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The Tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots at Westminster Abbey

Mary, Queen of Scots
By Nicholas Hilliard, Public Domain, Wiki Commons

Mary Queen of Scots”. These were the words I overheard from a visitor, passing their comment on the magnificent canopy tomb in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, erected on the orders of James I to house the remains of his mother, transferred from their first burial place of Peterborough Cathedral to the Abbey in 1612. However, tombs can tell only part of the truth, portraying history as it was desired to appear. Whilst these words are probably the best description of this remarkable monument, there are in fact, hidden stories here.

Indeed, it might seem at first glance that the Scottish queen’s last resting place just happened to be here. There is nothing accidental about this tomb; it is a careful presentation of history in the reign of the monarch who erected it (“mother of James, most puissant sovereign of Great Britain… to James the son the hope of a kingdom and posterity…”) with a sensitivity for the building in which it was housed, as well as for the time when it was made. This was not merely a tomb to the mother of James I of England and VI of Scotland, but that of a regnant Queen of Scotland and queen consort of France, whose own English claim to the throne descended directly from Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret Tudor.

The tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots lies in the southern end of the Henry VII Chapel – a location which in itself underpins her place in the English succession. Perhaps appropriately, Elizabeth I’s tomb is at the opposite end to hers and is located in the north aisle, also erected at the order of James I and which she shares – since 1606, as Elizabeth was first buried in the vault of her paternal grandparents, Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York – with her half-sister, Mary I. Mary I – the other Queen Mary – is dominated in turn by Elizabeth’s splendid monument and herself, barely merits a mention. Overshadowed in death, it is a sad analogy of her life and reign. The locations of all these monuments make a curious study when considering the relationships of these three queens in life.

As it happens, it is now the magnificent chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey – that unites (or divides) the great sixteenth-century royal cousins, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Interestingly, it is also fascinating to ponder the fact that in life, although both queens never met, they were geographically at their closest in 1575, when Elizabeth was on progress by way of Chartley and Stafford and Mary, Queen of Scots was at Buxton. Now, as history would have it, Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth lie at opposite ends of a Chapel named after their shared ancestor, Henry VII. One has the sense, they lie in awkward proximity and possible suspicion of each other, the nearest both ever came to meeting.

Mary, Queen of Scots has a tomb in Westminster Abbey, itself a living history of British pageantry, providing the setting for every coronation since 1066, as well as for important royal occasions, including sixteen royal weddings. One might even feel that Elizabeth’s effigy grips hold of its orb and sceptre (today, modern replacements) in an eternal effort to safeguard them from the claims of her cousin, even in death. Whilst the inscription on Elizabeth’s tomb reads in Latin: “Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in [the] hope of the Resurrection”, we might feel that far from being partners in the throne, that rivalry is truer in the case of Mary, Queen of Scots.

A further interesting irony, is the fact that Mary’s great ornamental tomb is in close proximity to the tomb of her mother-in-law, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox; a quite extraordinary feature of which – given in mind Mary’s torturous marriage to her beloved son, Henry, Lord Darnley – is a small figure of Henry, Lord Darnley, kneeling. The other important tomb in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel is that of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the great Tudor ancestress, as if again to underline Mary, Queen of Scots’ descent from the line of Henry VII; Lady Margaret Beaufort having given birth to the future Henry VII at the mere age of thirteen, therefore making her Mary Queen of Scots’ paternal great-great-grandmother. Mary’s Tudor ancestry was hinted at in the songs performed at her wedding to the future Francis II of France at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The axe of Fotheringhay did not severe her rightful place, where the English throne was concerned.

Mary’s likeness is remarkable. The face is almost certainly based on Mary’s death mask (not the so-called ‘Lennoxlove’ death mask) and closely resembles many of the Scottish queen’s portraits in the latter period of her life. A copy of her death mask is at Falkland, the beloved palace of her father, James V. There is nothing here of the gruesomeness of her execution at Fotheringhay; no trace of anything that might imply the raising of the head afterwards, with the illusion of her fake tresses falling to the ground. Instead, the Scottish queen is all quiet serenity, wearing a coif and a ruff; her long cloak fastened by a brooch. The lion of Scotland is at her feet. The impression of the effigy is unmistakably that of a queen.

