There’s Something About Mary Queen of Scots: Bonus: Clare Hunter (Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power)

As a way to tie a bow on this season, we’re learning more about Mary, Queen of Scots’s inner life, motivations, and emotions through her use of textiles. I’m joined by author Clare Hunter, author of Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power, to discuss what we can learn about Mary from what she wore, and what she stitched.

Learn more about Clare and her work at her website

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Vulgar History Podcast

There’s Something About Mary, Queen of Scots: Bonus: Clare Hunter (Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power)

July 26, 2023

Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster, and this episode is part of our ongoing Mary, Queen of Scots series. Last week we reached the end of Mary’s life but her story lives on, obviously. This is an interview I recorded before I recorded any of the Mary episodes because it’s an interview with Clare Hunter. She is the author of a book called Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power. If that title sounds familiar to you, it’s because I’ve shouted it out in every single one of these episodes because it was one of my main sources for researching this entire season.

I read this book when I was just starting to do my research, which is why the interview was a while ago, and it really helped shape this whole season of the podcast. Because what Clare Hunter has done in this book, is what no other biographer of Mary, Queen of Scots has done before, which is to look at her life through the textiles she purchased, displayed, gifted, and created. So, what Clare says is, “In an age when textiles proclaimed power, Mary exploited them to advance her personal and political agenda, affirm her royal lineage, and tell her own story.” Clare also wrote here, “I felt that Mary was there, pulling at my sleeve, willing me to appreciate the artistry, wanting me to understand the dazzle of the material world that shaped her.” And so, this is a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots and it literally goes from her whole life just looking through this lens of fabric and the sewing that she did, and that other people did.

As we talked about in, like, every episode because this biography was so influential on my research, is that Mary during periods of time when she couldn’t safely write a journal, she couldn’t keep a diary, but she was able to sew and to stitch. And we really can see, both in what she chose to create and also in just the way that her stitches were, – were they even or uneven – what was her state of mind. Mary, Queen of Scots’s embroideries, I think you know from the previous episodes of this series, are so important to me, I find them so fascinating and it’s really, even more so than seeing letters or something, just evidence that this was a real person, who lived.

Anyway, I’m so excited to share this interview with you, finally, with Clare Hunter. Again, her book, Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power, it’s available in the UK and it’s going to be available in North America later this month. It’s such a good book and I really enjoyed talking with Clare about Mary, Queen of Scots, and the textiles of it all. So, enjoy.


Ann: Okay, so I’m joined today from an idyllic part of Scotland, it’s Clare Hunter. Welcome, Clare.

Clare: Thank you, Ann. Thank you for inviting me.

Ann: Yeah! I’m really excited. When I first read about your book I thought, I’m excited to read this book. And then when I read it, I thought, oh, I really hope I can get a chance to talk to Clare and have her on the podcast because I think it’ll be so interesting to the listeners.

Clare: And have you always been a Mary, Queen of Scots fan?

Ann: I’m a big Mary, Queen of Scots fan, yeah. Actually, here, I’m going to show you something. This is a little Mary, Queen of Scots doll I have.

Clare: Oh, that’s lovely!

Ann: Yeah! [both giggle] I keep her here while I’ve been researching her, she’s sort of my mascot. Can you tell me about your connection, as a Scottish person or as yourself, to Mary, Queen of Scots? Do you remember when you first felt an interest in her or a connection to her?

Clare: Well, of course being Scottish, she was a Scottish queen, but I think really when I was very small and us little girls used to play in the playground, and we used to pick dandelions. And the game then was one of you would try and blow off all the petals of the dandelion and as you did that, the rest of the girl gang would chant, “Mary, Queen of Scots got her head chopped off! Mary, Queen of Scots got her head chopped off!” So, we knew the name very early on and of course, in the times I was growing up, there used to be in toy shops the most wonderful historical dolls, which I could never afford, my parents could never afford to buy me. But Mary, Queen of Scots was amongst those dressed in her black velvet with the white veil and I used to yearn, look longingly through the shop window at the doll of Mary, Queen of Scots. And when I was writing the book then through eBay I got my Mary, Queen of Scots doll.

Ann: Oh, good!

Clare: Like you, I had her as a mascot on my desk as I wrote.

Also, I think, we were brought up really being taught the history of men in Scotland, and apart from Flora MacDonald and Mary, Queen of Scots, we didn’t hear about other women in past times and so she’s always been a feature of our kind of knowledge of Scottish history as a woman. So, yes, I’ve always had an interest.

And over time, you know, you would have the Four Marys song, you know, “Last nicht I saw but Four Marys.” Although actually, it’s not written about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her four female companions, the Four Marys, we always believed in Scotland it was and that was always sung at cèilidh and things like that.

So, she’s always been there in the background, so to speak, and I wanted to bring her more into my foreground through the prism of textiles. Obviously, there are hundreds of books written about Mary, Queen of Scots but they are mostly dealing with her personal and political life, through a historical idea, and I wanted to use her textiles as the focus to see what that might reveal of her that maybe hadn’t been revealed before.

Ann: I really appreciated your book because I’ve been researching her recently and I get something different from every book but yours was presenting– I’m hoping you could explain how you did some of the research, but you were looking at lists of what textiles were bought and when and then in your book, you relate them to what was happening in her life at that time. And that shows in a very tangible way, the way that other books kind of imagine what she was thinking, your book can say, “Well, here’s what she was planning, here are the textiles she was ordering. So, here’s what we know she was thinking, probably.” It’s a whole different way of seeing it.

Clare: Yes. And before I actually wrote the book, that was my hope. When I was researching it, I had discovered all the fantastic treasurers’ accounts during her reign. This is like her Amazon purchase list. So, it lists in detail all the thread, the fabrics, the clothes, the fees to tailors, it says how much she was buying, it says where that was coming from. Was it a Paris black? Was it a Venetian satin? Often it says the colour and also it says how much it costs. So, that was very interesting. So, I had all those.

The other thing that was there were all her inventories. So, both the inventories of her father, James V of Scotland, and her mother, Marie de Guise, which of course, Mary inherited when she came back to Scotland. The inventory of what Mary herself bought in France when she went to marry the Dauphin. And before she came back to Scotland, she obviously went on a massive spending spree and bought some fantastic gowns and some extraordinary bed hangings. Interestingly, only one set of church dressings, and furnishings, presumably because she was very aware that the Reformation happened, and Scotland was looking at decoration with askance, so she was very circumspect in what she brought back in ecclesiastical terms. And then there were the inventories of what was in the royal wardrobe store when she was Queen.

Quite a lot of the items had been annotated by her valet de chambre, Servais de Condé, and he would say what Mary did with those textiles; either with her own clothes or the clothes of Marie de Guise, her mother, or indeed what she did with the textiles that they had in store because in those days, fabric itself was kind of hoarded as treasure. Henry VIII, the King of England, basically, when he died there were over 55,000 yards of textiles in his store wardrobe. So, we’re talking about a large amount that were kept.

Now, she would basically distribute these, to ladies of the Scottish court whose friendship she was wanting to win. She gave them to her own Four Marys, the friends that I’ve talked about who had been with her since a child; and she gave them to them because she had actually worn them and they had more potency, as they say, it’s a gift of self. She gave them to some nobleman when she was trying to gain their favour. And indeed, she took out the store wardrobe, some of the clothes of her mother and had them adapted for her own use, including about five cloaks, which of course were symbolic of protection. So, all those inventories and latterly, then we have the last inventory of what she left behind when she fled to England, what she left behind in Scotland.

So, those inventories revealed a lot and some of those annotations that her valet de chambre made were dated. So, what I then was looking at was correlating what was happening in Mary’s life with what she was either purchasing or what she was using, what she was taking out of the store, and for what purpose. And what did that tell us about either her political intent or her emotions at the time?

Ann: Can you talk a bit about the fact that she wore black so much of the time when she was in Scotland? I thought that was very interesting.

Clare: Black in the mid-16th century, we’re talking about black, was the colour of statesmanship. So, Mary wore black in order to emphasize her role as a political queen as well as a personal queen to Scotland. It was also the colour of constancy, so again, it had an emotional symbolism behind it which meant that she would be loyal. I think it’s very interesting to look at how we have very few portraits of Mary, but the portraits we have, wearing her black, as you say, compared to the portraits of Elizabeth I of England at the same time was making of herself; Elizabeth was festooned in ribbons, and lace, and pearls, and huge ruffs and huge sleeves and farthingales, et cetera. She was trying to show herself as an expansive queen whereas Mary was trying to portray herself as a trustworthy queen who has got political acumen and is going to lead the country in an effective way. That’s why black was an important colour to her.

Behind the scenes, of course, at court revelries, or at masques, et cetera then there is another wardrobe, an alternative wardrobe, which is in her inventories and isn’t black. So, there must have been times when she changed out of her when she could take on a more social role amongst her own more intimate court, when she then donned gowns of all sorts of colours; silver, braided with gold, a whole other wardrobe of finery. But we have no portraits to allow us to know what that looked like.

Ann: I found it really interesting too, just the way that you were researching and writing this book, you really get a sense that she was a very aesthetic person, she loved fine things, she loved beautiful things, and you talk about how many dresses she had was… I don’t want to say disproportionate, but she couldn’t have possibly had a chance to wear all of them when she had such a large wardrobe.

Clare: Yes, but compared to the wardrobe of Elizabeth I, when Elizabeth I died, she had 2,000 gowns in her inventory. Mary, the final inventory, was basically under 20 gowns that she possessed at that time. Of course, she’d been in captivity for all those years before that and often, I don’t know because we have no record of it, but a number of Elizabeth’s gowns had been given to her as gifts from courtiers, from other European rulers looking to court her favour. It may well be that Mary herself– We have no listing of the gifts given to Mary, but it could well be that some of the gowns that she possessed were indeed gifts as barter.

Ann: Just speaking of that, there was one point at which Mary herself sent a gift to Elizabeth that included her own stitching, right?

Clare: She did. And again, this is a time when elite women are taking up embroidery as another form of writing, really, a different kind of agency. Before that, embroidery had mainly been in the hands of convents and monasteries. Also, the equipment and materials for embroidery were rougher and readier. But in the 16th century, we see it change, we see the Reformation coming so we see embroidery moving into secular hands more. We also see through Spain, finer needles being imported to the rest of Europe and so suddenly, finer embroidery can be done. I like to think of the ladies of the court, sitting, looking very docile with their heads bowed over their embroidery but actually listening to every single word that is being said around them and having their own private conversations about what that means politically.

So, when Mary was in captivity, as you see Ann, she then made Elizabeth a number of gifts, she made her embroidered nightcaps, but the most extraordinary gift she sent her… It was a time when Mary had a small window of opportunity, she’d lost Elizabeth’s favour because of the plots made against Elizabeth, in which Mary was implicated although not guilty at that point. Basically, she then decided there was a small window of opportunity and wrote these great letters to the French ambassador asking to be brought back the finest silk fabric that can be got, to get silver thread because she had some work to do but it must be done in haste. And then we get another letter saying, “The silver thread you sent is far too thick, could you send me a finer version of it?”

What she actually made for Elizabeth was a skirt front which was of entwined thistles and roses. It also had honeysuckles and pinks which are also symbolic but, as you know, the rose, the Tudor rose, was a symbol of English sovereignty and the thistle the symbol for Scotland. Red is the colour of blood bones. And the fact that Mary embroidered it with her own hand, Elizabeth being a needlewoman herself – because we have evidence of her embroidering as a girl – would have understood exactly how much time Mary had spent in this making. And it was reported back to Mary that Elizabeth, the English found it “Very nice,” which maybe wasn’t high enough praise for Mary at the time. But he also reported that he thought the English Queen had much softened toward Mary. So, the gift had served its political duty. It had done what she hoped it might do but it didn’t win her liberty.

Ann: I’m just going back to what you said a moment ago about how stitching became a way for these royal women to express themselves in a way. We don’t have their journals, but we can see based on what they chose to stitch, or how even the stitches are, maybe what was going through their mind. Can you talk a bit about, you mention this in your book, Catherine de’ Medici and the stitching that we know that she did, and Mary would have seen her doing that.

Clare: Yeah, it’s interesting with Catherine de’ Medici because we imagine her as this kind of formidable woman who engaged in black magic, et cetera. But there’s a wonderful, again, report of Catherine de’ Medici every afternoon sitting with what was called lattice work, which is a kind of open white network, on which you can embroider images. And if you imagine that she learned it in the convents in Italy, where she was put for safety when her life was threatened as the downfall of the Medici was underway. And then at 14, she was sent to France to marry Henry but of course, he had his mistress there, the intelligent cultured Diane de Poitiers, who was running the show.

