Stirling Castle’s past is full of surprises – the latest is that it may have been home to Britain’s first proper horse-drawn carriage. It had previously been thought that Bloody Mary, queen of England, had introduced this stylish form of wheeled transport to our islands. However, it seems that Mary of Guise (widow of James V and mother of Mary Queen of Scots) had one shipped to the castle from her native France by 1552, two years ahead of the Tudor coach.
Seeing (let alone riding in) the first carriage would have been quite something, a big talking point for Scots nobles – perhaps with the same ‘wow’ factor as when private jets came into vogue in the 20th century. Here, at last, was something to replace the bone-shaking discomfort of the cart. It had suspension to take the pain out of potholes. It would also have been fully enclosed, with doors at the sides, and a little seat at the front for the driver.
Indeed, it’s thanks to the driver that all this is now known. The evidence for the carriage comes from a 16th-century pay slip uncovered by John Harrison, the Stirling-based historian who has done so much to reveal what life was like at the castle’s renaissance royal court. It was made out to Jehan de Bonlommoye, who we would call the coachman, but they called the ‘charioteer’.
The document, part of the Exchequer records held by the National Archives of Scotland, shows that Jehan received 10 livres tournois as his salary (as part of Mary of Guise’ household) for the quarter. He was unable to sign his name, so made his mark instead, a little drawing of a spoked wheel. The key part of the record is its reference to ‘chariots branlés’ which Mr Harrison says was usually a term for carriages with suspension used for personal transport.
Mary of Guise was a highly fashionable woman and is likely to have loved the idea of some top-notch chauffeur-driven European transport technology. Yet, just how far she could have travelled in the carriage is unknown. While Mr Harrison believes that some roads were passable by wheeled transport, many were not.
The reality was that Jehan may have spent more time polishing the woodwork than out on the highway. In the meantime, Mary of Guise herself would probably have been making her way back and forth from Stirling to Edinburgh, Linlithgow and elsewhere on horseback rather than in her royal coach.
● The National Archives of Scotland has a website guide to Exchequer records which can be found at www.nas.gov.uk/guides/exchequer.asp.