In my last post, I gave a brief biography of Mary Queen of Scots, from her birth in 1542 to her escape from imprisonment and arrival in England in 1568. My recently-revived interest in Mary is the result of visits I made last month to two sites associated with her time as Queen Regnant; Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace.
The locations of these sites are awe-inspiring; the first is built on the rocky summit of Castle Hill, dominating the city and the surrounding landscape, the second rests at the foot of the Royal Mile, nestled beneath the imposing peak of Arthur’s Seat. Mary would have encountered these unchanged features when she returned to Scotland after thirteen years in France, though there have been significant moderations to the buildings themselves (and those in the vicinity, not least the controversial architecture of the Scottish Parliament building that stands opposite Holyrood).
Yet, within each there are two small rooms that would have been well-known to Mary, providing the scene for two key events in her life. Both of these occurred within months of each other in 1566.
The first took place at Holyrood Palace. Tucked at the end of a procession of royal rooms that are customary in royal residences (and are still in use today), the chambers of Mary Queen of Scots can be found. They are accessed by a narrow spiral stone staircase, at the top of which is Mary’s bedchamber, encased with the wood-panelling that runs throughout this part of the Palace.
To the immediate right of this entrance is a door leading into the adjoining supper-chamber, a small, rectangular room that would have been full on the evening of Saturday 9 March, when Mary had chosen to entertain her closest friends, including her secretary, David Riccio, in an intimate supper party.
It was from the privy staircase that Mary’s estranged husband, Lord Darnley, appeared along with Lord Ruthven, and demanded that the Queen hand over Riccio. Soon more men ascended into the room and dragged out their victim, who had been clinging to the skirts of the Queen, through the bed-chamber and into the larger presence chamber, where he was stabbed some fifty to sixty times.
This room currently acts as the location of artefacts and artwork associated with Mary (including a length of her hair, which looks blonde, though contemporaries reported it to be auburn), but within a window alcove, below the portrait of Riccio, is a plaque to commemorate the place where his body lay; the floorboards have a curious red hue, rumoured to be the blood stains of poor Riccio, though this is unlikely.
From this murder scene, his body was hauled down the larger stairs leading from the presence chamber, beyond which the modern visitor exits the palace via the ruins of the old abbey. Mary was six months pregnant at the time, and was understandably shocked by the murder, and keen to apprehend the perpetrators.
It is not difficult to understand, then, why Mary chose for her ‘lying in’ the Royal Palace within the formidable Edinburgh Castle, which sits above a complex of buildings that are dedicated now to the military history of Scotland. This is the location of the second event.
Through a short hallway, the visitor enters a good-sized square room, and we are told that it was here that James VI of Scotland was born, on Wednesday 19 June. With the exception of the portraits, this is a most unimpressive room, lacking period furniture, but being decorated with wood-chip wallpaper (my most enduring recollection).
However, on checking my facts in preparation for this post, it would seem that James was actually born in a room that ‘lay off the chamber now known as Queen Mary’s room’, which is more in keeping with the era, and does indeed merit the description ‘extremely small’ (Fraser, 1969), narrower even than the supper-chamber at Holyrood. It was within this confined space that Mary endured a long and difficult labour. The safe delivery of a male heir was met with an artillery barrage from the castle, rejoicing in the city, bonfires lit in the countryside and a thanksgiving service at St Giles Cathedral.
Though I would recommend both sites to the general visitor/tourist, if it is the atmosphere of Mary’s court that you seek, then Holyrood Palace is the superior of the two, as well as having the added interest of the state rooms of a current royal residence. Nevertheless, both Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace have played pivotal roles in Mary’s life and in the history of Scotland and Britain in general. Big things can happen in little rooms.
* * * * *
The photographs are the author’s own, with the exception of those that have been referenced within the post
For more information on Mary Queen of Scots, I would recommend Antonia Fraser’s biography, Mary Queen of Scots (1969), available from bookshops or online (such as from Amazon), which has been my source for this post
For more information on the history of Edinburgh Castle and details about opening times, prices and events, visit its website
To explore the collection at Holyrood Palace and also see details about opening times, prices and events, visit its website
- Mary Queen of Scots: Part I (historicalbritain.org)