Castles have a long and complex history, much more so than stately homes. Fortified structures built during the middle ages by the nobility or royalty, their primary purpose was defence—keeping those inside the castle walls safe and keeping the violent attackers out. Towards the end of the 15th century, however, castles began to lose their military significance with the advent of powerful cannons and permanent artillery fortifications. Design aesthetics became more critical as their appearance and size began to reflect the prestige and power of their occupants. Within their fortified walls, comfortable homes emerged. Although castles still offered protection from low levels of violence in later periods, eventually, they were succeeded by country houses as high-status residences.
Stirling Castle is ideally situated for defence; the north and west faces of the rock upon which the castle sits are nearly vertical, leaving only two sides to defend. While there may have been early fortifications on the site 3000 years ago, the current structure began around 1100.
For centuries, the Ochils and Touch hills, east and west of Stirling, forced anyone travelling between North and South Scotland to pass close to Stirling. The position of the castle controlled Stirling Bridge, the most convenient crossing over the River Forth, and Stirling’s small harbour.
It was the late 11th century before Stirling Castle emerged as a significant stronghold for Royal protection—Scottish Royal protection, not English, mind. Let us not forget that England and Scotland were independent nations until 1603; upon the death of English Queen Elizabeth I, who died “without issue”, the English crown passed to her nephew, King James VI of Scotland. And so began the Stewart (or Stuart) dynasty in England. But I’m getting ahead of the story—easy to do when trying to cover 1,000 years of history in one short blog.
Scotland had enjoyed a lengthy peace with England until 1286, when King Alexander III of Scotland died, leaving no one in the clear line of succession. Edward I of England was asked to adjudicate, and ultimately, he chose John Balliol, Lord of Galloway, who was made King John in 1292. Something about the name King John must bring out the worst in a ruler. For no sooner was the crown on his head than John began cosying up to France and entering a treaty against England. To say this annoyed the King of England would be putting it mildly. Edward I and his armies swept north and stripped Balliol of his crown; not for nothing did Edward I become known as “the Hammer of the Scots”.
The English captured Stirling Castle, igniting steely determination on the part of the Scots to get it back. During the multi-decade Wars of Scottish Independence, the castle took a pounding under almost constant siege from whichever faction was on the outside, determined to oust the occupants, employing guns and a bone-breaking array of siege engines.
Fans of Braveheart take note: the castle changed hands eight times in sixty years:
- Scots (1297): William Wallace and Andrew Moray lead The Battle of Stirling Bridge, defeating the English.
- English (1298): William Wallace is defeated in The Battle of Falkirk.
- Scots (1299): Surrendered to the Scots by English Constable John Sampson.
- English (1304): Besieged for three months by Edward I (Edward Longshanks), employing a giant trebuchet known as the “War Wolf”. The following year, William Wallace was arrested in Glasgow and moved to London, where he was tried and condemned to a traitor’s death: hanged, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. He became a Scottish martyr and a symbol of English oppression.
- Scots (1314): King Robert I (Robert the Bruce) was the victor in the Battle of Bannockburn (he also got his wife Elizabeth, daughter Marjorie and Bishop William Wishart back; they’d been held in captivity by the English since 1306). Upon his victory, Robert the Bruce rendered Stirling Castle indefensible, reasoning it was better than allowing it to be recaptured by the English. Then, for good measure, he invaded northern England in 1327, leading to the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1328, which acknowledged Scotland’s territorial integrity. But it was not to last.
- English (1336: Disaffected Scots nobles encouraged Edward Balliol, exiled son of the Scottish King John (who many regarded as the rightful king), to invade Scotland in 1332. Edward III was highly supportive, and Stirling once again fell to the English, who, to be fair, exercised good occupancy manners and restored the castle’s defences and accommodation; the English have always been house proud.
- Scots (1342): Meanwhile, the English became distracted by the start of their 100 Years’ War with France. By 1338 the tide had turned, and Scotland had regained control of most of its country. Stirling Castle was again in Scottish hands after a six-month siege.
