Exhibition Review: ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’ at the British Library

By Johanna Strong

All images unless otherwise indicated were photographed at the British Library by Johanna Strong.

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, form one of the most popularly famous – or rather, infamous – female partnerships of the early modern European world. While most historians of early modern England could provide more detailed accounts of Elizabeth and Mary’s relationship, most outside academic circles remember only that it was on Elizabeth’s orders that Mary faced her fate, ascending to the scaffold on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. The British Library’s ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’ exhibition is the first to examine the personal and political relationship between Elizabeth and Mary and is a timely addition to the sphere of public history. Bringing together portraiture and visual components, contemporary documents, and expert historical interpretations, this exhibition provides an intimate look at the rival queens who shared an isle.

The exhibition looks chronologically at the lives of these queens and is split almost evenly between them, providing insights into both their separate lives as well as their relationship with each other. Each queen has a designated colour – red for Elizabeth and blue for Mary – which serves as the background for the display cases containing primary material. Not only does this allow the visitor to see at a glance to whom the materials refer, but it also allows for the queen’s individuality and national identity to shine through, reinforcing that each was significant on her own terms. The parallels between Elizabeth and Mary’s lives, through childhood, marriage negotiations, politics, religion, and death were simultaneously highlighted, making this exhibition more than simply a discussion of both queens’ lives, instead juxtaposing the queens as women and as monarchs.

Nevertheless, a uniquely sympathetic perspective implicitly shines through in the design of the exhibition; the backdrops brighten from a deeper red at the beginning to a dazzling scarlet surrounding items related to Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution. Entering that portion of the exhibition, the items associated with Mary continue to have a blue background, but the walls themselves are scarlet, as visible in the image below, differentiating this area from the rest of the exhibition. With red being the traditional colour of Catholic martyrdom, it is significant that the visual designers of the exhibition have chosen this colour palette to complement the exhibition’s documents and items in relation to Mary’s execution, cementing in visitors’ minds, or at least in those who understand the significance, the martyred status of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Memorial items dedicated to Mary, Queen of Scots, known as the Penicuik Jewels, c. late 16th century, © National Museums Scotland. Behind these items, the scarlet walls are visible.
This image is © Leasa Slater and is used with permission.

In addition to reinforcing this traditional perspective of Mary, Queen of Scots, this reviewer noticed that, despite the equal physical space dedicated to both queens regnant, some of the Elizabeth portions overshadowed the Mary ones. For example, a recording of the Tilbury Speech was audible well before one reached that part of the exhibition, and at points made it difficult to concentrate on other portions of the exhibition, whereas the recording of one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ poems was only audible in the room in which it was being played.

More generally, this exhibition is to be commended for its extraordinary collation of primary sources. As an early modern historian, it was awe-inspiring to see so many Elizabethan and Marian documents and portraits together. An academic knowledge of paleography – that is, the study and interpretation of historical handwriting – was invaluable to fully engaging with the exhibition, particularly since many of the sources were textual and did not have transcriptions available. The opportunity to view Mary, Queen of Scots’ embroidery was a personal favourite; the size, complexity, and political and religious nuance of the piece was extraordinary to be able to see in-person and at such a close view.

Mary, Queen of Scots’ Embroidery, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, 1570-85, © Victoria and Albert Museum.

To belabour a point made previously, the textual emphasis of this exhibition would render it less accessible to the average person who lacks the academic skill to read the sources themselves. Of course, one can nevertheless admire the handwriting and the unique nature of the sources, but without the ability to read the displayed pages in greater detail one loses some of the historical significance of the sources. Though the exhibition contained visual sources, too, the vast majority of the items on display were textual and the exhibition thus could be seen as inaccessible to those with a more popular historical interest in the topic. In contrast, the inclusion of 3D replicas of both Elizabeth and Mary’s effigies humanised both queens and, quite literally, brought them off their pedestal and made them more approachable to the average visitor.

3D Rendering of Mary, Queen of Scots’ Effigy from her Tomb in Westminster Abbey, ©National Museums Scotland.
3D Rendering of Elizabeth I’s Effigy from her and Mary I’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey.

On the whole, ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’ is an exhibition not to be missed. Its expert interpretation complementing the textual, visual, and personal and memorial objects makes it an exhibition aimed at a more specialised audience but one that nonetheless draws in and engages with a popular interested audience.

The exhibition is open until 20 February 2022, and tickets can be purchased either at the door or online at https://www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary. Digital tours can also be purchased at https://www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary-royal-cousins-rival-queens-digital-tour.

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