A grisly commemoration today, as 8 February was the date in 1587 when the woman who would become one of Scotland's most iconic historical figures was executed. After 19 years imprisoned by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in an act that would be speculated about and studied by historians for the next half a millennium.
Mary's life is often told through a veil of doomed romance, casting her as a tragic heroine in a political struggle between nations, but whatever the theories that swirl around the events of her life (and death) it is plain that Edinburgh played a significant role in Mary's world.
Here are five sites in and around Edinburgh associated with Mary, Queen of Scots...
Just a few miles outside the city, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, sits the village of Linlithgow, with the remains of its spectacular red sandstone palace, dating back to the fifteenth century. Started by James I of Scotland, the palace was a major residence for subsequent monarchs, including James III and James IV who both made major additions to its structure. James V was born in the palace in 1512, follows just thirty years later by the birth of his child, a daughter, Mary.
At the time of Mary's birth, James V was recovering was a terrible defeat in battle at Solway Moss in the Highlands, and awaited news of the birth from his sick bed. It is said he was so distraught to learn that his wife had borne him a daughter instead of a son that the shock killed him, and so it was that Mary became Queen of Scots at just six days old...
Mary's birthplace is still a popular place to visit, and easily accessible from Edinburgh.
Tucked away on the Cowgate, in the shadow of George IV Bridge, is a small Catholic chapel, built in the 1540s to commemorate the birth of Mary, Queen of Scots. The chapel was managed by one of the formal guilds in Edinburgh, the hammermen - tradesmen who worked with hammers, such as silversmiths - and it is believed that Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, led prayer sessions in the small, wood-lined chapel during her time in Edinburgh.
In 1560, Scotland changed from being a Catholic country to being a Protestant one, and during the Reformation mobs stormed the nation's Catholic churches and destroyed all the iconography. They smashed windows and removed or destroyed statuary. Within the Magdalen Chapel are the only surviving, intact, pre-Reformation stained glass windows in Scotland - was it a miracle they survived the wrath of the mobs?!
THE PALACE OF HOLYROODHOUSE
Still a royal residence, and the official Scottish residence of the king, Holyrood Palace is one of Edinburgh's best-known attractions. At the bottom of the Royal Mile, and built adjacent to the Holyrood Abbey, which predates it by several hundred years, the palace dates from the sixteenth century, with additions made right up until the eighteenth century, and has hosted a variety of royal visitors in its history. Visitors today can view the state rooms along with historic quarters such as the bedroom where Mary, Queen of Scots, slept during her visits, and the chamber in which her secretary David Rizzio was brutally murdered in 1566.
In the grounds of the palace is a small structure standing by itself, popularly known as Queen Mary's Bathhouse, where it is alleged Mary would have bathed twice a year (whether she need it or not...!). In fact, archaeologists new believe this structure was once a pavilion, part of a royal tennis court, which may have been on this site in the sixteenth century.
Edinburgh's second visitable castle lies in ruins, just a couple of miles from the city centre. Craigmillar was formerly an impressive fortress, and Mary had made her home here during the period just after her return from France, aged 18. She had spent her childhood abroad, and returned as queen to a Scotland that was politically turbulent, bringing with her a huge number of staff and courtiers from the French court. Housed in the area around Craigmillar Castle, the area got nicknamed Little France, a name it continues to have today.
Mary sought refuge at Craigmillar following the attack on Rizzio at Holyrood in 1566. It was from her rooms in Craigmillar that she plotted revenge against her own husband for his suspected involvement in Rizzio's murder, and she spent three months here before returning to the city itself in June...
EDINBURGH CASTLE BIRTH ROOM
Within Edinburgh Castle is a small suite of chambers that were once Mary's rooms in the royal apartment block. The castle itself was always more of a fortress than a palace, so it tended only to be occupied by the royals in times of conflict, but Mary came here in 1566 in order to safely deliver the baby she was carrying. In June of that year, in a small room, just a few feet wide, with views over towards Arthur's Seat, Mary gave birth to a son, James, who would go on to be on of the most important monarchs in British history.
James succeeded his mother as ruler of Scotland when Mary was forced to abdicate the throne in 1567, becoming James VI of Scotland when he was just one year old.
Years later, in 1603, Elizabeth I of England would die, whereupon the throne of England passed to her nearest living relative. That would have been Mary, except Elizabeth had had Mary executed on 8 February 1587, at the culmination of a feverish period of paranoia and speculation. And so Mary's son took the throne of England, and became the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland jointly, the way our monarchy has done ever since.
Explore more of Edinburgh's history, and find out more about its associations with Mary, Queen of Scots, on my private city walking tours!
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