Although I am hardly what one might call a morning person, I was still up bright and early for my second day in Scotland, which was to be spent at Stirling Castle, where the infant Mary Queen of Scots was crowned and lived until she was whisked away to the safety of her mother’s native France in 1547. Of all the places that I visited, I think this was the one where I felt closest to Marie de Guise, which is hardly surprising as it was here that she spent most of her regency after the birth of her daughter and death only six days later of her husband, James V. Already fond of Stirling Castle thanks to its beautiful apartments, amazing scenery and profuse supply of her beloved hunting, Marie also instinctively retired to the virtually impregnable castle with her infant daughter in order to protect her from the invading English armies and plans of Henry VIII to seize the infant Queen by whatever means possible and marry her to his own young son, Edward.
Listening to the new Taylor Swift album (I’m obsessed and not at all sorry about it) on my iPod and clutching my massive mocha coffee in one hand and my phone with Google Maps in the other, I climbed the streets of Stirling in search of the castle which, like Edinburgh Castle, stands high on a volcanic crag so that it towers over the city below. Dominating the landscape, it held what was for a long time one of the most important strategic positions in Scotland so that it was said that to ‘hold Stirling, was to hold the country’. It wasn’t just a fearsome fortress though and was adopted as one of the favourite residences of the Scottish monarchs from the 12th century onwards, who enjoyed not just its almost impenetrable safety but also its many comforts, which included luxurious apartments, extensive grounds and, slightly further afield, a great hunting park. It had, in short, everything that the Scottish rulers might require and in return they lavished it with attention, providing it in the process with some of the finest examples of Scottish Renaissance architecture and decoration.
My first view of Stirling Castle knocked my socks right off, as I stood in the car park in front of the castle’s main gated entrance, part of James IV’s impressive building project, and slowly turned around to take in the extraordinary view, which encompassed snow tipped mountains in the distance, woods, valleys and even the Wallace Monument. I hadn’t actually realised just how high up I had come during my trek from the train station and so was astounded to find myself so high up and with such an amazing view. I moved away from Scotland when I was twelve years old (apparently the first in my line of Scottish descent to permanently leave the area where I grew up since one of my ancestors pushed off to Virginia in 1711) and have only hazy memories of the landscape of my childhood, but the glorious vista from the gates of Stirling Castle brought it all back with a vengeance and I’ll admit to having a little bit of a cry as well as a moment of fierce pride in what I have not for many years thought of as ‘my’ country.
Regretfully turning my back on the view, I headed into the castle to meet up with my guide, who turned out to be a fellow Marie de Guise fan and a fount of knowledge about her life and times. It was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed being taken down to see some of the fortifications that she put in during her regency. I love that while her husband, James V was preoccupied with beautifying the palace, Marie, who was the daughter of a hero of the Italian Wars, instead left her mark with military fortifications. This is only one of the many reasons why I love her so much.
Most of the forework, however, dates from around 1500 when it was put in place by Marie’s father in law, James IV, who was a total Francophile and remodelled the castle to give it the appearance of a French fortress along the lines of the Château de Vincennes, with beautiful crenellated tall towers. It was designed to be a show both of Scottish military might and also the sophistication of its ruler, who was so obviously influenced by the fashions of the continent. Although much of James IV’s fortifications have long since vanished, the entrance is an impressive sight and it’s still possible to feel a little how messengers and visitors would have felt riding up to it in the time of Marie de Guise.
Going past the tranquil loveliness of the Queen Anne Garden, with its amazing views out across the countryside, the visitor goes up a slight slope to the outer close, which was the service area of the castle, leading on to the kitchens, stables and so on and then the inner close, which is the core of the original royal castle, around which the royal apartments, great hall and chapel were all built as James IV, his son James V and great grandson, James VI worked in turn on embellishing their palatial quarters.
Although the cultured, intellectual and charming James IV is responsible for much of the work at Stirling Castle, it was his son who was responsible for much of the way that the royal apartments look today, as he embarked on an ambitious building programme shortly after his marriage to Marie de Guise in 1538, enlarging and expanding the already existing royal apartments, which had housed his father and mother, Margaret Tudor. Although somewhat weather beaten now, the exterior of the royal palace at Stirling is still a magnificent sight today – elegant and richly decorated with stone figures, both human and fantastical.
Before Marie de Guise left for Scotland, she must have felt a great deal of trepidation about what she would find in her new country, which had the reputation of being somewhat rough and ready despite the best efforts of her new husband and his father to promote their courts as places of learning and courtly finesse. The premature death, just a few months after her arrival in Scotland, of her husband’s first wife, Princess Madeleine of France, the daughter of François I and a friend of Marie, probably added to her worries, although the princess had been suffering from consumption for some time before her marriage.
