Syracuse University Magazine

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Letter image courtesy of SU Special Collections Research Center



Words from Mary, Queen of Scots

One of the more impressive holdings in Syracuse University Library’s Special Collections Research Center is a single leaf of paper: a letter on the subject of religious toleration, written in July 1565 and signed by Mary, Queen of Scots. Although the body of the document was likely written in the hand of a secretary, the royal signature has been verified by the British Museum. Part of an autograph collection given to the University by Frances Ward Harrington ’24, an editor for Mademoiselle, Charm, and other magazines, the letter is on display through June 22 at the library as part of the exhibition, The Power and the Piety: The World of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. History professor Chris Kyle, an expert on early modern England, is lead curator.

Mary Stuart, as she was also known, lived her entire life (1542-87) in the throes of post-Reformation political intrigue. Born a Catholic, she inherited the throne of Protestant Scotland as an infant. After an arranged marriage to Francis II, she was queen consort of Catholic France as well. Mary’s great political ambition was to secure the throne of England, and she pursued it after Francis’s death by marrying Henry, Lord Darnley, a Scottish-English Catholic who, like Mary, held claim to the English crown. Many Protestant Scottish nobles opposed the marriage, fearing persecution under the rule of a Catholic royal couple. In an attempt to assuage these fears, the 23-year-old Mary proclaimed support for religious toleration in Scotland in a letter written to her cousin, Lord Gray. Struggling to retain power in Edinburgh when she composed the letter, she expresses views on the peaceful coexistence of Protestants and Catholics that may have had more to do with politics than any personal commitment to tolerance. Nonetheless, she wrote:

“...that we should have intended to impede or molest our subjects in the using of their religion and conscience freely...never entered our mind.… The effect is to certify and assure you that as hitherto we have never permitted stop, stay, or molestation to you or any others in using your religion and conscience, so may ye look for the same good will and clemency in time coming...”

Despite her efforts, Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and flee to England in 1567. She lived there for more than 20 years under the watchful eye of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, whose crown she coveted. Convinced Mary was acting against her, Elizabeth issued the order for Mary’s execution in 1587.        —David Marc