Now that the Scottish Wars of Independence are out of the way let’s turn to the Stewarts. In 1371, Robert the Steward came to the throne as Robert II, establishing the great Scottish Stewart Dynasty, almost all of whom were named James. First order of business: repair the castle. The North Gate was constructed in 1381.
Lest this blog becomes a book, we will skip ahead a bit here to 1424, when James I returned from captivity in England. The Stirling Castle Website has a fabulous timeline where you can fill in any gaps—I spent hours on it piecing together the players and times through the millennium.
As did many of his successors, James I granted the castle to his queen, Joan Beaufort, as part of her marriage settlement. She held it as her own property and the income required to support it from local estates known as The Lordship of Stirling.
Now, James had a nasty streak. He felt that his lieges had not done enough to secure his release from imprisonment, and his wrath centred on Robert, Duke of Albany. Regrettably, Albany was already dead, so James trained his sites on his hapless son, Murdoch, who had succeeded his father. James persuaded parliament to ratify Murdoch’s death sentence. Indeed, not only Murdoch but his two sons and his father-in-law, 80-year-old Earl of Lennox, were beheaded on the “heading hill” close to the castle. While this brutal act brought James I substantial forfeited wealth, it also created several powerful enemies, and it was not entirely surprising when he was assassinated in 1437.
James II (1437-60) seems to have inherited his father’s ruthlessness. A short-tempered young man, his ire was centred on the Douglas family, leading Scottish nobles, who had allied with John MacDonald, 11th Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, threatening the King’s position. Matters reached an ugly climax in February 1452 when James II invited William, the 8th Earl of Douglas, to dinner to try and persuade him to break his alliance with Ross. William refused, and James II lost his temper and stabbed him to death, leading to the Douglas family’s alliance with King Henry VI of England. James upped the ante by confiscating Douglas lands, titles and offices and finally crushing the Douglas clan in May of 1455 at the Battle of Arkinholm. The Scottish Parliament permanently annexed all the Douglas lands, castles and finances to the crown, leaving James in complete control of his kingdom. No wonder James II was so enthusiastic about the divine right of Kings.
James employed the latest in artillery technology, the cannon, during the ongoing scrapping with the Douglas clan. He imported large quantities of armaments from Flanders using his wife’s connections. Medieval fortresses were not up to withstanding such bombardment, and James also began a siege of Roxburgh Castle, which had been in the hands of the English for generations. Poetic justice prevailed, however; on August 3, 1460, James was standing near a cannon when the iron bands around the barrel broke loose, killing him. He was buried, at age 29, at Holyrood Abbey, leaving his nine-year-old son to rule. However, James’ forces carried on with the siege and succeeded in capturing Roxburgh Castle and “slighting it”, rendering it useless for either side.
Today, the Roxburgh family lives at Floors Castle, whose grounds contain the ruins of Roxburgh Castle. Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of Roxburgh; Floors is definitely an upgrade.
James III (1460-1488) seems to have been relatively nondescript, primarily notable for his poor relationship with his wife, Margaret of Denmark, and the consequent treacherous behaviour of his son, the future James IV. Prince James took up with some of the disaffected nobles who had risen against James III (do you notice a theme here?), lending support to the assassination of his father, James III, near Bannockburn. After succeeding to the throne, James IV confessed to his role in the regicide in the Chapel Royal.
Perhaps guilt breeds creativity because James IV created much of what we see today in Stirling Castle. A true Renaissance man, he was determined to elevate his standing and that of his royal residence to be on par with King Henry VII of England and Louis XII of France.
He created the Great Hall (the big white building above, shown as yellow in some pictures—more on that transformation later) and the aforementioned Chapel Royal as venues for a brilliant court. In addition, he built his own residence, the King’s Old Building. These three buildings comprise three sides of the Inner Close seen on the map near the top of the post.