However, I think that she must have been delighted when she came to Stirling for the first time and saw both the impressive fortifications outside and then the sumptuous royal apartments within, which were equipped with all possible modern conveniences and luxuries. Her pleasure in her surrounding must surely also have been increased by the fact that there was a decided French style to the buildings thanks to the appreciation of her husband and his father for French architecture and art. In short, she must have felt very much at home and her continued affection for Stirling Castle does seem to rather confirm this.
One of the three stone buildings that dominates the inner court is the great hall, which was commissioned by James IV at around the time of his marriage to Margaret Tudor and which was intended to impress both his English bride and also her critical entourage, which had accompanied her from London and was no doubt poised to report any lack of finesse back to the Princess’ father, Henry VII. Like James’ great hall at Edinburgh Castle, it was intended for great state events and royal banquets (such as the incredibly lavish celebrations for the baptism of the future James VI, which one of the very few grand court celebrations that his mother presided over during her reign and also the baptism of his own son, Prince Henry in August 1594 which was astonishingly extravagant and included a full sized ship being hauled into the hall with the fish course plated up on board) and is a suitably lofty and elegant space, lined with stained glass windows and topped with an amazing hammerbeam ceiling, again reminiscent of the one at Hampton Court but actually a modern replica of the now sadly vanished replica.
The second building is the chapel, which was built by James VI for the baptism of his eldest son, Prince Henry in 1594 and took all of about seven months to complete. Sadly, the original chapel where James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in 1543, no longer exists but it was probably architecturally similar to the chapel that stands in its place.
The third building is the royal apartments themselves, which are remarkably well preserved and comprise the lodgings of the King and Queen, as well as a small apartment under the eaves which would have been the royal nurseries. Although the royal residence at Edinburgh Castle was something of a disappointment, the one at Stirling Castle was astoundingly impressive. Plenty of the original features still exist, in the form of magnificent stone fireplaces and beautiful stained glass windows, but most of the apartments as you see them today are the result of some amazing reconstructive work, intended to transport the visitor back to the time of Marie de Guise’s regency.
I absolutely loved wandering through the richly painted rooms of the King’s Lodgings, which are virtually unfurnished and have a bed bare of hangings in the bedchamber in order to represent the fact that there is no King at the time. In fact, it’s not known where the young Mary Queen of Scots lived during the early childhood that she spent safe in Stirling Castle, protected from the threat of the English by the huge fortifications and the French garrison that her mother’s relatives had sent over to watch over them both. It’s possible that she lived in the nursery upstairs, but it seems more likely to me that her mother, conscious of the precious child Queen’s status, may well have arranged for her to be housed in the King’s chambers so that there could be no doubt that she was the rightful monarch. She would have been a lucky girl if so as they are lovely rooms – light and airy and colourful and every bit suitable for a Renaissance monarch and certainly a contradiction of the now thankfully outmoded notion that the sixteenth century Scottish court was backward, boorish and really rough about the edges.
The Queen’s Lodgings next door were undoubtedly the domain of Marie de Guise and here she surrounded herself with imported French luxuries, her pet dogs and her household, while everywhere she looked there would have been the cyphers of herself and her husband as well as the coats of arms and mottos of the royal house of Scotland and her own house of Lorraine, symbolised by an Imperial eagle, while Scotland, that land of ancient mists and legend, was represented by a unicorn. We know that Marie loved reading and music and embroidery and so her rooms would have been filled with possessions.
She was also something of a night owl and would demand that her ladies in waiting stay up until all hours to play cards with her. Her busy, cosy, well furnished rooms give a real taste of sixteenth century court life and make a stark contrast to the King’s as while his are echoing and empty, evoking the years when yet another long regency threatened Scotland’s stability (poor old Scotland had three in a row thanks to infants succeeding to the throne) and the country was left without a strong, adult King to lead the way. Marie de Guise did her best, of course, and made an extremely capable regent for her daughter but even she was finally overwhelmed by her rebellious lords and the might of England.
Marie de Guise’s wonderfully decorated rooms follow the traditional court pattern of Outer Hall, Inner Hall then Bedchamber, with each room being more exclusive than the last. Court visitors would be left to kick up their heels in the lovely Outer Hall, while waiting to hear if their petition had been accepted or they were going to be admitted to the royal presence, at which point, if lucky, they would be taken to the Inner Hall, where Marie would have received them on her throne, which stood on a dais beneath a cloth of state to accentuate her royal status. Really honoured visitors would have been received rather more informally in Marie’s sumptuous bedchamber, which adjoined that of the King. It’s likely that like most monarchs and their consorts of the times, Marie would also have had an even more intimate suite of rooms where she would probably have slept, prayed, chatted with her friends and taken small meals. A door in her bedchamber once led out to her wardrobe, where her collection of exquisite dresses was kept, and it’s probable that her closets were located there as well. Nowadays the door leads out to the so called Prince’s Walk, a fabulously decorated terrace with tremendous (albeit breezy) views that leads to the former royal nurseries, where Marie’s future grandson, James VI was once housed.
