Mary, Queen of Scots in mourning portrait to be displayed in Kent

Hever Castle to show the artwork of a teenage Mary in France shortly after the death of her husband

A strikingly direct portrait of a “strapping, handsome” Mary, Queen of Scots in mourning is to go on public display for the first time.

Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, announced on Tuesday that it had purchased a portrait only recently authenticated as Mary and would display it as a star of its new Stuart room.

It shows the 19-year-old Mary in France in 1561, not long after the deaths of her father-in-law, mother and husband. Soon after she would return to Scotland.

The historian, David Starkey, said it was an important, fascinating painting. “It is a very direct, simple, straightforward representation of a young woman in mourning at the moment at which she is going to take over her kingdom.

“She is on the threshold, though nobody knew it, of something that is going to turn the two kingdoms [Scotland and England] upside down and finish with her on the scaffold.”

Mary looks older than her years but she had been through a lot. Her husband, Francis II, died in December 1560, aged 16. Her mother, Mary of Guise, died in June 1560. And in July 1559 her father-in-law Henry II died after a joust to celebrate the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis went horribly wrong and a splint from a lance went through his eye into his brain.

“When you look at her you get the sense of a very tall, powerful woman,” Starkey said. “She takes after the Henry VIII line of the English royal house. She has his colour, like Elizabeth. She has got the reddish hair, the complexion, but unlike Elizabeth she has got this strapping build. You wouldn’t call her a beautiful woman, she is a very, very handsome woman.”

By 16th century royal standards, Mary was “very handsome indeed” as was the young Elizabeth, he said.

“If you look at the contemporary Hapsburgs, or indeed Francis I of France with that huge hook nose that then falls off because of syphilis you can see why they are regarded as people of beauty.”

The work is believed to come from the studio of the French court artist François Clouet.

It is clearly from a particular time because it shows her in white mourning, known as en deuil blanc, after her bereavements. The mourning is slightly more relaxed than that in another version in the Royal Collection and on display at Holyroodhouse.

Starkey said the Hever painting was interesting because it was so straightforward and unadorned. Many portraits after her death are covered in crucifixes and rosaries to suggest Mary as a Catholic martyr.

The portrait was discovered recently in France and thought to date from the 17th century until dendrochronological examination of the oak panel revealed that it was created after 1547.

It will go on display for the first time on Friday, the day Mary died 432 years ago.

The unveiling comes as interest in Mary’s story increases with the release of the new Josie Rourke movie, Mary Queen of Scots.

In its publicity Hever Castle is urging people to forget Saoirse Ronan, who plays Mary, and see for themselves – “this is what Mary, Queen of Scots really looked like”.

Starkey has yet to see the movie but he said there would be little point in historians such as himself picking holes in its accuracy. For example the two queens never met, as they do in the movie. “You are not writing a history book when you make a film, you are telling a story,” he said.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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