1 August 2023 Susannah

Mary, Queen of Scots

Embroidering her Truth: Mary Queen of Scots and the Language of Power by Clare Hunter

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.

Whose side are you on in this historical cat-fight? Do you, like me, support Elizabeth I, or are you a supporter of Mary? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Leave a comment.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until approved.


Featured image- Clare Hunter, from https://www.sewingmatters.co.uk/about.html; & Embroidering her Truth: Mary Queen of Scots and the Language of Power bookcover, from https://amzn.to/43GAtQi

Comments (13)

  1. Carol Noble

    As a Scot I will always support Mary but I think Elizabeth was influenced by her courtiers who had their own ambitions to the fore. It was ironic that her son succeeded Elizabeth.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I think Mary had the last laugh as it was her son who suceeded and so Mary became ancestor to a long line of kings. There’s little doubt that Elizabeth’s advisers wanted Mary out of the way.
      I did love the book I mentioned and can highly recommend it.

  2. Pam Lofthouse

    I heard Clare Hunter speak about the book at a textile history conference I attended in Glasgow in 2019. It was a fabulous presentation, with even more illustrations which couldn’t be included in the book. I immediately requested the book for Christmas, and loved it!

  3. Nicole Livermore

    Yes, like you Susannah, a lifelong interest in Tudor history was sparked for me by seeing Glenda Jackson’s brilliant performance in Elizabeth R. I’m compelled by my reading to conclude that Elizabeth Tudor was a brilliant woman who was up to a highly demanding role, and Mary Stuart an ordinary woman who sadly wasn’t.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s an excellent summary of the two. Elizabeth made astute decisions and Mary made bad ones, especially in regard to husbands. Wasn’t Glenda Jackson wonderful in that series. I must find it to watch again.

  4. John

    I am a big fan of Mary Queen of Scots and indeed helped, in my own small way, to fund the statue of her that now sits outside Linlithgow Palace However, I also have considerable sympathy with Elizabeth, who faced a succession of ghastly difficulties through her life and generally seems to have handled them remarkably well. Mary Queen of Scots’ son succeeded Elizabeth, so the latter’s execution of Mary does not seem to have “safeguarded her realm,” the succession being the same anyway. Mary was Queen of Protestant Scotland, so her execution might not have saved Elizabeth’s religion either as it may well have endured anyway.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, Mary’s son did succeed Elizabeth, but had the ill-considered Babington plot succeeded, then Elizabeth would have lost her throne. Unlikely, I know, but she was persuaded by her ministers that it was a strong possibility. And conspiracies had raged around Mary for years.
      I am keen to see the statue that you helped to fund. It’s great that there is one for her at Linlithgow.

      • Helen Gentle

        I’m looking forward to seeing Mary’s statue at Linlithgow next year. She was certainly up against it with Catherine de Medici as mother-in-law and Elizabeth 1 as cousin. Rubbing these two powerful women up the wrong way didn’t do her any favours. She made some poor decisions, especially in personal relationships, but was a long way from ordinary. She clearly had a clever mind, for example, she devised many complex codes to send messages while under house arrest. Many of these have only recently been deciphered.
        Her son James was a terrible misogynist, possibly due to Mary being absent from his life. He caused the deaths of many women branded as witches!
        I grew up, as a kid, believing James VI/I had personally translated the Bible into English! Glad I studied history when I grew up! 🙂
        I always read anything on can find on Mary and Elizabeth. Infinitely fascinating.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          They are certainly fascinating women! Yes, growing up without a mother and surrounded by men didn’t help her son James. Have you read Adam Nicolson’s fabulous book about the translation of the King James Bible? It’s called ‘Power and Glory’.

          • Helen Gentle

            Thanks Susannah, I’ll add it to my list.
            I’ve enjoyed dabbling into Arabella while travelling by plane to WA. A good light plane read, thanks.

  5. Coral Cunningham

    Have you read The Good Wife of Bath by Australian author Karen Brooks ? A wonderful book telling the “wife of Bath” story… she was also an expert spinner and weaver.
    Mary is now on my reading list.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’ve seen it but not read it, so thanks for the recommendation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *