British Library reveals autumn season highlights, from Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots to Beethoven and Paul McCartney

  • First major exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots together, putting them both centre stage and giving them equal billing
  • Free display celebrating songwriter and performer Paul McCartney featuring previously unseen lyrics from his personal archive
  • Exploring the creative imagination, legacy and enduring inspiration of Beethoven, one of the greatest and most influential composers of all time
  • Events will resume at the British Library sites and continue online

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (8 October 2021 – 20 February 2022)

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is the first major exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots together, putting them both centre stage and giving them equal billing.

From amicable beginnings to distrust and betrayal, the exhibition explores the complex relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots through their own words. It will take a fresh and revealing look at the infamous story of two powerful queens bound together by their shared Tudor heritage, whose turbulent relationship dominated English and Scottish politics for thirty years.

Despite their fates being intertwined, the queens never met and their relationship was played out at a distance, much of it by letter, and this exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see original correspondence written in their own hands and words.

Drawing on the British Library’s outstanding collection of early modern manuscripts and printed books, Elizabeth and Mary’s autograph letters will be displayed alongside 16th-century state papers, speeches and cipher documents, as well as beautiful maps, drawings and woodcut engravings to illustrate key moments and events. There will also be paintings, jewels, textiles, maps, drawings and objects borrowed from private and public collections in the UK and Spain.

Highlights include:

  • The first letter handwritten by Mary, Queen of Scots in English, sent to Sir Francis Knollys after fleeing across the border into England (1568)
  • Elizabeth’s handwritten translation of her stepmother Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545), which was a gift for her father Henry VIII
  • Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587), depicting her entering the hall, disrobing, and placing her head on the block
  • Elizabeth I’s speech dissolving parliament in 1567, where she attacked MPs questions about the succession as ‘lip-laboured orations out of such jangling subjects’ mouths’
  • King Henry VIII’s Great Bible (1540) printed by Edward Whitchurch on vellum and illuminated, which was later inherited by Elizabeth I
  • Elizabeth I’s mother of pearl locket ring (c.1575), which opens to display miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn, by kind permission of the Chequers Trust
  • Late 16th century gold necklace and gold enamelled, heart-shaped locket known as the ‘Penicuik Jewels’, which is thought to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots and is set with two miniature portraits said to be of Mary and her son, James VI, on loan from National Museums Scotland
  • Warrant confining Mary, Queen of Scots in Lochleven Castle in 1567, following her forced abdication for refusing to try her third husband, James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, for the murder of her second, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, on loan from the National Library of Scotland

Revealing a dangerous world of plots, espionage and treachery, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will explore how the drama unfolded against the backdrop of an England and Scotland deeply divided between Protestants and Catholics and a Europe torn apart by religious conflicts and civil wars.

Dr Andrea Clarke, lead curator of Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens at the British Library, said:

‘Almost 500 years on, the story of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots continues to fascinate and enthral. It is a story of two women whose lives were indissolubly connected, for not only were they fellow sovereign queens but also, as Mary reminded Elizabeth in countless letters to her, ‘both of one blood, of one country and in one island’. It is remarkable that many of the themes woven through the exhibition narrative, such as Anglo-Scottish relations, international diplomacy and Europe, state surveillance and espionage, still have a deep resonance today.’

The exhibition is sponsored by The Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation, with thanks to the John S Cohen Foundation and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous. The exhibition catalogue is supported by The Strathmartine Trust.

The early modern period is the first in British history to be so thoroughly documented in manuscripts, letters and state papers and the British Library is home to a world-class collection of manuscripts dating from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will feature 5 of 43 historically important letters, written by Queen Elizabeth I and senior courtiers relating to the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, which were gifted in 2017 by industrialist and philanthropist Mark Pigott, KBE, KStJ to the American Trust for the British Library. Ahead of the exhibition opening, the Library has digitised 600 of its early modern manuscripts, many of them with the generous support of Mark Pigott, KBE, KStJ.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will be accompanied by a programme of events and a new book with essays from leading Tudor historians edited by Professor Susan Doran, which is available to pre-order.

Paul McCartney: The Lyrics (5 November 2021 – 13 March 2022)

Featuring previously unseen material from Paul McCartney’s personal archive, this free Entrance Hall display will celebrate one of the world’s most successful songwriters and performers.

Handwritten lyrics and photographs spanning McCartney’s career will reveal the process and people behind some of the most famous songs of all time, from his earliest compositions through legendary decades of The Beatles and Wings to the present.

Additional lyrics by The Beatles can be seen in the free, permanent Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, alongside works by some of McCartney’s literary inspirations including Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library offers an insight into the Library’s collection, which has developed over 250 years and exceeds 170 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation.

Paul McCartney: The Lyrics accompanies McCartney’s new book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, which recounts his life and art through the prism of 154 songs from all stages of his career.

Beethoven (3 December 2021 – 24 April 2022)

Drawing on the British Library’s world-famous collection of printed and manuscript music, recordings and playbills, Beethoven will celebrate one of the greatest and most influential composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Featuring manuscripts, archival documents, personal belongings and sound recordings, the exhibition will explore Beethoven’s creative imagination, legacy and enduring influence against a backdrop of the cultural and political landscape of early 19th century Europe.

Highlights include:

  • Beethoven’s own copy of his earliest published works composed at age 12 and 13
  • Sketches for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and late string quartets
  • A tuning fork, which is thought to have belonged to Beethoven until 1803
  • Specially commissioned AV incorporating bone conduction to present extracts from Beethoven’s music in an engaging and immersive way, in particular to those with hearing impairments

Challenging convention and physical limitations, Beethoven defied the onset of deafness from the age of 28 to produce an output that encompasses 722 works, including 9 symphonies, 35 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets.

To coincide with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, last year the Library launched Discovering Music: 19th century, a free online resource that explores key works of 19th-century classical music and the social, political and cultural contexts in which they were written.

The exhibition is supported by the Brian Mitchell Charitable Settlement.


In-person events will resume at the British Library and continue online. Autumn highlights include:

The latest information on the Library’s events and exhibitions can be found on the What’s On pages. Previous cultural events are available for everyone to watch on the British Library Player.