Silver casket Mary, Queen of Scots was thought to own acquired for nation

The item, made in Paris between 1493 and 1510, is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Lucinda Cameron
Thursday 19 May 2022 12:07
The casket has been acquired for the nation (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)
The casket has been acquired for the nation (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)

An “extraordinary” silver casket believed to have been owned by Mary, Queen of Scots has been acquired for the nation.

It is thought the small box was given to Mary by her first husband, Francois II of France, and came to Scotland with her in 1561 after his death in 1560.

The casket has now been acquired by National Museums Scotland (NMS) from Lennoxlove House Ltd, its owner since the middle of the 20th century.

It has been obtained 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.

Made in Paris, probably between 1493 and 1510, the casket is described as a superb and extremely rare work of early French silver, very little of which survives, even in France.

The casket is made of French silver (Stewart Attwood/National Museums Scotland/PA)

Chris Breward, director of NMS, said: “This extraordinary casket is truly one of Scotland’s national treasures. Venerated as a relic of Mary for centuries, it is believed to represent a momentous and disastrous moment in her turbulent life.

“Beyond this, the magnificence of the piece speaks to a queen at the height of her powers, wealth and position.

“I am delighted that this beautiful object has been acquired for the nation and I am grateful to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, and all the individuals whose generosity has made this acquisition possible.”

The casket is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

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 which 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.

The authorship of the letters remains a subject of debate but it is widely thought 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.

Simon Thurley, chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which contributed £810,000 towards the acquisition, said: “We are really excited to support the acquisition of this remarkable casket.

“Not only will Memorial Funding bring an object of great national importance into public ownership, it will bring to life the story and secrets of the casket and of Mary, Queen of Scots to a whole new generation of visitors at the National Museum of Scotland.”

The Scottish Government contributed £200,000 towards the acquisition.

Scottish culture minister Neil Gray said: “Quite apart from the colourful history associated with the item given the belief that it belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots, the silver casket is a stunning work of art in its own right.”

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