Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens at the British Library - full details revealed

17 August 2021
This autumn, the British Library in London will open 'Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens', the first major exhibition to consider Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England together, putting them both centre stage and giving them equal billing.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (8 October 2021 – 20 February 2022) takes a fresh and revealing look at the infamous story of two powerful queens bound together by their shared Tudor inheritance, whose turbulent relationship dominated English and Scottish politics for thirty years.

From amicable beginnings to distrust and betrayal, the exhibition explores the complex relationship between Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots through their own words. Despite their fates being intertwined, the queens never met and their relationship was played out at a distance, much of it by letter, and this exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see original correspondence written in their own hands and words.

Exclusive History Scotland online talk: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens: Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots - book here

Drawing on the British Library’s collection of early modern manuscripts and printed books, Elizabeth and Mary’s autograph letters will be displayed alongside 16th-century state papers, speeches and cipher documents, as well as maps, drawings and woodcut engravings to illustrate key moments and events.

There will also be paintings, jewels, textiles, maps, drawings and objects borrowed from private and public collections in the UK and Spain.

Exhibition highlights

  • Elizabeth’s handwritten translation (below) of her stepmother Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545), which was a gift for her father Henry VIII

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545 (c) British Library, Royal MS 7 D x, ff. 5v–6r

  • Sonnet handwritten by Mary Queen of Scots the night before she was executed (1587), which might be the last thing she ever wrote, on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Elizabeth's mother of pearl locket ring (c.1575), which opens to display miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn, by kind permission of the Chequers Trust
  • Late 16th-century gold necklace and gold enamelled, heart-shaped locket known as the ‘Penicuik Jewels’, which is thought to have belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and is set with two miniature portraits said to be of Mary and her son, James VI, on loan from National Museums Scotland 
  • The first letter (below) handwritten by Mary, Queen of Scots in English, sent to Sir Francis Knollys after fleeing across the border into England (1568)

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots to Sir Francis Knollys, 1 September 1568, Bolton (c) British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C i, f

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The exhibition is sponsored by The Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation, with thanks to the John S Cohen Foundation and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous. The exhibition catalogue is supported by The Strathmartine Trust. 

The early modern period is the first in British history to be so thoroughly documented in manuscripts, letters and state papers and the British Library is home to a world-class collection of manuscripts dating from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. 

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will feature 5 of 43 historically important letters, written by Queen Elizabeth and senior courtiers relating to the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, which were gifted in 2017 by industrialist and philanthropist Mark Pigott, KBE, KStJ to the American Trust for the British Library.

Ahead of the exhibition opening, the Library has digitised 600 of its early modern manuscripts, many of them with the generous support of Mark Pigott, KBE, KStJ. 

Exhibition details

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. Runs 8 October 2021 to 20 February 2022. 

Venue: PACCAR 1, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB; website.

Royal Cousins, Rival Queens - exclusive History Scotland online talk by Professor Susan Doran - 18 November, 6.30pm. Book here.