by Jade Scott
Mary, Queen of Scots was a prolific letter writer throughout her life. Most of her surviving letters date from her period of imprisonment in England from 1568 until her execution in 1587. Letters were Mary’s primary means of communication at this point, both for keeping in touch with supporters, friends, and family, and of course for maintaining her involvement in political schemes for her restoration to the Scottish crown and, towards the end of her life, gaining the English crown, too. Some of the most poignant letters are in fact earlier examples; those written by Mary to her mother, Marie de Guise. These were written when Mary was in France from 1547 and after her marriage to the dauphin of France in 1558. A number of these are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and they offer insight to the preoccupations of a young woman negotiating the French court. Mary discusses her disputes with her governess, she reports news and gossip from the court, and she repeatedly asks after her mother’s health and wellbeing.
There are thousands of Mary’s surviving letters scattered across archives in Britain, Europe, the United States, and Russia. Many of these letters were catalogued in multiple volumes produced by Alexandre Labanoff and by Agnes Stickland in the nineteenth century and they have not been updated in great detail since. While these editions are hugely valuable sources for accessing Mary’s letters (you can in fact access them freely online), many of the original manuscript letters have since been lost, re-catalogued, or even privately sold. Unlike her contemporary, Queen Elizabeth I of England, there is no modern edition of Mary’s letters. This is not to diminish the interest and usefulness of such a source, but rather reflects the continuing challenges of bringing together such a huge number of letters, from archives across the globe and in multiple languages. Furthermore, many of Mary’s letters remain unpublished. During my work on the AHRC Archives and Writing Lives project with Dr Alison Wiggins at the University of Glasgow, we located an additional 130 letters held in Scottish archives and private collections that have never been published and were as of then uncatalogued. Ultimately, this project hopes to produce an updated online catalogue of Mary’s letters that can be accessed by scholars, students, and members of the public.
Mary’s letters remain a special source of interest for scholars and the public. There is no denying the thrill upon seeing Mary’s distinctive signature. The long queues when her final letter to her brother-in-law, Henri III of France, was displayed by the National Library of Scotland in 2017 are testament to their continuing popularity. More recently, some of the letters have been displayed as part of the excellent exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (British Library, London, until 20 February 2022). It is also true, however, that Mary’s letters have historically been seen as offering an insight into a romanticised figure, showing us her ‘true’ voice, as it were, and helping to bolster the idea of Mary as a woman who was captive to her emotions and passions. Yet early modern letters were not necessarily private or intimate documents. Letter-writing was a formal and formulaic genre with expected features including the address terms and the opening and closing remarks (salutations and subscriptions), and even letters between close contacts would often follow standardised styles and use conventional language. Many letters would have been read aloud, they might have been composed collaboratively with a secretary, and they were often intercepted by unintended recipients. This was the case with Mary’s letters, especially during her English imprisonment. A great number of Mary’s surviving letters from this period are in fact letters that were intercepted by English agents and passed to the court. In many cases, these letters are copies of original letters that were written in code, without a signature. Such letters may not immediately come to mind when we think of Mary’s correspondence but they are absolutely central to any discussion of the Scots queen.
When we access Mary’s correspondence we must be cautious not to apply modern inclinations to the original documents. Careful study of Mary’s letters reveals that she was a canny and astute writer. She utilised her linguistic and rhetorical skills to maintain political support, to challenge her imprisoned status, and to negotiate her release. There is emotion in Mary’s letters, but very often she is using emotive language as a rhetorical strategy designed to persuade or even manipulate the reader. Letters between Mary and Elizabeth are examples of this, where Mary refers to Elizabeth as her sister. Not simply a mark of Mary’s imagined closeness, this title was a repeated reminder to Elizabeth that Mary was in fact a relative of shared royal blood and it reflected Mary’s political goal of being recognised as the successor to the English crown.
Jade is a lecturer in historical linguistics at the University of Glasgow where she teaches Medieval Literature, Early Modern English, and Historical Scots. Jade completed her PhD in English Language in 2017 analysing and editing the letters of Lady Anne Percy, countess of Northumberland (1536-91) and an edition of these letters is forthcoming with the Catholic Record Society Record Series. Previously, Jade was a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the AHRC Archives and Writing Lives project working with Dr Alison Wiggins to digitally catalogue the letters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and she is currently working on a research project to catalogue Scots Women Letter Writers 1450-1625.
Ideas for Further Reading
- Alford, Stephen, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I (London, 2012).
- Daybell, James, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford, 2006).
- Daybell, James, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (Baskingstoke, 2012).
- Guy, John, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary, Queen of Scots (London, 2004).
- Lynch, Michael, ed., Mary Stuart: Queen in Three Kingdoms (Oxford, 1988).
- Wormald, Jenny, Mary, Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure (Edinburgh, 2017).