Casket believed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots to come to the Stirling Smit

A silver casket believed to have been owned by Mary, Queen of Scots and which was acquired by National Museums Scotland in 2022 has undergone fresh conservation work ahead of going on tour to Kirkcudbright and Stirling.

An iconic piece of Scotland’s national heritage, the casket will go on display at Kirkcudbright Galleries from 2 November 2024 – 27 April 2025 then at Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum from 30 April – 31 August 2025. Its display at both venues is supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.

To prepare the casket for the tour, centuries of tarnish and corrosion have been removed. The technique of electrolytic reduction was used via a pen-like device, allowing the delicate gold and silver surfaces to be cleaned in a highly controlled and targeted manner without the need for any abrasive polishing.

Made in Paris, probably between 1493 and 1510, the casket is a superb and extremely rare work of early French silver, very little of which survives, even in France. It is likely that its long-standing association with Mary has kept it preserved for over 450 years.

For three centuries, it was owned by the family of the Dukes of Hamilton, following its acquisition, around 1674, by Anne, Duchess of Hamilton. According to a handwritten note stored with it from the late 17th century, she bought the casket, previously owned by Mary, Marchioness of Douglas, on the understanding that it had belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

The note records the belief that this is the casket which played a dramatic role in Mary’s downfall when, in December 1568, a similar casket was produced at a hearing ordered by Elizabeth I against Mary at Westminster. This contained what have become known as the Casket Letters. These love poems and letters, allegedly from Mary to her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, implicated them both in a conspiracy to murder her second husband, Lord Darnley.

Dr Anna Groundwater, Acting Keeper of Scottish History and Archaeology at National Museums Scotland said:

“One of Scotland’s national treasures, this extraordinary casket has been venerated as a relic of Mary, Queen of Scots for centuries, and I’m delighted that more people will have the opportunity to see it up close when it goes on tour later this year. Beyond its connections to one of Scotland’s most famous figures, it is a rare and spectacular piece of historic silver in its own right.”

It is thought that the casket was given to Mary by her first husband, François II of France, and came to Scotland with her in 1561 after his death in 1560. Her inventories from this time list multiple examples of precious jewellery and other such valuable objects.

A casket first appears in the records following Mary’s arrest in 1567 by the rebellious Confederate Lords, when it is discovered in the hands of Lord Bothwell’s servant. It was brought before the Scottish Privy Council where its lock was struck off to reveal its contents. Precisely what these were at that moment is unknown. However, a year later, when the Earl of Moray dramatically produced the same casket at Westminster, it now contained the damning Casket Letters.

The authorship of the letters remains a subject of debate, but it is widely thought that they were doctored. Following the hearing at Westminster, Mary remained in English captivity for 19 years, until she was executed in 1587 for her involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, and place Mary on the English throne.

Caroline Mathers, Director of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum said:

 “The Smith Art Gallery and Museum is delighted to be partnering with the National Museum of Scotland to bring the Mary, Queen of Scots Casket to Stirling. This extraordinary treasure gives us a glimpse into the life of a Queen who has captured imaginations around the world for hundreds of years. A story of power, oppression and ultimately, betrayed. It’s as good a story as it gets.”

The casket was acquired for the nation in 2022 for £1.8 million thanks to support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, the Scottish Government and several trusts, foundations and individual donors.

Its display in Kirkcudbright and Stirling is supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund. Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.

Sophia Weston, Deputy Chair of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said:

“One of the key aims of the Weston Loan Programme is to bring world class objects to regional museums so that they can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. We are delighted to support the display of this very special piece of Scottish history in Kirkcudbright and Stirling where it can be seen in a new context by local audiences.”

The tour of the Mary, Queen of Scots casket is part of National Museums Scotland’s National Strategy, which sees collections and expertise shared through loans, participation in national projects, community engagement, funding for acquisitions and free knowledge and skills development opportunities for museums across Scotland.

Over 2500 objects are currently on loan to Scottish organisations, bringing the National Collection to audiences across the country. These include two rare, decorative panels dating from the 16th and 17th centuries which feature in Perth Museum’s debut exhibition Unicorn and an 800-year-old Bishop’s crook, or crozier – made from gilt bronze and adorned with enamel inlay – which has recently gone on display in Whithorn Priory Museum.

Find out more about Mary, Queen of Scots and some of the objects associated with her in National Museums Scotland’s collection here.

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