Football, Chess, and Maw: The Games of Mary Queen of Scots

Cassidy Cash

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland when she was just a baby

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland when she was just a baby, after her father died when she was just 6 days old. As an adult, she married her cousin, Lord Darnley, and had their only son, James. While she is perhaps most remembered for being half-sister to Elizabeth I, rival to the English throne, and a 19 year prisoner in England, the personal life of Mary Queen of Scots included time for leisure and fun. Most notably, she liked to play football, cards, and chess. The Guinness book of world records states that a leather ball found behind oak panelling at Stirling Castle, in a bedroom used by Mary Queen of Scots, is the world's oldest football. Featuring designs that can be dated to the 1540s, the ball was placed in the panelling in the mid-16th century. Mary Queen of Scots was at Stirling Castle during this timeframe, making it plausible to think the football belonged to her. Of course, placing her at the castle is not conclusive evidence of ownership of this football, nor does the date and proximity explain why the football was hidden behind the oak panelling. However, we do know that Mary liked the game of football based on records of her stay at another castle, Carlisle Castle, in England. While in England as a prisoner under Elizabeth I, Mary was regularly moved to various locations in an effort to thwart any potential challenge to Elizabeth’s throne. The hope was that if Mary was too exhausted from the constant upheaval, she would not have time to plot against the Queen. She was essentially under house arrest at each of these locations but far from being the type of prison conditions you might expect at the Tower of London, for example, the Queen of Scots enjoyed considerable entertainment during her confinement, including a game of football. Recorded by Sir Francis Knollys, who was charged with keeping Mary under surveillance at the time, details a game played for Mary which included using a small ball and everyone using their feet.
Football, Chess, and Maw: The Games of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots

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Football, Chess, and Maw: The Games of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots

Their favourite game was the game of Maw

In addition to football, we know Mary Queen of Scots played both cards and chess. Her love of cards can reasonably be said to have passed down to her son, James, as he also played cards prolifically at court. Their favourite game was the game of Maw. The card game of Maw was a popular game in Scotland and though James is credited with proliferating the game in England’s royal court, it is his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who is responsible for introducing the game to England in the first place. Maw is a famous Scottish card game. In fact,, the 9 of diamonds is anecdotally called the Curse of Scotland as a result of a thief, George Campbell, who tried to steal the Scottish crown jewels and made away with 9 diamonds. One primary document from the period suggests that James I postponed a trial of Sir Thomas Monson over Maw. The pamphlet, Tom Tell-Truth, insults James using the language of Maw: ‘...They say you have lost the fairest game at Maw that ever king had, for want of making the best advantage of five-finger, and playing the other helps in time. That your own card-holders play booty, and give the sign out of your own hand.’ (Source) These 16th century records of games and card playing help us understand the humanity of Mary Queen of Scots. She may have been a tense rival to Elizabeth I, the mother of James I, and wrapped up in scandal, but she was also a person who enjoyed the diversion of a good game as much as anyone.
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Football, Chess, and Maw: The Games of Mary Queen of Scots

Cassidy Cash

Cassidy Cash is a historical map illustrator and Shakespeare historian. She is the host of That Shakespeare Life, the #2 Shakespeare history podcast in the world as ranked by Welp Magazine and host of the YouTube series DIY History where she introduces you to games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare's lifetime that you can try out for yourself at home. Cassidy's documentary short films and animated plays about Shakespeare's history have won international film awards for history and animation.
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