LONDON, United Kingdom — In a basement of London’s stately British Library, the light plays through interconnected rooms on a glittering array of paintings, jewels and statuettes, encased amid ancient books, manuscripts and letters.

When the exhibition, “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens,” opened last fall, retracing the deadly dispute between two icons of British history, organizers said they were “putting both center stage and giving them equal billing” for the first time.

Three months on, with many visitors reacting emotionally to its intensity, long-held assumptions about the feuding Protestant and Catholic queens are being tested.

“Although there’ve been exhibitions about Elizabeth and Mary individually, no one has placed them together like this before — we’ve tried to tell the story in their own words, stripping away the centuries of interpretation,” explained Karen Limper-Herz, the co-curator.

“It’s a private and a dynastic story, as well as a national and international one. But religion, and the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, is a dominant theme, and we’ve let people draw their own conclusions, based on what they see.”

This is the “Blairs Reliquary,” a miniature portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted in 1586 and framed later for her son, King James I of England, with Mary’s initials and the names of 18 Catholics saints on the back. It is on display at the exhibition “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens” at London’s British Library. (Credit: CNS photo/Justine Trickett, courtesy British Library.)

During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign from 1558 to 1603, she established a Church of England independent of Rome and defeated a Catholic “Northern Rebellion” and massive Spanish Armada in 1588, as well as plots to depose and kill her.

In 1570, when Pope Pius V denounced and excommunicated Elizabeth, many Catholics continued their faith in secret, looking to Mary, the Catholic queen of Scotland, as a potential deliverer.

Mary had become queen as a baby on the death of her father, relying on regents to rule for her and later marrying King Francis II of France. When Francis died in 1561 after just a year on the throne, she returned, widowed, to Scotland, pledging to respect its Protestant faith, but was forced to abdicate in 1567 by hostile barons in favor of her infant son.

Mary fled to England seeking protection from Elizabeth, her second cousin, and help in regaining her Scottish throne.

A woman looks at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in her early 30s, commissioned for marriage negotiations with Charles II of Austria in 1567, and thought to be one of the best likenesses. It is displayed at the exhibition “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens” at London’s British Library. (Credit: CNS photo/Justine Trickett, courtesy British Library.)

Thanks to Tudor family connections, however, she also had a strong claim to the English throne, and many Catholics viewed her as a preferable sovereign to Elizabeth.

With religious wars raging across Europe, and Catholic Spain growing in power, Elizabeth’s Protestant advisers claimed Mary would bring back anti-Protestant persecutions if allowed to succeed. So they ensured she remained under guard at castles and manor houses for 18 years.

After rumored conspiracies, advisers presented “evidence” that Mary had connived in plans to assassinate Elizabeth; and on Feb. 8, 1587, Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle.

The British Library exhibition contains childhood objects belonging to both women, as well as Pope Pius’ excommunication decree and a speech to parliament by the unmarried Elizabeth, denouncing speculation about who would succeed her as “lip-labored orations out of such jangling subjects’ mouths.”

It includes Mary’s 10-page final plea for freedom and a letter to the French king, penned at 2 a.m., six hours before her death, as well as an eyewitness sketch of her execution.

A final section, illuminated in red, displays a farewell sonnet, her last written words, and a gold necklace and heart-shaped locket handed to her grieving attendants.

This is a page from the book “A Warning Against Papists” by Thomas Norton, published in 1570 following Queen Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pope Pius V. The book declared all Catholics to be traitors loyal to Mary Queen of Scots. It is part of the exhibition “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens” at London’s British Library. (Credit: Jonathan Luxmoore/CNS.)

“We know from historic accounts that Mary entered the hall, dressed in black and carrying her crucifix, prayer book and rosary,” Limper-Herz, the curator, told Catholic News Service.

“But when she was disrobed, she was wearing a crimson dress, the color of martyrdom. She was clearly very aware of what she was doing and establishing her legacy — as seen in her final writings, all carefully composed with posterity in mind.”

Susan Doran, an Oxford University history professor who compiled the exhibition catalogue, thinks the displays highlight the deadly seriousness of the conflict between Protestant and Catholic powers, and how both queens, although personally tolerant, were inevitably drawn into it.

Whereas Mary had attempted a religious balance as Catholic queen of Protestant Scotland, once she realized death was near, she presented herself to the world as a Catholic martyr.

This is a contemporary drawing of the murder of Lord Darnley, consort to Mary Queen of Scots, at Kirk o’ Field, Scotland, on Feb. 10, 1567, with his infant son, King James VI, vowing “Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord.” It is part of the exhibition “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens” at London’s British Library. (Credit: Jonathan Luxmoore/CNS.)

And while Elizabeth had sought to defend Protestant co-religionists from persecution in Europe, she had avoided the Protestant zealotry of her ministers, adopting a harsher approach only when convinced the Catholic threat was endangering her realm.

“Elizabeth would have liked to see Catholicism quietly suffocated by preventing the celebration of Masses; though there were strong recusancy laws, there’d been no roundups, massacres or mass hangings,” Doran told CNS.

Doran thinks shifting perspectives are making it possible to see Elizabeth and Mary on equal terms, without the bitter partisanship long attached to them.

“We’re much more ecumenical now and able to avoid confessional loyalties,” the historian told CNS.

“Both figures, with their Protestant and Catholic identities, still stir interest and imagination, and it’s important to approach them objectively, bringing out the political dynamic underlying their relationship, but without the emotional one-sidedness of the past.”

The exhibition shows how tension and paranoia escalated in handwritten letters between the two queens, as Elizabeth’s ministers used informers and coded messages to entrap and incriminate Mary in plots against her, against a background of public tracts denouncing “papist traitors.”

The exhibit includes textiles, embroideries and engravings, some from private collections in Britain and Spain, as well as state papers, Mary’s death warrant, and a hand-corrected draft of Elizabeth’s rousing speech at Tilbury during the Armada scare — all testifying to the high drama of the times, and the profound personal dilemmas that ensued.

“It’s important to talk about history and explain it to new audiences, especially a unique period like this, when two young women were on the throne in neighboring countries, personally related but also very different,” said Limper-Herz, the exhibition curator.

“Though the story easily lends itself to speculation and fictionalization, we’ve tried to tell it as it actually was and bring it back to life, using our unique collections and a modern, dispassionate perspective.”