Acts of Union : Royal Marital Portraits in MS 316

The iconography of marriage in the medieval and early modern eras often reflected the union of houses or interests, and not of individuals. As we saw in our discussion of coats of arms in Sion College MS L40.2/L26, marriages between members of aristocratic families tended to be framed in dynastic terms, with status, political allegiance, landholdings and inheritance rights inherent to the union, and the newlywed couple merely embodying these concerns. Nowhere were the stakes of marriage higher than in royal families. Military, economic and religious alliances were strengthened or undermined by the success, failure or broader ramifications of royal unions. In such marriages, the state of the nation took precedence over matters of the heart, and artistic commemorations of these unions tend to stress the personal qualities of the newlyweds far less than their dynastic prestige.

James II and Marie of Guelders, fol. 12r.
James II and Marie of Guelders, fol. 12r.

One of the treasures of Lambeth Palace Library charmingly illustrates the marriages of the monarchs of Scotland, with the royal couples symbolically embodying the international framework of their unions. MS 316, “an armorial of the kings, nobility, lairds and chiefs of Scotland”, was largely executed between 1560 and 1565, and came to Lambeth Palace in the collection of Archbishop Sheldon (d. 1677). Alongside coloured coats of arms for more than sixty peers and hundreds of clans, the manuscript contains full-page paintings of the royal achievement of Scotland, fourteen double portraits of monarchs with their spouses, and solo portraits of John Balliol, Mary, Queen of Scots, and an unknown son of David II. The manuscript was almost certainly commissioned by Sir Robert Forman of Luthrie, Lord Lyon King of Arms between 1555 and 1567 and accordingly Scotland’s foremost expert in heraldry. Forman is thought to have commissioned two other armorials– now Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland Advocates MS 31.4.2 and London, British Library MS Harley 115 – at about the same time, possibly employing the same artist for all three works. Differing from earlier armorials, such as the “Lyndsay of the Mount” Armorial of c. 1542, by combining royal heraldry and human figures, the iconography of these Forman manuscripts is echoed in the later armorial known as the Seton Armorial, of c. 1590, implying an appreciation of this new presentation of royal heraldry well into the reign of James VI.

Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ and Margaret of Wessex, fol. 3r.
Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ and Margaret of Wessex, fol. 3r.

 The double portraits from fol. 3r to fol. 16r present idealised and anachronistic images of the royal couples, with the kings in gleaming suits of armour and tabards, and queens consort from Margaret of Wessex (d. 1093) to Mary of Guise (d. 1560) dressed in tight-fitting gowns with starched ruffs, elaborate latticework partlets and puffed or slashed sleeves – the height of fashion in the 1560s. While the kings’ tabards all display the lion rampant of Scotland, the exposed foreparts of each queen’s skirts bear the arms of her dynasty: the cross and martlets attributed to the House of Wessex for Margaret; the three rampant lions of Clan Ross for Euphemia de Ross (d. 1386); the quartered arms of England for Margaret Tudor (d. 1541). Each of the queens holds a thistle in her right hand, symbolising her wooing by Scotland; the explanatory captions, bordered with acanthus leaves, are surmounted with cherubs, flowers, heraldic beasts and even wedding rings. Some queens glance away shyly, others look their husbands directly in the eye; some have flyaway strands of hair escaping from under their crowns. Likewise, some kings are beardless, some hold their ceremonial swords with uncertainty, and James II (d. 1460) has even turned his back to the viewer in order to face his bride. Although these portraits are drawn to a pattern, such details give the impression of tender personal touches, and suggest that the artist aimed to stress the individuality of each subject.

Francis II of France and Mary, Queen of Scots, fol. 17r.
Francis II of France and Mary, Queen of Scots, fol. 17r.

 The image on fol. 17r of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband the Dauphin, later King Francis II of France (d. 1560), employs the same pattern as the other double portraits but appropriately different iconography. Like the Kings of Scotland, the boyish Francis wears a tabard over a suit of armour, holding a sword and sceptre, but his blue tabard bears the golden fleurs de lys of France, while the lion rampant of Scotland appears on the forepart of Mary’s skirt. Rather than the thistle, Mary holds a lily to symbolise her wooing by France. Meanwhile, above the caption explaining that ‘Francis Dolphine and after Kinge of France, maried Mary Queene of Scotlande, and died withowte yssue’, the intertwined thistle and lily point towards their symbolic monarch. There are no lilies in Mary’s solo portrait on the following leaf: she now holds the thistle, gesturing towards the empty space at her right hand as if to an invisible suitor, while the crowned saltire under her feet is flanked by two more thistles, the unicorn of Scotland, and a red lion. This lion possibly symbolises her claim to England but is more likely to refer to the lion rampant of the royal banner, which dates back at least as far as Alexander II (d. 1249) and perhaps even to Malcolm III (d. 1093, portrayed on fol. 3r). Depicted before her remarriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in 1565, Mary is framed as ruler, suitor and bride.

Mary, Queen of Scots, fol. 18r.
Mary, Queen of Scots, fol. 18r.

