Royal Intrigues

Elizabeth I's signature on the letter

Our Trinity Term exhibition celebrates all things royal, with items from the 15th century to the 18th century. You can explore some of our key themes here.

Marriage . . .

In laudem matrimonij oratio, Cuthbert Tunstall, 1519

This early printed book contains speeches given at the wedding of Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and sister of Henry VIII, to her first husband, King Louis XII of France, in 1514. Their union was highly political. They were first married by proxy, meaning that Louis was not present at the wedding – instead, the Duke of Longeville stood in as his representative. In November Mary travelled to France and a formal wedding ceremony was held. Louis was 34 years older than the 18 year old Mary, and died only two months later in January 1515.

Mary’s letters to her brother tell us that she agreed to marry Louis only on condition that “if she survived him, she should marry whom she liked”. Two months after the death of King Louis, she married secretly for love. Her new husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was far beneath her station. When the truth was revealed, the couple escaped Henry VIII’s anger with only a heavy fine. Mary had defied her brother and her King, and taken control of her own future.

In laudem matrimonij oratio
In laudem matrimonij oratio – Title Page

An historicall narrative of the German princess, Mary Carleton, 1663

Mary Carleton (1642-1673) led an astonishing and eccentric life of crime and celebrity. By posing as a variety of noble heiresses, including a Princess van Wolway of Cologne, Mary managed to defraud and rob numerous men through seduction and marriage. She was often assisted by an accomplice disguised as her maid.

Mary’s life of crime was no secret, and during her lifetime she published memoirs and even starred in a play about herself. She had many admirers, some of which became her victims.

Mary was never arrested for her various counts of bigamy and fraud. However, when caught stealing a silver tankard, she was sent to a penal colony in Jamaica. After only two years she was back in London, continuing to trick wealthy men. When Mary was apprehended for her escape she was not so lucky, and in 1673 she was executed by hanging at the age of 30.

The text tells us that this book was “written by herself, for the satisfaction of the world, at the request of diverse persons of honour”.

Title page of Mary Carleton's memoirs

. . . mysteries . . .

MS411, Secret Transactions & Intrigues, John Berkeley

C. 1650-1678; fair copy in a contemporary hand of a journal of the negotiations between Charles I and the Parliamentarians in 1647, kept by Sir John Berkeley.

John Berkeley (1602-1678) was a royal ambassador and a royalist solider in First English Civil War. During Charles I’s captivity by the Parliamentarians, Berkeley attempted to negotiate with Oliver Cromwell for the King’s release. When this failed, he assisted Charles I in an unsuccessful attempt to escape his imprisonment in Hampton Court. His journal documents the uneasy negotiations between the King and Parliament.

Later in his life Berkeley became a supporter of another unlucky king, James II, who reigned for three years before being quickly deposed. Berkeley then went on to found the American Province of New Jersey with Sir George Carteret.

A manuscript page of Secret Transactions & Intrigues

Memoirs of the secret services of John Macky, 1733

In 1692 John Macky, a previously largely unknown Scotsman, arrived in London with news of James II’s intended invasion of England. He was thereafter involved in counter-espionage work and the interception of treasonous correspondence, running a network of spies. Alongside his work as a spy, Macky was a keen travel-writer, writing about journeys through England, Scotland, and the Netherlands. In his memoirs, he depicts his work during the reigns of King William, Queen Anne, and King George I.

. . . martyrs . . .

Eikon Basilike, the Pourtrature of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings, King Charles I, 1649

The Eikon Basilike is an account of the life of King Charles I, usually attributed to Charles himself, although its authorship is not certain. It was published only ten days after his death and represents him as a martyr. In this case, the armorial binding is unlikely to demonstrate royal ownership, but would have been a device to indicate its contents. The two small holes on the binding are a chain staple mark, as the book would once have been chained to a library shelf.

Stuart armorial binding on the Eikon Basilike

. . . and monarchs.

MS301, Guard Book including signature of Queen Elizabeth

England, Spain & Köln, 16th c., 1554-1598.

Five diverse manuscript documents, chiefly from the 1550s, collected together in a guard book. Here you can see Item 4, a bill dated 29th December 1558 and signed by Queen Elizabeth I. It asks the Bishop of Exeter to certify how much armour and weaponry he has in his custody, and instructs him to have it ready to for service in defending the realm. The following year Exeter rebelled against Elizabeth by declining the oath of supremacy. He was deprived of his office and imprisoned for a short time in the Tower of London.

The Booke of Common Prayer, 1615, belonging to King James I

Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, printer to the Kings Most Excellent Maiestie. 

The binding of this prayer book features the arms of King James I of England and James VI of Scotland. Handwritten on the final pages of the book are the prayers said at the death-bed of the King. On one of the opening pages is written, perhaps in his own hand, “James Stuart my book 1616”.

MS181, English Part-Book, 1630s

This manuscript contains anthems and settings for the Psalms by several English composers in fair copy. Its binding features the Stuart royal arms, and the handwriting bears similarities to that of John Stevens (d. 1636), music copyist and Clerk of the Cheque at the Chapel Royal. This suggests that the manuscript may have been prepared for use at the Chapel Royal.

There is much more to discover at our current exhibition, including Persian and Turkish manuscripts, guidelines for how to run a royal household, and an illuminated genealogical table showing the royal family’s descent from Adam.
Members of St John’s College are welcome to view the exhibition at any time. If you are not a member of the college and would like to visit, please email us at to arrange a suitable time.

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