Secrets and Codes: Mary, Queen of Scots





Unknown artist, c. 1600, oil on canvas, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

Painted during the last years of her reign, this portrait shows Elizabeth I at the age of 67. She is wearing an unusually low-cut dress and her long auburn hair is worn partly down and spreading around her shoulders in the style of a virgin. Her unlined and radiant face is the ‘ageless mask of perpetual youth’ that became her political persona as Gloriana. She is lit from the front, as was her preference, but the light appears to radiate from her in an almost mystical fashion.

Even though clearly an untruthful image, it is a fascinating one. The varied interplay of signs and symbols, combined with religious and political messages, have made the Rainbow Portrait the most perplexing picture of Elizabeth I ever painted. Art historians have proposed numerous and varied theories concerning its probable meaning, but its secrets have remained endlessly debated and tantalisingly elusive. It is possible that even its Elizabethan audience would have only been able to decode its message to a certain level, dictated by their own status and knowledge.

On Elizabeth’s head is an elaborate headdress in which is balanced a crown. There is an illustration of a remarkably similar headdress in J.J. Boissard’s book Various Clothes of People of the World, published in 1581 in Cologne, where it is described as that of a Thessalonian bride. This may indicate that the costume was to be worn at a masque or pageant. In this case, its meaning would most likely have been made clear to the Elizabethan audience by the character’s context within the play.

Suspended from the crown is a moon-shaped brooch. It is the symbol of the moon goddess Cynthia, part queen, part woman, part goddess, and represents chastity and virginity. Large pearls are attached to the headdress. Round and luminous, they too are associated with the moon. Pearls were Elizabeth’s jewel of preference and in this portrait they are numerous. The lengthy string of pearls worn around her neck reaches to below her waist and, for unexplained reasons, the lower pearls appear to be discoloured.

The bright, orange silk cloak is patterned with eyes and ears, perhaps suggesting Elizabeth is the watchful mother of her nation. Political intelligence conveyed sensitive information and Elizabeth relied on her advisors to be vigilant and to subvert the plans of her enemies through espionage and secrecy. Foreign intelligence was an indispensable part of Elizabethan government and essential to guard the Queen’s life. Elizabeth nicknamed Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her ‘Eyes’ and referred to her Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton, as her ‘Lids’. In the sixteenth century ‘watching’ meant ‘guarding’ and these pet names indicate their fierce protection of Elizabeth.


Painted in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, the secrets of the Rainbow Portrait have been endlessly debated but remain tantalisingly elusive.

It is uncertain if the design of ears and eyes is on the exterior of the gown or on its lining, where they may allude to secret talks. Some art historians have alluded to unformed mouths in the folds of the cloth, relating perhaps to the Queen’s motto, Video et Taceo (I see, but say nothing).

The most celebrated of the published dictionaries explaining symbols is Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, which appeared Rome in 1592. It was a book of emblems taken from Greek, Roman and Egyptian sources that personify allegorical figures and award them qualities and attributes that allowed them to be recognised.

According to Ripa, the character of Ragione di Stato wears a gown bearing images of eyes and ears, which represent political prudence. There was also a book of political philosophy called Della Ragion di Stato, written by an Italian Jesuit called Giovanni Botero, published in 1589 and widely disseminated. It debates the right of the sovereign to go against both natural and positive law if it is for the good of the state. Above all, the eyes and ears are likely to be testament to Elizabeth’s political policies, which had succeeded for over forty years.

A snake decorates the left sleeve of her dress. The New Testament book of Matthew (10:16) states, ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Serpents therefore represent wisdom and intelligence and, by the shedding of their skin, immortality. Emblematic of original sin, the serpent is on Elizabeth’s left arm, where biblical images show Eve in relation to Adam. It holds a red jewel in its mouth that has been referred to as a heart, but could it be an apple? If so, it could allude to the fall of Eve and the fact that Elizabeth was guarded from such a fall by her purity and virginity. Or does the wise snake, holding a heart, represent Elizabeth’s shrewd judgement, in following her head and not her heart? She certainly did this when it came to her romance with Robert Dudley. As could be said of most symbols in this tantalising portrait, the image of a serpent is acutely ambiguous.