James IV was a popular, victorious king and notable warrior. He embraced the culture of chivalric honour and, in 1506, built a tournament ground for jousting below the west quarter, to the right of the knot garden in the picture below.
By 1513, when James’ powers were at their peak, disaster struck. James led an ill-advised military expedition to the North of England in an attempt to distract Henry VIII from invading France, with whom Scotland had diplomatic ties. (Pretty cheeky, considering James IV was married to Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and Henry VIII’s sister). James was killed at the battle on Flodden Field in Northumberland. Members of many leading noble families died, along with thousands of his followers. Scotland was again left with an infant monarch, the one-year-old James V, crowned in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle on September 21, 1513.
During James V’s childhood, the country was ruled by regents. His mother first held the position, until she married Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, the following year. The regency then moved to John Stewart, 2nd Duke of Albany, next in line to the Crown after James and his younger brother Alexander Stewart, Duke of Ross, who died in infancy.
In the autumn of 1524, at the age of 12, James dismissed his regents and, in a crafty move, was proclaimed an adult ruler by his mother, no doubt in concert with her husband, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. They took custody of James and virtually held him prisoner, exercising power on his behalf for three years. Several attempts were made to free the young King. James finally escaped from Angus’ care in 1528 and assumed the reins of government himself. Resentful of the manipulation, James’ first action was to remove Angus from the scene. The Douglas family—excluding James’s half-sister Margaret, already safely in England—were forced into exile, and James besieged their castle at Tantallon.
Like his predecessors, James V was described as a vindictive king whose policies were primarily motivated by the pursuit of wealth. Given his childhood, one can see some justification. He had inherited a kingdom nearly bankrupted by the regents who had ruled on his behalf. Keen to replenish his coffers, he married twice, receiving substantial dowries both times. He first married Madeleine of Valois, daughter of Francis I, King of France (she died of tuberculosis within a year). His second wife was Mary of Guise, the daughter of a powerful and wealthy French nobleman. He increased his income by tightening control over royal estates and from the profits of justice, customs and feudal rights.
James V could see that times were changing. He resolved to transform Stirling into a palace for himself and his Queen, with European influences in the architecture, decoration, and the functioning of the royal apartments. James employed multitudes of skilled craftspeople, using symbolism from the Bible and classical mythology to establish his image as a robust and cultured ruler.
Statues outside the Palace walls facing the Inner Close proclaim his ambitions: Venus promises peace; Saturn, a golden age of plenty, and musicians promote harmony and pleasure.
The more modern arrangement extended to the nature of his court, where newly restricted levels of access and greater security encouraged a mystique around the sovereign. Richly and colourfully decorated, every aspect of the Palace’s interior confirmed the status of the sovereign.
It’s startling to realise the depth and richness of colour employed during the Renaissance, perhaps because we don’t often see the interiors as they would have been at the time.
When Historic Scotland embarked on an ambitious restoration project for Stirling Castle in 1991, much debate over which period it should represent ensued; it wasn’t a simple matter—records aren’t consistent. The Great Hall was a case in point. The War Office controlled the castle from 1800 to 1964; it was the home of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who didn’t treat the castle as a historical artefact. The Great Hall became barrack accommodation, which involved adding floors, altering windows, and replacing the ceiling. Once the military left, the place was gutted. When Historic Scotland took over in 1991, the building was a shell. The original hall had a glorious hammer-beam roof, made with a medieval technique using wood beams as a network of cantilevers and trusses to allow the roof to span such a big, wide-open room. In the end, Historic Scotland decided to trust a survey from 1719 and rebuild the roof based on that.
Then there was the matter of the outside of the building. When Historic Scotland took over the castle, the exteriors were grey and brown. However, tucked into corners and covered sections throughout the castle, the restorers discovered sections of the original limewash. Pure lime (calcium oxide) contains earth-based pigments and is used as a coating to protect the stone masonry. In the case of Stirling, they found a significant yellow ochre layer of limewash. Yes, yellow. Hundreds of years ago, when buildings were uniformly grey and brown, a great ostentatious yellow building signalled for miles that this was a place for a king.
