The Palace of Holyroodhouse

  14 Sep '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

An extract from Homecoming: The Scottish Years of Mary Queen of Scots by Rosemary Goring

A great many of the thousands lining the Royal Mile in Edinburgh on Monday, to catch a glimpse of the coffin procession for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, would be unaware of the rich history of the street on which they stood, or the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Rosemary Goring gives us a glimpse into the past with her description of Holyroodhouse during Mary, Queen of Scot’s years in Scotland.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, towards which Mary’s homecoming procession advanced, was one of the Crown’s finest symbols of authority and prestige. The James V tower, containing the royal apartments, was strikingly contemporary and luxurious. A foursquare structure of three storeys, with turrets at each corner, it demonstrated her father’s ambitions for a court as elegant and cultured as any in Europe. When first constructed it had a moat and an iron drawbridge, over which Mary passed into her new home.

There is no record of Mary’s reaction on seeing Holyrood, but the response of the chronicler Brantôme, who arrived with her, suggests that she too might have been pleasantly surprised. He described it as a fine house, and ‘much grander than was to be expected in so poor a country as Scotland’.

Sitting in a hollow below Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, and the cliffs of Salisbury Crags, Holyroodhouse was often swathed in smoke that billowed and belched from the many coal and wood fires in the palace and its environs. Situated at the foot of the High Street, or Royal Mile, which runs uphill from its gates to Edinburgh Castle, the palace was begun by James IV as a residence for his soon-to-be bride, Margaret Tudor. His palace was substantially enlarged and embellished by his son, and very little of it remains today. Long after both kings were gone, it was fashionably remodelled in the seventeenth century by the stalwart Jacobite supporter Sir William Bruce.

His airy cloistered courtyard and classical façades bring a glimpse of Italy to the city. But for those interested in Mary Stuart, on approaching the palace the eyes are drawn immediately to the fortified medieval wing. It was behind these windows that some of the most dramatic and bloody events of Mary’s reign took place.

The James V tower was designed on the same lines as the French chateau of Chambord, which had been built by Francis I in honour of his daughter, James V’s first wife, Madeleine de Valois. Mary was very familiar with Chambord, and her father’s palace might have reassured her by its familiarity. So too its gardens.

It was to become one of Mary’s great pleasures to stroll in the gardens and whenever possible she would hold meetings there, rather than stuffily indoors. The gardens at Holyrood were a refuge, offering a breathing space from the clamour of courtiers and the weighty demands of office. They also carried a reminder of her mother.

The palace gardens had their origins in the twelfth-century Augustinian monastery attached to Holyrood Abbey, and up until the time of James IV were tended by monks. He commissioned a queen’s privy garden, in 1511, for Margaret Tudor, which was later redesigned for Mary’s father, who employed the French gardener Betrand Gallotre both here and at Stirling. For half a century the head gardener was John Morrison, who was in charge from 1546 until 1598. Morrison was under orders to employ two servants a day for ‘rewling [rolling] and dressing’ the gardens, and providing ‘caill, herbis and sellatis to oure soverane ladyis’. He would also have taken instruction from Marie de Guise on shaping the layout to remind her of the great chateaux of her homeland.

Mary would have been familiar with him, if only from her daily walks in the grounds.

Shortly before Mary’s return, the abbey fishponds were drained and more church land purchased to extend the gardens. The focus was mainly on herbs and vegetables, with walled orchards for fruit. A sixteenth-century formal garden was a tranquil, fragrant space. Function and pleasure went hand in hand, and gravel pathways between raised beds and box hedge parterres allowed people to wander, even in poor weather. As at Stirling Castle there was also an enclosed deer park – Holyrood Park – which was among the grandest of its kind.

Although Mary had been raised in the presence of Catherine de’ Medici, who was renowned for her interest in gardening, she showed no interest in imposing her own image on Holyrood’s gardens. Instead, she used them as the stage for a variety of spectacular events, including jousts, tournaments and sporting parties. Edinburgh had never seen anything like it.

Despite the abundance of associations with her mother and father, Mary never warmed to Holyrood. Th e palace was to be her main residence for the rest of her reign, but even before it had become tainted with misery and terror, she was not entirely at ease here.