Beside the snake’s head is an astrolabe, a handheld model of the universe that represented immortality. It is one of the earliest symbols associated with Elizabeth. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, had drawn a sphere in her book of hours, Le temps viendra (The time will come), a book at present in the collection of Hever Castle. The most common interpretation of the sphere is to refer to the passing of time and the quality of constancy.

Painted on the portrait are the words, ‘None sine sole iris’ (no rainbow without the sun), which is possibly a later addition. Ripa’s Iconologia suggests that ‘the sun is the symbol of light which in turn symbolises wisdom’. In other words, only the Queen’s wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity. Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, took the celestial rainbow as a symbol to express her hope of bringing peace to the kingdom of France. It represents the biblical covenant between God and Noah and, as such, could signal Elizabeth’s ability to mediate between heaven and earth. A rainbow was once again employed as a message of hope during the Covid-19 world pandemic.

The rainbow Elizabeth grasps is colourless and almost unrecognisable. This has been explained by fading or changing pigments, but the colours in the rest of the painting have remained puzzlingly vibrant. The embroidery and fabric of the Queen’s dress beneath the rainbow is clearly visible and not even partially obscured by residue pigment. Is this another symbol whose meaning has been lost to us? Perhaps it suggests that Elizabeth outshines all and her greater power has sapped even the vibrancy of the rainbow.

The collars of the dress are made from fine white fabric that is probably wired at the edges to float around the Queen like wings as she moved, and a gauntlet is attached to the lace collar to her right, which may allude to England’s military endeavours and marshal strength.

The bodice of her gown is embroidered with English wild flowers that generally represent fertility and growth, as witnessed by the country during her reign: a secure Church of England was established, the Armada had been defeated, trade expansion provided wealth, country houses were built and the arts flourished. A gillyflower is associated with love and marriage, perhaps that of Elizabeth to her people. A pansy and a honeysuckle are interspersed with butterflies, deer, bears and even a man rowing a boat. A fragment of this dress is thought to have survived in the Bacton Altar Cloth and will be described in further detail in Chapter Seven.

The artist of this portrait is not conclusively known. The style of painting is Anglo-Netherlandish and the date c. 1600. A clear contender is Marcus Gheeraerts, although it is bolder than much of his existing work. Hatfield House archives reveal a bill paid by Robert Cecil in 1607 to John de Critz for ‘altering of a picture of Queen Elizabeth’, which may mean that de Critz also painted the original. However, the bright colours and the elaborate composition suggest the hand of the former miniaturist and competitor to Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver. Robert Cecil and Oliver knew one another and conducted business together; the Cecil family seat, Hatfield House, where the picture resides today, attributes the work to this artist.

If the painter is not known beyond doubt, then neither is the patron. The emblems discussed are those of secrecy and intelligence, so the men who spring immediately to mind are William Cecil and his son Robert, who controlled Elizabeth’s Secret Service. Cecil died in 1598, so the patron is likely to be Robert but, with almost no documented evidence for the picture, all explanations remain conjectural.

The painting may have begun life at the Cecil home of Salisbury House in the Strand, London, where the Queen attended entertainments. The household moved in the 1690s and it is likely the picture was taken to the new Cecil seat of Hatfield House, where it remains today with all its secrets intact.


It is unsurprising that the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I hangs at Hatfield House, the home of Robert Cecil. The mantle worn by the Queen represents a cloak of secrecy, whose eyes and ears protect her body and Protestant England. Father and son William and Robert Cecil used an intelligence network to hunt down Catholic threats and appointed Francis Walsingham to run the first state-backed secret service. Their ‘eyes and ears’ stretched inside the Catholic underground and all over Europe.

