Cultural depictions of Mary, Queen of Scots

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One of The London Dungeon's exhibitions is about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots, has inspired artistic and cultural works for more than four centuries. The following lists cover various media, enduring works of high art, and recent representations in popular culture, film and fiction. The entries represent portrayals that a reader has a reasonable chance of encountering rather than a complete catalogue.


  • An early novelistic treatment of Mary is Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves, in which the young dauphine features as a major character. Written one and a half centuries later, The Abbot by Sir Walter Scott covers the period of Mary's confinement in Loch Leven castle. Mary's story has also been the subject of a number of more recent novels, including: Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles: A Novel by Margaret George; The Gay Galliard a novel of Mary Queen of Scots, by Margaret Irwin; Royal Road to Fotheringhay: The Story of Mary, Queen of Scots by Jean Plaidy; Fatal Majesty (2000) by Reay Tannahill; "The Other Queen" (2008) by Philippa Gregory. Mary features importantly in The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. She is the subject of a short story in Susanna Clarke's 2006 collection of fantasy tales The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.
  • In children's literature, novels on Mary, Queen of Scots include: Queen's Own Fool: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots by Jane Yolen, The Lady of Fire and Tears by Terry Deary, and from the Royal Diaries, Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country, France, 1553 by Kathryn Lasky. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley is about a young girl who finds herself in the time of and in the company of Anthony Babington, who is attempting to free Mary and overthrow Elizabeth.
  • In The Princeling, Volume 3 of The Morland Dynasty, a series of historical novels by author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, the fictional Lettice Morland becomes embroiled in the dramatic events taking place at the court of Mary Queen of Scots.
  • She is the main character in the young adult historical novel The Wild Queen by author Carolyn Meyer.


19th Century

It was as a political symbol that she had captured the imagination of Italian radicals and their kith and kin. There was a restless interest in this tormented figure. In the earliest years of the nineteenth century performances of:

20th Century and beyond


Queen Mary in captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1578. She was a regular topic of 19th century European opera.

The subject of Mary, Queen of Scots was a common one. Usually the operas dealt with the section of her life when she was being persecuted by Elizabeth I of England. She was considered a sympathetic character in southern Europe due to her Catholicism.

Incongruosly, in early 19th Century Italy Mary was taken up by Liberals and Revolutionaries, quite in contrast with her political role in her own time. These were especially attracted by the various plots made to save her, and her death as a political martyr, both of which they interpreted as comparable to their own struggle. The Carbonari got their name from a mythical ring of English coal-burners, supposedly dedicated to Mary's cause. For this reason, the subject of Mary Stewart was tainted as a radical issue and operas about her several times banned.[3]

Operas about Mary include:

  • Carlini – Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia, 1818
  • Casella – Maria Stuarda, 1812
  • CocciaMaria Stuart, regina di Scozia, 1827
  • Donizetti – Maria Stuarda, 1835
  • FétisMarie Stuart en Ecosse, 1823
  • MercadanteMaria Stuarda, regina di Scozia, 1825
  • NeidermeyerMarie Stuart, Paris, 1844
  • Sogner – Maria Stuarda ossia I carbonari di Scozia, 1814

American composer Mary Carr Moore completed her opera David Rizzio, on an Italian libretto, in 1932. Thea Musgrave composed the opera Mary, Queen of Scots, premiered in Edinburgh, 1977.


  • Shortly after Mary Stuart's execution in 1587, the English Jesuit poet Robert Southwell composed an emblem poem portraying Mary as a Catholic martyr, "Decease, Release (Dum morior orior)." The poem was never published in the early modern period; even owning a manuscript version of the poem was "inevitable flirtation with treason" in Elizabethan England.[4]
  • The 1596 edition of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene includes an allegorical representation of the trial of Mary Stuart (Book 5, Canto ix, stanzas 36–50). Mary Stuart is represented by Duessa and Elizabeth is figured by Mercilla. The allegory dwells on Elizabeth's reluctance to condemn Mary. Elizabeth's delay of three months before agreeing to have Mary executed is represented by a gap of three stanzas at the end of Canto ix.[5] Mercilla's judgment and Duessa's execution do not actually occur until the beginning of the next Canto (x.1–4).
  • The Spanish poet Lope de Vega wrote an epic poem upon Mary Stuart's life and death: Corona trágica (Tragic crown), published in 1628.
  • The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a poem Lament of Mary Queen of Scots, on the Approach of Spring upon Mary's feelings while in her captivity in England, towards her cousin Elizabeth I of England and foreboding of her approaching death.
  • In Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky's 20 sonnets to Mary Stuart (in Russian) the poet addresses her as an interlocutor.