So, return the exterior to its original, startling colour, or continue with the conservative, nondescript colour it had been for years? See for yourself. The locals were appalled, but there is no doubt the “look at me” message would have been as effective back then as it is today.
Back inside, the team had their work cut out for them. One of the more ambitious projects involved The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries. The originals were a series of seven tapestries likely woven in Brussels, an important centre of the tapestry industry in medieval Europe. They show a group of noblemen and hunters pursuing a unicorn through an idealised French landscape. Historians believe that a similar series of Unicorn tapestries were part of the Scottish Royal tapestry collection acquired during the reign of James V.
First recorded in 1680 in the Paris home of the Rochefoucauld family, the tapestries were looted during the French Revolution. Upon their rediscovery in a barn in the 1850s (where they had been used to cover potatoes!!), they were hung at the family’s Château de Verteuil.
Mixing silk and metallic thread with wool gave the tapestries brilliant colour and fine quality. The wool was widely produced in the rural areas around Brussels; the silk, however, was both difficult to obtain and expensive, indicating the wealth and social status of the owners.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought them in 1922 for approximately $1 million US. Six tapestries hung in Rockefeller’s house until he donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1938. He also obtained the two fragments the La Rochefauld family had retained. That set now hangs in The Cloisters, which houses the museum’s medieval collection.
As part of a project to furnish Stirling castle as it was in the 16th century, Historic Scotland commissioned a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. West Dean College in West Sussex managed the project, with the weavers working in two teams, one based at the college, the other in a purpose-built studio in the Nether Bailey of Stirling Castle. The team at West Dean Tapestry went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the originals and research the medieval techniques, the colour palette and materials. In making the replicas, they employed traditional techniques, using materials with mercerised cotton in place of silk to better preserve the colour. Work began in January 2002; the first three tapestries were completed in Chichester, the remainder at Stirling Castle.
All seven of these magnificent tapestries currently hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall in the Royal Palace.
Back in the day, the ceiling of James V’s Inner Hall displayed forty Stirling Heads, a bold declaration of the King’s right to rule. Magnificent decoration, they also proclaimed that he had friends in exalted places, was inspired by classical values and honoured significant contemporaries. This magical collection of portraits was rendered in Polish oak and then painted in vivid colours. It showcased both the family connections and legendary ideals to which James V aspired. For historians, their value as royal propaganda augments the insights they provide into fashion, status, and exhibitionism.
Spoiler alert: The heads didn’t have an easy path through history. When the Castle and its palace buildings became a military post, the ceiling was dismantled and replaced; by 1777, the heads began to disappear into private collections. Fortunately, Jane Graham, wife of the Castle’s deputy governor, fell in love with a small selection of the heads and worked to reunite them, making accurate sketches of those she found and publishing them as the Lacunar Strevelinense in 1817. Thanks to her, 34 Stirling heads survived, and a further three were reconstructed from her drawings (the missing three are reflected in the blank spaces in the grid below).
Today, they are housed in a specially designed gallery at the restored castle and vividly depict the world of the court in the 16th century.
Further note: the heads are HUGE. Until they’re ground-level, one doesn’t appreciate how giant these ceiling bosses or medallions are.
Let’s travel back now, and meet up with James as his reign is ending—too early, as so often happened in those very violent times. He died in December 1542, at age 30, following the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss, leaving his widow, Mary of Guise, in a vulnerable position.
His only surviving legitimate child, Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded him at just six days old. She was crowned on September 9, 1543, in the Chapel Royal. The Honours of Scotland, the crown, sceptre and sword were used together for the first time.
But there was trouble ahead. Scotland had embarked on yet another period ruled by regency. The Earl of Arran had been appointed regent, and he had his own dynastic ambitions.
