibition on the painting.

“I specialised in the reign of Mary’s son, James VI, so I knew quite a a bit about Mary because of that.

“I also knew the university had a vast collection of 16th and 17th century documents and items relating to Mary.

“I’d given my students some of the items to research and they discovered a lot of interesting facts about her.

“I agreed with Anne that the painting was really interesting but the university had a lot more material, although at that point we didn’t know the extent of it.”

Six months later, Steven and Anne held a workshop at the university, inviting academics and curators from across the country to attend.

“We asked them to collate all the items relating to Mary they had in their collections,” said Steven.

“Between all of their collections, our own archives and those of the National Library, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum, we had more then 2500 books, objects and paintings relating to Mary.”

Many of these items showed Mary’s enduring popularity through the centuries and how her iconography – such as her cap and white collar – had become instantly recognisable, with even a rubber duck depicting her!

Steven said: “We spent a day looking through some of the items. Some museums had copies of Mary’s death mask; others had coins, paintings and texts.

“Among my favourites were photos from the very early days of photography, of young ladies dressed up and posing as Mary.

“We started looking at some of these key objects.”

Another key find in the University of Glasgow’s own archives was the papers of Jenny Wormald, an alumna and pre-eminent historian who studied Mary’s life in the 16th century.

Indeed, she was inspired to write a book, Mary Queen of Scots, A Study in Failure – a title deemed too risky for the US release.

Steven said: “The title was thought too inflammatory for the American market.

“Jenny actually received death threats for writing it.

“Why does Mary envoke such passion in people when she reigned for such a relatively short time?

“What is it about her life and story that gives it such endurance?

“Why does she remain such a source of fascination?

“Why do historians, authors and artists continue to reimagine her?

“To date, there have only been a handful of works exploring Mary’s posthumous reputation.

“Our project will include a detailed assessment of Mary’s reputation and depiction in popular culture, from the end of her reign in Scotland through to the present, to try to answer some of these questions.”

Realising the project had outgrown just the two of them, Steven and Anne decided to apply to the Royal Society of Edinburgh to help fund their project.

With 66 other teams vying for funds, they were delighted to receive just under £14,000, enabling the project to go ahead.

Over the course of the next two years, some 40 academics and curators will be invited to attend seven workshops at the university and in Edinburgh.

The first will see them look at each of the items they have gathered and selecting key objects.

Then, each of the experts will be asked to specialise in one of six key areas relating to Mary’s life, which will be the subject of the remaining six workshops.

The first two will focus on text books; Mary’s history, how her reputation was created and how her legend in that early period developed into the modern one we know today.

The second two will focus on Mary’s image and how her iconography has been adapted in the modern age.

The last two workshops will focus on objects in national collections that Mary sat or slept on or wore along with commemorative items such as her death masks, rings and coins.

A temporary, pop-up exhibition will be staged in the univerisity for a week when the project draws to a close in 2021, followed by a major exhibition in The Hunterian in 2022.

Steven added: “We are still in the very early stages of the project so it is difficult to say what the key objects in that exhibition will be.

“However, the painting which started it all will, of course, be included.

“We publicised the project with a Tweet on our website and had 12,000 hits in the first day alone.

“That shows the enduring fascination Mary holds so we’re certain the exhibitions will be well received.”

Charter from Mary helped save the University of Glasgow in the 1600s

It seems only fitting that the project is being led by the University of Glasgow.

For it owes a debt of gratitude to Mary for its very existence.

A key piece in the university’s archives is a letter of gift from Mary, dated July 13, 1563.

It offered the university much-needed financial support in the form of land grants and endowments.

The installation of a Scottish Protestant parliament in 1560 and the disintegration of Catholicism jeopardised the university’s existence.

So at a time when staff left en masse, leaving only two lecturers, Mary’s grant played an important role in keeping the university solvent.

And the charter continues to help the university, being used in postcards at The Hunterian.

Steven said: “It’s nice to bring our connection with Mary full circle so we obviously want to showcase the university’s own archives relating to Mary.
“We have found hundreds of objects in our own archives, special collections and Hunterian collections.

“These include a rare medal commemorating the marriage of Mary to Lord Darnley in 1565 and a Mary Queen of Scots Thirty-Shilling Piece from 1555.

“Mary’s coinages were the first to feature portraits of a female monarch.”

Also likely to take centre stage is the charter from Mary in 1563.

Steven said: “The university was near complete collapse.

“Most of the staff had left and only two lecturers remained.

“Mary’s gift was one of the contributions that kept it alive.

“And the charter was one of the first things I flagged up to Anne when we first started researching Mary.”

As for the recent Mary Queen of Scots film, depicting her relationship with Elizabeth 1, Steven was full of praise.

He added: “It’s difficult to know what a true portrait of Mary would look like – rarely do two images of her look the same.

“In the most recent movie, though, she looks more like she did in her early portraits.

“It was nice to see they adopted that as that is likely how she did actually look.”