Mary Queen of Scots and her ‘Lawis’: a powerful expression of royal authority
In the second of our short series of student posts, one of this year’s graduates reflects on a book she encountered in Special Collections.
Mary Queen of Scots was a competent monarch who understood her Scottish kingdom and was, in 1566, here to stay. This is hardly the orthodox view of Mary.
She is a queen who has been characterised in history and popular culture as either a whore or a martyr. The University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections copy of The actis and constitutiounis of the realme of Scotland : maid in Parliamentis haldin be the rycht excellent, hie and mychtie princeis Kingis Iames the First, Secund, Thrid, Feird, Fyft, and in tyme of Marie now Quene of Scottis, viseit, correctit, and extractit furth of the registers be the Lordis depute be hir Maiesteis speciall commissioun thairto : Anno Do. 1566 (Typ BE.B66LH) gives us a rare glimpse into what Mary saw as her own role as monarch and her legacy.
The Actis was produced to be the primary authoritative text on the law in Scotland. The preface states that it is ‘the office of the Souerane powar’, and Mary’s duty, to administer justice. Mary commanded seven earls, three bishops, three civil servants and five legal experts to produce the Actis. This showed the importance attached to a project which was intended to be produced as a piece practical kit, to be used by advocates to inform their administration of justice. As a working book this copy certainly has seen wear and tear. There are several circular annotations where its owners have marked up relevant sections. Unfortunately, this copy has also seen some damage – always a risk with a well-used book!
What type of person would have bought such an elaborate book? You would have needed a certain degree of wealth to store it, let alone afford to purchase it. It contains elaborate typographical designs with triangular forms and copious expensive blank space. The ornate, and original, clasps on this copy demonstrate that this was not an everyday purchase. Moreover, as well as wealth you would need to be literate in both Scots and Latin even to read it.
In addition to having a very practical purpose, the Actis was also an implicit expression of royal majesty and the power of the Stewart dynasty.
The first leaf of the Actis is a large woodcut of the royal arms of Scotland. It contains key symbols of the Scottish monarchy; the Honours of Scotland, with the imperial crown, sceptre and sword, the unicorn and the lion, and the insignia of the Order of the Thistle with a floral collar surrounding the central shield with the figure of St Andrew. With these symbols Mary shows herself to be a monarch who was actively creating and participating in a tradition of royal majesty. Mary was a queen who was deeply aware of the significance, and power, of her royal Stewart image.
The Queen who commissioned the Actis of 1566 was an active and competent monarch fulfilling the vital duty of ensuring justice throughout her realm.
Certainly, it is time for historians to reassess Mary’s personal rule and not overlook her successes.
MA (Hons) Modern History, University of St Andrews (2016-2020)
MPhil in Early Modern History, University of Cambridge (2020- )
The actis and constitutiounis of the realme of Scotland : maid in Parliamentis haldin be the rycht excellent, hie and mychtie princeis Kingis Iames the First, Secund, Thrid, Feird, Fyft, and in tyme of Marie now Quene of Scottis, viseit, correctit, and extractit furth of the registers be the Lordis depute be hir Maiesteis speciall commissioun thairto : Anno Do. 1566. University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections Typ BE.B66LH and a digitised copy at ESTC, S116673
Dickson, Robert and Edmonds, J.P., Annals of Scottish printing from the introduction of the art in 1507 to the beginning of the seventeenth century (Cambridge, 1890)
Goodare, Julian, The Government of Scotland 1560-1625 (Oxford, 2004)
Mann, Alistair J., The Scottish Book Trade, 1500-1720 (East Linton, 2000)