So, it must have been really demoralizing for Catherine to find a way to manage this ménage à trois, between the three of them, and I imagine her every afternoon just thinking, “This is my time, I’m going to sit quietly and embroider, forget what has happened in my past, forget the challenges I have around me at the moment, and I’m just going to have an hour or two which is my time.” When she died, they discovered over a thousand pieces of that lattice work. So, it just shows you how important it was to her as a kind of therapeutic, in my view, aid, to keeping calm in what were very difficult circumstances. She was 10 years without children until she actually became pregnant, which for a queen was very dangerous because they could be done away with, basically, if they didn’t produce the wanted heir to the throne. So, she had a very, very difficult time.

Ann: And we know that Mary, Queen of Scots had various health issues. Obviously, there was a lot of mental anguish and stress from what was going on around her. So, I thought it was really interesting to bring it back to the embroidery that she did. You mentioned that she would be stitching while she was taking meetings with her advisors. She was just, kind of, constantly embroidering.

Clare: We don’t know much about her embroidery in Scotland, and we don’t have any evidence of that embroidery. But once she moved into captivity in England it became both a salve and a crusade in a sense because she had her letters censored and some confiscated. But her embroidery was unedited, she could, through her embroidery, put down what she wanted, and nobody could interfere.

The other thing about sewing, as many people listening will know, is that sewing is sociable. Mary had lived a very lonely time of it at the Scottish court; she had no family of her own apart from her half brothers and sisters who she hadn’t been brought up with. She had really no close friends apart from her Four Marys, who ultimately, apart from one, did marry and moved into their own families. She had nobody she could trust, and she had no great advisor, as Elizabeth did in William Cecil. So, she was very, very isolated. So, she moved to captivity, and one would have thought that was isolating, but actually, in her household, she had Bess of Hardwick who was a very redoubtable, spirited, energetic, creative, keen embroiderer, keen needlewoman; she had her own household with her valet de chambre, what were called her chamber children, and her ladies in waiting, et cetera.

And you can imagine that scene of a wet afternoon, of them all sitting around with their sewing, helping one another, saying, “Could you finish that off for me? Have you got any more of that brown thread?” Having a laugh as they devised embroideries that she and Bess did together, there’s a lot of mischief in there. I have spent many years doing community textile projects, and I know that if you get a group of women together to design something, then eventually, it becomes a ribald in its humour as stories are told and shared. It would have been the same in Mary’s day, it would have been exactly the same; there would have been a lot of laughter. So, finally in that, although a captive, she had camaraderie and that must have been a great solace to her, never mind the rhythmic solace that embroidery itself brings.

Ann: Can you describe the large project that it seemed she and Bess of Hardwick were working on together?

Clare: Yes, they worked on a set of bed hangings together. Again, this was very novel at the time what they decided to do because they decided to make it by using little patches of embroidery– Well, not that small actually; they’re about 12 inches by 14 inches, different shapes, cruciform, rectangles, et cetera, some were larger than others. But basically, to do these smaller pieces of embroidery which then would be appliqued to a large piece of cloth and act as probably bed hangings.

Luckily for us, because Bess was such a great creator of textiles and when she died, insisted in her will that the textiles remain within the family, we still have a number of both her and Mary’s embroideries and they can be seen at Oxford Hall in Norfolk. There are some in the V&A Museum in London and there are two of Mary’s and one of Bess’s in the palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. So, it’s fantastic to have those actual embroideries that they did together.

And their idea was that when they were assembled… Now, we don’t know what the scheme was, but the two women would have schemed that as you read through, and along, and up and down, the embroideries would have been placed in a relationship to each other, to basically amplify the meaning, one to the other. And so, sometimes that would have been done as I say, with mischief in mind, so you saw one image and look to the other and if you get the connection then you would understand that there was something clever that they had done with putting those two images together. Sadly, we don’t know what that arrangement was, and they used a lot of books that were coming out at the time, encyclopedias of flora and fauna, et cetera. They used a lot of those as source material. But often, particularly Mary, would adapt them, or add another motto to something to give them another meaning.

Ann: Can you talk about her stitchery or her piece that is ‘The Catte,’ the ginger cat with the mouse?

Clare: The ginger cat. Well, the ginger cat has to be my favourite piece, Ann. So, there’s an embroidery– Originally, her source material would have been a book by Conrad Gessner, his black and white woodcut that she has copied for that embroidery. But of course, because she’s embroidering it, she has coloured it in thread and she chose to make it a tabby cat, i.e., a red-brown cat, basically to personify it as Queen Elizabeth I. And she’s changed the expression of the cat a little bit from Conrad Gessner’s original. So, this cat is rather smug, and its whiskers are a little bit more aggressive.

