British Library hosts exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

The first-ever exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots together, putting them both centre stage and giving them equal billing, is now open at the British Library.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, which runs until 20 February 2022, takes a fresh and revealing look at the infamous story of two powerful queens bound together by their shared Tudor heritage, whose turbulent relationship dominated English and Scottish politics for thirty years.


From amicable beginnings to distrust and betrayal, the exhibition explores the complex relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots through their own words. Despite their fates being intertwined, the queens never met and their relationship was played out at a distance, much of it by letter. This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see their original correspondence.

“Almost 500 years on, the story of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots continues to fascinate and enthrall,” says Dr Andrea Clarke, lead curator of the exhibition. “It is a story of two women whose lives were inextricably connected, for not only were they fellow sovereign queens but also, as Mary reminded Elizabeth in countless letters to her, ‘both of one blood, of one country and in one island’. It is remarkable that many of the themes woven through the exhibition narrative, such as Anglo-Scottish relations, international diplomacy and Europe, state surveillance and espionage, still have a deep resonance today.”


Drawing on the British Library’s outstanding collection of early modern manuscripts and printed books, Elizabeth and Mary’s autograph letters will be displayed alongside 16th-century state papers, speeches and cipher documents, as well as beautiful maps, drawings and woodcut engravings to illustrate key moments and events. There will also be paintings, jewels, textiles, maps, drawings and objects borrowed from private and public collections in the UK and Spain.

Among the featured items of the exhibition are:

  • Elizabeth’s handwritten translation of her stepmother Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545), which was a gift for her father Henry VIII
  • Sonnet handwritten by Mary, Queen of Scots the night before she was executed (1587), which might be the last thing she ever wrote, on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Elizabeth I’s mother of pearl locket ring (c.1575), which opens to display miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn, by kind permission of the Chequers Trust
  • Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots painted by the leading French painter François Clouet (c.1560-61), lent by Her Majesty the Queen from the Royal Collection
  • Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower (c.1567), which provides one of the very best likenesses of her, on loan from a private collection
  • The first letter handwritten by Mary, Queen of Scots in English, sent to Sir Francis Knollys after fleeing across the border into England (1568)
  • Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587), depicting her entering the hall, disrobing, and placing her head on the block

Revealing a dangerous world of plots, espionage and treachery, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will explore how the drama unfolded against the backdrop of an England and Scotland deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics and a Europe torn apart by religious conflicts and civil wars.

There is a programme of talks, panel discussions, lectures and cultural events to accompany the exhibition, and a new catalogue edited by Professor Susan Doran with essays from leading Tudor historians, which is available from the British Library shop and on

To learn more about Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, please visit the British Library website.