Mary Queen of Scots' prayer book

Christie’s are about to auction a rare Book of Hours which reputedly once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Dr Jan Graffius, Curator of Historic Libraries and Collections at Stonyhurst College, looks at the story behind another of Mary’s Books of Hours, the famous British Jesuit Province prayer book which Mary took to her death and which now sits in the Stonyhurst Collection.

The Province’s Book of Hours of Mary, Queen of Scots is a beautiful, lavishly bound book of the Hours of the Virgin printed in 1558 in Lyon. The exterior is covered with a velvet chemise binding, a deliberately wasteful use of rich fabric. The velvet is deep red silk damask on the outside, and the inside has a long plush pile, pale fawn in colour, intended to resemble fur. Four gold tassels are attached to each corner.

The front has silver gilt letters reading MARIA, a gilt pomegranate and a Tudor rose. The back bears the letters REGINA and an enamelled coat of arms surmounted by a queen regnant’s crown. The owner is easily identified: the pomegranate was the badge of Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor rose was that of Henry VIII, and the royal arms on the back belonged to Mary Tudor.

The book was commissioned by Queen Mary I of England, the oldest daughter of Henry VIII around Easter 1558, but by November of that year Mary Tudor was dead, and the book was still in Lyon. It seems likely that the book passed to the dead queen’s cousin, Mary Stuart (who had married the French Dauphin earlier that year), possibly on the initiative of the printer, Robert Granjon, seeking payment for a book customised for a royal client at great expense.

In 1560 Mary Stuart returned to Scotland as an 18-year-old widow, taking the book with her. In 1568 she fled Scotland and sought help at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth kept Mary in close confinement for eighteen years, during which time Mary repeatedly attempted to escape and replace Elizabeth as queen in England. During all of this time, the book was in Mary’s possession.

Eventually Elizabeth’s patience ran out. On February 7th1586 Mary was informed that she was to die the following morning. She spent her last night settling her affairs, distributing her personal possessions amongst her ladies, Elizabeth Curle and Jane Kennedy, and praying. At this point the Province’s red velvet book passed from Mary, Queen of Scots to Elizabeth Curle. At seven the next morning the queen was taken into the great hall at Fotheringay, accompanied by Elizabeth and Jane. Mary carried a crucifix and Book of Hours and wore a blood-red petticoat and bodice, the colour of Catholic martyrs.

Elizabeth Curle was the sister of Gilbert, Mary’s trusted secretary, and had served the queen for eight years as her lady in waiting. After Mary’s execution, Elizabeth moved to Antwerp to join the substantial group of English and Scottish Catholics in exile and remained there until her death in 1620. She left the red velvet prayer book to her nephew Hugh Curle, who had joined the Society of Jesus, inspired by the execution of John Ogilvie in Glasgow in 1615. On his death in 1638, Hugh’s possessions passed to the Jesuits, and the book ended up at the English Jesuit Seminary at Liege.

Along with many other possessions of the Jesuits of Liège, it came to Stonyhurst in 1794, and has been kept in the Arundell Library there since 1857. The Province’s red velvet Book of Hours of Mary Stuart is a highly evocative relic of the 16th century Reformation, and a powerful connection with one of history’s most romantic figures. It is one of the most popular attractions for the thousands of school children and members of the public who visit Stonyhurst’s historic libraries and museum every year.

The Province Prayer Book remains one of the most highly regarded of the artefacts on display in the Stonyhurst College Museum.

Mary Queen of Scots' prayer book is up for sale at Christie's on 29th July, with an estimated auction price of £250,000 - £350,000. You can find out more about this in Tatler here

Janet Graffius is Curator of Historic Libraries and Collections at Stonyhurst College