The effigy is recumbent. We might be reminded of the last night of Mary, Queen of Scots, laid upon her bed in the early hours of 8 February 1587, having disposed of her earthly goods and resting, without sleeping “eyes closed and a half smile upon her face” (Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots, Pg 665). There is not the impression of impending martyrdom as she saw it, but instead of an appearance after it had taken place, when the phenomenon of her lips still moving was to be seen and her long fingers – praised in her youth by the poet Ronsard – clasped as with most traditional effigies, in prayer, most appropriately for Mary, whose own Catholicism remained unshakeable. The overall colour of the tomb is white because it is made of marble. So there is nothing of the crimson red that she wore for her execution, her final statement on her own death.

The tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots was sculpted by Cornelius Cure and completed by his son, William, a work for which they received the royal sum of £825. It was begun in 1606 and completed by September 1612. It bears an impressive Latin inscription by Henry, Earl of Northampton and ends with the telling phrase, “Mourning, I wrote this. H. N”.

But the inscription of Henry, Earl of Northampton, whilst fulsome in its praise of the Scottish queen’s heroism, tactfully bows out of a discussion of the events which led to her death. It points, however, to another important fact about the tomb: “Great in marriage, greater still in lineage, greatest of all in her progeny, here lies buried the daughter, bride and mother of kings. God grant that her sons, and all who are descended from her, may hereafter behold the cloudless days of eternity…”

Because Mary, Queen of Scots does not lie alone. In marked contrast to Henry’s three heirs, also buried at Westminster Abbey, Mary, Queen of Scots does indeed share her last resting place with some of those “who are descended from her”. It might almost seem a bitter repeat of the comment Elizabeth made on the birth of James I: “Alack, the Queen of Scots is lighter of a bonny son, and I am but of barren stock”. For Mary, even in the grave, proves herself the matriarch of the burgeoning Stuart dynasty, in contrast to Elizabeth, the childless and last, Tudor monarch.

This discovery was only made in 1867, as the result of a search ordered by Arthur P. Stanley, Dean of Westminster, who later recorded his findings in his work, Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey (1869). It was thought that the lost tomb of James I – subsequently located in the vault of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York – might be found within that of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s lead coffin was discovered along the north wall of the vault, beneath that of the unfortunate Lady Arbella Stuart. The vault also contained the much-lamented Henry, Prince of Wales; Anne Hyde, Duchess of York and mother of two Stuart queens, Mary II and Anne; Elizabeth, the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia; Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as well as the numerous children of James II who died in infancy. Additionally, those of Queen Anne, together with her only surviving child, the Duke of Gloucester, are also included. Mary’s great-granddaughter, Mary II – joint monarch with William III and daughter of James II – is also is buried at the Abbey, fittingly, in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel.

Mary’s tomb at the Abbey could also serve as a reminder of the fact that she rests in the same hallowed building as Henry VIII’s children by his first three marriages – important to remember when foreign Catholic opinion considered Elizabeth illegitimate because the Pope failed to recognise both Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I’s mother. For which reason, the fact that both Mary and Elizabeth rest at opposite ends of the Henry VII Chapel could be deemed as appropriate – close, but not too close.

It could also be argued that Mary’s wishes – to be buried at Rheims Cathedral or St Denis, the traditional burial place of the Kings and Queens of France – denied by Elizabeth, allowed her to take her place in the church at the heart of the English monarchy, in England. The Royal Vault at St Denis was hideously ransacked during the French Revolution, which meant that Mary’s tomb, if it had have been there, would not have survived anyway. Mary’s first language always remained French – and her first marriage to the young King Francis II, was probably her happiest. Mary of course, never managed to return to France, when she set out for England, to what would be over eighteen years of wretched captivity, justifying her words spoken in youth, when she left France for Scotland: “Adieu France… I think I shall never see you again”.

It is a magnificent irony, that the Scottish queen, whose coat of arms when she assumed the throne of France as consort to her teenage husband, Francis II, included the royal arms of England at the behest of her father-in-law Henry II, now shares her place of burial with many of England’s Kings and Queens, in the same building as the ancient Coronation Chair, which she never sat on – but whose hereditary right to do so, was never forgotten by Elizabeth. Mary’s solemn refusal to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh, which would have meant a formal renunciation of those rights, still holds true today – for Mary is the ancestress of every English (and British) sovereign, down to the present Queen Elizabeth II in the thirteenth generation; each coronation has taken place, fittingly, at Westminster Abbey. The fact that Mary’s tomb is at Westminster Abbey at all is undoubtedly her most potent, posthumous vindication by history.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert on past British and European royalty as an academic subject, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio. She specializes in the family of Queen Victoria and Russian royalty, with a particular interest in royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first British Royal Wedding in 2018. She responds to media enquiries ranging from the BBC to private individuals. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.