But the most interesting thing is that she’s inserted herself into that picture, a little mouse. In Mary’s picture of that cat, its tail is out toward the mouse, but the cat’s paw is pressing very firmly on the mouse’s tail. And really, therefore, it was an expression of Mary’s own feelings about her captivity. And interestingly, the mouse is very lumpen, it’s very squalid, and it’s really as if Mary drew that herself. Again, if that’s the case, then it basically captures Mary’s own sense of lack of self-worth, her own emotional and political immobility at that time. So, there’s a tragedy in that picture, although it seems to be of a cat, but really, it’s about being trapped.

And I think that with Mary’s embroidery, she’s added again, that wasn’t in Gessner’s original, a trellis carpet that’s in blue and gold, quite patterned carpet. And I think, why did Mary spend all those hours doing that? The needle in those days was symbolic of an arrow piercing its target so I like to think Mary chose to embroider on and on with this particular piece to pierce through it and somehow to try and get through to Elizabeth, however curiously, and pull her close.

Ann: I love the way that you just described that. It’s similar in the book because upon first seeing a picture of that cat piece I thought, “That’s funny, that’s odd-looking. Is this true? Is that really something that Mary, Queen of Scots did?” because it’s so striking-looking and so interesting. And of course, it is. And then you visited, is at Hardwick Hall? Is that where you saw it?

Clare: No, it’s at Holyrood House.

Ann: Oh, at Holyrood House.

Clare: In Edinburgh, yes. I went to see it there and it was just fantastic to see it close up. They took it out of the case for me, which was wonderful, the curators there. And what was wonderful to me, it was the nearest I’d actually come to being in Mary’s presence, to see her; I couldn’t touch it, but I could be inches away from it and her embroidery was very unsettled. Mary wasn’t actually a fantastic embroiderer; she was more interested in the content rather than the technique. Bess was actually a very good embroiderer, and you can tell that from her stitching. So, Mary’s embroidery is uneven. You can see how it flows along for a while and then it stumbles and there’s a bit of erratic stitching going on until it starts to flow again.

So, her tenacity in terms of embroidery, that one embroidery I counted would be over 10,000 stitches. Now, Mary did both large numbers of these small pieces for these hangings that she and Bess did together, she also did some cushions, and when she went for her execution. And there was an inventory made of her possessions, there were over 300 pieces of embroidery that were mostly unfinished. But there are also other embroideries that we do not have but have been described. So, the amount of work, the amount of sewing that she did is extraordinary, and that’s why I call it a crusade. It was through her sewing that she was capturing her own testimony for posterity and particularly for her son, James I of England and VI of Scotland who, of course, she’d had to leave behind in Scotland when he was 10 months old and who she never saw again. He’d been brought up by the reformist nobles to believe his mother was an adulteress, was a murderer. So, she had to get her story, her real story, through to him, and she used embroidery to do that. We don’t have the actual embroidery, but we do have a description of it.

Ann: That’s so fascinating because so much has been written, including recently, about her letters and the way she wrote them in code and things like that. But just knowing that her embroidery was also a way for her to communicate.

Clare: Yes, and was also coded through its imagery and its relationship of an image to a motto then it’s a form of visual code as well. I was going to say only those who knew what she was referring to would be able to really understand what she was saying in a piece.

Ann: Of the embroideries that exist, if people want to be able to see them in person. The Catte, that’s at Holyrood House. Hardwick Hall you write in your book as well, there’s…

Clare: Hardwick Hall has two cushions by Mary, one is usually on display. It’s also got a large number of embroideries by Bess of Hardwick. Hardwick Hall itself is the most fabulous place to visit for anybody who is interested in textiles, just because it’s a glorious place to see. Bess built it to basically counter the accusation that she was an ambitious woman, which was seen as something terrible in the 16th century, so she built this extraordinary, the most beautiful place in England at the time. And because she was such a creative person, it’s an extraordinary building and filled with tapestries and textiles because she adored them so much.

And then Oxford Hall in Norfolk, which again is completely charming in itself, has a large number of both Mary and Bess’s embroideries. They’ve been assembled onto green velvet at some point in past centuries, we’re not sure when. So, you can see a large number, 30 of them I think are verified as Mary’s because they carry her monogram, or her cipher, or have a thistle, or something that’s a reference to Scotland. Others, we are uncertain if it was her or Bess who made them. But if you look very closely at the stitching then you can hazard a guess.

