One of the most popular figureheads of Scottish history is Mary, Queen of Scots, born in Linlithgow Palace, outside Edinburgh, on this day, 8 December, 1542. But as an historical figure there are still mysteries around some aspects of her life and reign, and some historians hotly debate the details of some of the events from her life. Was she an innocent victim, a doomed romantic, a scheming villain, or some combination of all of these? We may never know for sure!
Even the date of her birth is contested by some, who suggested (even during her own lifetime) that her birth took place a day earlier than is generally thought. December 8 is the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an important celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary, and so to be born on this significant date was considered a good omen for a Catholic child.
Perhaps she was born on the less lucky date of December 7, as the struggles and dramas of Mary's life began within a week of her birth - on 14 December, just six days old, she became Queen of Scotland, following the death of her father. He had died, aged 30, from illness brought on partly by the defeat of his army in battle, and partly (it is said) from hearing this his wife had given birth to a daugher instead of a much-longed for son. Mary's coronation at Stirling Castle aged just 9 months was only one of many dramatic events during her relatively short life.
During her 44 years, it is thought Mary may only have spent around 3 years as an adult actually in the country that gave her the name she is generally known by - Queen of Scots. (She spent 19 years in prison in England, so Mary, Queen of English Prisons may be a more accurate title...!) Between the ages of 5 and 18 she lived in France, and at age 16 was married to the French Dauphin, becoming Queen Consort of France in the process. When young Francis died just a year later, Mary entered a state of mourning, wearing the all-white robes which would later see her dubbed 'the White Queen'.
During her time in Scotland she travelled extensively, and has known associations with many castles, palaces and towns across the country. As well as marrying her second two husbands at Holyrood, it was within the walls of Edinburgh Castle that Mary gave birth to her son, later crowned James VI of Scotland, who became the first king to rule both Scotland and England jointly (as James I of England) after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.
Just outside Edinburgh's city centre, near the area known as 'Little France' where Mary's French court and staff were quartered, is Craigmillar Castle, where Mary sought refuge and safety just prior to the birth of her son.
Much of the uncertainty about Mary's true character is likely to derive from the lack of historical records relating to significant events from her reign. What was the exact nature of her relationship with David Rizzio, her Italian secretary murdered at Holyrood in 1566, for example? What role did Mary play in the plot which led to the death of her second husband? Was her third marriage to Bothwell fully consensual? How complicit was she in the conspiracy against Elizabeth I, used as grounds for eventual execution? And what of the rumours that she suffered a stillbirth at Edinburgh Castle, leading to the substitution of another baby to rule Britain in its place...?
If you're visiting Edinburgh, walk in the footsteps of Mary in her former bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (where Rizzio met his violent death), or step into the small antechamber at Edinburgh Castle where she gave birth to James in 1566. You will also find a cast of her decorative Westminster Abbey tomb in the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.
You may also spot the small building popularly known as Queen Mary's Bathhouse, reputed to be where she took her annual bath (whether she needed it or not...). However, one certainty amongst all the mysteries of Mary is that this building never served as a bathhouse - Mary may still have frequented it, however, as some historians consider that this structure was once a sports pavillion adjacent to a tennis court at the palace. As a keen tennis player, it's possible Mary may have served some aces here during her short and turbulent reign.
Explore more of Edinburgh's royal history on my Up-Close and Personal private walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh with 18 years of experience living and working in the city.