The Marian Hangings at Oxburgh

Now on permanent loan to Oxburgh Hall from the Victoria and Albert Museum, these finely crafted embroideries were the work of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, between 1569 and 1584.

An embroider in exile

Elizabeth I considered Mary a threat to the throne and kept her captive for eighteen years, much of which was spent under the watchful eye of Bess of Hardwick’s fourth husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. It is a common misconception that Mary was imprisoned at Oxburgh Hall, but this was never the case. 

Only a baby when her father James V of Scotland died, Mary had been brought up as a Catholic in the French court. Forced into exile in 1568, it was around this time that it was suggested she marry the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard. 

In 1572, the Duke of Norfolk was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, for which he was executed for treason. The evidence against him included the embroidery that now forms the centrepiece to the Marian Hanging at Oxburgh.

Secret message and act of treason

Embroidery was not only a pleasurable pastime, but a form of communication for Mary. The motifs expressed Mary’s most private thoughts, at a time when all her written correspondence was being monitored by her captors. She used emblems of plants and animals in her embroidery, which were copied from books by well-known authors and wood-cut illustrations of the time. 

Within the centrepiece of the Marian Hanging she had depicted a hand holding a pruning hook, cutting back a barren vine to make it more fruitful. Mary’s supporter John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, confessed under interrogation that Mary had sent this embroidery to the Duke of Norfolk as a cushion cover. 

Its precise message remains unclear, but it is one of a number of allegedly incriminating emblems within her needlework, which were cited as evidence that she was involved in Catholic plots to unseat Elizabeth. 

The thread that leads to Oxburgh

Although the Marian Hangings were not created at Oxburgh, they were worked on by Mary at the same point in history as Sir Henry Bedingfeld was himself subject to considerable penalties and placed in jeopardy by Elizabeth I.  

Instead, their arrival came in 1761, after they had been mounted onto three green velvet hangings to make two bed curtains and a valance, perhaps by Bess of Hardwick’s granddaughter Alethea Talbot.

Passed down through descendants, it was the marriage of Mary Browne, of Cowdray Park, to Sir Richard Bedingfeld that would result in these historical treasures making their way to Norfolk. This probably saved the hangings, as shortly after Cowdray Park was largely destroyed by fire.

Remarkably still vibrant after 450 years, the 9th Baronet sold them to the National Art Collections Fund who presented them to the Victoria & Albert Museum. They are now on permanent loan, housed in a special environmentally controlled room, just off the King’s Room and are arguably the most significant item in Oxburgh’s collection.