Walsingham was a Puritan with a deep loathing for Catholicism, Mary, Queen of Scots, and the agents of Philip of Spain. Elizabeth playfully called him her ‘Moor’, because of his black clothing, and his life’s work was to protect her and to destroy the Scottish queen. His agents were called ‘Watchers’ and were the forerunners of today’s MI5 (the domestic intelligence agency of the United Kingdom). The methods they used – intercepting correspondence, deciphering codes, double agents or ‘moles’ in the enemy camp and entrapment plots – are techniques that have continued to be deployed in the modern age.

Walsingham set up a kind of ‘spy school’ to provide training for recruits, such as academics who could decode messages. They usually arrived from Oxford or Cambridge, with an understanding of Latin, European languages and mathematics. Others were merchants, who were accustomed to travelling in Europe and could supply him with information from foreign countries. But Walsingham needed agents from all walks of life to infiltrate Catholic circles at home and abroad, in ports, market towns, suspect households and even prisons. The web of espionage included couriers, agent-handlers, seal-forgers, code-breakers, mathematicians, priest-hunters and interrogators. The end justified the means and the use of torture to extract information from prisoners was routine, while anyone found guilty of treason would be executed.

Information could be conveyed in invisible ink, such as the citric acid of lemon juice, which remains colourless until heated and then turns brown. A hidden message could appear on an otherwise innocent letter when the paper was warmed over a candle. Breaking codes was incredibly time-consuming work which involved looking at the frequency and sequence of letters. Sometimes letters were substituted with numbers, symbols or signs of the zodiac and only once the key was worked out could a message be understood. Cyphers were crucial during the 1586 Babington Plot, when Walsingham’s agents decrypted letters to and from Mary, Queen of Scots. It would be this evidence that would finally prove to Elizabeth that Mary was conspiring to bring about her death. Queen Elizabeth failed to fund the network sufficiently so Walsingham was forced to spend his own money and he died in debt, just three years after Mary’s execution. Elizabeth never properly rewarded him, yet he had done everything in his power to ensure her personal safety and to preserve his Protestant country.


Sir Francis Walsingham ran the first state-backed secret service. The ‘eyes and ears’ of his spies reached inside the Catholic underground and all over Europe.

The most serious conspiracy of the age came after the death of Elizabeth and was uncovered by Robert Cecil. The 1605 Gunpowder Plot would have been history’s first major terrorist attack, when disaffected Catholics tried to rid themselves of King James I and Parliament – with three and a half tons of explosives. In Elizabeth’s reign, a number of Catholic plots were uncovered, predicated on the hope of foreign assistance and all aimed at replacing her with her cousin and rival Mary Stuart.


Elizabeth was jealous of any rival and she resented Mary, Queen of Scots, who was nine years younger, on a level that was both political and personal. On her first meeting with Melville, the Scottish envoy, she quizzed him about Mary’s appearance. After asking if his queen was taller than she was, Elizabeth snapped, ‘Then she is too high; for I myself am neither too high nor too low.’

As a great-granddaughter of Henry VII, Mary Stuart had a strong claim to the English throne and, unlike Elizabeth, she had never been declared illegitimate. She was the only surviving child of James V (nephew to Henry VIII) and his French wife, Mary of Guise.

Mary was the first queen regnant in the British Isles, although she spent her childhood in her mother’s homeland. In contrast to the young Elizabeth, she grew up safe and secure – a favourite at the heart of the glamorous French court. It has been suggested that her cosseted upbringing did little to prepare her for the vicissitudes of her later life. She became Queen consort of France aged 18, but her young husband died and Mary returned to Scotland in 1561. She now faced the challenge of being a Catholic queen in a Protestant country. Having lived in France since the age of 5, she had little comprehension of the Scots, whose nobility was among the most rebellious in Europe. This – and two ill-judged marriages – would be her undoing.

