In her brilliant 2014 blog, Rosalind Smith had stated that ‘Mary, Queen of Scots was a poet – and you should know it’.
Today I would like to discuss the production, reception and circulation of one understudied short poem attributed to Mary: the Latin couplet supposedly written by Mary at Buxton in 1584.
This poem is included in Robin Bell’s (1992: 104-05) edition of Mary’s poems. Bell prints it as follows:
Buxtona, quae calidae celebrans nomen lymphae,
Fortuna mihi posthoc non adeunda, vale.
[O Buxton, far-famed for your hot and healing well,
Should fortune not return to me, nor I to thee –
As Bell points out, this couplet was probably written when Mary visited the spa at Buxton whilst she was in the charge of George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. When Mary wrote the couplet, ‘she knew that these outings [to Buxton] for her health were about to stop and that she would be kept in close confinement’.
In contrast to Bell’s translation, RECIRC’s Felicity Maxwell has translated the above Latin as follows:
Buxton, name of the hot water which I am frequenting,
It would be my good fortune not to return hereafter. Farewell.
As Felicity has pointed out to me, there is a pun on ‘celebrans’ in line 1 (which means both ‘frequenting’ and ‘praising’). So, while others may praise the spa water and Mary might be expected to do the same, she is happy to leave and never return.
This is a short but loaded poem written at a precise political moment when Mary was effectively imprisoned by her cousin, Elizabeth I, and the English state. Whilst the couplet on the surface seems to celebrate the healing waters at Buxton, it also comments on Mary’s incarceration and desire for liberty. I think we should be reading this distich as a sophisticated prison poem.
This distich was first printed in the 1594 edition of William Camden’s Britannia:
Camden tells us that the Earl of Shrewsbury rebuilt Buxton spa and ‘someone of great ingenuity’ (‘quaedam magni ingenii’) wrote the following verses of farewell, in imitation of verses by Caesar about Feltria. Significantly, Mary is not cited by name here, but ‘quaedam’ is feminine which points to female authorship. Camden may have strategically avoided mentioning Mary by name because she was regarded by some as a controversial and treasonous figure. In the 1610 edition of the Britannia, however, Mary is explicitly stated to be the author of the couplet:
In 1655, Thomas Fuller (181) wrote the following: ‘She [Mary] was an excellent Poet, both Latine and English, of the former I have read a distick made, and written by her own hand on a Pane of Glass at Buxton well […] So it is in the Glass I had in my hand’. According to the nineteenth-century historian, Agnes Strickland (1858, 7: 336), Mary’s autograph copy of the couplet was destroyed in the eighteenth century by the then Countess-Dowager of Burlington as she tried to ‘possess herself of the brittle tablet on which it was inscribed by the poet-Queen’. The couplet, therefore, is not just a prison poem, but a piece of graffiti reputed to have been written on a ‘Pane of Glass’.
This distich is one way in which Mary’s reputation as poet gained traction in the early modern period. RECIRC have consulted and catalogued two early modern manuscript miscellanies that include it: British Library, MS Sloane 1252 and Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. D. 1267.
MS Sloane 1252 is written in a single anonymous italic hand. It comprises of an exposition on theological terms, as well as notes on canon law. The British Library online catalogue dates this manuscript to the seventeenth century and the transcription of the Buxton Wells poem seems to be in a seventeenth-century hand.
MS Rawl. D. 1267 is a duodecimo miscellany of verse and prose in English and Latin written in three anonymous hands. CELM dates this manuscript to the late seventeenth century.
What is striking about both of these miscellanies is that the compilers attribute multiple Latin distiches to Mary. Here is an example from MS Rawl. D. 1267:
Buxtona quae tepidae et celebraris nomine limphae
Forte mihi cursus tu repetenda. vale.
Maria Scotoru[m] regina
Debilibus membris optatam reddo salutem
Mentib[us] infectis nil opis addo, vale.
Maria Scotor[um] Regina.
[Buxton whose warm waters you also are famed by name,
By chance you are to be returned to me again. Farewell.
Mary queen of Scots
I restore desired health to crippled limbs;
to corrupt minds I impart nothing of help. Farewell.
Mary queen of Scots.]
The first couplet here, ‘Buxtona quae tepidae…’, seems to be a version of the poem quoted in Camden’s Britannia. The second distich (beginning ‘Debilibus membris optatam…’) is a completely new poem, however. Is the attribution of this second couplet to Mary erroneous? This poem’s reference to ‘crippled limbs’ may allude to Mary’s arthritis, but whether or not it should be regarded as an ‘authentic’ work by Mary is yet to be ascertained.
MS Sloane 1252 further complicates the textual history of the Buxton Wells distiches:
Buxtonæ quæ calidæ celebraris nomine lympha
Forté mihi cursus, post repetenda, vale.
Debilib. membris optatam dico salutem
Ir Infectis animis nil opis addo, vale.
Zoilus muidiat, Codrus licet illia rumpat
Justitia nitor, vindice tuta Deo.
Justitiam nugate minnis merita licet illia rupas
Niteris hen falso vindice vita Deo.
As you can see, the compiler here starts by transcribing the couplet, ‘Buxtonæ quæ calidæ…’. He or she then quotes the poem, ‘Debilib. membris optatam…’. Unlike the compilers of MS Rawl. D. 1267, the scribe here does not attribute this second distich to Mary, but titles it as a ‘response’. The scrivener of MS Sloane 1252 goes on to subscribe another poem to Mary beginning ‘Zoilus muidiat, Codrus licet illia rumpat’. We at RECIRC have not yet been able to translate this third couplet – if you are willing to have a go, then please get in touch!
We know that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth I, was often affiliated in scribal and print cultures with verse that she probably did not write (Stevenson and Davidson: 2001, 26; May: 2007, 48, 54-63), and here we have examples of manuscript compilers subscribing new works to Mary, perhaps in an attempt to expand her Latin oeuvre.
These three distiches on Buxton Wells have raised a number of issues that we at RECIRC have been debating. What, for instance, counts as a ‘female-authored’ work? By subscribing these couplets to Mary, the compilers of these two miscellanies either imagine or genuinely believe that these poems are female-authored and RECIRC have therefore included them as such. RECIRC’s definition of ‘female authorship’ in these particular instances is based on early modern attributions, rather than twenty-first-century notions of authenticity.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Rawlinson D. 1267.
British Library, London, MS Sloane 1252.
Printed and Digital Sources
Ahnert, Ruth. 2013. The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arbuthnot, P. Stewart-Mackenzie. 1907. Queen Mary’s Book. London: George Bell.
Bell, Robin. ed. and trans. 1992. Bittersweet Within My Heart: The Collected Poems of Mary, Queen of Scots. London: Pavilion.
Camden, William. 1594. Britannia. London: George Bishop.
——. 1610. Britannia. London: George Bishop and Joannis Norton.
CELM: Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts, 1450-1700. 2013. http://www.celm-ms.org.uk/ [accessed 1 March 2018].
Fleming, Juliet. 2001. Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England. London: Reaktion.
Goodare, Julian. 2004. ‘Mary Stewart (1542-1587)’. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18248 [accessed on 1 March 2018]).
Fuller, Thomas. 1655. The Church-History of Britain. London: John Williams.
May, Steven W. 2007. ‘‘Tongue-tied our Queen?’: Queen Elizabeth’s Voice in the Seventeenth Century’. Resurrecting Elizabeth I in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Elizabeth H. Hageman and Katherine Conway, 48-67. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Smith, Rosalind. 2014. ‘Mary, Queen of Scots was a Poet – and You Should Know It’. (https://theconversation.com/mary-queen-of-scots-was-a-poet-and-you-should-know-it-29645 [accessed 1 March 2018]).
——. ed. 2017. ‘Mary Stuart’. In the Early Modern Women Research Network Digital Archive (https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/emwrn/marystuart [accessed 1 March 2018]).
——. 2012. ‘Reading Mary Stuart’s Casket Sonnets: Reception, Authorship and Early Modern Women’s Writing’. Parergon 29.2: 149-73.
Stevenson, Jane. 2008. Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stevenson, Jane, and Peter Davidson, eds. 2001. Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700): An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Strickland, Agnes. 1850-1859. Lives of the Queens of Scotland and English Princesses Connected with the Regal Succession of Great Britain. 8 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood.