Thursday, 23 July 2015

From one royal stronghold to another: a visit to Stirling Castle

Here in Edinburgh we're spoilt for royal residences to visit. What with the Palace of Holyroodhouse round the corner, Edinburgh Castle up the hill and Craigmillar Castle across the park, we have no need to throw the proverbial stone to hit a palace. And that's even without venturing to the banks of the Forth to visit Blackness Castle,  crossing it to reach Falkland Palace or going inland to the palace at Linlithgow. All royal, every last one of them, and all within a few miles of the capital.

There's something different about Stirling, however. Like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle is built on a volcanic plug, towering over the surrounding countryside. Not even the smallest platoon, let alone an invading army, could cross the plain unseen. This explains why, again like Edinburgh, Stirling has been a stronghold for three thousand years or so. In more recent times, cannon would make sure unwelcome visitors had little chance of arrival, and if they did, boiling tar and flights of arrows would, no doubt, do their job.

Our most recent visit to Stirling was on a pretty dreich day, as you can tell. I wouldn't have fancied being on sentry duty on the top of that windswept hill. Try to imagine the openness of the vista, with none of the settlements you can see nowadays, not least the misty tower of the Wallace Monument. On a bright day, you can see as far as the Forth 30 miles to the south and east, and over towards the mountains of the Highlands to the north and west.

Given its location, it is hardly surprising that Stirling was not just a royal residence, like Falkland Palace or Linlithgow. For hundreds of years, Stirling was at the heart of Scotland's struggle for independence from England. The castle spent long periods under siege during the 13th and 14th centuries. Indeed, it was occupied by the English on several occasions.

Some of the most notable events in Scottish history took place within just a few miles and often within sight of the castle's inhabitants. The army of William Wallace beat the English army of Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, at Stirling Bridge, just below the castle. In turn the Scots were defeated  at the Battle of Falkirk. However, it was Edward II's determination to hold on to Stirling that led, in 1314, to the famous defeat of the English by King Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn nearby. Stirling Castle only returned to Scottish control in 1342 after a six month siege.

Thereafter, Stirling became the place where Scotland's kings took up residence and, perhaps even more importantly, raised their heirs. The castle was probably one of the safest places in the country in which to bring up children. The Stewart dynasty, once 'stewards' to the king, rebuilt the castle after the damage caused during the Wars of Independence. They had similar problems with power struggles and rebellions by the great lords of the nobility as their counterparts in England, so matters could become quite bloody. Indeed, King James IV admitted to his own  role in the murder of his father, James III, after the Battle of Sauchieburn.

James IV was responsible for constructing much of the castle we see these days. He wanted to build a palace which rivalled those of France and England. Judge his success yourselves. His Great Hall, completed in 1503, forms one side of the Inner Close.

The Prince's Tower forms one of the other sides. This wing became the royal nursery.

Tragically, James IV was killed at Flodden Field in Northumberland in 1513. He had made a dangerous miscalculation. He had attacked England out of a mistaken belief that this would discourage Henry VIII from attacking France, with which Scotland had the Auld Alliance. Henry's wife Katherine of Aragon, however, took charge of the English troops and they defeated the Scots. The casualty rate was terrible, many great nobles losing their lives, the capital threatened and country as a whole traumatised.

James V inherited the throne and a bankrupt country at the age of one, His financial situation improved drastically through two judicious marriages, the last one to Mary of Guise. He continued his father's great work, building a glorious palace. The walls of the Inner Close are decorated with superb sculptures, some classical, some humorous, some devilish. James himself is the subject of one of the sculptures.

Inside the buildings, recent renovations and refurbishments carried out by Historic Scotland recreate the splendour of the palace.

Here are the Royal Lodgings, which form another side of the Inner Close. The brilliant colours and intricate design of the ceilings are stunning. The Stirling Heads (below right) represent the Stewart line of succession, together with powerful allies and famous chivalric and classical heroes

The castle's museum also contains many of these heads.