Mary hoped to be recognised as heir to the English throne, which she considered hers by right. She wanted friendship with Elizabeth but she turned down her cousin’s (surprising) request that she make Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her second husband. To further the proposal, Elizabeth had elevated Dudley to the peerage, enhancing his status, and the match would have ensured Mary’s loyalty to England. Instead, in 1565, Mary wed her kinsman, Lord Darnley. It was a marriage that quickly unravelled but it produced the child who would go on to become James VI of Scotland and I of England and prompted Elizabeth to say, ‘The Queen of Scots is lighter of a bony son and I am but barren stock.’

In 1567 Darnley was murdered at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh, in the Royal Mile, a few hundred yards from Holyrood Palace, where Mary and her baby son were staying. Within just a few months, Mary made a disastrous marriage to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who had been accused of her husband’s killing. Elizabeth tried to warn her of the scandal, saying, I should ill fulfil the office of a faithful cousin or an affectionate friend if I did not … tell you what all the world is thinking.’

Soon Mary was denounced by the Scottish lords and forced to abdicate in favour of her son. In 1568 she fled to England, where she hoped Elizabeth would offer protection and help her regain her throne. This was another miscalculation: her cousin did wish to preserve her life but the English refuge Mary sought became an imprisonment of nearly twenty years. Had she escaped to France, there can be little doubt that Mary would have remained free, but there was no assurance that Catherine de’ Medici would launch an expedition on her behalf. Crossing into England was faster and she had assumed Elizabeth’s support. Others thought so too. The English ambassador in Paris, Sir Henry Norris, told the French his Queen ‘would not fail to favour and assist her (Mary) with what was needed’.

Many English Catholics supported the imprisoned Mary, especially in northern England, and conflict started quickly. These Catholic lords of the North rose up on Mary’s behalf in 1569, although their rebellion was quickly suppressed. Within two years Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian banker living in London, was plotting Mary’s escape and marriage to the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, with the aim of putting them on the English throne. The Ridolfi Plot involved Spanish intervention and its discovery by Elizabeth’s agents brought Norfolk to the block.

In 1583 Francis Throckmorton, a Catholic acting as a go-between for Mary and Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, confessed to a conspiracy to replace Elizabeth with the Queen of Scots. Londoners knelt in the streets to give thanks for the Queen’s delivery and Parliament passed the Bond of Association in 1584, calling on all Englishmen to take an oath to seek out and kill anyone plotting to murder Elizabeth.

In 1586 Anthony Babington, a former page to the captive Queen, was drawn into another plan to kill Elizabeth and free Mary. Cecil knew of the plot from the start and coded letters were intercepted by a double agent working for Walsingham. When enough evidence was amassed, the plotters were executed and Mary was put on trial. Elizabeth’s councillors were able to persuade her that she would never be safe as long as her rival lived. She wrote to Mary, ‘You have planned in divers ways and manners to take my life and to ruin my kingdom.’ Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and then desperately tried to distance herself from all blame for the execution of an anointed queen. Mary Stuart was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587 and news was sent to the 21-year-old James VI at Stirling Castle that his mother was dead.

Once crowned King of England, James sent a velvet pall to cover his mother’s grave in Peterborough Cathedral. In 1612 he had her body interred at Westminster Abbey, in a magnificent tomb with a marble effigy and a crowned Scottish lion at her feet. The queen who sought the English crown would have been satisfied with this final resting place near her cousin Elizabeth. The rivals fit rather neatly into the categories ascribed to them over the centuries. Elizabeth: strong, shrewd, cautious; Mary: charming, impulsive and a doomed romantic heroine. As female monarchs in a man’s world, only Elizabeth ultimately survived but, in contrast to the childless Tudors ‘of barren stock’, every sovereign of Great Britain since 1603 has been directly descended from Mary, Queen of Scots. This is because the Hanoverian dynasty, who came to the British throne in 1714, were of the bloodline of Elizabeth Stuart, eldest daughter of James I and VI and granddaughter of Mary.


