A copy of a letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, June 1569: Bess between two queens

Letter ID: 220

The honeymoon period did not last long. In 1568, Queen Elizabeth I entrusted the newlywed Shrewsbury and Bess with the onerous task of keeping Mary, Queen of Scots. From this point on, there were three people in the marriage and it was a relationship dominated by the woman who was in their custody for sixteenth years, until November 1584. As a Catholic and blood relative of Queen Elizabeth, and therefore a claimant to the throne, the Scots Queen represented a serious national security threat and the focus of endless treacherous plots and intrigues. Bess and Shrewsbury were forever required to move her, along with her extensive royal retinue, between their numerous properties, trailing for miles along muddy roads. External circumstances had thrust to couple onto the political centre stage and into a situation more physically and psychologically demanding, not to mention financially draining, beyond which either of them could possibly have imagined.

The letter from the Scots Queen that is the subject of this section is undated but was apparently written during Shrewsbury's collapse with gout in June 1569, a rare brief period when Bess served as loan keeper. The situation was, as ever, under careful daily security by Lord Burghley and members of the Privy Council, who received regular reports; in this instance, Sir John Zouch and Ralph Sadler were sent as stand-by gaolers and to check on security levels.

It is one of only two letters we have from the Scots Queen to Bess. Both are copies, this one being a copy made by Edinburgh historian and poet John Pinkerton (1758-1826), allegedly from a sixteenth-century original. We can see in the letter that Pinkerton reproduced the Scots Queen's distinctive spellings, which include Scots forms such as quholey WHOLEY, nicht NIGHT, quin QUEEN and thaym THEM. These spellings would suggest the original was written in the Scots Queen's own hand, and remind us of the range of different writing systems to which Bess was exposed through her diverse range of correspondents.

Without an original, it is, of course, impossible to verify with absolutely certainly that this was an actual letter sent to Bess rather than a modern (eighteenth- or nineteenth-century) fake. The spurious status of the document is in many ways typical of the saga of the Scots Queen, where nothing is ever quite what it seems. Rather appropriately, in the letter the Scots Queen mentions the plots and 'double dealling' that surrounded her and so dramatically transformed epistolary transactions into and out of Bess and Shrewsbury's households. The Scots Queen's ciphered and semi-coded letters repeatedly turned up in the most unlikely of places, and at times implicated members of the household. As a result, Bess and Shrewsbury were forever searching crevices and corners, and the incessant stalking and shadowing gradually took its toll on Shrewsbury's physical and mental health.

That Bess was directly involved in these monitoring procedures is glimpsed in a letter sent from her step-son and son-in-law Gilbert Talbot in c.1577. Gilbert passes on intelligence to Bess that: 'there are ij Scotts yat travell with lynen clothe to sell yat have lettres of importance to this Quene thone of them is brother to curle' (i.e. there are two Scots disguised as travelling linen sellers who have important letters for the Scots Queen, one of them is the brother of Gilbert Curl, servant and secretary to the Scots Queen) ID 084.

In this climate of relentless surveillance everyone was potentially the bearer of a secret letter and every letter was under suspicion. It was as if Bess's household had become a living Panopticon: every person monitored and monitoring others, every epistolary exchange surreptitiously scrutinised for signs of espionage and every situation a potential security risk. The Scots Queen's 'double dealling' gave rise to a kind of 'double speak' that permeated all household interactions, from conversations between Bess and her husband to the purchase of linen from travelling salesmen.

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References and Further Reading

  • An account of the captivity of the Scots Queen in England under the custodianship of Shrewsbury and Bess is provided by John Guy, My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (London: Fourth Estate, 2004).
  • The role of letters in intelligence is reviewed in Robyn Adams and Rosanna Cox (eds), Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, Early Modern Literature in History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and James Daybell, 'Secret Letters in Elizabethan England', in Material Readings of Early Modern Culture: Texts and Social Practices 1580-1730, ed. by James Daybell and Peter Hinds (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  • An authoritative account of the development of the Scots language is provided by Jeremy J. Smith, Older Scots: A Linguistic Reader, Scottish Text Society Fifth Series (Edinburgh/Woodbridge: The Scottish Text Society/Boydell Press, 2012).
  • An overview of John Pinkerton as a man of letters, collector of manuscripts and forger is provided by Sarah Couper, 'Pinkerton, John (1758-1826)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22301external site, subscription required; accessed 12 Aug 2012]: doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22301.
  • Further examples of John Pinkerton's handwriting, which confirm this letter is copied by him, can be seen in The Pinkerton Papers, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MSS 1709-21, 'Correspondence of the antiquary, John Pinkerton, with materials and notes accumulated by him in connexion with works which he published or projected', National Library of Scotland Catalogue of Manuscripts Acquired Since 1925, Vol. 1, p. 201. For example, Pinkerton's hand can be found in MS 1709, his correspondence, which includes some of his own letters to his wife, and MS 1717, a copy of the Gest of King Horn transcribed by Pinkerton in his own hand.
  • An example of Shrewsbury intercepting suspicious letters and then forwarding these to Bess for her perusal is found in ID 154. The Talbot Papers at Lambeth Palace Library contain numerous examples of letters related to Shrewsbury and Bess's monitoring of the Scots Queen's letters and suspicions over various members of the household; further discussion will appear in Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings of Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013


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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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