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Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick's Oxburgh Hangings

These beautiful pieces of embroidery are the work of two of Britain's most important women: the exiled Mary Queen of Scots, and the formidable Elizabethan courtier, Bess of Hardwick. While Mary Queen of Scots needs no introduction, Bess’s story is one of rags to riches; from being the daughter of a country squire she became the richest woman in England, after the Queen. Though not always popular with Elizabeth I, in 1569 she and her husband, George Talbot, were given the 'honour' of acting as the jailers to Mary Queen of Scots at Tutbury Castle. This would prove a testing experience for the couple, and may well have contributed to - or even caused - the breakdown of their marriage.

These 33 pieces of embroidery, known as the Oxburgh Hangings, offer a fascinating insight into this period of Bess and Mary's lives. Just imagine these two women, side by side, intent on their needlework, one a prisoner, the other the jailer. What did they speak about? Did they speak at all? The execution of these panels suggests a kind of friendship, or was it simply a way to pass the time? Embroidery was, after all, one of the main domestic pursuits for elite women of this period.

The initials of Bess and Mary are seen here entwined: ET (Elizabeth Talbot) and MR (Mary Regina)

The stitching is exceptionally detailed and accomplished, especially in the panels depicting plants and trees. These designs were unlikely to have been created purely from the imagination, most would have been copied from wood-cut illustrations in emblem books and natural histories (of the kind which Bess's two granddaughters, Elizabeth and Aletheia Talbot, would author some years later), or stories from classical literature or contemporary folklore. Each image is carefully labelled. Some are simple: ' A Stork from the Mountains', 'Knotted Serpents', whilst some are clearly being used by the Scottish Queen as symbols for her predicament. See the pastoral image below, with the label 'Virescit Vulnere Virtus' ('Virtue flourishes by wounding') placed with the royal arms of Scotland and Mary's monogram. Is this an insight into the inner thoughts of Mary in her captivity? A symbol of her strength during a period of struggle? It is certainly tempting to think so.

The Oxburgh Hangings are on permanent loan from the V&A at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

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