Nowadays, the upper floors of what was once the royal nursery now houses one of Stirling Castle’s greatest treasures – its precious collection of sixteenth century wooden roundels, known as the Stirling Heads, which were commissioned by James V in 1540 for the ceiling of his Inner Hall, where his throne and cloth of state were set up for official audiences. Nowadays, there are amazing painted reproductions where the originals once dazzled visitors, but it’s possible to see the originals upstairs. Carved in a French Renaissance style, the heads were the work of several craftsmen, probably under the aegis of Frenchman, André Mansioun, and depict several characters of the Scottish court as well as James himself, his mother Margaret Tudor and his two wives, Madeleine de Valois and Marie de Guise and also some well known foreign dignitaries like Emperor Charles V, François I and Henry VIII. They really are absolutely amazing – beautifully detailed, lively and very charming.
After a couple of wanders around the royal apartments, I turned my attention to outside, where I spent a couple of hours scrambling along walls, clambering up into towers and admiring the amazing stone decorations on the outside of the royal apartments, which were placed there by James V and again featured himself, looking rather John Knox like with a great long beard, as he surveys his work. The other statues represent virtues that a goodly Renaissance prince might be expected to embrace and it’s notable that the statue of Venus, representing peace, stands on a plinth decorated with the salamander symbol of François I, father of James’ much lamented first wife, Madeleine.
I was also absolutely transfixed by the incredible views in all directions and could only imagine how Marie de Guise felt when she first came to Stirling and look out over the ramparts to the royal hunting park beyond. It really is staggeringly beautiful and must have gone a long way to reconcile her to her new life. I also imagined how the French garrison sent over by her family felt as they surveyed the view – it reminded me a little of our visit to one of the Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall a couple of years ago when I had felt incredibly sorry for the poor Roman soldiers, used to the warmth and comforts of continental Europe and now forced to stand for hours in the chilly regions of northern England. Did the French soldiers stare out across the mountains in gloomy resignation or were they too entranced by the wild beauty of Scotland? Perhaps a little bit of both.
Another great treat at Stirling are the great kitchens, which would have provided food for the royal court and all their various hangers on. Although I am mostly interested in how the royals lived, I also find historical kitchens completely fascinating as I try to imagine all the noise and heat and smells and bustle as they worked around the clock to keep their royal masters fed and happy. The kitchens at Stirling Castle are great fun to visit as they have figures representing people who worked beneath the stairs during Marie de Guise’s time and for once they aren’t really weird looking wax works but actually really great figures, that really do make the area come alive. Is it just me who usually hates that sort of thing, by the way? Either get quality figures in like the ones at Stirling Castle or just leave it to the imagination of the visitor – there’s few things more freaky than coming slap up against what appears to be Russell Crowe in a red wig, dressed up like a low rent Henry VIII with a blank eyed, dusty Anne Boleyn who looks like she’s spent more than a few decades in the windows of Dorothy Perkins in Norwich posed limply at his elbow.
As well as the expansive apartments and plenty of castle to roam happily around, there’s also loads of little rooms beneath the castle where children (and adults!) can use really well thought out and arranged displays to learn more about the castle, the history of the Kings and Queens who lived there and the courts that they presided over. I was especially taken with the rooms about royal fashion, music and food.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Stirling Castle and would definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area and especially so if you’re disappointed by the royal apartments at Edinburgh Castle. The latter is impressive in its own right but if you’re after a bit of royal dazzle and glamour and a sense of how the fascinating sixteenth century Scottish Kings and Queens lived then you need to hop on a train at Waverley and visit Stirling.
Many thanks again to Grant Thomson of Historic Scotland for arranging my visits to Edinburgh and Stirling Castles and to the wonderful Ross Blevins at Stirling for his brilliant and insightful tour of areas connected to Marie de Guise. I promise I’ll send a book as soon as it’s published!
Stirling Castle is open all year around. If you’re interested in reading more about the court of James V and Marie de Guise and the work that has gone into recreating them for visitors today then I would definitely recommend Rebirth of a Palace: The Royal Court at Stirling Castle if you can get hold of a copy. I got mine in the castle gift shop and it is definitely well worth a read.
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