‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’ at the British Library

I’ve been so busy recently it’s taken me a while to get round to putting this up on my blog – back in November when I was in London, as well as going to the Tower of London, Natural History Museum, and on a Jack the Ripper walking tour I, of course, had to find time to visit the British Library to see their exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. This was just perfect timing, given that I was writing my first book on Elizabethan Rebellions which Mary was a huge part of.

There was so much to see and take in during the exhibition: portraits, books, letters, papal bulls, and jewellery. It was a real insight into the minds of these women and how they were trying to negotiate the murky political waters of the sixteenth century. Here I’m going to talk about just a couple of things in the exhibition which made a huge impact on me.

Letter from the Privy Council to the Earl of Kent giving permission for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots

The first is the letter from the Privy Council agreeing to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The original warrant long ago went missing, so this is the closest thing that we have. To see the signatures of William Cecil, Henry Carey Lord Hunsdon, Francis Knollys, and Charles Howard demonstrates just how willing these men were to go over and above their Queen and threaten the very idea of divine right in order to safeguard Elizabeth I’s throne. Mary was just too dangerous to be allowed to live and Elizabeth wouldn’t be safe while she did.

‘Gallows Letter’ from Mary Queen of Scots to Anthony Babington 1586

The second was the Babington ‘gallows’ letter which Mary Queen of Scots sent to Anthony Babington in 1586 during the Babington Plot and which led directly to her own execution the following year. The original was written in code and then burnt by Babington once he’d read it. This is a copy made by Walsingham’s codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes. When Phelippes realised that the letter incriminated Mary Queen of Scots in treason he drew a gallows on his copy before sending it onto Walsingham as evidence, hence the name ‘gallows letter’.

The final two things I’m going to talk about, I’m going to do together as they are related to one of my favourite Tudor people – Anne Boleyn. The exhibition included the written announcement of the birth of Elizabeth I in 1533 which was amazing to see, and the famous Chequers ring, which has portraits of Elizabeth I and, allegedly, Anne Boleyn, though this has never been conclusively proven. It seems likely, however, as Elizabeth wore it and never took it off until her death. It’s a stunning piece, smaller than I had imagined but absolutely beautiful. It links the two women together and helps us to consider what Elizabeth might have thought about her mother, who had been executed by her father when she was just 2 years old.

If you want to catch the exhibition before it closes, it is on at the British Library for another week, until 20th February 2022, or you can do a digital tour online.


Natural History Museum – ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature’ Exhibition

Today I’ve been to the Natural History Museum to see the ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature’ exhibition. It was incredibly interesting to see creatures that inspiration may have come from in real life and how some fantasy creatures were thought to be real in the not too distant past and why that might be.

There were props from the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films alongside actual historical artefacts including books, skeletons, and replicas. It’s worth seeing for any Wizarding World fan and for anyone who is interested in fantasy creatures and their origins as the exhibition does go into creatures that we know about today that exhibit some of the same characteristics or that Rowling and the filmmakers could have drawn inspiration from in designing their own creatures.

Buxton Mermaid

One of the objects that I found the creepiest was this mermaid. It’s known as the Buxton Mermaid, lent to the exhibition by Derbyshire County Council, and Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, date unknown. She is mummified and may have held a comb and mirror to brush her hair at one point. The maker of this remains a mystery but sailors were sometimes known to keep them as lucky charms or exhibit them. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the mermaids are part of the second Triwizard task where the four champions have to rescue something that has been taken from them. The chief merman speak to Professor Dumbledore after the task to say that Harry was first to the hostages but was determined to rescue them all, not just his, demonstrating moral fibre.

‘The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents’ by Edward Topsell (1658)

There was a beautiful book called ‘The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents’ by Edward Topsell (1658) which has some drawings of dragons and other creatures. Bestiaries were very popular in the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period across Europe and combined real creatures with imagined ones. Topsell’s work is no different. People used to believe, however, that dragons were real, a possible descendent of the dinosaurs. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Harry has to fight his way past a dragon in the first task to retrieve a golden egg with a clue for the second task. The four champions each face a different type of dragon – Welsh Green, Swedish Shortsnout, Hungarian Horntail, or Chinese Fireball. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Harry, Ron, and Hermione escape from Gringotts Bank on the back of a dragon they’ve set free.

Dracorex hogwartsia

Something that I didn’t know is that there is a dinosaur named after Hogwarts – the Dracorex hogwartsia which was discovered in 2004. A cast of the skeleton is part of the exhibition. The dinosaur itself was part of the pachycephalosaur family (bone-headed dinosaurs). The name means ‘Dragon King of Hogwarts’. The remains were discovered in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota, U.S.A., by three amateur palaeontologists.

It’s well-worth a visit to the Natural History Museum in London just to see this exhibition, though they also have fantastic exhibitions on dinosaurs, volcanoes and earthquakes, and the development of humans.

‘Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature’ is on at the Natural History Museum in London until 3 January 2022.