But Mary of Guise was nobody’s fool. Backed by French money and arms, Stirling Castle belonged to her through her marriage settlements. Henry VIII was eager to have his son Edward betrothed to the infant Mary. Diplomacy failing, he pursued his objectives through warfare, a policy aptly named the Rough Wooing. Mary was deemed safest at Stirling, but after the disastrous Scottish defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, she was packed off to France for safekeeping, where she was educated in the manner of the French Court. In 1557, at age 15, she married the heir to the French throne, and by 1559, she was Queen of France as well as Queen of Scotland,
Her mother remained at Stirling; artillery fortifications were added to the south approach of the castle, including the ‘French Spur’, comprising the basis of the present Outer Defences. With the support of French forces and funds, Mary of Guise became regent in 1554, paving the way for her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, to return from France in 1561 and rule in her own right, following the untimely death of her young husband, by then Francis II, King of France.
It was an opportune time for Mary to return to Scotland. Her mother had died in June 1560, and the Scottish government was in the hands of Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray. Meanwhile, her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, had succeeded to the English throne,
Queen Mary returned to a Protestant Scotland at odds with her Catholic faith. The only palace chapel still kitted out for Catholic worship was the Chapel Royal at Stirling. She was distressed by the widespread ill-feeling towards the Catholic Church, clearly communicated to her by her most implacable enemy, John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation; he was nothing if not forthright in expressing his abhorrence of Catholics.
Mary considered remarrying. She needed an heir, and she also wanted the emotional, moral, and, hopefully, military support of a husband. But here’s the rub: under Scottish law, her husband would become King of Scots. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, swam into focus. He was Mary’s half-cousin—both were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. His mother, Lady Margaret Douglas, had been brought up mainly in England, although she was on rather poor terms with Queen Elizabeth I. His father, Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox, also had a plausible claim to be Mary’s heir. A marriage with Darnley would combine their claims to the English throne and secure the Scottish throne more effectively. As well, Darnley was handsome, charming and at the right age. Mary was besotted and married him on July 29, 1565, and in her haste, she failed to obtain the necessary Papal dispensation; more to come on that.
It turns out that Darnley was one of those men who start out fascinating and wicked, but after being married, they leave off being fascinating and carry right on being wicked. He was a spoiled, petulant drunk, likely both syphilitic and bisexual. Mary soon rued the day she said “I do”, but she was pregnant within three months.
The Earl of Moray, former regent, was not best pleased with her choice of husband. He and other senior Protestant Lords attempted to take Edinburgh. He was unsuccessful and retreated to England. Mary, meanwhile, increased her advisors, adding both Catholics and Protestants to her Privy Council.
Instead of rallying to his wife’s aid, Darnley demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would not only have made him King of Scots but would have allowed him to continue as monarch during his lifetime, should Mary pre-decease him. Mary refused, no more eager than her cousin Elizabeth I to create a situation where her death would be to her heir’s advantage. At first, he just raged and sulked, but eventually, he conspired with the rebellious Protestant Lords to capture Mary and assassinate her secretary, David Rizzio, of whom he was jealous. Darnley and his men burst into Mary’s private apartments at Holyrood Palace, dragged Rizzio screaming out of the room, and stabbed him to death in a fit of fury. Darnley restrained Mary whilst pointing a loaded pistol at her heavily pregnant belly.
Fortunately, she kept her cool. Locked into her apartments with Darnley, she persuaded him that his co-conspirators would next turn their attentions on him; Mary arranged to have a message smuggled out to her supporters, who brought horses and helped them escape.
In June, Mary, who had retired to the safety of Edinburgh Castle, gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the future James VI. Although protracted and painful, the delivery was a relief to all, considering the strain she had been under. Then, on December 17th, James was baptised, with a show of ceremony and splendour not seen in Scotland since the days of the baby’s grandfather, James V. Mary was determined to show that her son was the legitimate heir to the crown of Scotland, and perhaps also to that of England.