Ann: Mm-hm. Based on the technique, as you were describing.

Clare: They used the same technique, but Bess was a finer needlewoman.

Ann: Actually, just as we’re speaking of Bess of Hardwick, can you describe – I thought this was so fascinating – the project that she had commissioned which was textile portrayals of famous women from history?

Clare: Yes. Well, these are at Hardwick Hall, and it is just amazing to see them because they are as rich, obviously, the colours will have faded a bit, but she used the recycled vestments that had been confiscated during the English Reformation. They were obviously the work of professional embroiderers but Bess probably, and Mary when she came into Bess’s husband’s care, would possibly have stitched on them as well. They are life-sized images of women through time, through mythology, through history, as a kind of celebration of women’s courage, intelligence, vitality, and importance and they are absolutely extraordinary, beautifully displayed at Hardwick Hall. So, another treat for anybody who goes there.

Ann: And just pivoting back from Mary and Bess and their stitching itself, back to the textiles that she would have acquired, something else I was hoping you could describe was how you write about her execution and her ensemble and what the significance of that. Can you describe what you found out?

Clare: Well, of course, you have that image of Mary walking to what was her execution. She wears her iconic black robe, the gown, and a trailing white veil, which of course, white was the colour of innocence as well as the colour of spirituality. And then she’s taken onto what was a black velvet-clad platform; executioners are dressed in black and around her are the great and the good of men of both the court and the locality in black. There’s a fire blazing in the fireplace. And then it comes to the point when Mary has to kneel down in order to have, sadly, her head chopped off.

Two of her ladies-in-waiting prepare her and they take off her outer gown to reveal her undergown which isn’t a petticoat, it’s just an undergown, which was a fiery red which is the liturgical colour in the Catholic faith of martyrdom. And then they remove her black sleeves to, again, reveal undersleeves of red. And so, there is this glow of Mary in amongst all this black walking to her death in a moment of sartorial triumph as a martyr because this is the colour of martyrdom. And Mary until the very end was using her textiles as statements, as declarations of who she was.

Ann: I had heard before that she had the reveal of the red at her execution but the way that you described it and the meaning of it and in the context of your whole book where you’re saying, she was silenced in so many ways but through her textile work, she’s screaming. You can really see.

Clare: Absolutely. And of course, it’s being heard by us now, which is wonderful. It did reach an audience, you know. At the time not, maybe. Although, I like to think that wearing the red, yes, the colour of martyrdom. But also, Elizabeth I’s mother, Anne Boleyn, when she was executed, had also worn red. So, I like to think that Mary had a double intent there, that she was also echoing Anne Boleyn’s execution as a reminder to Elizabeth I that actually, women are brought down by the greed of men when often they are innocent.

Ann: I find it so, you were saying she was giving these messages and now today we can understand them and through your book, with your experience and your knowledge of textiles and stitching, you are kind of the translator. You’re saying, “Here’s what she was doing,” and you can explain, “Here’s what that means.” So, I really appreciate that.

Clare: Yes. And it would be interesting, Ann, to know, if you took other people, I mean Catherine de’ Medici, her inventories are fascinating. There are other people if you did that same approach to women, what would be revealed about them that we’ve never been told by what has largely been male documented of the time, contemporary to those women, or male historians later on, who had no interest in textiles and the interior world that these women were surrounded by. Women at court lived mainly in interior worlds; they did hunt, they did go out, et cetera but the world of their power was mainly interior, so the interiors were an important background to their presence.

Ann: How did you first get the idea to look at these inventories?

Clare: My first book, Threads of Life, was about the social, emotional, and political significance of sewing. One of the chapters was really about power and I chose Mary, Queen of Scots as my central figure for that chapter and from my little research discovered the inventories. Because she was just part of one chapter, there was absolutely no way I could then really go into what those inventories could tell us and that’s why I thought, “Actually, there might be another book that is just about Mary and then I could really use these inventories.” And not just the inventories of her, but of her father, of her mother, and Catherine de’ Medici’s inventories as well. I looked at inventories made when Mary was a child at the court of France, which lists all the extraordinary child attire she was wearing, Venetian satins and silks and cloths of silver and gold when she was 11 years of age.

