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Mary, Queen of Scots and The Palace of Holyroodhouse: Humanising a Legend

This week’s post has it all- drama, intrigue, intensity, and even a touch of melancholy. Drawing on the excitement of the film, Mary Queen of Scots, that opens in the UK this weekend, this post will be exploring a little part of Mary’s life here in Edinburgh. First off, I want to acknowledge that there have obviously been many books written about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and I am certainly not a scholar well-versed in all things Mary. However, I am hoping that this post will at least provide a little taste of her life; specifically, her experiences at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The excitement and drama started for me this week by running into none other than “Mary Queen of Scots” herself- Saoirse Ronan! We were standing on North Bridge enjoying the beautiful, sunny morning when, suddenly, I heard Ms. Ronan’s unmistakable Irish lilt because she was standing right next to me. I looked up and sure enough it was her- giving a little tour to a couple that looked like they might be her parents. Ms. Ronan was in town for that night’s Scottish premier of the movie, Mary Queen of Scots. I didn’t want to bother her, but it was fun just to run into the Oscar-nominated actress who plays the star of this week’s blog post.

So, I start off by posing a question for contemplation- What must have it been like for Mary, the person? We always think of Mary the historical, larger-than-life figure. But, let’s break it down and humanise her a little bit if possible as we discuss her throughout this post. First, a quick summary of her story-

Mary became Queen of Scotland as a baby but was sent at the age of 5 to grow up in the French Court as she was betrothed to the Dauphin of France.

Okay, stop there and think about that for a moment. You are sent to another country to help preserve the Franco-Scottish alliance through marriage…imagine growing up with that pressure on your head. It would be a lot for any young girl. Of course, her mother Mary of Guise (Marie de Guise) was French so that probably mitigated the situation a bit. But let’s continue our story-

Mary marries the Dauphin of France, François , but he tragically dies a couple years later, and she ends up a widow at 18 years old. She then decides to go back to Scotland- her country of birth.

Mary Queen of Scots in mourning clothes

It must have been scary for her on a personal level- so strange to be in France, a widow, and with her French royal status changed with the death of her husband. Of course, she might have been able to stay there- her friends urged her to. However, knowing she was the Queen of Scotland must have provided her with that sense of duty and the comfort knowing she could go 'home'.

So, she returns to Scotland and suddenly marries again- to her first cousin- Henry Stuart aka Lord Darnley. They were married at Holyrood Abbey.

There are many places in Edinburgh- and Scotland for that matter- that can say, “Mary was here”. But, as I stated at the beginning of this blog post, I’m going to focus on a place that was particularly eventful for her- The Palace of Holyroodhouse.

A visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a must when you visit Edinburgh. It’s the Queen’s official residence here and is a working palace. I recommend listening to the audio tour that is included into the admission ticket price as it is a great help to get a brief overview of the past and current uses of the Palace. I hope to revisit Holyroodhouse in a future blog post for a more in-depth look.

On this visit, I was focused on Mary and trying to think about her perspective at Holyrood and examining the places that related best to her. For me, the stateliness of the Palace can first truly be felt in the Throne Room. The scarlet carpets, lush, velvet curtains, decorative plaster ceiling, and oak-panelled walls provide a serious and sombre tone. In this room, you get your first sense of Mary as there is a magnificent painting of her son, James VI, above the fireplace. Interestingly, according to the Palace audio tour, he’s dressed as a scholar and not in typical royal garments as you might expect to see a king portrayed. Perhaps this was an important part of his character.

The next room that holds significance to our tale of Mary is in the room called, The Queen’s Bedchamber. This was the room of Lord Darnley- Mary’s second husband if you recall. The bed in the room has been restored and preserved behind glass to keep it protected. The bed would have cost the equivalency of £22,000 ($28,340) in today’s currency- quite an extravagant item! This might give some insight into Lord Darnley’s character. In general, Darnley and his family have been described as rather politically ambitious due to their own royal lineage.

There’s a lovely painting of Mary across from the bed, and another small room off the bedchamber. Here, you find a painting of the Memorial of Lord Darnley- painted while at rest in his casket. But this peaceful view of Darnley is a bit misleading as you will soon find out as we continue our story of Mary at Holyrood. The sense of foreboding starts to take over as you leave Darnley’s bedchamber and climb a narrow, winding, staircase up to Mary’s Bedchamber.

Mary’s Bedchamber is quite simple (considering it was for a queen) and rather quiet. This is the oldest section of the Palace and has the original decorative oak ceiling and painted frieze.

