The mighty Stirling Castle was a favoured residence of Scottish kings. James V ordered a magnificent new palace to be built within its walls. There, James and Mary would hold a court as splendid as anything seen in France. Unfortunately the king died in late 1542, and perhaps never saw the palace complete. In the power struggle which followed his death, the regent, James earl of Arran, tried to prevent Mary of Guise gaining control of such an important fortress. But she outwitted him and in July 1543 she and her little daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, left Linlithgow Palace and headed for Stirling with a triumphant procession of 2,500 cavalry, 1,000 infantry and a baggage train a mile long.
Life at Stirling
Stirling Castle was the main political powerbase where Mary of Guise held court. Great nobles, foreign ambassadors, military officers and others crowded into the castle – some seeking justice, others wanting favours and yet more hoping to advise on governing the realm. But Stirling Castle and its royal palace were places of fun as well as a political centre and fortress. Within a month of arriving, Mary of Guise had brought in a flock of ornamental cockerels and hens as pets she could enjoy watching with her daughter. There were also musicians, poets and jesters and a female ‘fool’ called Senat. The entertainers came from far and wide, possibly including two ‘Moors’, Africans or Arabs from North Africa, who were part of Mary’s household.
A cosmopolitan court
The record of who dined with Mary of Guise at the palace shows that it was a diverse and cosmopolitan place. Hogmanay 1549 was celebrated in the company of the earl of Huntly, newly escaped from prison in England. That year she also entertained Lady Livingstone, a Frenchwoman married to a Scot, and Lady Barbara Hamilton who had nursed her when she had a suspected case of plague. Among the foreigners were the Rhinegrave, Mons de la Chapelle and Mons D’Essay. Then there were Captain Ashoe and other foreign officers. Two mysterious guests were an Italian sea captain called Captain Bashe, and a Captain Myleroyne. Meals could be serious networking and morale-boosting events with everyone from high nobles to middle-ranking officers being warmed by Mary’s fire, filling up on her food and drink, and chatting to the queen and her French and Scottish officials.
Outsiders often saw the court as a place of decadence, peopled by parasites and flatterers but there was another view, that courtiers were an essential source of sound advice in delicate circumstances.
A Renaissance court needed minstrels, artists and scholars, plus cooks, cooks and more cooks.
John Harrison, Historian
The pros and cons of Stirling
Stirling Castle was as good as life got in Renaissance Scotland, but there were some basic problems. Water for washing and cooking had to be carried from the well. With no flushing loos or bin men, waste from latrines and kitchens was just dumped over the walls.
It was at Stirling that Mary of Guise made some great – and not so great – decisions. In 1559 she summoned the Protestant preachers Paul Methven, John Christison, William Harlaw and John Willcock to appear before her, accused of being rebels for refusing to return to the Catholic faith. Their supporters gathered in Perth and threatened to march to Stirling. The situation spiralled out of control with riots in Perth, the destruction of friaries and an armed standoff between the Protestants and forces loyal to Mary. The situation was defused with little bloodshed but helped spur the outright rebellion which saw the Protestant Lords of the Congregation link up with the English. French forces were thrown out of Scotland and Protestantism established.
In the 1540s, Stirling was a major target for the English. A successful attack could have resulted in the kidnap of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary of Guise and her French allies strengthened Stirling for the ‘resisting of oure auld innimeis of Ingland’. Town walls were built, the French Spur was added to the castle, artillery was brought in and troop numbers increased. In 1547 an English spy reported that a blockhouse was being built at the castle entrance which would make the castle more difficult to capture. So, amidst the splendour, the threat of war was never far away