A treasure trove of documents signed by Mary Queen of Scots and revealing the “everyday reality of ruling the country” in the 16th century has been unearthed in a council storage facility on the Royal Mile.
A haul of handwritten papers is said to show the doomed monarch “carefully managing the busy commercial life of Edinburgh”, as well as authorising the building of new defences for the city in Leith.
The documents, which are set to be the centrepiece of a new exhibition in Edinburgh on Mary’s short-lived rule, have already been conserved and digitised to allow them to be viewed publicly on the council’s online archive.
They were discovered by staff in a store at the Museum of Edinburgh, just a few hundred yards away from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where Mary ruled for six years after returning from France in 1561.
The 15 documents, which are individually dated, numbered and signed, relate to the rights of deacons and tradesmen in the city, the selling of meat at the Tolbooth and the making of salt in Newhaven.
Early conservation work on the documents, which were recently discovered in the Museum of Edinburgh’s own storage facility off the Canongate, has revealed watermarks – one of a goat and another of a flower – which can only been seen when held up to light.
It is thought the papers entered the archives of the local authority in the 1920s, but were then “lost” before being rediscovered nearly a century later during conservation work. Intriguingly, some of the documents signed by Mary date from when she was still in France.
Experts in the council’s museums and galleries service, which is responsible for the official archives of the city, said the recently unearthed documents revealed an “often overlooked “ aspect of her life.
History curator Vicky Garrington said: “Together, the documents shed light on a key part of Scotland’s past. We all know the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots, her eventful life and eventual execution in 1587, but in these documents we see a different side to Mary.
“Here, she can be seen carefully managing the everyday affairs of Edinburgh, both from France and Scotland. It’s fascinating to think of her reading through these official papers before carefully applying her signature.
“They are staying in storage at the museum for now. But we hope to have them assessed by a conservator and for further research to be done on them by experts on Mary, after which we hope to exhibit them, which will be hugely exciting.”
Museums and galleries manager Frank Little said: “We’re constantly reviewing, caring for and researching our collections, and look forward to sharing more of the city’s rich heritage with residents and visitors through our programme of exhibitions and online activities.”
Council culture convener Donald Wilson said: “Our museums and galleries hold thousands of historic treasures, many of which are on display in our venues. However, some items such as these documents are too fragile to be on long-term display, so putting them online is a great way to showcase them.”