And so, all of them are really, really fascinating for what they tell us of the kind of importance– Mary in France was a political prize, so she was dressed as such. When she comes back to Scotland, I love the fact that for her first parliament, she and her Four Marys spent quite a large amount of money on dressing her Four Marys in the ceremonial clothes of purple velvet. And they were young, they were all 17, 18-year-olds. So, to have them processing the High Street in Edinburgh with their long trains fanning out behind them, sparkling in their jewels was an extraordinary declaration of female power at that time.

Ann: Everyone who has listened to this episode, I would imagine is going to run away and go read your book right away because everything that you’ve just described, there’s so much more of exactly this sort of discussion in your book. So, I really encourage everybody to look at it. I believe it’s been out in Scotland and in the UK for a while now, it’s only just coming out in North America. Have you had any feedback from readers?

Clare: Yes, very nice feedback. Luckily for me, when you’re writing a book that’s based on historical fact then you’re terrified that you’re going to get lots of emails saying, “Actually no, it was a Tuesday, not a Wednesday that Mary, Queen of Scots met Darnley, her husband,” that kind of thing. So, luckily, a couple of small things but nothing major. And yes, both when I go and do book events, it’s always lovely when you get emails from people just telling you, “I just had to write because actually, I really found your book fascinating. I really enjoyed it; I learned so much more about Mary.” Obviously, what I was hoping to do with this book was to reveal Mary in a much broader way than she’s usually shown, through her textiles, and give people a different kind of insight into her both as a woman and as a queen. From the feedback I get, it seems the book has achieved that which makes me very happy.

Ann: Of the many things I appreciated about your book, it also really presents her as a person because so many of the writings about her are saying… She comes across as a victim of circumstance and saying, here’s what John Knox was doing and here’s what her brother was doing, and she was just kind of flailing around. But your book really puts her at the centre, who is she, what was she doing, and what were her actions? And I really appreciated that.

Clare: And Mary was a very intelligent, very highly educated woman. Although in many people’s eyes, she made some very poor decisions, she took her own political risks, she did weigh up what– People would have her marrying Darnley, her second husband and then Bothwell from passion, but I actually don’t think Mary was a passionate person in that sense. I think she cared for her position as the Queen of Scotland, as basically appointed by God. She was a very devout person and she saw this as something that she had to safeguard, not for her own aggrandizement, but because it was what she was put into the world to do and her marriages were all expedient in her eyes at that particular time, at that specific time.

People would have to read the book to go into the details behind those but there is a lot of evidence there that Mary was choosing carefully how she approached her life and her reign and then it all got out of control as she then became, basically, too difficult, too challenging for her to do. And as I say, she had no one advising her, nobody she could trust around her whereas Elizabeth I always had William Cecil at her back as her protector. Mary did not have a protector; she was having to make her own way.

Ann: And I would say… At the point that this episode is coming out, people will have heard six hours of me talking about Mary, Queen of Scots, but I think she did the best she could given the circumstances, better than a lot of other people in this same role, I would think.

Clare: Given the circumstances. And if you think of the circumstances of her father dying when she was just days old, sent away from her mother at the age of 5 to the French court, even her Four Marys taken away from her at that point so she could absorb the culture of the French court and the language without them around her. Then losing her first husband Francois II in terrible circumstances, with her at his bedside as he died, the real love of her life at that point, and her a widow not wanted in France, didn’t know where else to go in Europe and came back to Scotland that was not very enthusiastic about her return. And then married Darnley, her second husband who of course then was murdered, she was implicated in the crime and then forced to marry Bothwell for different reasons, which again, I won’t go into. And then basically, very shortly after they married, being defeated and imprisoned. And she was 24. She had born a son, had miscarried, had had her life threatened on numerous occasions and basically then at 24 is imprisoned with nothing around her. It was two gentlemen at the very start of that and then eventually, she fled in captivity in England.

So, in that way a tragic, tragic life and then the odd glimmer we get of her when she’s, the few moments where everything seemed to be going well, then we have a charismatic queen, somebody who is energetic, who is very intelligent, who is spirited and courageous but who is brought down by the ambitions of those around her.

Ann: Yeah, it was just the, I don’t want to say perfect, but a storm of so many people, things that had been happening long before she was alive, the political climate, it was just too much for her. Too much for anyone.

Clare: Yes, absolutely.

Ann: Well thank you so much. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about all of this stuff.

Clare: Thank you for inviting me as I say.

