One of history’s most famous queens, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots , reigned over Scotland between 1542 and 1567, until her infamous forced abdication in favor of her one-year-old son. A lesser known fact is her voracious appetite and palette, which veered towards the decadent. Newly released and previously unpublished documents show that throughout her lengthy time in prison, Mary was still treated like a queen, in what has been dubbed a “deluxe imprisonment.”
The different types of meats consumed by Mary, as depicted in household accounts kept for her upkeep. ( Public domain )
The Bon Appétit of Mary Queen of Scots
The British Library has acquired and released financial documents and one previously unpublished letter from the 1580s, which detail the finest foods and other luxuries that the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed during her confinement. The details are mouth-watering to say the least, and one of the big reasons is because a large household attended upon her every need. They provided her with two courses at both dinner and supper, each of which consisted of 16 individual dishes.
“The accounts provide a detailed record of monies received and paid out for a wide range of foodstuffs, from bread, butter and eggs to meat (beef, mutton, lamb, veal, boar, pork), poultry (capons, geese, hens, heron, partridge, blackbirds) and fish (cod, salt salmon, eels, herring, plaice, haddock, sole, oysters, pike, roach, carp and trout),” writes Andrea Clarke in the same press release .
Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots in captivity by Nicholas Hillard. Source: Public domain
Clarke previously worked on the exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens , which explored the turbulent relationship between the two cousins and rivals. “Also included are spices (pepper, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace), exotic items (oranges, olives, capers, dates, almonds, figs), and sweet luxuries (marmalade, caraway biscuits, sucket or fruits preserved in heavy syrup), as well as wine and ale,” adds Clarke.
There are other itemized expenses listed which include the staff salaries for “mendinge the crome and scouring of armour” and “settinge up and making of bedstedes,” along with her bed matting, and soap for washing her linen. She was guarded by 40 soldiers, whose salaries are also enlisted in the financial accounts. She was even allowed to keep her own horses and ride occasionally, as evidenced by stable expenses – lanterns, hay, and horse medicines.
The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Joseph Severn. ( Public domain )
Roman Catholicism and English Protestantism: Mary’s Whirlwind Life
Mary Queen of Scots ascended the throne of Scotland in 1542 at the tender age of six days following the death of her father, James V, reports The Guardian . She was perennially feared as a Roman Catholic with a claim to the English throne, and was thus a target for plotters through her life.
The erstwhile Scottish queen was imprisoned by her first cousin once removed, Elizabeth I of England , in different manors, castles, and estates in the interiors of the English countryside over eighteen and a half years. The correspondence accessed by Clarke shows that in May 1568, Mary and a small group of her supporters were apprehended by the Deputy Governor of Cumberland and held captive.
She immediately wrote a letter to her cousin requesting military and medical aid, perfectly unaware that her cousin was part of a larger plot to keep her imprisoned. This is proved by a letter she wrote in which she stated “the confidence I have in you, not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel.” Over time, her correspondence became increasingly bitter and reproachful of Elizabeth’s refusal to respond or see her, finding her imprisonment extremely unjust.
Letter from Mary Queen of Scots to Jacques Bochetel, the French ambassador to England, in 1568. ( Public domain )
Private Correspondence Reveals Intimate Details of Mary’s Final Days
This particular letter had remained in a private French collection since the late 1800s, and thus not known to historians and scholars. It marks the shift that Mary experienced in her betrayal from her English and Scottish family, as she turned to her French supporters for comfort and aid.
In 1586, she was allegedly found guilty of a plot to assassinate her Protestant cousin, and beheaded the following year at Fotheringhay Castle. The death of Mary Queen of Scots established her as a highly romanticized historical character in popular culture, the forever tragic queen.
The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Abel de Pujol. ( Public domain )
“By the time the financial accounts were compiled in 1585, Mary had been held in English captivity for almost 17 years and recently transferred into the custody of Sir Ralph Sadler, her newly appointed keeper,” wrote Clarke. “Sadler’s official correspondence for the same period reveals the pressure he came under to provide for his charge as cheaply as possible… The accounts may have been drawn up precisely to inform this cost-cutting exercise.”
Despite such a lavish and opulent existence even whilst in prison, it would be unfair to say that Mary was not being held captive. She was very much a prisoner of the English crown. During a time when England was undergoing massive changes and religious fervor in the 1580s, she was kept under the watchful eye of around-the-clock security. Mary Queen of Scots died a tragic queen, at the tender age of 44.
Top image: Representational image of Mary, Queen of Scots, in prison. Source: grape_vein / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey