Last chance to see Mary Queen of Scots’ last letter

Mary Stuart, Queen of ScotsSix hours before her head was so roughly separated from her body, Mary Queen of Scots wrote one final letter to her brother-in-law from her first marriage, King Henri III of France.

It it she proclaimed her innocence of any crime and accused her enemies of martyring her for her Catholic faith.

The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose.

The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions.

She died on February 8, 1587, but her doctor didn’t manage to deliver to the letter to Henri until the end of the year. Ultimately it was Philip II of Spain who fulfilled her obligation to her servants, paying their back wages and pensions via his ambassador, Bernardino Mendoza.

The letter remained in the French royal archives until it was donated to Scots College seminary in Paris as a relic of her martyrdom. The College was dissolved after the French Revolution, its archives scattered.

The letter passed through the hands of a variety of collectors after that, until a group of subscribers raised the funds to purchase it and donate it to the Scottish nation in 1918. It was kept in the Advocates Library until the National Library of Scotland was created in 1925, and that’s where it’s been ever since, kept in an air and light-tight safe.

Now, to draw people in to its new visitors’ center and showcase its rare treasures of Scottish history, the National Library has put the letter on public display, but only for a week because of its fragile state of preservation.

Tomorrow, September 21st, is the last day it will be available for public viewing. The response has been phenomenal so far. People have been flocking to the exhibition — more than a 1,000 visitors a day — so I’m sure tomorrow will be see crowds galore.

If you happen to be in Edinburgh, wear comfy shoes and get in line because you won’t likely have an opportunity like this again.

If like me you happen not to be anywhere near Edinburgh, the pictures and translations from the National Library will have to suffice.

Mary's last letter to Henri III, page 1 Mary's last letter to Henri III, page 2 Mary's last letter to Henri III, page 3 Mary's last letter to Henri III, address

More on Alexander the Itsy Bitsy

Megan Webb surveys the Tel Dor siteYou know the miniature gemstone of Alexander the Great I blogged about last month?

Well, it turns out he was found by one Megan Webb, an undergraduate student from Annapolis, Maryland, who joined the University of Washington Field School’s program at Tel Dor to get some extra credits and learn about ancient ceramics over the summer.

Beginner’s luck doesn’t even begin to cover it. I mean, this is the only Alexander portrait carved on miniature gemstone that has ever been found in an official dig — there are only a dozen or so in the world, and the others were all looted so we have no idea where they came from — and the nice Art History/Ceramics major who joined on an Indiana Jones-inspired lark finds it?

I wonder if some of the professionals on the dig were secretly shaking their fists. Although her boss, Sarah Culpepper Stroup, certainly isn’t.

“She was so careful, so methodical in her work, that’s really how she found it,” Stroup said. “She’s fantastic.”

I’m glad to hear that, because if some slacker had stumbled on what is widely considered the find of the year on the Mediterranean, many heads would doubtless explode.

This is such a major find, not only for its beauty and quality, but also because it rewrites the history of the Macedonian conquest of the area.

Alexander the Great’s armies swept across the area – including Tel Dor – around 322 B.C., she said. But because the town walls are still intact, Stroup thinks there was no resistance there.

“You don’t wear a very expensive, beautiful ring with the figure of Alexander the Great if you’re resenting your Greek overlord,” she said.

“I think the story people have been telling has been a very dramatic story…. but as we’re seeing at Dor, that’s not how it happened. (Here) we see how cultures will adopt and adapt and transform another culture.”

We still don’t know for sure what stone it is, incidentally, but Stroup thinks it’s a carnelian. It would have been set in a ring originally (hence its itsy-bitsiness) and is about 2300 years old.

50 new graves found near Pella

Bronze helmet and gold foil as it was buriedAlmost a thousand graves have been excavated over the past nine years in the cemetery of Arhontiko, near the ancient city of Pella where Alexander the Great was born.

Now we can add more to the tally, as archaeologists have uncovered 50 new graves dating to the 6th c. BC.

Decorated gold fold piecesWeapons, helmets, gold, pottery and figurines were buried in some of the graves, indicating high social status among the deceased.

Gold foil pieces decorated with animal figures ornamented the eyes, mouth and chest of the aristocrats. The animal designs were symbols of royal power.

