Mary, Queen of Scoffs: jailed monarch ate only the best, papers reveal


Newly discovered official accounts show that, while a prisoner of Elizabeth I, her cousin lived a life of luxury

She was executed as a Roman Catholic threat to the English throne, but during her long years of imprisonment by her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots was still treated as a queen, previously unpublished documents reveal.

The British Library has acquired official financial accounts for the 1580s which detail the finest foods and other luxuries given to the Scottish queen during her captivity at Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire and Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire.

Andrea Clarke, the library’s lead curator of medieval and early modern manuscripts, told the Observer that this was “deluxe imprisonment. These provide a really colourful snapshot of [Mary’s] existence in prison. The food that’s listed is incredible, from the basic – bread, butter, eggs – to a massive range of poultry, fish and meat, some of which I’d never heard of and had fun looking up.”

Clarke curated a recent British Library exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, which explored their turbulent relationship amid plots, espionage and treachery, with England and Scotland deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics and Europe torn apart by religious conflicts and civil wars.

Mary was just six days old when she became queen of Scotland in 1542 following the death of her father, James V. Feared as a Catholic with a claim to the English throne, she became a target for plotters and was eventually declared guilty of treason and beheaded in 1587, aged 44.

On rolls of parchment, professional scribes had itemised every expense incurred between December 1584 and February 1585. In a forthcoming British Library blog, Clarke writes: “By the time the financial accounts were compiled in 1585, Mary had been held in English captivity for almost 17 years and recently transferred into the custody of Sir Ralph Sadler, her newly appointed keeper. Sadler’s official correspondence for the same period reveals the pressure he came under to provide for his charge as cheaply as possible … The accounts may have been drawn up precisely to inform this cost-cutting exercise.”

They show that Mary dined on beef, mutton, veal, boar and poultry, as well as cod, salmon, eels and herring spiced with saffron, ginger and nutmeg and downed with wine and ale. Oranges, olives, capers, almonds and figs were among her exotic treats. Sweet luxuries included marmalade, caraway biscuits and fruits preserved in syrup.

She was attended upon by a large household and dined under her canopy of state, where each of her courses offered a choice of up to 16 individual dishes.

The itemised household expenses include “matting for the Quenes lodginge” and soap “for washing the Quenes linen”, along with the salaries of staff responsible for “mendinge the crome and scouring of armour” and “settinge up and making of bedstedes”.

Even though Mary was only occasionally permitted to ride, she continued to keep her own horses, and the accounts list stable expenses, such as lanterns, hay and the “showinge and medicyninge of the horses”. But the accounts also offer a reminder that Mary was a prisoner of the English crown as they list the salaries of 40 soldiers who kept watch over her.

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