The production of armorial manuscripts with this degree of artistic skill required both heraldic expertise and substantial funds. It has been proposed that Sir Robert Forman intended to present at least one of these manuscripts to Mary, Queen of Scots, and as he is known to have presented an armorial roll, now lost, to her in 1562 it is possible that he commissioned one or more codices for the Queen or her circle in the same period. This royal connection may explain their artistry but leaves unanswered questions about their differences, most evident in the language of the explanatory captions: while those in MS 316 contain orthographical gestures to the Middle Scots language – especially in the ‘-id’ ending of passive participles and preterites, e.g. ‘callid’, ‘succedid’ and ‘lyvid’ – the influence of English appears strong. Meanwhile, the captions in the so-called ‘Forman Armorial’, the contemporary manuscript now in Edinburgh, use Middle Scots with vigour:

King Malcum Camnoir mariit Sanct Mergret of Dunfermlin quha bure to him ane sone callit Eduerd quhilk succedit to the croun and deit uitout successioun gottin of his body and efter succedit to him King Robert Bruce nerrest to ye said Eduerd of blude. [NLS, Adv.31.4.2, fol. 5r]

Iames the Secund that nobill famus King that lang had trubbill or he in peace did ring tuke Mergret ye Duke of Gilders dochter schene unto his uyfe quhilk ues ane lusty quene. [Ibid, fol. 13r]

Readers may observe that the second caption, like several others in the same manuscript, is written in rhyming couplets. This language bears strong resemblance to that in two linked armorials dated to 1560×1562 (now in the College of Arms in London and the Lord Lyon’s Office in Edinburgh, respectively) which, although containing escutcheons rather than portraits, are likely to have been created in the same context, during Forman’s tenure as Lyon King of Arms. Like these two manuscripts, MS 316 gives precedence to the escutcheons of members of Clan Hamilton, heirs to the still-childless Mary, further suggesting a connection between the owners of these armorials.

Achievement of Scotland, fol. 1r.
Achievement of Scotland, fol. 1r.

No fewer than ten Scottish armorials were created in the 1560s, a number unparalleled in the early modern era. This burst of production implies the presence, probably in Edinburgh, of skilled and innovative illustrators, but also reveals an intention to celebrate the royalty and nobility of Scotland, often in the Middle Scots language. This confluence of factors coincided with the return of Queen Mary to Scotland following the deaths of her mother and regent Mary of Guise and of her husband the King of France, and the resulting struggles between Protestant and Catholic nobles for power and influence. The upheavals of Mary’s turbulent reign perhaps provide context for the vision of international alliances and an orderly nobility in MS 316: the young, widowed queen’s illustrious ancestors strengthen the power of her personal rule; the gallery of Scotland’s consorts reflects hope for a new union, whether with a foreign or a Scottish potentate; the eminence of Clan Hamilton and the prestige of their marital alliances stress their suitability to be the queen’s heirs, not least in the illustration on fol. 26r of how ‘Hamilton Erle of Arrayne maried Kinge James the secondes daughter’. Meanwhile the monarch is upheld by the nobility and by the clans, here neatly ordered.

Achievement of the Hamiltons of Arran, fol. 19r.
Achievement of the Hamiltons of Arran, fol. 19r.

This may have been the vision Forman hoped to transmit to Queen Mary or her Court. Mary’s reign was instead characterised by conspiracy and rebellion, her troubles deepening after her third marriage, to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (d. 1578; his achievement is depicted on fol. 33r), and culminating in her forced abdication in July 1567. Nevertheless MS 316 records an important moment in Scottish history, when the monarch, recently widowed and newly arrived from France, was considering suits from around Europe. The difficulties of Mary’s own marriages did not precipitate any great shift in diplomatic perspective: the first three generations of her descendants made marital alliances with Denmark, France, Bohemia, Portugal and the Netherlands, and these alliances would shape events in the British Isles, continental Europe, and even India. Sir Robert Forman’s armorial manuscripts, including MS 316, capture the history of the Scottish royal and noble families, and embody the transition of royal portraiture from impersonal, formulaic emblems to nuanced likenesses, stressing the personal histories of the marital unions that shaped the medieval and early modern eras.

 

Further Reading

Thomas Innes, Scots Heraldry: A Practical Handbook on the Historical Principles and Modern Application of the Art and Science (Edinburgh, 1934; reprinted 1971).

Hugh Peskett, ‘The Lambeth Armorial’, Double Tressure: The Journal of The Heraldry Society of Scotland, no. 28 (2005), 21-28.

Debra Barrett-Graves, ‘Mermaids, Sirens, and Mary, Queen of Scots: Icons of wantonness and pride’, in The Emblematic Queen: Extra-Literary Representations of Early Modern Queenship, ed. by Barrett-Graves (New York, 2013), pp. 69-100.

Katie Stevenson, ‘The Scottish King of Arms: Lyon’s Place in the Hierarchy of the Late-Medieval Scottish Elite’, in Les ‘autres’ rois: Études sur la royauté comme notion hiérarchique dans la société au bas Moyen Âge et au début de l’époque modern, ed. by Torsten Hiltmann (Berlin, 2013), pp. 64-79.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s