The Victorians, loving a good story, believed this beautiful ebony and red tortoiseshell cabinet belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. Now in the Royal Collection, it was thought that she brought it with her from France to Scotland. It was pictured in a portfolio of drawings by William Gibb, made in 1890 for an illustrated publication called The Royal House of Stuart, a copy of which is in Worcester City’s museum collection.
Mary, Queen of Scots’ life continues to fascinate, the subject of many books, film, music and TV series. With as much drama, love, intrigue and tragedy as any soap opera, her story formed an important background to the House of Stuart’s time on the English throne – the royal family whose privilege, entitlement and poor judgement led to the English Civil War.
Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of James V of Scotland on his death – she was only six days old. Her son would become James VI of Scotland, and then James I of England, succeeding Elizabeth I and uniting the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland. His son, Charles I, was unable to retain agreement with his Parliament, bringing unrest and conflict to all three countries.
Crowned Queen of Scotland at just a few months old, Mary’s early years were a power struggle between Henry VIII of England and Henry II of France, both eager to unite their countries with Scotland through her marriage to their son. France managing the successful treaty, Mary’s youth was spent happily at the French court. Tragedy struck after her young husband died less than two years into their teenage marriage. 18-year-old Mary returned to Scotland and joined the many ambitious characters jostling to control the English throne. Her position was a threat to Elizabeth I and the next twenty-five years were fraught with manipulation, plotting and betrayal. Throughout, Mary maintained the luxury of royalty, surrounding herself with fine tapestries, bedlinen and silverware even while imprisoned. It’s unsurprising that she should be linked with this exquisite cabinet, with such beautiful heart-shaped decoration.
The Royal Collection’s research shows that the cabinet actually dates to the seventeenth century, and therefore was too late to belong to Mary, Queen of Scots herself. It can now be found in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official royal residence in Edinburgh.