After Nicholas Hilliard, inscribed 1578, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary, Queen of Scots, is usually visualised as a figure in black, with a white headdress and crucifix. This is what she wore at Fotheringhay on the day of her execution, over a blood-red petticoat representing martyrdom. The famous image comes from the many pictures of the Queen, known as the Sheffield Portraits. Almost all are apocryphal commissions from the early seventeenth century, produced during the reign of her son James, after he acceded to the English throne. They take inspiration from a contemporary work by Hilliard, painted when Mary was at Sheffield House in 1578, and versions exist in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and in the private collection at Hardwick Hall. They are part of what was a Jacobean campaign, undertaken by the King, to rehabilitate his mother’s reputation, something he failed to do during her lifetime. This portrait in the British National Portrait Gallery, which was once in the Royal Collection, is probably contemporary. Recent analysis of the panel support has dated the wood to the mid-sixteenth century, indicating that it was made while the Queen was still alive.

The date 1578 marked the ten years that Mary had been held in captivity; the original was probably commissioned by one of her supporters and it is rich in Roman Catholic symbolism. A Latin inscription reminds us of Mary’s lineage and the crucifixes, at her bosom and hanging from her girdle, reiterate her religious faith. Her hand rests on a table, draped with a vibrant crimson cloth – a powerful colour in the Church, representing suffering and the blood of Christ.


This famous image of Mary, Queen of Scots, is inspired by Hilliard’s contemporary work, painted while she was a prisoner at Sheffield House in 1578.

The simple black and white of her attire is striking, and worn together the colours symbolise chastity, a motif Elizabeth also used in her choice of dress. The black gown offsets the delicacy of Mary’s wired veil and white lace ruff, while a black silk ‘M’ is embroidered at her neck of her fine chemise. Her clothing is rich, for the Queen was treated as befitted her high status by her custodian, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who spent great sums on his royal charge. Her rooms were hung with fine tapestries, she was waited on by a household of servants and she insisted on a cloth of state being mounted above her chair. It is clear that her imprisonment, all things considered, was a comparatively comfortable one, with Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess of Hardwick.

The cross attached to Mary’s rosary bears the letter ‘S’ (for Stuart) on each of its arms. The other crucifix has an enamelled scene at its centre showing the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. The tale goes that Susanna, a beautiful young wife, was secretly desired by two elders of her community. They hid in her garden and when she came out to bathe, they emerged and threatened that, unless she gave in to them, they would publicly accuse her of adultery. Susanna rejected their advances, she was charged and condemned to die, but at the last minute her innocence was established and she was saved. This image of a guiltless heroine is deployed here to proclaim that Mary is also the innocent victim of liars and plotters. The enamelled scene is surrounded by a Latin motto which translates as ‘troubles on all sides’ and reflects her stormy life.

Today, Mary’s portraits do not convey an image of exceptional beauty but perhaps – like Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn – her celebrated allure may have emanated from her charisma. One of Cecil’s agents, Nicholas White, met her at Tutbury Castle and wrote to his master that she had ‘an alluring grace, a pretty Scotch accent, and a searching wit clouded with mildness. Fame might move some to relieve her, and glory join with gain might stir others to adventure more for her sake.’

Mary’s grandmother Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchess of Guise, described her as ‘very pretty indeed’, with an especially smooth complexion, red-gold hair and almond-shaped hazel eyes beneath a high forehead. She grew into an attractive young woman who was slim and exceptionally tall at 5 foot 11 inches. Contemporaries described her grace and lightness of movement and her hands, like Elizabeth’s, were thought particularly fine.