Ann: When I was planning these episodes, I asked my listeners, “What are you excited to learn about Mary, Queen of Scots?” And somebody said, “I want to learn more about her embroidery.” And I said, “Oh, oh there’s going to be a whole episode just about that. [laughs] Just wait.” Thank you so much again.

Clare: I’ll have to listen to the others as well. Take care, Ann.


So, Clare’s book is called Embroidering Her Truth: Mary, Queen of Scots and the Language of Power, it’s available now in the UK, and it’s going to be available in North America later this month on August 22nd apparently. And I wanted to let you know also about what Clare is up to if you want to know more about what she does. So, she has another book that is called Threads of Life and there is a chapter in that about Mary, Queen of Scots but it is also talking about just other women in history and their life through sewing. So, Threads of Life, it explores the power of sewing and why so many of its stories have been forgotten. It’s so interesting. That one is available all over the place, it’s already out.

She also has a website that’s called Sewing Matters. This website, she writes, is a place that:

You can read about, explore, and discover the social, emotional, and political significance of needlework. While writing my books, I have come across many fascinating, forgotten, little-known, and overlooked stories of sewing. It is these that I want to share and invite you to tell your own. 

So, Clare has been involved in the last 30 years, she’s been involved with textiles as a community artist, exhibition curator and banner maker. In 1986 she set up NeedleWorks in Glasgow,

Working with people of all ages and cultures using sewing as a way to celebrate local history, document community experiences and share personal concerns through the creation of wall hangings and banners. 

I love her work; I love talking with her. I encourage you to read her book, Embroidering Her Truth and also Threads of Life. Links to both of those will be in the show notes. Also, just go to her website which is, I’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well.

Next week we’re going to be getting to the final episode of the Mary saga which is not to say the final episode of this season. We’re going to be looking at Mary’s legacy and we’re going to be talking about her score, the Scandalicious score. It’s going to be a whole discussion; some special guests are going to be coming with their thoughts about how she’s going to score in all the various categories. There are also going to be some special awards and things. Anyway, just wrapping up Mary’s saga as a whole is going to be next week. So, I am looking forward to sharing that with you all. Also note, after that, there are going to be more episodes in this season because there are a couple more people from Mary, Queen of Scots’s life who are worth their own episodes. Stay tuned for that as well.

Anyway, this is Vulgar History, my name is Ann Foster, and you can keep up with me on various social medias. I want to clarify, I don’t mean, “Join all the social medias and follow me on them!” I just mean that if you happen to be on one of these things, look for me there!  So, I’m on TikTok @VulgarHistory, I’m on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod. I’m now, ironically, given the topic of this episode and the title of this book, I’m on Threads @VulgarHistoryPod.

I also have a Patreon which is, and when you join there, by giving a small monthly donation, you get early ad-free access to all episodes of this podcast as well as, depending on what level you donate at, you also get access to our special bonus episodes including Vulgarpiece Theatre, where I talk about costume dramas. The episodes of Vulgarpiece Theatre generally are longer than the movies themselves that we talk about. I think that’s all the reminders.

Oh! Merch, obviously. Merch store. So, speaking of Mary, Queen of Scots and her stitching and her cat stitching, there is a newish design in the merch store, which is inspired by Mary, Queen of Scots’s ‘Catte’ embroidery, which is a much less depressing image because it was drawn by Jan Jupiter, my frequent collaborator from the Netherlands. It says ‘A Catte’ but instead of the orange cat representing Elizabeth, it is a tortoiseshell cat representing my cat Hepburn, who is next to me as I say this. And instead of a lump of a mouse representing Mary, Queen of Scots being depressed, it’s a happy little mouse who is just chilling. So anyway, it’s just gorgeous. You can get this design on T-shirts, stickers, mugs, and all kinds of things but you can also get it on a pillow cover. I ordered one for myself and it just arrived, and I love it, it’s maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever owned. So, I have my own treason cushion and it brings me great joy.

Anyway, there are two different merch stores, and I did that because if you’re in the US, TeePublic seems to work really well for you. You can get to that one just by going to If you live not in the US, the shipping is better through a service called Redbubble and you can get the merch, all the same designs, at Again, all those links are in the show notes.

Thank you so much for joining me on this journée, this ongoing saga of Mary, Queen of Scots and yeah, next week we’re going to be looking at her score and all that sort of thing. So, until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out.

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at


Learn more about Clare and her work at her website

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