But, she still had to deal with the liability of Darnley. She considered annulment because there had been no dispensation for their marriage, which would have affected the prince’s legitimacy. Darnley had definitely passed his best-before date.
Mary effected a reconciliation with Darnley and encouraged him to return to a house at Kirk O’Fields, Edinburgh, where she nursed him through a bout of illness. One evening, she left him on his sickbed to go to a wedding party. Conveniently, the house blew up in the middle of the night, but when his body was found in the garden, it showed no evidence of the explosion. He had been suffocated. Coincidence? I think not.
At that point, the intelligent thing to do would be horrified, grieved and adopt mourning. But instead, Mary was seen out and about with the prime suspect, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. When he was accused of murder, she supported him and later married him—a big mistake.
It was too much for everyone—the Protestant Lords and the general public. Mary was arrested and paraded through the streets of Edinburgh as a murderess and a whore, then imprisoned on the island fortress of Lochleven. Soon after, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI, who was crowned in July 1567. Mary never saw her son again. Ultimately, in February 1587, she was beheaded by Queen Elizabeth I for treason.
Frequently used as a pawn in the struggles between his regents and the supporters of Mary, young King James VI was closely guarded. He spent most of his childhood at Stirling, whilst the castle fell to bits due to lack of maintenance. When he married Anna of Denmark, he began to repair the castle in earnest. In anticipation of the baptism of Prince Henry, their firstborn son in 1594, the Chapel Royal was replaced with a building of elegant Classic design. Construction took a mere seven months. The celebration was held in the Great Hall on August 30, climaxing in the entrance of a splendid ship bearing the fish course, floating on an artificial sea, firing volleys from its brass guns. The expression “pushing the boat out” derives from this event.
When James VI succeeded to the throne of England in 1603, he expressed his intention of returning frequently to Scotland, but he visited only once.
Unfortunately, Prince Henry died young, aged 18. James’ second son became Charles I (1600–1649). He visited the castle briefly in 1633. Various parts of the Palace were redecorated in his honour, but it was never again a royal home. Further, Charles l lost his head in the culmination of political and military conflicts between the royalists and the parliamentarians in England during the English Civil War. Let’s just say that’s another whole story—the family may have regretted ever taking on the English Crown. Finally, in 1651, two years after the execution of Charles I, Stirling Castle once again became a military target, attacked and taken by the English parliamentary army under General Monck.
Tensions continued to mount, and the start of the 18th century saw escalating disputes relating to the Stewart monarchs’ right to rule. Charles I’s son, James VII/II, was deposed, exiled and replaced as monarch by his Protestant daughter, Mary and her husband, William of Orange. The supporters of the exiled James became known as Jacobites after the Latin word for James – Jacobus (enter Outlander fans). Stirling Castle was strengthened with new artillery positions, and In 1746, Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, and his Jacobite army attempted to besiege the castle. They were readily defeated just months before their ultimate defeat at Culloden.
In 1787 Robert Burns visited Stirling and left us with a poem, commenting on the sad state of disrepair into which Stirling Castle, and the Stewart Dynasty, had fallen.
The castle’s military significance receded; it was used intermittently as a state prison and an army base. The palace gradually fell into disrepair; the ceiling bearing the Stirling Heads collapsed in 1777. The Great Hall was subdivided into three floors to create barrack accommodation around 1800. Later in the 19th century, the castle became the base of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Happily, for us all, the 19th century saw a growing appreciation of the architectural heritage of the castle. Queen Victoria visited in 1849. In 1906, King Edward VII oversaw the transfer of the castle from the War Office to the Office of Works, the predecessor to today’s Historic Scotland. Then, in 1964, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders moved out, signalling an end to the castle’s centuries of military significance.
In 1991, Historic Scotland undertook a massive restoration; today, the castle welcomes more than 600,000 visitors a year. Also available as a venue for commercial events, the Great Hall again rings with life and laughter.
Second only in significance to Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle is well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in Scottish history.