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Stirling Castle: From Medieval Fortress to Renaissance Palace

Now, more than ever, we all need a bit of break from the news sometimes. So, take a deep breath, read on, and let’s transport you to Scotland and the exquisite Stirling Castle.

The Great Hall

It’s amazing that I haven’t written about Stirling Castle before this as we have been many times, and our most recent visit was just last month (the pictures featured in this article are a mix of our most recent visit along with past ones). Stirling is one of my favourite castles because I am fascinated with any history surrounding our Scottish heroine, Mary, Queen of Scots. Proof of this can be found by doing a quick look at past blog posts. For those interested, please explore our articles on Holyroodhouse, and the Sheep Heid Inn.

Anyway, back to Stirling. The Castle is connected to Mary and her family as it is where her grandfather, James IV, established his royal residence and much of what we see there today came about during his time. Of course, the Castle’s history goes back much further than the royal Stewart family. According to Historic Scotland, “the earliest fortification probably dates back more than 3,000 years, although hardly any evidence survives”. However, historically, Stirling Castle really established itself as a medieval fortress. The first ‘record of royal activity at Stirling’ was in 1110, when Alexander I funded maintenance of a chapel within the Castle.

Sawyer visiting his friend, Robert the Bruce

A little later during the late 1200s to the early 1300s, the Wars of Independence took place, and this was a tumultuous time for Stirling Castle. During this period, the Scots fought to resist the English taking over their lands and the Castle changed hands a few times. Another iconic Scot, Robert the Bruce (Robert I), played a central role in the history of Stirling Castle. In 1314, Edward II of England invaded Scotland and seized control of the Castle. Many historians say that this was the greatest battle in Scottish history, and it was fought just two miles south of Stirling Castle at Bannockburn (if you visit Stirling, be sure to check out our friends Steven and Molly with Freedom Tours Today for more information and history on the area including the Battle of Bannockburn). There, King Robert and his army took advantage of their knowledge of the land and boggy conditions and were able to defeat the English. This resulted in King Robert getting back control of Scotland including Stirling Castle.

With the intense drama of the Wars of Independence behind us, I would like to focus on the royal Stewart family’s time at Stirling as it is what has had the most lasting impact (at least from an architectural standpoint). As I mentioned above briefly, the work that James IV did at Stirling Castle was significant. Clearly this residence was important to him as it is where he did more work than any other royal castle. During his reign, he had the Great Hall, the King’s Old Building, and the Forework built. Of note, when the Great Hall was completed in 1503, it was the largest secular space in the kingdom. It was renovated at the end of the 20th century with work completed in 1999. I am truly grateful to Historic Scotland for restoring such an important medieval-era building. When you walk inside the Hall, the vast space and it’s architecture is breathtaking.

The Great Hall

Unfortunately, James IV died in 1513 during a military expedition in northern England on Flodden Field. His infant son, James V, became monarch- although Scotland was ruled by regents until he could officially begin his rule in 1528.

What I find the most fascinating about James V and his time at Stirling is that he took great care to establish a European connection to Scotland. After all, James visited and travelled around France (and Europe) as he was expected to marry a French royal bride (to maintain the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland- more on this in a future article on Scotland and France). Therefore, he married Francis I’s daughter, Madeleine of Valois, in 1537 at Notre Dame in Paris. Unfortunately, their marriage was short-lived as Madeleine suffered from poor health and died shortly after arriving in Scotland with James (just several months after their wedding).

James then married another French woman, Marie de Guise (now mostly known in Scotland as Mary of Guise), in 1538. James had gained quite a bit of wealth through the dowries of both of his French wives and he set about spending that money by building his royal residences. This is when James began work at Stirling Castle building his grand palace, and when (at least for me) the story of the Castle gets quite interesting!

The palace James V built at Stirling Castle is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scotland. In particular, the ‘Stirling Sculptures’ are intriguing as they reflect a knowledge of Renaissance art and literature not previously seen in Scotland. If you walk around outside the Palace, you will find various sculptures including ones of Archangel Michael- the patron saint of France and protector. It should come as no surprise that this sculpture holds watch over Marie de Guise’s window of her bedchamber. There are also two sculptures of Venus, cherubs’ heads, and a griffin to name just a few.

Another wonderful example of the Renaissance influence can be found in the world-renowned ‘Stirling Heads’. As Historic Scotland points out so well, “the Stirling Heads were not merely decorative. They embodied some of the key messages James V wanted to convey about himself and his court”. These marvellous wood carvings were originally located in the ceiling of James’s Palace (which is now decorated with replicas) but are now located in a separate exhibition. The exhibition outlines that the Stirling Heads were carved in the Renaissance style, which had arrived in France from northern Italy. French craftsmen and carvers came to be part of James’s court when he married Marie de Guise.

