Documents Reveal Mary Queen of Scots Paved Way for Geneva Convention

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17 Jan 2019

AS Britain rediscovers its fascination with Mary Queen of Scots, the world’s oldest surgical college has released documents proving that she paved the way for the Geneva Convention 300 years before it came into force.

With the BAFTA-nominated film wowing audiences in cinemas, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd) has made public a document showing how Mary Queen of Scots protected and preserved the status of surgeons, making it law that they should not have to bear arms in battle.

The Letter of Exemption states that surgeons should focus on caring for and remedying the wounded instead of fighting. It is unclear whether this refers to injured soldiers on the side of the enemy too, or not.

The Queen’s letter is available to be viewed on the website - a new resource launched by the RCSEd that allows people to delve easily for the first time into the fascinating world of medical history.

The RCSEd full Library and Archive holds institutional records dating from the 1460s and extensive archival material relating to the College membership and to the history of medicine and surgery in Scotland.

The perception of medical staff as non-combatants in warfare is usually ascribed to the first Geneva Convention from 1864. But this document shows that, three centuries earlier, Mary Queen of Scots clearly set down the right of surgeons to be exempt from bearing arms.

Chris Henry, Director of Heritage at RCSEd, said: “This unique artefact is one of the College’s treasured possessions.

“It gives us a fantastic insight into the ethics and civilization of 16th Century Scotland as well as the standing of surgeons in the capital back then.”

The new movie, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, charts the power politics of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I as young rival Queens.

Signed ‘Mary by the Grace of God, Queen of Scots’, the letter is thought to be from the Queen for the whole population.

It puts a responsibility upon surgeons, writing that they must always be ‘present with our armies ready to do their cure and duty to all sick persons.’ 

The document is dated May 1567, meaning that Mary Queen of Scots signed the documents during a time of turmoil in her life, just after her son was born and her husband tried to take her throne and murdered her secretary in front of her. Her husband was then murdered before she was abducted and allegedly raped just months before she signed the letter of exemption.

The RCSEd can trace its roots back to the 1st July 1505. Throughout its history, the College Library and Archive have accumulated one of the most significant collections of medical documentation in the UK, comprising a medical, economic and social history invaluable not only to the understanding of the development of surgery, but also as a fascinating cultural and historical resource.

The College Library contains minute books; administrative records; manuscripts; architectural plans; letters; lecture notes; early case notes; diplomas, certificates and honours; class cards; photographs and personal papers; slides and film. The collections include pamphlets, early probationary essays, faculty dissertations and theses.


About The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

RCSEd was first incorporated as the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1505, and is the oldest surgical corporation in the world with memberships approaching 25,000 professionals in over 100 countries worldwide. The College promotes the highest standards of surgical and dental practice through its interest in education, training and examinations, its liaison with external medical bodies and representation of the modern surgical and dental workforce. It is also home to the UK’s only Faculty of Surgical Trainers, open to all those with an interest in surgical training regardless of College affiliation. Find RCSEd on Twitter and on Facebook

The College is based at Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9DW and can be reached on (0)131 527 1600 or In March 2014, a new base opened in Birmingham, catering to the 80% of the College’s UK membership who are based in England and Wales.

For all media enquiries please contact the Communications Team on +447467 485145 or email 


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