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Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens at the British Library

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Most of us remember the story of the the two rival queens – cousins who never actually met and yet whose fates were inextricably linked – from our school history lessons. But never has their story been told so vividly as in the current exhibition at the British Library –  a movingly personal account of Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots and their rivalry told first hand, in their own words.

The show is divided into five sections and laid out in such a way that you can contrast Elizabeth and Mary – both women presented with equal billing. There is a balance between some spectacular loan items (for instance, Mary's final hand-written sonnet written just before her execution that has not be seen outside the Bodleian in 50 years) and the extraordinary British Library collection items (for example, one of the oldest versions of Elizabeth's signature in a letter to William Cecil written in1547 that was only found two years ago).

There is nothing dusty about any of the spectacular number of manuscripts on show. The original words (in original legible handwriting) leap off the page as if the characters are speaking to us. We were immersed in a dark, dangerous sixteenth century world filled with intrigue, plots, love, rivalry, treachery and espionage. As well as exploring the changing view points and different perspectives of the queens' complex relationship against the Reformation that divided them both and all Catholics and Protestants, the exhibitions gives a wonderful sense of Elizabethan London and Edinburgh. London quadrupled in size during this period and it never gets so big, so fast again.

It is difficult not to site every object, every letter, every speech, every book, every piece of jewellery, every engraving and every painting. Highlights include the Signet Letter – penned when Elizabeth was born – which had to be altered from 'prince' to 'princes[s]' and encapsulates Henry VIII's fundamental problem, that Anne Boleyn could not give him a son. Next to this, is a treasured locket ring of Elizabeth's, which opens to reveal miniature portraits of herself and her mother (Anne Boleyn). For Mary later on the exhibition we can admire, the Penicuik Jewels (a gold necklace and heart-shaped locket), on loan from the National Museum of Scotland. Elizabeth's beautifully embroidered book (very rarely on show) – a translation in her own beautiful handwriting (aged 12) of her stepmother Katherine Parr's Prayers and Meditations – was a gift for her father, Henry VIII and is jaw-dropping, but also gives a real sense of the bookishness of this young princess. Indeed it becomes very clear how well-educated both these women were. And, of course, some of Mary's letters are in French and some in English. Some of the most detailed maps of England and Scotland to survive are in the second section. The embroidery made by Mary while she was a prisoner (with her jailer's wife, Bess Hardwick) is in beautiful condition – its sixteenth century reds and blues still strong.

Spy craft was extraordinarily active in this period. Walsingham created a formidable spy network to keep him informed of Elizabeth's enemies at home and abroad. One spy, Arthur Gregory, was

expert at opening and resealing letter undetected (do watch the video of origami skills required to do fold these letters). We could have spent hours looking at the secret code and decipher on one document and a message written in invisible ink which Walsingham discovered after brushing coal dust on it. Over one hundred cipher systems were found among Mary's papers, which she used to correspond secretly. There is an example of the cipher used by Mary and Anthony Babington (who was arrested, convicted of treason and hung for his part in the plot). The "gallows letter" is also in this section.

ink and pencil drawing of Mary Queen of Scot's Execution
In my End is my Beginning

An eyewitness drawing of Mary’s execution (above) – entitled, "In My End is My Beginning" – and the casts of the tomb effigies of both queens (below) from Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey are a suitably moving finale for this emotionally charged and powerful exhibition.

Take any secondary-aged child or anyone studying the Tudors, but most of all just GO.

Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins Rival Queens

British Library

Until Sunday 20th February 2022

Adults £16, Children 12-17 £3.50, Children 11 and under free

Book advanced timed tickets on

Anya Waddington, 15 October 2021


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