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Arts and Humanities | European History | History | Political History | Women's History


Cynthia Curran, History


The rivalry of Mary, Queen of Scots and her English cousin Elizabeth I is a storied one that has consumed both popular and historical imaginations since the two queens reigned in the sixteenth century. It is often portrayed as a tale of contrasts: on one end, Gloriana with her fabled red hair and virginity, the bastion of British culture and Protestant values, valiantly defending England against the schemes of the Spanish and their Armada. On the other side is Mary, Queen of Scots, the enchanting and seductive French-raised Catholic, whose series of tragic, murderous marriages gave birth to both the future James I of England and to schemes surrounding the English throne. Elizabeth gave the order for Mary’s execution in 1587 after discovery of her complicity in a plot to assassinate the Virgin Queen. Since that moment, the cousins have been depicted in text, song, story, and image, always haunted by the shadow of the other.

Representations of the rival queens Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I intensified in number in the early Victorian period in Great Britain as another queen, Victoria, took the throne in 1837. These representations, part of the cultural dialogue surrounding women and their place in the world, particularly the idea of women’s queenship in the domestic sphere, are both flattering and derogatory towards their subjects. This conflict in representation is itself reflective of Victorian gender and political concerns as Victoria married, had children, and was widowed. Representations of the two 16th –century monarchs serve to either critique or approve the 19th-century Queen Victoria. The contrast between portrayals of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I offer a unique insight into Victorian conceptions of gender and women’s roles in the political and private life of the British nation in the period from the 1820s to the 1890s.