The renovation of James V and Mary of Guise’s Palace at Stirling Castlewas controversial and divided Scots opinion. Several years after the completion of the £12m project the palace interiors still look startlingly new. Here, we do not find a romantic ruin but a reminder that in the 1500s this royal palace was strikingly modern. It might have emerged from the chrysalis of an ancient Scottish fort but every stone and wood carving, every room, every bright colour, was a statement and had much to say about how the Scottish Crown wanted to be seen at home and abroad.
James V of Scotland married Mary of Guise in 1538. The marriage was approved by the king of France, a powerful Catholic ally and opponent of Henry VIII of England. The marriage dowry brought James V wealth, a not inconsiderable benefit to the king of a small country. Mary of Guise arrived in Scotland accompanied by masons, miners, an armourer, and a French painter. Thus, a long tradition was encapsulated in the marriage - power (and the defence of it) re-enforced by conspicuous display.
The Royal Palace was also a Scottish interpretation of the Renaissance. It was designed to accommodate a monarch who travelled the country to establish his authority and who arrived with courtiers, churchmen, entertainers and servants. The King and Queen had separate courts and access was strictly controlled but the lay-out was traditional and less private than other European courts. After her husband’s death, Mary of Guise is recorded as dining with ‘men and women, Scots and French, nobles and commoners, bishops and ambassadors.’
Scottish kings were expected to remain accessible and this coincided with new Continental concepts of an ideal monarch. The palace at Stirling incorporated earlier buildings and there was a deliberate attempt to reference the past. This emphasised the ancient authority of the Scottish Crown and showed confidence in a wider Renaissance world. Historian Jenny Wormald suggested that architecture of this period reflected “the double-vision of early modern Scotland, the desire to combine things Scottish with European.”
Scottish masters of works supervised local tradesmen but there was a long tradition of continental craftsmen working on royal projects. The 200 sculptures and busts which adorn palace façades display a French influence. Armed stone figures or ‘garitours' face away from the royal household as if defending it. There is a statue of James V with a lion holding a crown above his head and he is joined by classical deities Venus (love/fertility) and Saturn (plenty/peace). Orpheus (poetry/music) is a reminder that the King, a fine lute player, was a patron of music.
Scots poets had long explored kingly behaviour. Gavin Douglas described a ‘garitour' as ‘Lawtie' or loyalty in his dream allegory Palice of Honour (1501). To modern eyes, classical statues at Stirling lack the subtlety of Greek or Roman sculpture. In fact, this reflected a contemporary desire to challenge over-sentimentality.
Sir David Lindsay, tutor, herald, diplomat, and poet at the court of James V addressed the moral responsibility of good governance in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1552). Lindsay’s literary models were drawn from native and classical ‘makars' or poets. The Royal Palace, therefore, was settled in European and Scottish courtly tradition and bang up to date.
Interior decorations were intended to impress. It is likely these also reflected the taste of Mary of Guise and her courtiers. James V had a collection of 200 hangings and tapestries from the Low Countries which travelled with him. The couple also possessed two ‘unicorn sets.’ The unicorn was believed to have magical powers and supported the royal arms of Scotland.
The famous Stirling Heads decorated the ceiling above James V’s chair of estate. Dendrochronology of those that survive shows that these were made of wood cut in Poland in 1529, and were possibly imported as barrel staves. The heads celebrate James V’s pedigree. The king himself is shown, hair cut short in modern style. Others depicted James I and IV, the king’s mother Margaret Tudor (and a possible claim to the English throne) and his French wives and relatives.
As one historian put it, the Stirling Heads show “a king with his court, his ancestors and his European contemporaries” in a setting of “astonishing modernity.” While elements such as thistles provide local flavour, noblewomen wear Italian and French headdresses and costumes, men slashed doublets, a poet recites his work. Clothes are the latest fashion and heads stare full-gaze - something only commonplace ten years after James V’s death.
For all its magnificence, the Royal Palace should also be considered in the context of domestic realities. Medieval Scotland was rural, hierarchical and feudal and coloured by the remains of a kindred-based society. Power was regional - strong local lords dispensed justice and this was an issue for any ambitious king. James V had a long and difficult minority. When it ended, he ruthlessly pursued noble houses which had controlled him and exploited the country’s finances. He sought to restore royal supremacy and crown coffers and capitalised on the weakness of the Catholic church in the face of growing pressure for reform.
The splendour of the Royal Palace was testament to the threat of insecurity and an attempt to counter it. This was no esoteric question. Work began in 1538 and by 1542 war resumed with England and James V was dead, leaving behind the 6-day old Mary, the future Queen of Scots.
Royal marriages arose out of political necessity and brought Continental and English fashions to court. However, this is a simplistic view of medieval Scottish monarchs. Any reduction of international connections to the political sphere alone ignores, and in the instance of Mary of Guise all but extinguishes, individual agency. Political marriages these might be but it leaves little room for the richness of individual experience, the sharing of ideas, albeit within a restricted elite, or any sense of moving forward in an ever-expanding world. Nor was it entirely one-way traffic.
James V did not live to see the completion of his ambitious plans for a Renaissance palace at Stirling. That his court - and the court of his foreign queen - carved a place in a wider cultural space, while retaining a distinct if ‘modern’ Scottish interpretation of it, provides a richer seam of history than battles and royal marriages of old.
It allows others - painters, craftsmen, writers, poets, diplomats, and merchants - to emerge into the light.
James V disguised as a commoner the ‘gudeman [good man] of Ballengeich’