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Document reveals Mary, Queen of Scots protected surgeons from going to battle

Interest in Mary, Queen of Scots has been piqued worldwide after the release of the BAFTA-nominated film bearing her name, and now a historic exemption shows a different side of the often misunderstood queen.

A letter released by the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh (RCSEd) reveals that Mary, Queen of Scots protected surgeons from going to war.

This letter of exemption shows the Scottish queen actually paved the way for the Geneva Convention 300 years before its time, making it law that surgeons did not have to bear arms.

“This unique artefact is one of the College’s treasured possessions,” said Chris Henry, Director of Heritage at RCSEd. “It gives us a fantastic insight into the ethics and civilisation of 16th Century Scotland as well as the standing of surgeons in the capital back then.”

Instead of fighting, Mary, Queen of Scots thought surgeons should be focusing on caring for the wounded. The letter of exemption not only protected surgeons from having to go to war but asked them to be responsible and ready to take care of the sick. The document says, in part, that surgeons should be ‘present with our armies ready to do their cure and duty to all sick persons.’

The letter is signed ‘Mary by the Grace of God, Queen of Scots’.

Dated May 1567, this document was signed during a time of great upheaval in Mary, Queen of Scots’ life. Her husband, Lord Darnley, was said to be jealous of her close friendship – and rumoured romantic relationship with – her private secretary David Rizzio. In the spring of 1566, Darnley murdered Rizzio right in front of the pregnant queen during a dinner party at Holyrood Palace. She gave birth to her son, the future James VI, that summer, and less than a year later, in February of 1567, Darnley was murdered himself.

Historian Jessica Storoschuk, who runs the blog An Historian About Town, said: “This letter demonstrates Mary’s (and Scotland’s) higher view of physicians than many other nations at the time. This isn’t seen widely for three centuries, and I think that it is evidence of Mary’s unique and cultured upbringing between French and Scottish cultures.”

The letter of exemption can be viewed on the RCSEd’s digital collection website. The site is a new resource that allows the public to see some of the college’s fascinating medical history documents such as the Mary, Queen of Scots’ letter.

RCSEd is the world’s oldest surgical college and dates back to 1505. It holds a vast collection of historically – and culturally – important medical documents in its College Library and Archive.

The letter of exemption was made public in conjunction with last week’s UK release of the film Mary Queen of Scots. Based on the biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, the new movie has been nominated for three BAFTAs. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, it follows the complicated relationship between the young queen and Elizabeth I.

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