How Mary Queen of Scots was remembered within Victorian entertainment

01 February 2019


On this day in 1587 Queen Elizabeth I signed the death warrant of her cousin, Mary Stuart, who was subsequently executed on February 8th of the same year. By doing so Elizabeth ensured Mary would be immortalised in her death as a martyr of the Catholic faith, and so would their rivalry for the English throne.

Both women fought to earn what they believed to be their rightful place as the sovereign of England. The feud of these two powerful women, that resulted in the abdication and beheading of Mary, has become one of the most well known in British and global history. 

And what happens to historical tales of power struggle, rivalry and death? They make brilliant adaptations! 

Image © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

I took to AM Explorer to see what I could find about Victorian-era adaptations of this dramatic story. Victorian Popular Culture brought me to The Edison Kinetogram from June 1913. A periodical that discusses, Mary Stuart, an upcoming Edison film from 1913. The article itself provides a very optimistic assumption about the quality of the adaptation before its release, stating, “romance itself could not rival this brief glance into history which has been offered only after the most painstaking study of the costumes, manners and settings of the Elizabethan Period.”  

Criticism of period dramas tend to consider an accurate retelling of history to be synonymous with the quality of the adaptation. This stigma thinks of pictures that choose to revamp the story with theatrics and fiction to be trivial. It is interesting to see the opinion of this document from 1913 consider the quality of the picture to be related to its nature as “accurate in every detail.” 

Image © National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Madame Tussaud and Sons also took pride in replicating history and all its detail as a form of popular entertainment. Mary Queen of Scots became a staple exhibition within the museum, as shown within Victorian Popular Culture, Photographic Views of Madame Tussaud’s 1900. Amongst waxworks of other monarch’s in their drawing rooms (including Marie Antoinette) there is a tableau of Mary preparing for her execution, mourners and her executioner waiting in the wings. The image of this scene replicates the brief glance into history boasted by the cinematic epic 13 years later. 

Both documents bring to life just two of the numerous adaptations, including novels, theatre, cinema and waxworks, that have reimagined the lives of Mary and Elizabeth. What better way to bring in February than to remind you all that 2019 is no different, bringing about a new release of this story in the originally titled Mary Queen of Scots in cinemas now!

These images are from our collection, Victorian Popular Culture.  For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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About the Author

Alice Hone

Alice Hone

I joined the team at Adam Matthew in 2018 as a Development Assistant. Since starting my role I have enjoyed working on a variety of upcoming projects and look forward to seeing them become published collections. My academic interest lies in film and television studies, with particular interest in the history of commemoration broadcasting.