Displays explain how the original work was carried out, not only the carving and sculpting but also how the heads were originally painted. (right)

Decorative fireplaces and the famous Unicorn tapestries acquired by James V and his wife Mary of Guise, present allegorical stories and emblems of kingship. The tapestries softened the appearance of the grey stone walls, while also acting as mediaeval draught excluders. Sadly, some of the tapestries were destroyed when Lord Darnley, the unpleasant husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was killed in an explosion in Edinburgh.  Others were reused as curtains or were sold, when Scottish court life gradually came to an end.

Back to the history of the castle, however. Sadly, James V did not live long . He died in 1542, six days after his baby daughter and heir, Mary Queen of Scots was born. She was crowned in 1543 in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle.

Baby Mary, however, was not safe. Henry VIII attempted to arrange a betrothal between her and his own young son Edward, during the years 1543-1551: the Rough Wooing. The aim was to forge a union between England and Scotland, an idea supported by some Scottish lords. Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, kept her in safety at Stirling Castle, which was further from border than Edinburgh. Several border towns were occupied by the English during this period. Eventually, in 1547 after the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, which was a dreadful defeat for Scotland, Mary of Guise sent her young daughter to her home country of France to keep her safe. She herself, however, stayed in Scotland as regent, ruling Scotland until her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, eventually returned to reclaim her kingdom.

At the age of fifteen, while she was still in France, Mary Queen of Scots married the French Dauphin. When he died in 1560, she returned to Scotland. Scotland had changed enormously since she had been away, notably in undergoing the Reformation and becoming Protestant. The Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle was the only palace chapel still furnished for Catholic services, so that is where Mary worshipped when she returned. After she gave birth to her son by Lord Darnley, James (later James VI of Scotland and I of England) in Edinburgh Castle, she moved him to the royal nursery at Stirling for safety. There James was baptised, to the accompaniment of the first firework display in Scotland. A year later, the scottish lords forced Mary to  abdicate, and James took up the throne, aged 13 months.

James VI stayed in Stirling Castle, undergoing his education while battles raged around him. In due course he too made his mark on the castle, replacing the ruinous Chapel Royal with a new building in which his own son Henry was baptised (right). The ceiling has recently been replaced, but you can still see the frieze painted in preparation for a visit by Charles I, James' son, in 1633 (below left). By this time, the Stewart dynasty had taken up residence in England, after James VI inherited the English throne. James VI/I visited his homeland only once after his accession to the English throne.

The royal family never lived in Stirling Castle again. In 1651, it was besieged and taken during the Civil War which followed Charles I's execution. It was threatened again during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. At various times, when politically and militarily expedient, it was patched up to serve the purpose for which it was originally built. Thereafter, it became a barracks, like the castles at Edinburgh and Blackness.

In the 1960s, the soldiers moved out. The castle is now fully open to the public and, being only 40 miles from Edinburgh and 30 from Glasgow, is very easy to get to.

Historic Scotland has worked hard to make Stirling Castle a fascinating place to visit. Its guides take on the roles of some of the people who used to live in the castle. While some may represent members of the royal family, others take the roles of serving maids, cooks or palace guards. The guides, in role, talk very interestingly about the lives they would have led 500 or more years ago. The young woman on the left was a maid of the bedchamber and gave a fascinating description of how she and other maids would carry out the laundry.

Young visitors are well catered for down in the depths of the castle, with plenty of hands-on activities, including a dressing up cupboard to encourage them to enter into the spirit of things. Dungeons and kitchens make life in the castle come alive.

But above all, it is the human stories of its royal inhabitants which make the castle come alive. Each one of the main characters in the Scottish story of independence has left his or her mark on both the architecture and history of this ancient stronghold. After centuries of vicissitudes, Stirling Castle still stands guard over the central plain, watching over the border lands to the south and blocking the way to the Highlands of the north.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Blackness Castle, guarding the Firth of Forth

Following Mary Queen of Scots to Craigmillar Castle

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