Portraits of Mary, queen of Scots


sketch of the adolescent Queen of Scots by Clouet Mary Stuart, known to history as Mary, queen of Scots, was one of the most fascinating and controversial monarchs of 16th century Europe. At one time, she claimed the crowns of four nations - Scotland, France, England and Ireland. Her physical beauty and kind heart were acknowledged even by her enemies, yet she lacked the political skills to rule successfully in Scotland. Her second marriage was unpopular and ended in murder and scandal; her third was even less popular and ended in forced abdication in favor of her infant son. She fled to England in 1568, hoping for the help of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Her presence was dangerous for the English queen, who feared Catholic plotting on Mary's behalf. Mary never met her cousin and remained imprisoned for the next nineteen years. She was executed in 1587, only forty-four years old. By orders of the English government, all of her possessions were burned. In 1603, upon Elizabeth's death, Mary's son became king of England as James I.

Most portraits of Mary made after her death emphasize her piety and Catholic 'martyrdom'. She wears black; a rosary is prominently displayed; she looks almost dowdy. This rehabilitation of her image after various scandals was quite successful. Few women have been so posthumously lauded as Mary Stuart. For my part, I prefer portraits of the young Mary, particularly the Clouet works from France. We can glimpse the legendary beauty and spirit of this 'most perfect' queen, and perhaps understand the spell she cast over an age.

The following selection of portraits spans Mary's tumultuous life, from a beautiful c1555 Clouet sketch to Pott's 19th century recreation of her execution. I have included brief biographies of Mary's second and third husbands as well.


If I know the current location of a portrait, it is listed within the commentary. The National Portrait Gallery in London has the most comprehensive selection of Tudor-related portraits. You may visit their website to learn of special exhibitions, or purchase prints. I certainly recommend viewing the original portraits if you have the opportunity.

Commentary is available for many of the portraits; the rest will be completed as soon as possible.




In chronological order


Mary of Guise (Marie de Guise), unknown artist / date. This lovely portrait of Mary's French mother shows some similarity between mother and daughter. Mary of Guise was once courted by King Henry VIII, but shunned him for his nephew, King James V of Scotland. She proved herself an astute politician during her daughter's regency, deftly manipulating both the French and English governments to her own advantage. She sent Mary to France at the age of 5; she saw her daughter only once more, but the final visit to France was tragic. Mary's only surviving son from her first marriage died in her arms. She returned to Scotland, dying in June 1560.

Sketch of 12 or 13 year old Mary, by Francois Clouet, c1555. Clouet was court painter to Mary's father-in-law, King Henry II of France. As such, he sketched and painted Mary several times. I love most of his work and this sketch is particularly beautiful. Other artists often imitated his style.

'Francois II and Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland, his wife', c1558. This is a double portrait of Mary and her first husband, Francois. It was made during their brief reign as king and queen of France. The portrait was made for Catherine d'Medici's Book of Hours. Catherine was Francois's indomitable mother. She was never fond of Mary or her ambitious Guise relatives, unlike her avuncular (and notoriously unfaithful) husband, King Henry II.

Miniature portrait of Mary, c1558. This striking portrait by an unknown artist reveals a clear debt to Clouet's work. Mary places a ring on the wedding finger of her right hand (where the wedding ring was worn at the time.) This is a reference to her celebrated wedding to the dauphin Francois in 1558. It was undoubtedly one of the happiest years of Mary's life. Her future seemed brilliant and assured, yet a mere decade later she would be a prisoner in England.

Mary Queen of Scots in White Mourning, c1560. This haunting portrait is by an unknown artist and possibly based upon similar chalk drawings by Clouet. It was painted c 1559-61, the span of time in which Mary lost her mother, beloved father-in-law, and husband. (I'm rescanning this portrait.)

Sketch of Mary, by Francois Clouet, c1559. This is a lovely sketch, and should be compared with Clouet's earlier sketch of Mary at age 12 / 13. (I'm rescanning this portrait.)

Mary's signature (Marie R). 'Marie Regina'. Mary's handwriting was not as elaborate or beautiful as Elizabeth Tudor's, but the queen of England had been taught calligraphy by the great Roger Ascham. Mary was well-educated and a great patron of the arts. But her education was never focused on the intricacies of politics and other matters of state. She was educated to be a queen consort, not queen in her own right; her marriage to Francois was arranged by her Guise relatives to make Scotland an appendage of France.

Mary, queen of Scots, c1565. I am still searching for information about this beautiful portrait by a follower of Clouet.