  • Richard Wagner composed a song "Adieux de Marie Stuart" (WWV 61, 1840) based on a poem by Pierre Jean Béranger).
  • Robert Schumann composed a song cycle "Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart" (Op. 135) based on five poems from the collection "Rose und Distel" by Gisbert Vincke (1852). This cycle was among the final works that Schumann composed before he went insane.
  • American progressive metal band Dream Theater uses a variation of the mark of Mary, Queen of Scots, as their trademark "Majesty" symbol.
  • John Barry, composer of the soundtrack to the 1971 film, wrote two songs, "Wish Now Was Then" and "This Way Mary" with lyricist Don Black based on themes from the film. They were performed by Matt Monro, with the latter song covered by Scott Walker and Johnny Mathis amongst others.
  • The song "Sad Song" by Lou Reed, featured in the 1973 album Berlin, references Mary in its initial verses. The song was also recorded as a demo by Reed's band The Velvet Underground with different lyrics (this version appears on the box set Peel Slowly and See and the "Fully Loaded Edition" of Loaded, but the Velvets' version still references Mary.
  • The song "To France" by Mike Oldfield, featured in the 1984 album Discovery, references Mary in its chorus.
  • The song "Fotheringay" by Fairport Convention (with lyrics by Sandy Denny) featured on the 1969 album What We Did on Our Holidays and is an interpretation of the story of Mary's last days in the prison of Fotheringhay Castle. After leaving Fairport Convention, Denny formed a folk rock band named Fotheringay, which released an eponymous debut album Fotheringay (album) in 1970, the cover of which depicted an illustration of the band, including Sandy Denny dressed in Elizabethan costume.
  • The song "The Ballad of Mary (Queen of Scots)" by Grave Digger is about her time in prison.
  • The song "My Blood will live forever" by Grave Digger is about her time before the execution.


An 1895 reproduction of the historic scene, produced by Edison Manufacturing Co.
  • (1895): The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. The first film appearance of Mary on film depicts her beheading. It is one of the first films to utilize an intentional jump cut to create the illusion of a single shot beheading. The effect was so convincing at the time that many viewers believed that the actress was actually killed.
  • (1940): Das Herz der Konigin ("The Heart of the Queen") features Zarah Leander, the Swedish-German actress from the Nazi period who plays Mary. This was an UFA production directed by Carl Froelich and making use of the historical story for anti-British propaganda in the context of the then ongoing World War II.

Two film biographies of Mary, in which fictional meetings between the two queens take place:

(These historical meetings between the two queens had previously been added for dramatic effect in Schiller's Maria Stuart).


  • Gunpowder, Treason & Plot a 2004 Television Mini series by the BBC dramatized the reigns of Scottish monarchs Mary, Queen of Scots and her son King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England and foiled the Gunpowder Plot. Mary was played by French actress Clémence Poésy.
  • In the BBC TV production Elizabeth R, Mary was played by Vivian Pickles. The episode "Horrible Conspiracies" is a generally historically accurate portrayal of Mary during her captivity in England from her imprisonment at Chartley under the guardianship of Paulet through to her trial and execution, using many of Mary's own reported words as dialogue. It includes an accurate portrayal of her execution including her use of a red petticoat (red being the colour of martyrdom in the Catholic religion), her positioning of her head with her hands on the block, and the two blows and sawing motion it took to remove her head. It also shows the executioner unwittingly grasping and pulling away her wig to reveal her grey hair.
  • In the Channel 4 miniseries, Elizabeth I, the first two-hour segment partly centers around the conflict between Mary and Elizabeth. Mary is portrayed by actress Barbara Flynn, and her execution is graphically shown, in a manner that is reportedly true to history.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus episode 22 featured a skit involving a "BBC radio drama series" titled "Death of Mary, Queen of Scots".
  • A 1957 episode of the Wonderful World of Disney titled, "The Truth About Mother Goose", discussed the origins of three nursery rhymes. Series host Walt Disney attributed the Mary Mary Quite Contrary rhyme to the life of Mary Stuart. This episode featured a brief animated short about Mary's life, done in the artistic style of "Sleeping Beauty". The short touched on important moments in Mary's life, even ending with a scene of Mary being marched to her beheading.
  • An episode of the British series Lovejoy ("The Colour of Mary", series 4) finds the main character seeking information and the whereabouts of Mary's pool table.
  • The Curator of Tutbury Castle, Lesley Smith portrayed Mary Queen of Scots for Living's "Most Haunted" in 2002 for a dramatic Monlauge of her time imprisoned there. Smith continues these re-enactments in the castle.
  • In the CBBC sketch show Horrible Histories (2009–2015) Mary was portrayed by Martha Howe-Douglas and Jessica Ransom.
  • Reign is a highly fictionalized period drama television show on The CW Television Network that follows the life of 15-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots at French court beginning in 1557, while she awaits her marriage to Francis II of France. At court, Mary has to contend with the changing politics and power plays. Francis' mother, Queen Catherine de' Medici, is secretly trying to prevent the marriage due to the advice of Nostradamus, who had a vision that the wedding will lead to Francis' death. The series also follows the affairs of Mary's four Scottish handmaidens Lola, Kenna, Greer and Aylee, who are searching for husbands of their own at court. Mary is portrayed by Australian actress Adelaide Kane.[6] The series began airing on October 13, 2013.


Historical biography and analysis[edit]

Popular fiction and drama[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Alexander Weatherson, "Queen of dissent: Mary Stuart and the opera in her honour by Carlo Coccia"
  4. ^ St. Robert Southwell: Collected Poems. Ed. Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney. Carcanet Press: Manchester U.K., 2007
  5. ^ The Faerie Queene. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001, p. 577 n.
  6. ^ [1]