Embroidery by Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary’s first experience with embroidery and needlework took place in France, when she was married to Francois II, the Dauphin. Her first mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici was very skilled in the art as were most women in those days of the Renaissance. When she returned to Scotland, she would embroider while participating in her Council’s meetings, but until her period of imprisonment in England, Mary had little time to devote to needlework. During her first years of imprisonment, she spent many hours in the company of Bess of Hardwicke, her jailer’s wife, helping her to design new hangings for her properties. Mary drew her inspiration from sources such as emblem books, with their Latin double-meaning mottoes, natural history books, and fables, many published in other countries. Fluent in Scottish English, French, Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish, she would have taken pleasure in translating those and playing with the words. The pictures below are some of her most famous works which were put together into a large tapestry known as the “Marian Hanging”, which contains 37 of her motifs. Many contain hidden meanings, some of which are explained below. The examples shown are by no means her only works. Mary also made a beautiful dress and night coifs for Queen Elizabeth, her rival, riding reins for her son James, bed covers, and many others.

A Byrd of America – toucan, probably Brazilian


Marigold turning toward sun

Latin inscription: “Non Inferiora Secutus” (Not following lower things). This motto, adopted by Mary as her own, was originally that of Marguerite, sister of Mary’s first husband.

Phoenix – rising from the flames. This was the impresa of Mary’s
mother, Marie de Guise, symbolising how she had created a new life for herself after being twice widowed.This was to become one of Mary’s favorite mottoes: In my End is my Beginning.

Delphine In the bottom left half of the Hanging appears a dolphin leaping over a crown, an allusion to her first husband, also known as the “Dauphin”.

Mary Stuart – Superimposed with the queen’s cipher, the royal crown, the thistle and the anagram motto “Sa virtu m’atire”.

Elizabeth and Mary – The letters of the names Elizabeth and Mary superimposed with a thistle, marigold and another flower at the side. The motto is “Virtutis Vincula Sanguinis Arctiora” (The bonds of virtue are straiter than those of blood). Another allusion to Queen Elizabeth.

Hand and Pruning Hook“Virescit Vulnere Virtus” (Virtue flourishes by wounding). Sent by Mary as a gift to Norfolk at the time of their marriage plans and most certainly intended to be a message to him: the unfruitful branch of the royal house (Tudor) would be pruned while the fruitful branch (Stewart) remained. Norfolk’s incentive for this marriage was to behusband to the heiress to England’s throne should Elizabeth die childless, which appeared likely.

Palm tree and tortoise – similar to a coin produced during Mary’s reign in Scotland, containing the messages: “Expurgat Deus et Dissipentur Inimici Eius” (Arise Lord and scatter thine enemies) and This was a direct insult at Darnley whose sole aim in life was to acquire the Crown Matrimonial. The design represents a tortoise (Darnley) climbing up a crowned palm tree (Mary).

A Catte – Large ginger cat (Elizabeth was a red head) toying with a mouse (Mary?). This is my personal favorite. I saw this, or one like it, at Holyrood House in Edinburgh.

If you wish to learn more about the cat and mouse game that ended with Mary Stewart’s execution, I can recommendElizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, by Jane Dunn. Mary’s embroidery is the subject of The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots by Margaret Swain.


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