Ten of the 24 tombs, dated to the Archaic Period (580-480 BC), are believed to have belonged to aristocrat warriors. Based on the findings, the specific tombs are positioned along two paths that crossed each other, confirming that the “best” spots in pre-Classical cemeteries were reserved for the tombs of the wealthy and members of the aristocrat class.

Moreover, the deceased were buried based on their social class while members of the same family were buried close to each, other forming clusters dating back to the second half of the 7th century BC (late Iron Age) and even down to the early Hellenistic era.

Grave with artifacts

The rise of the decline industry

Check out this neat article about the flurry of recent books about the decline and fall of Rome.

It’s by Bryan Ward-Perkins, author of a great decline book of his own, that was the source of the greatest list of all time. His experience gives him an interesting insider’s perspective on what publishers are up to (ie, trying to sell books, of course).

For example, on the left is the cover art he wanted, on the right is the cover art he got:

"The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments" by Henry Fuseli, 1778-80 “The Course of Empire: Destruction”, by Thomas Cole, 1833-36

In the great battle of meditative vs. lurid, lurid wins hands down. (Not that I’m hating, mind you. I dig them both.)

Anyway, the books Perkins profiles offer a variety of theories for the fall, but he thinks they all cluster around a central anxiety.

But it is hard not to conclude that a widespread anxiety over a modern “decline of the West” underlies the presence of all these books on the disintegration of the Roman empire, and of a reading public prepared to buy them. It is certainly very striking that so many books have recently appeared on the dissolution of Rome’s power, and so very few chart its rise and apogee. Europeans, and their descendents the North Americans, have had it very good for four or five centuries, thanks to their dominance (military, political, economic, cultural, even religious) over the globe. Romans had it very good for about the same number of centuries. Then things got a lot more “complicated” for the Romans. Are we in the modern West headed in the same direction?

Most of the six books make explicit and/or implicit analogies between the Roman then and our modern now. James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire takes a particularly intriguing stance.

His takes is that Eastern Emperor Justinian ruined things for everyone when he invaded Italy and defeated the Ostrogoths who had established a fairly serviceable kingdom after killing the last emperor and sacking the place. From O’Donnell’s perspective, the barbarian Ostrogoths were trying preserve Roman civilization, and Justinian was an impulsive militarist who didn’t think through the long-term consequences of his bellicosity.

Sound like anyone we know? 👿

Strange burial found in Caistor Roman Town

Unusual Roman skeleton buried sidewaysArchaeologists excavating the Roman town of Venta Icenorum aka Caistor Roman Town in Norfolk, England, have uncovered a skeleton buried in a strange way. Instead of being laid out neatly as is customary with Roman burials, this body is on its side with its hands behind his back.

“This one has been seemingly put sideways into a shallow pit and the ground surface would have barely covered it. It’s folded up and at first sight it seems to be a very strange-looking individual.

“The question is whether we are in a cemetery area of the town or if we are looking at something stranger. None of us who have worked on Roman cemeteries in the past have ever come across anything like this.

“It could be that they were executed as a criminal, murdered and shoved into a pit or it was someone who was deemed abnormal in some way so the body was not accorded the normal burial.”

University of Nottingham archaeologist Dr. Will Bowden speculates that he might have been executed or murdered, which would explain the unusual posture.

Dr. Bowden, incidentally, has been working on the Caistor site for 2 years. His team surveyed the site using a Caesium Vapour magnetometer which produced a detailed map of the entire buried Roman town. The street plan was already known from aerial photographs, but this survey was much more detailed, including the water supply system, the baths, temples, the forum and a semi-circular building that might have been a theater.

They also discovered some circular features that may predate the Romans, suggesting a possible previous settlement by the Iceni, warrior queen Boudicca’s people. The Roman town might have even been built on top of the Icenian settlement in retribution for the rebellion.

Caistor is under happy green fields now — which is one of the reasons it’s such a valuable archaeological gem because you don’t have to upend a couple of thousands years of incremental building to get to the Roman parts — and before the recent survey, people thought the Roman town was abandoned when the empire fell apart in the 5th c.

They’ve found some indications of Saxon settlement, though, which pushes back Caistor’s demise to the 9th c., when nearby Norfolk became the population center.

3D rendering of Caistor Roman Town