Miniature portrait of Mary, c1565. This portrait is a later copy of one made in France in the mid-1560s, after Mary had returned to Scotland as queen in her own right. It isn't particularly striking, but the hat and gown are interesting. It's actually quite rare to find Tudor portraits which stand alone as great art (aside from Holbein) - portraits we would admire even without the colorful personalities attached - but even the worst ones have some interesting features. And this one has the hat. Go hat! (This portrait, sans hat, is on the cover of the American edition of John Guy's new biography of Mary.)

Mary, queen of Scots, c1565. This striking portrait of Mary was painted during her brief adult rule in Scotland.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, c1566. Darnley was Mary's second husband, a love match which quickly soured. They wed on 29 July 1565; he was nineteen, vain and spoiled. Mary was twenty-two and rather melancholy, susceptible to Darnley's superficial charms. He also possessed Tudor royal blood, sharing the same grandmother (Margaret Tudor) with Mary.

The union should have been popular, but it was not. Darnley's family was disliked as overbearing and presumptuous; the Protestant lords did not like having a rival to their influence over the queen; and Elizabeth I, officially at least, did not like the dynastic implications of the match. Elizabeth knew Darnley from his time at the English court and was not concerned with his political acumen. In fact, she privately celebrated the match, knowing it would cause trouble for the Scottish queen. Poor Mary, who had every reason to believe she had made a sensible choice, was faced with the realization that any marriage would bring dissension and criticism upon her. She genuinely loved Darnley but he soon disappointed her with his immaturity and demands.

They had a child together, James, who would later unite Scotland and England after Elizabeth's death in 1603. Unfortunately for Mary, Darnley was mentally unstable and felt slighted by her inability to persuade the Scottish parliament to crown him king. He was also susceptible to malicious gossip; he participated with the Scottish lords in the murder of Mary's beloved secretary, David Riccio, on 9 March 1566. Darnley was eventually murdered under highly suspicious circumstances at Kirk o'Field on 10 February 1567. Mary's reputation never recovered from the scandal.

Mary, queen of Scots, and Lord Darnley. This is a rare double portrait commemorating Mary's second marriage. The artist has certainly captured Darnley's vanity and effeminate appearance, as well as Mary's legendary height. Many courtiers whispered she wed Darnley simply because he was one of the few gentleman of her stature.

Coin struck to commemorate Mary's marriage to Darnley
The other side of above coin, showing Stuart coat-of-arms
Engraving of Mary and her second husband, Lord Darnley

Mary's son, King James VI & I, as a child by Arnold Bronckorst, c1571. Mary last saw her son at Stirling Castle on 22 April 1567 when he was just ten months old. It was on her way back to Edinburgh from Stirling that she was captured by Bothwell.

James's childhood was deeply unhappy, hardly surprising given the tumultuous events which led to his mother's downfall and eventual imprisonment. He was put under the care of Mary's hated half-brother, Moray, and starved of affection. He suffered from rickets, which affected his walk, and developed a drooling problem which became more pronounced as he aged. He was also deeply paranoid; as king of England, he wore a diamond waistcoat to prevent stabbing. And though he did not help his mother during her imprisonment, he did move her body to Westminster Abbey upon becoming king of England.

Miniature portrait of James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, 1566. This portrait by an unknown artist is the only known likeness of Mary's third husband, born c1535. It is part of a double miniature; the other portrait is of his first wife, Jean Gordon.

Since they were married in 1566 and divorced a year later, I have assumed the miniatures were painted in 1566 to celebrate the union. Jean actually divorced Bothwell on 3 May 1567, and the marriage was also annulled on the charge that Bothwell had seduced her serving maid.

Bothwell was a notorious womanizer, but he was also an intelligent and capable leader. His hasty Protestant marriage to Mary on 15 May 1567 at Holyrood was an unmitigated disaster, whatever personal happiness it may have brought either spouse. Five centuries later, it is impossible to understand Mary's feelings towards Bothwell. He had given her (and her mother before her) unwavering support but he was also implicated, like many of the Scottish lords, in Darnley's murder (as was Mary herself.) She had been taken under duress to Dunbar Castle by Bothwell in late April 1567. It was asserted by her councilors that he 'ravished her and lain with her against her will' and so 'the Queen could not but marry him' to protect her honor. Mary herself wrote to the Bishop of Dunblane, 'Albeit we found his doings rude, yet were his words and answers gentle.'

They married in a quiet and tense ceremony, fraught with immense consequence. It was widely believed that Mary loved Bothwell and they were both murderers. Placards mocking the queen as a prostitute and temptress (see below) were posted throughout Edinburgh; European leaders were scandalized by the union. And barely a month after the marriage, on 17 June 1567, the 'Casket Letters' were produced. These controversial letters, later determined to be forgeries, were used by the queen's enemies to prove her and Bothwell's adultery and complicity in Darnley's murder. The sonnets included with the letters, however, and written by Mary to Bothwell, are not so easily dismissed as forgeries. Their order may have been altered and some lines tampered with, but they are strikingly similar to the sonnets she wrote during her English captivity. If the sonnets are authentic, and I believe them to be, then it is clear that Mary loved Bothwell.

Their union ended with the loss of her throne. Bothwell himself died in captivity in Denmark in 1578. The imprisonment was politically motivated; the Scottish lords did not want him to return home. But it was also incredibly cruel. After a lifetime of action and love of the outdoors, Bothwell was driven insane by comfinement.

'The Mermaid and the Hare': Placard denouncing the adultery between Mary and Bothwell. This anonymous placard was one of many plastered throughout Edinburgh during the fateful spring of 1567. Rumors of adultery with Lord Bothwell were only encouraged when Mary wed him just three months after Darnley's very suspicious death. In popular culture, the mermaid symbolized a prostitute; the hare was Bothwell's insignia. The initials 'I H' refer to his full name, James Hepburn. 'M R', of course, stands for Maria Regina. Mary was devastated by this sort of anonymous slander. Her reputation in Scotland never recovered.

'Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord!': Placard in which the infant Prince James prays beside the corpse of his father, Lord Darnley. Yet another anonymous placard, one which encapsulates the most explosive charge against Mary. Even today, her complicity in Darnley's murder is debated; no definitive answer is possible.

Mary, queen of Scots and the infant Prince James. This is my favorite portrait of Mary and her only child. It was a contemporary portrait, but the artist is unknown. I am still searching for more information. It is certainly more attractive than the portrait directly below.

Mary, queen of Scots and King James VI of Scotland, c1583. This is the most famous double portrait of Mary and James, made four years before her execution. The artist's debt to portraits of Mary in captivity is evident. Her appearance, clothing and all, is a virtual reproduction of contemporary works. Compare this, for example, to the portrait directly below; Mary even clutches the same jewel.

Mary, queen of Scots in captivity, c1580, unknown artist. This is my favorite portrait of Mary in captivity. The figure is not especially stiff; the face and hands are more lifelike than in other portraits.

Mary during her captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard, inscribed with the date 1578. This is perhaps the most famous image of Mary; it was painted during her imprisonment in England. I am almost certain the artist is Nicholas Hilliard. There are, however, numerous copies of the portrait, most done in the early 17th century during her son's reign as king of England. Click here to view another scan of this portrait; it's sharper and darker, but a bit less detailed.

Mary, queen of Scots, c1575, by an unknown artist. This miniature portrait of Mary was made during her English imprisonment.

Miniature portrait of Mary during her captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard c.1615. This portrait was identified as Mary, queen of Scots, in the 18th century. Is it Mary? Some people dispute this claim; others support it. The inscription 'Virtutis Amore' is an anagram of the name 'Marie Stouart.' The style and costume indicate it was made as a memorial portrait after Mary's execution in 1587.

A tapestry Mary embroidered while imprisoned in England. Mary was a talented embroiderer; many examples of her needlework survive.

Mary's execution at Fotheringhay Castle, 8 February 1587. This is a narrative woodcut; the inscription is in Dutch. You can see Mary's possessions being burned to the left. Please visit Primary Sources to read Robert Wynkfielde's written account of the execution. Below is a selection:

Her [Mary queen of Scots] prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, 'I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.' Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other her apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.
All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, 'that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company.' ....

Mary Queen of Scots Being Led to Execution, by Laslett John Pott, 1871. This 19th century portrait is one of the more celebrated 'history paintings' about Mary's tragic life. Paul Delaroche's portrait of Jane Grey's execution is another example of this genre. Such paintings, which capture celebrated moments in national history, are rarely works of art in their own right. Their primary appeal comes from illuminating a darkened corner of the past.

Portrait of Mary, queen of Scots. This is by an unknown artist with an unknown date. I like it; if I find any information about its composition, I'll post it here.


to Tudor England: Images

to Mary, queen of Scots website

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