By Clare Hunter

I WAS at primary school when I first heard of Mary, Queen of Scots. Each spring, when the dandelions appeared, we would hunt them out in the playground and take turns to snap their flowers from their stems. Whoever had possession of the dandelion held it tight below its yellow bloom and administered a forceful flick in the direction of its petals to dislodge and scatter them.

As spring turned to summer, those dandelions that had escaped our first wave of destruction now had their gossamer seed heads similarly despatched with a lungful of breath. The child who achieved total decapitation was the champion. This wanton disregard for floral survival was accompanied by the collective shouting of the game’s battle cry: Mary, Queen of Scots had her head chopped off, her head chopped off, Mary, Queen of Scots had her head chopped off on a cold and frosty morning.

We had no idea who Mary, Queen of Scots was. She was accepted into our litany of imaginary characters who peopled our childhood as readily as Wee Willie Winkie and Skinny Malinky Long Legs. We did not know that she really had existed, or that she once had been our queen.

In those days, at the end of the 1950s, Scotland’s history was barely taught in its schools. It was an aside, subsumed into a British narrative in which the glory of the Empire and the nature of the Commonwealth were the dominant themes. Scottish children gleaned what fragments of their heritage they could from poetry and songs, from an occasional illustration in an encyclopaedia, or a painting in a museum.

Most of what we knew were just names – William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bonnie Prince Charlie, David Livingstone – but rarely a story, hardly a history. And it was a past that seemed peopled solely by men. All we knew of Mary was that she had had her head chopped off.

When I was ten years old, however, this gap in our knowledge was unexpectedly filled. Our tweed-skirted teacher was suddenly taken ill, and into her shoes stepped a temporary trainee in a toss of curls and pretty frocks.

For two weeks we experienced a joyous reprieve from the surly sarcasm that was usually meted out. The trainee announced that we were to abandon rote learning in favour of a creative project that would involve research and design. We were to make a wall collage of the history of Scotland.

Most thrillingly for me, the collage was to be made out of fabric. Already schooled by my mother in basic sewing and rudimentary embroidery, the idea of crafting a large sewn artwork was exhilarating. We were each allotted a person, place, or event from Scotland’s past centuries to study and illustrate in cloth. I was given Mary.

HeraldScotland: Clare HunterClare Hunter

The main source of historical study in the school library was Ladybird Books’ Adventure from History series. Disappointingly, there was no volume dedicated to Mary, but I found her in one devoted to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Being ten, to me Mary’s story read like a fairy tale without a happy ever after: a young and beautiful queen who loses not just one but three husbands, and is left defenceless and alone. When I learned of her escape from the clutches of her disloyal nobles, I cheered her on.

When I discovered she had been abandoned by the English queen, Elizabeth, I was dismayed. Her end in imprisonment and execution was distressing. The illustrations of a gracious Mary in a sumptuous gown of black and gold greeting her nobility, of a feisty Mary galloping over moorland on a black stallion, and of Mary – still gorgeous in green – surrounded by armed guards, served only to kindle my captivation.

I folded black velvet over a cardboard silhouette of my queen with care and stitched a narrow band of gold tinsel around her hem. I pleated a paper doily into a ruff of pretend lace and made folds of white net to fashion a veil. My mother unearthed some tiny golden beads to adorn Mary’s headdress and sacrificed a gold chain to serve as a necklace. When everything was sewn in place Mary, Queen of Scots was stuck down with a liberal dollop of PVA glue, between the heap of dead soldiers slain at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, and a posy of roses and thistles that symbolised the 1603 Union of the Crowns when Scotland and England began to share the same sovereign.

The finished collage stretched along one whole wall of our classroom. When our usual teacher made her uncelebrated return and reclaimed her draconian rule, we resumed our droned recitations of catechism and multiplication tables. But the collage remained, bearing witness to our creative efforts to reimagine Scotland’s past. It encouraged my interest in Scottish history, and in Mary. She remained, somehow, in my care.

In the histories and biographies of Mary, written during her lifetime and in the centuries following her death, she is generally cast as just one of many characters in the historical pageant. It is other personalities who drive her narrative. Mary appears as neither a catalyst nor a heroine, but a victim of circumstances and her own poor judgement. Her drama lies in loss: of the queen she once was, of the monarch she might have been. Her elusiveness owes much to the bias of her contemporary biographers and historians – exclusively men – who documented and assessed the events of her reign and captivity through a masculine prism, one largely filtered through an oppositional Protestant perspective. At best, they deemed Mary a naïve, hapless ruler who nourished her own downfall through inexperience, royal conceit and female frailty. But to accept this as the truth is simplistic.

Mary lived in exciting times and reigned in a period of accelerating social, political, cultural and religious change. She was shaped by the sophisticated culture of the late Renaissance and influenced by those other women rulers – a surprising number of them in the sixteenth century – who exercised power and fostered credibility for female authority.

In a world dominated by male ambition, they were at the vanguard of a new assertion of female capability. And they expressed their confidence and agency through alternative media. These were women who registered their intelligence, knowledge, values and importance through material culture as designers, collectors, consumers and creators.

While staying within the confines of acceptable female culture – fashion, hospitality, diplomacy, needlework and motherhood – they amplified their influence and repositioned themselves, if not centre stage, then at least as key players in political stagecraft.

HeraldScotland:

Mary, like her English counterpart, Queen Elizabeth I of England, was young, vigorous and ambitious, not only for herself as a monarch and the kingdom she ruled over, but also for the dynasty that formed her. She was also, at times, reckless, manipulative and headstrong. While her decisions were purposeful, they could also be misguided, their effectiveness further blighted by betrayal. That she pursued her own style of governance is undeniable, and she harnessed the potency of textiles to emphasise her female presence and nurture her network of support. When captivity muted her voice, Mary ensured that her unedited testimony prevailed, preserving it in her embroidery.

Exploring Mary through the fabric of her life – the textiles she inherited, displayed, gifted, and embroidered – is revelatory. Nuanced and propagandist, the material world of Mary, Queen of Scots has been largely disregarded as a source of archival evidence by historians. But within it lies a tangible and intimate insight into the experiences and emotions of the Scottish Queen.

This is an extract from Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power by Clare Hunter, published by Sceptre, £20