There are moments in reading history when you are forced to take sides. One such moment comes in the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Should Mary have been executed by Elizabeth’s order, or was Elizabeth safeguarding her realm and religion? Jane Austen adored Mary and detested Elizabeth and writes forcefully about them both in her juvenile work The History of England, but in spite of that, I have always been on Elizabeth’s side. Perhaps it was the result of my teenage watching of Glenda Jackson playing Elizabeth in the superb TV series, or my admiration for the Virgin Queen’s fierce intelligence, or maybe I just like to be on the winning side? But whatever the reason, I do enjoy reading books about both queens and their struggles.
An excellent recent read was Embroidering her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power by Clare Hunter which is about Mary’s textiles and embroideries and how she used both to express her power and convey secret messages. The author has delved meticulously into accounts and records and shows how vital textiles were – as gifts, for warmth and protection in bed, as clothes on public display, and as forms of celebration. From dolls, to banners, to gowns and doublets, baby clothes and gifts to ladies in waiting, clothes and fabrics were a huge part of court expenditure. I was intrigued by one particular embroidery, named ‘A Catte’, now on display at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. It depicts a ginger cat (representing red-haired Elizabeth) which has its paw on a mouse (representing Mary).
The book is part memoir as the author narrates anecdotes concerning textiles in her own life, part biography as it tells the story of Mary’s three marriages and her tragic end, and part political history. Male historians have tended to ignore the role of textiles in history, and Clare Hunter redresses the balance in this really fascinating book. I can highly recommend it.