Mary Queen of Scots and Edinburgh

28 November 2018
lambs-house-paul-gillett-78822.jpg Lamb's House, copyright Paul Gillett
In this guest blog, Jenn Scott explores the Stewart queen’s experiences of life in Scotland's capital.
Mary Queen of Scots and Edinburgh Images

When Mary Queen of Scots was only two years old, war came to Edinburgh, despite the treaty of Greenwich that had been signed the year before between Scotland and England to agree a marriage between her and Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII. However, by December of 1543, the ‘Auld Alliance’ between Scotland and France had between re-established and the Scots were able to throw out the treaty – and so began the ‘Rough Wooing’. 

In May of 1544, Henry VIII sent Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, to ‘overthrow Edinburgh Castle, sack Holyroodhouse and burn and subvert it and all the rest, putting man, woman and child to fire and sword’. Though he failed to take Edinburgh, Hertford killed and looted in the name of persuading the Scots to marry their queen to his prince.

Further attacks followed the year after. After the disastrous battle of Pinkie between Scotland and England in 1547, which was fought close to Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh, Mary spent the next twelve years in France. 

Mary’s return to Edinburgh

 Mary returned to her native Scotland at eighteen years old, first setting foot ashore at Leith, Scotland’s largest and most important port and still separate from Edinburgh at this time. Her passage from France had been quick, lasting only five days.  

The speed of the journey took the Scots slightly by surprise and thus there was little arranged in the way of an official welcome. 

    QUICK LINK: Mary Queen of Scots travel trail

The queen rested at the house of wealthy Edinburgh merchant Andrew Lamb. The current Lamb’s House in Leith (pictured) is slightly later and probably replaces the house that Mary knew. From there, she went to her palace at Holyroodhouse. The apartments that she lived in at Holyrood were in the north-west tower of the Palace and had been built by her father, James V. When she first arrived, they must have felt quite empty and bleak as none of her baggage had arrived from France and the furnishings that had been there were in storage since the death of her mother, Mary of Guise.

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A royal parade

At the beginning of September 1561, a couple of weeks after Mary arrived in Scotland, a grand parade was organised by the Town Council, down the Royal Mile which connects Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood. Everyone in Edinburgh (which at that time was still a walled city largely clustered around the Royal Mile) could come out to see her. 

Mary rode down Castlehill with a purple canopy over her head accompanied by fifty young men wearing yellow taffeta with black hats and masks, who were described as being dressed as ‘moors’, and the nobility of Scotland in front of her. At the Lawnmarket, a triumphal arch had been built out of wood with a globe which opened to reveal a child who was lowered down dressed as a cherub while a choir sang. 

On her way down the Royal Mile she passed St Giles’ Cathedral. The very few parliaments that were held during Mary’s reign met in its central aisle. While at the High Cross, the fountain ran with wine causing the onlookers to be somewhat loud in their appreciation of the pageantry. At the Netherbow, a papier mache dragon was burned – probably representing the Pope, and since Mary was Catholic this was meant as a challenge to her authority. 

Lord Darnley and Edinburgh

A few years after returning to Scotland, Mary met and married the very good looking Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (read about Mary's three husbands here). The banns were read at St Giles Cathedral on 22 July 1565. A week later, Stuart (now Duke of Albany) and Mary were married in the private chapel at Holyrood.

However despite this promising start the marriage did not go well and the following year, Darnley was plotting with others to kill her private secretary, Rizzio in Holyrood – you can still see the exact spot where the murder took place in her private chambers. A month or so after the horrible murder of her secretary, Mary gave birth to the future James VI in the palace block at Edinburgh Castle. Darnley, now sick with syphilis, fled Edinburgh.

A terrible night

Perhaps the most important building in Mary’s story is also in Edinburgh, although unfortunately we can’t see it now. Kirk o’ Fields is a pivotal location in Mary’s story. Originally, the kirk o’ fields had been outside of Edinburgh, as the name suggests, however about fifty years before, the city walls had been extended and it stood by one of the city gates. 

The house was part of the Black Friars’ monastery. Darnley had been staying in the Old Provost’s lodging to recuperate (he had been persuaded to return to Edinburgh by Mary, something that did not go down well after his death). The remains now lie under the pavement at the corner of South Bridge and South College Street. 

Darnley slept in the upper bedchamber in the house and on the night of his death was there alone except for his servant, William Taylor. At 2 am on 10 February they were found outside unmarked by the terrible explosion that had ripped through the house. It appeared that the lower bedchamber had been packed with gunpowder and unlike the later unsuccessful attempt to kill his son, James VI and I by the same means, this gunpowder plot had worked. 

Just three months later, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell in the great hall at Holyrood. A month after that was Mary’s last night in Edinburgh and her first night in captivity. She spent what was probably one of the worst nights of her life in a house owned by Sir Simon Preston, the Provost of Edinburgh after her defeat at the battle of Carberry Hill when she is supposed to have been led through the streets of Edinburgh dusty and crying. 

In the evening, she was moved to Holyrood with a banner showing the murdered Darnley in front of her. That night she left Edinburgh, never to return. 

Jenn Scott is the Secretary and archivist of the Stewart Society.


(photograph copyright Paul Willett, Geograph project)