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

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A visitor in front of a portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c.1567 (handout)
A visitor in front of a portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c.1567 (handout)

The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s blockbuster play at the Gielgud Theatre, isn’t the only Tudor show in town.

At the British Library there’s something altogether more classy, a new exhibition, Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. It’s the Tudors a generation on, the story of two cousins, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots – and this is the first exhibition on them both.

It doesn’t include clips from the film with Saoirse Ronan and and Margot Robbie. The two queens never met, though they were naturally fixated with each other. They were cousins, neighbours, rivals, fellow queens in their own right… women rulers in a man’s age. And as historian John Guy points out in his introduction to the catalogue, they demonstrate the dangers of matrimony for queens – if you did marry, you risked, as Mary found, being dominated by your husband; if you didn’t, as with Elizabeth, the question of succession would plague you.

Mary, Queen of Scots, Francois Clouet c.1560-61 (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)
Mary, Queen of Scots, Francois Clouet c.1560-61 (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

The exhibition starts with their common blood – both descended from Henry VII. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, conceived outside marriage (in theory), her status disputed from the start. There’s a lovely portrait of her as a teenager here, a copy of an original made just after she was restored to the succession. But she looks watchful, holding a book. We’re reminded that Elizabeth was a scholar; there’s her translation of prayers by her stepmother Katharine Parr, in a beautiful hand. Later we find her letter to her sister Mary Tudor, asking for clemency after being suspected of involvement in the Wyatt plot – that was a close call. As for Mary, she was married to the Dauphin of France, and we have a striking portrait from that time, with the same auburn hair as Elizabeth. Her claim to the English and Irish thrones is asserted here in the coat of arms she used in France.

Danger is evident everywhere in this show: for Elizabeth until her coronation; for Mary from the moment she leaves France for Scotland after her husband’s death – we see her in mourning, with a white veil matching her fashionable pallor.

The sinister thing about this exhibition is that it shows a game played on two levels. There are the public events – Mary’s terrible marriages, her defeat, her flight to England, her imprisonment, her desperate attempts to appeal to Elizabeth. Then there are the fixers behind the scenes: William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, manipulating Elizabeth against Mary, monitoring Mary’s correspondence, securing evidence of the plots to release her and closing the trap tight around her, then Elizabeth’s characteristic attempt to pretend she wasn’t responsible.

Ink and pencil drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (British Library)
Ink and pencil drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (British Library)

It’s the story of the destruction of a Queen, right through to her execution. Cecil stage-managed that too, with a map showing exactly where everyone was to go. We see too Mary’s giant tapestry, a message in thread, done during her imprisonment, her sonnet handwritten before her execution – and a portrait of her son James as a red headed little boy. At the close there are life-size replicas of the two queens’ funerary monuments from Westminster Abbey. In death, they are close.

British Library, to Feb 20

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