Replica Stirling Heads in the Palace

James V and Marie’s two sons died in infancy which left James with his only legitimate child, Mary, who was born in 1542. Tragically (and there is a great deal of tragedy in Mary’s story), James V died six days after Mary was born and she- just like her father- was crowned monarch of Scotland as a child. After his death, Stirling Castle belonged to Marie de Guise and it was her main residence until she relocated to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the 1550s.

The Queen's Bedchamber

Marie had to endure quite a bit of instability after James’s death, and worked hard to keep Mary safe. Fortunately, she had the backing of French money and arms to help her do this during that difficult time period. However, it eventually became too dangerous for Mary, and Marie sent her to France for safety in 1548. Marie stayed at Stirling Castle, continued to be supported by French forces, and became regent in 1554. This allowed Mary Queen of Scots to eventually return from France in 1561 and rule Scotland. Mary did not spend much time at Stirling until she moved there with her own infant son, James, to provide better security. Prince James had his baptism there in December 1566 with full Catholic rite. This was probably one of the happier moments for Mary at Stirling Castle, but, unfortunately, the happiness didn’t last. Mary was forced to abdicate in June 1567 by anti-Catholic forces that were strong at that point in Scotland. She never saw her infant son again.

James was crowned monarch- James VI- when he was only 13 months old. He then went on to spend most of his childhood at Stirling Castle. He later married Anna of Denmark and their son, Prince Henry, was born at Stirling Castle. James VI had a new Chapel Royal built specifically for Henry’s baptism. James eventually moved to England when Elizabeth I died, and he succeeded the English throne becoming ruler of Scotland and England. He only visited Scotland once after this. Of course, the history of Stirling Castle continues after this, but it was no longer a royal palace after James left. Therefore, I will conclude with that so that we can continue our tour of the Castle.

Chapel Royal

What is fantastic about Stirling Castle is that the complex is quite extensive. Therefore, be sure to take your time to thoroughly explore the grounds and all the buildings- especially the ones tucked further back. For example, on our most recent visit in February, we explored the building that houses the Tapestry Studio Exhibition- Weaving the Unicorn: The Stirling Castle Tapestry Project. According to the exhibition, The Stirling Tapestry Project “is thought to be the biggest tapestry project undertaken anywhere in Britain for over a century”. As you navigate the exhibition, it tells the story of the Project in a variety of interactive ways including video, photos, and informational boards.

In a nutshell, there are historic inventories of the Palace that let us know that during the time of James V, he owned over 100 tapestries. Interestingly, there was a set of tapestries “depicting the ‘historie of the unicorne’. Sadly, none of these tapestries exist today. However, in 2001, Historic Scotland commissioned the creation of a new set of seven tapestries to be put in James V’s Royal Apartments here at Stirling Castle. The tapestries were modelled after a set of 15th century Flemish tapestries called, The Hunt of the Unicorn which survived and are now located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition points out that the new tapestries are not exact copies, but reinterpretations of the originals. As you can imagine, creating such magnificent tapestries was a monumental task, and the Project was completed in 2014. Here are some pictures of the completed tapestries which now hang in the Queen’s Apartments in the Palace:

Another intriguing area of the Castle requires us to head down into the kitchens. The Historic Scotland staff have done a wonderful job at recreating the ‘Great Kitchens’ built by James IV. The displays provide a better understanding of the elaborate setup required for a royal household in the 16th century.

As I walked through on my most recent visit, many of my senses were engaged- there was audio to recreate the sounds of a kitchen and I could practically smell the fresh bread baking and feel the warmth from the fireplaces and bubbling pots located throughout the kitchens. Perhaps it is time to head outside for some fresh air, and to further explore the grounds.

Another favourite location of mine at Stirling Castle is the Queen Anne Garden. Located in the area in front of the southern curtain, it is truly a lovely outdoor space. While it is beautiful year-round, in my opinion, it is easiest to fully appreciate its splendour during the warmer seasons when everything is in full bloom. Therefore, the pictures of the Garden below were not from February’s visit, but previous ones.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed our wee virtual journey to Stirling Castle. There is so much more to the Castle, but our aim for this post was to provide some highlights and a brief glimpse into it. If you are interested in visiting, please be sure to check the Stirling Castle website for more information.

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Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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