What’s even more intriguing is the side room just off the bedchamber. This tiny room was Mary’s Supper Room. It’s a modest room containing a fireplace with delicate-looking, porcelain tiles.

A view into Mary's Supper Room and a painting of David Rizzio.

And this is where our story takes a turn and requires us to close our eyes and imagine going back in time again…to the night of 9th of March, 1566….

Mary is heavily pregnant and is having supper with a few of her ladies-in-waiting and her friend and private secretary, David Rizzio.

The fact that Mary was almost 6 months pregnant really helps us to understand just how harrowing her situation was for her. For further context, it’s also important to know that Lord Darnley was horribly jealous of Rizzio; perhaps he also saw him as a convenient scapegoat and person he could use to weaken Mary’s power. So, back to our story…

Mary and her small party are having a relaxing supper when Darnley storms into the room and accuses Mary of having an adulterous relationship with Rizzio. He then has someone hold Mary at gunpoint while another accomplice stabs Rizzio 56 times and brutally murders him.

'The Murder of David Rizzio' by Sir William Allan at The Scottish National Gallery

56 times- a bit excessive for sure, and this number certainly adds to the dreadfulness of this sad story. According to a Palace Warden, Mary was so distraught and traumatised by the horrific murder of Rizzio, she left his body in the place where he died for a few days. In fact, there’s a brass plaque on the wall of the Outer Chamber to show visitors exactly where his body lay.

Painting of Mary Queen of Scots

Another morbid part to the story is that if you look closely on the floor below the plaque- you can see a large, red stain that looks a lot like old, dried up blood. Apparently, the legend states that no matter how hard Palace staff try, they can’t get rid of the just keeps coming back. Or, you can believe the more mundane story the warden told us- which is that Palace staff during the Victorian period realised that they needed to embellish their stories to get better tips. So, they started using wine and/or pig’s blood to make a “blood” stain on the floor where Rizzio died. I’ll let you decide what you want to believe, but I rather subscribe to the first version as it is much more interesting.

The Outer Chamber has gorgeous tapestries that line the walls along with various paintings and portraits of Mary and other royalty.

It also has some exquisite artefacts that belonged to Mary or have some connection to her. Most famously is the Darnley jewel- a heart-shaped, jewel-encrusted necklace (pictured below). A few other highlights include a lock of Mary's hair, a purse and some embroidery that belonged to her.

There are a few personal, familial touches that are also part of the Outer Chamber including oak-panels along the ceiling with the initials of Mary, her family, and even her first husband and father-in-law.

François Clouet - Mary, Queen of Scots

For me, one of the most touching and personal places out of the entire palace is the little niche where Mary would pray. There is now an exquisite stained-glass window of St. Margaret (though the stained-glass wasn’t installed until 1927), and, above the spot where Mary would pray is a wonderful, original oak panel of the Saltire (the cross of St. Andrew) encircled by a royal crown. Enclosed in a case nearby is a rosary and crucifix that are said to have belonged to Mary.

As I stood at this serene space, I tried to put myself in Mary’s shoes and it’s comforting to know that with all the horror and drama she experienced with Rizzio’s murder- here was a place she could go to pray and hopefully get some sort of relief.

We conclude our tour of the highlights of Mary’s life at Holyroodhouse with our last stop- the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. As you enter the ruins, despite the fact there’s no longer a roof- you still get a sense of the grandeur and magnificence that once existed. Unfortunately, only the nave still exists (see the pictures below), and the rest of the Abbey is long gone. The wind was howling on this day- almost musically as I stood there and took in the majesty of this rather melancholic place.

Tucked into a back corner of the nave you find the tomb for Mary’s father, James V, his first wife, and the infant sons he had with his second wife, Mary of Guise. Tragically the tomb was violated at the end of James VII’s reign and its contents left in disorder. Fortunately, in 1898, Queen Victoria ordered the tomb to be repaired and restored.

And so that ends our brief look at Mary, Queen of Scots at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. For those of you fortunate to have already seen the latest film on her life, and for those of us in the UK who might be enjoying it this weekend, I ask that you please take a moment and try to think of Mary “the human” rather than just Mary “the icon”.

Sometimes remembering to humanise historical figures like Mary can help us to get a better sense of who she was and what she endured. She certainly underwent traumatic experiences at Holyroodhouse. However, today, it’s an intriguing place to visit and explore to get a wee glimpse into this captivating Queen of the Scots who has enthralled many for centuries and will continue to do so for many more to come.

Until next time- continue to Explore & Discover!

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