While in France, Mary sat for François Clouet, a miniaturist and painter particularly known for his detailed portraits of the French ruling family. Clouet recorded, in fine drawings, Mary’s transition from pretty child to Queen consort of France and finally to young widow. The latter, showing a 19-year-old Mary in white mourning – known simply as ‘en deuil blanc’ – was widely copied. It is referenced in the Royal Collection as early as 1560, when Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador, remarked on Mary’s intention of sending the portrait to her cousin Elizabeth.

By the time of the ‘Sheffield’ portrait Mary is 36 – middle-aged by sixteenth-century standards – with a thickening waist and the hint of a double chin. During her rule in Scotland, she had always been active and energetic, enjoying riding, hawking, playing real tennis, golf and dancing. Her long English imprisonment caused her weight to increase as her pastimes were limited to reading, writing and her great love, embroidery. It is likely that the curls of hair, visible under her lace cap, are artificial. We know that by the time of Mary’s execution, at the age of 44, her red-gold hair was gone and those attending at Fotheringhay witnessed a macabre sight. When the executioner lifted her head and cried out, ‘God save the Queen,’ an auburn wig was left in his hand as her head, with short grey hair, toppled to the floor.


In the late sixteenth century, young Englishmen such as Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and John Gerard returned to their native land under cover of darkness, crossing the Channel from France. They travelled in disguise and lived as outlaws. Just by landing in England they were committing treason, for which the agonising penalty was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. They were all Catholic priests who had been trained in Europe and then smuggled back home. They came to convert their countrymen back to the old faith and were prepared to die as martyrs for this cause. In his memoirs, John Gerard has left us a first-hand account of this cloak-and-dagger world and the covert activities of codes, false papers, aliases and disguises. Ironically, this was happening in the reign of Elizabeth, the most tolerant of all the Tudor monarchs, whose regime tortured and executed at least 130 priests.

The Queen’s religious settlement had been a compromise because the England she inherited was not a Protestant country. Catholic and Protestant neighbours worked and traded together; there were Catholics at court and in the House of Lords. Many still adhered to the religion of statues, crucifixes and the Pope. The triumph of English Protestantism was not inevitable in 1558 and Elizabeth’s attitude to her Catholic subjects was therefore moderate; she wanted peace and her emphasis was on outward conformity, rather than inward conviction. But problems arose as her reign progressed, forcing her to take a much harsher stance and making English Catholics ‘Recusants’: derived from the Latin recusare, meaning to refuse. Those refusing to attend the services of the Church of England were deemed to commit a statutory offence and could be fined.

The central question was: how could Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects be loyal to the Queen and yet obey a papal authority that denounced her as a heretic and called for her removal? The famous Regnans in Excelsis bull, issued by Pius V in 1570, released her subjects from their allegiance, describing her as ‘the pretended queen of England, the servant of wickedness’.

Then, on St Bartholomew’s Day in August 1572, French Protestants were massacred by Catholics in Paris – an event witnessed by Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Walsingham. Similar atrocities elsewhere in France resulted in thousands of deaths and caused panic in England with fears of a Catholic invasion.

The unwelcome presence of Mary, Queen of Scots, from 1568, presented a focal point for Catholic plots and Recusancy punishments were made increasingly harsh. In the end, the Spanish Armada was more successful than any amount of legislation in uniting the nation against the Catholic crusade. Anglicanism and Englishness were bound together and Recusants became potential fifth columnists, willing to join with foreigners against their own country. English priests were faced with an impossible choice: returning home openly meant immediate arrest, while arriving in secret appeared suspect. They resorted to safe houses and hiding places (priest holes) in wealthy Recusant households and behaved like the spies the government believed them to be. A number of these ‘hides’ have survived, with good examples in the National Trust properties of Coughton Court and Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire.

It would not be until the close of the eighteenth century that the first Catholic Relief Acts were passed. By the 1830s, Catholics could worship freely and were no longer excluded from Parliament, universities and the professions. The timing was significant: it was exactly 300 years after King Henry VIII had broken from the Church of Rome.

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