Mary, Queen of Scots, right, and Queen Elizabeth I.

Exhibit tells history in ‘Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’ words

By  Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service
  • February 19, 2022

LONDON -- In a basement of London’s stately British Library, the light plays through interconnected rooms on a glittering array of paintings, jewels and statuettes, encased amid ancient books, manuscripts and letters.

When the exhibition, “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens,” opened last fall, retracing the deadly dispute between two icons of British history, organizers said they were “putting both centre stage and giving them equal billing” for the first time.

Three months on, with many visitors reacting emotionally to its intensity, long-held assumptions about the feuding Protestant and Catholic queens are being tested.

“Although there’ve been exhibitions about Elizabeth and Mary individually, no one has placed them together like this before — we’ve tried to tell the story in their own words, stripping away the centuries of interpretation,” explained Karen Limper-Herz, the co-curator.

“Religion, and the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, is a dominant theme, and we’ve let people draw their own conclusions, based on what they see.”

During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign from 1558 to 1603, she established a Church of England independent of Rome and defeated a Catholic “Northern Rebellion” and massive Spanish Armada in 1588, as well as plots to depose and kill her. In 1570, when Pope Pius V denounced and excommunicated Elizabeth, many Catholics continued their faith in secret, looking to Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scotland.

The British Library exhibition contains childhood objects belonging to both women, as well as Pope Pius’ excommunication decree and a speech to parliament by the unmarried Elizabeth, denouncing speculation about who would succeed her. It includes Mary’s 10-page final plea for freedom and a letter to the French king, penned at 2 a.m., six hours before her death, as well as an eyewitness sketch of her execution.

A final section, illuminated in red, displays a farewell sonnet, her last written words, and a gold necklace and heart-shaped locket handed to her grieving attendants.

“We know from historic accounts that Mary entered the hall, dressed in black and carrying her crucifix, prayer book and rosary,” said Limper-Herz.

“But when she was disrobed, she was wearing a crimson dress, the colour of martyrdom. She was clearly very aware of what she was doing and establishing her legacy — as seen in her final writings, all carefully composed with posterity in mind.”

“It’s important to talk about history and explain it to new audiences, especially a unique period like this, when two young women were on the throne in neighbouring countries, personally related but also very different,” said Limper-Herz.

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