Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Coronations and executions: struggling to survive in Stirling's Old Town

Living as close to a fortification as possible can help you survive - as long, that is, as at critical times you are on the right side of the portcullis. This hasn't always been straightforward. Sometimes the 'right side' could be inside, and sometimes it could be outside. It just depended.

If you were poor in the Middle Ages, there were plenty of pickings to be had at court. You might get a job in the stables, the kitchen or the laundry. You would at least get regular meals and might even be able to keep warm. And you had a reasonably good chance of being able to sneak away through enemy lines during a siege.

If you were from a noble family, the pickings were potentially much bigger, of course: life at court could bring substantial rewards. The hazards, however, could literally be life-changing.

Stirling, like most castles, did not exist as an isolated stronghold. Clustered below the castle walls was an entire mediaeval town with craftsmen and beggars, shopkeepers and merchants, rich men and poor men. Some of that town, and the buildings constructed when the royal court was at its busiest and most influential, still survive today, and with them the stories of the people who once lived there.

On a cold, wet day the winding cobbled streets and high turreted buildings of Stirling's Old Town might seem dark and lifeless. However, imagine them bustling with life.

Horses would clatter through  the streets, scattering the common people, the brightly-coloured livery and streaming pennants of their riders brilliant against the grey stone.

Great lords lived along these streets as well as merchants and tradesmen. The Earl of Mar had a mansion which opened right onto the main street. Mar's Wark, as it is known, was richly carved, with gargoyles and coats of arms. Once it was a magnificent palace centred on a quadrangle. Now only one side remains for it was destroyed by the Jacobites in 1746.

Mar was a very influential man. He was keeper of Edinburgh Castle during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots (1560-70). After he was removed by her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, he was made keeper of Stirling Castle. In 1571, Mar became regent to the infant James VI who acceded to the throne at the age of 13 months, after his mother's forced abdication. Mar would have been well used to royal pomp and ceremony. However, one particularly notable event must have been the coronation of his young charge.

James was crowned, not in the Chapel Royal within the castle, but in the Church of the Holy Rude just outside the castle walls and opposite Cowane's Hospital.

There has been a church on the site since the early 12th century. However, most of the building dates to the 15th and 16th century, the chancel being completed just before the Reformation. James' coronation, unlike his baptism just a year or so earlier, was performed using a Protestant form of service and was in Scots, rather than Latin. John Knox himself preached during the proceedings. The Church of the Holy Rude is the only existing church in Britain apart from Westminster Abbey to have been used for a coronation.

Once the king had grown up and, in 1603, inherited the throne of England, the Earl of Mar followed him to London. Mar was a survivor, weathering political storms, reaping the spoils and dying safely in his bed. Other courtiers were less fortunate. One such family lived just down the road.

Just down the road from the Church of the Holy Rude is Argyll's Lodging.

This grand town house was built in the mid-1500s and extended over the next hundred years. Archibald Campbell, the 9th Earl of Argyll, moved there in the 1660s and carried out a number of improvements, including decorative features over the doors and windows.

Inside, the building is impressive and the dining room  (below right) still has some of the original decoration.

Wealthy though the Argylls were, like all nobles their survival or otherwise depended on other factors than wealth, for wealth could be confiscated. The 8th Earl had had Covenanting sympathies and supported Cromwell when he established the United Commonwealth of England and Scotland. Although Argyll had been sufficiently in favour in 1651 to have carried the crown during the coronation of Charles II, ten years later, after the Restoration, the king had him executed.

The 9th Earl was also unfortunate in his relations with the monarchy. In 1681, Parliament passed the Test Act. This required important people to take the Oath of Supremacy, recognising the king as head of the Church. The 9th Earl refused to take the Oath and was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He was tried for treason and sentenced to death. However, he escaped to Holland, leaving his wife in their Stirling house. When Charles died in 1685 and his brother James VII/II became king, life became even more difficult for convinced Protestants, for James was Catholic and tried hard to make his Protestant realm Catholic too. Argyll led a rebellion, was captured and, finally, executed.

However, the Argylls hung on to their house and, in time, their fortunes improved. James VII/II was expelled and replaced by the Dutchman William of Orange who had married Mary, James' elder daughter. The 10th Earl served William well and, in 1701, was rewarded by being given a plethora of titles: Duke of Argyll, Marquess of Kintyre and Lorne, Earl of Campbell and Cowal, Viscount of Lochow and Glenyla, Lord Inveraray, Mull, Morvern, and Tiree. His son, the 2nd Duke, another strong supporter of the Protestant cause, was, in 1705, rewarded for his work on the Act of Union by being given another two titles: Baron Chatham and Earl of Greenwich, before being made Duke of Greenwich in 1719. So, despite a rather bumpy ride, the Argyll family survived, as did their beautiful house.

Of course, your chances of survival could be far greater if you were not the scion of a noble family. Merchants could do pretty well in a town like Stirling, with plenty of lords and ladies with tastes and needs to be supplied. John Cowane was one such businessman.

Here is Cowane's Hospital and gardens founded in 1637. 

John Cowane's family had been merchants who exported fish, coal and wool to the Low Countries in exchange for goods such as dried fruit and spices which they supplied to the court of James V. John diversified into shipping and property and became a money lender. His services would no doubt have been invaluable to lively young courtiers keen to cut a dash in fashionable doublet and hose or invest in a new and improved coat of armour. 

When he died, with no heirs to inherit, John used some of his fortune, 40,000 merks, to establish an almshouse, or 'hospital', The hospital cared for a dozen aged guild members and was managed by a trust which included members of the town council, the guild and ministers of the kirk.

You may be able to make out a statue of John Cowane on the hospital tower. Tradition has it that the statue (named locally as 'Auld Staneybreeks', apparently) comes to life at Hogmanay and dances around the courtyard. In the 18th century, when the old men started being looked after in their own homes, Cowane's Hospital became the Guildhall. In 1832, it was rapidly converted into an isolation hospital during a cholera epidemic when Stirling lost a third of its population. The Hospital foundation remains a charitable trust, supporting education and housing in the local area.

As you walk down the hill from Stirling Castle, you are surrounded by reminders of the past: the old jail, the old grammar school and ancient walls which have survived demolition and once used to enclose elegant formal gardens.

In time, the castle lost its status as a royal residence, the courtiers abandoned the town and life became rather less colourful. It may also have become rather more predictable, indeed, as time went on, significantly safer.

And on a lovely summer's day - quite unlike this one - it looks lovely!

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