Perhaps the knowledge that her most outspoken critic John Knox lived only ten minutes away up the Royal Mile was unsettling. Possibly the dankness of the palace’s location made it hard to like. Or maybe in these surroundings she was too close to her citizens whose mood, as she well knew, was unpredictable.

After night-time curfew, when the town’s watchmen guarded the city’s eight gates and patrolled the walls built hastily after the Battle of Flodden, Edinburgh fell quiet. At all other times, its clamour and tumult would have reached the queen’s ears. In the 1560s the population of Edinburgh was in the region of 12,000 to 15,000, crammed within its walls. The Royal Mile was a warren of back streets and passageways, filthy and riddled with disease.

Almost every imaginable trade took place here, as some of the street names suggest: Blackfriars Wynd, Fleshmarket Close, Bakehouse Close, the Cowgate, Grassmarket and Lawnmarket. By day it was teeming with porters, tradesmen, hawkers, minstrels and townsfolk, by evening its taverns, alehouses, inns and brothels came to life. Work would start before daylight, as bakers stoked their ovens, butchers hefted dripping carcasses from the slaughter house, and the religious community in the Canongate, a minute’s walk from Holyrood, rose before dawn, at the four o’clock bell for matins, their first observance of the day….

Whenever Mary ventured into the High Street, or its surroundings lanes, she would have been assaulted by the stench as well as the noise. Even the capital retained a rural air, as boys herded cattle or sheep into the fields beyond the city early in the morning and brought them home at night. The narrow-fronted town houses that lined the Royal Mile had long thin rigs at the back, which were used for vegetables, orchards or animals. They might contain doocots, brewhouses or kilns. For visitors, and the religious community and hospitals, horses were generally stabled on the outskirts of the city. This was also where trades such as skinning, tanning and fulling took place, closer to running water.

The High Street was a narrow funnel, leading straight to the portcullis of Edinburgh Castle. Wooden and stone houses rose on either side, up to six storeys high, with forestairs on which women would gather to watch the world go by. When more space was required, wooden additions were built onto the lower tiers, creating vertiginous buildings that were liable to collapse. As they grew higher, the streets below became darker. The houses of the poor might last only twenty years, but those that were better constructed could endure much longer. The greatest risk to their survival was fire which, with the overhanging projections almost touching the buildings opposite, could rip through a street in minutes….

The city teemed with animals as well as pedlars, merchants and beggars. In addition to horses and mules, cats and domestic dogs, there were strays or ‘midden dogs’. Pigs roamed freely, feeding on scraps, and chickens and poultry got under people’s feet. Fish were gutted and their entrails cast aside. So much filth ran down the street that some wore wooden pattens to raise them above it. Over everything lay the fug of smoke from coal fi res and dust from building work and unpaved streets. Ewan writes that sinusitis was a common and chronic complaint of town dwellers in this period.

But for odour, nothing could compare to that of middens and foul-smelling privies, or the corpses of beasts and humans left too long unburied.

Yet not all was muddle, confusion or dirt. Above the cries and curses of traders and customers came church bells, or public bellringing ahead of proclamations. With Holyrood at its foot, the Royal Mile was filled with the well-dressed and wealthy, their brightly coloured cloaks setting them apart from the ‘rude people’.

They would have stood out amid the sea of labourers in white and grey, and the common folk, in coarse and drab woollen cloth.

By the 1560s, Edinburgh was a centre of scholarly professions associated with government and the courts of law. East-coast merchants were the most prosperous, and none more so than those with access to the Port of Leith and the international trade that flowed through it. As a consequence, there was much money in Edinburgh to be lavished on crafts, trades and the arts. The richest burgesses of the town took their cue from the luxuries they saw at court, at the end of the street.

Today, with the exception of Balmoral, said to be Elizabeth II’s favourite residence, Holyrood is the property most strongly associated in Scotland with the royal family. Open to the public for much of the year, it is also used for stately civic occasions. Most popular of these is the Queen’s summer garden party where she circulates among the throng, whose heads bob at her approach like ducks after breadcrumbs in a pond.

It was the week before Christmas when I visited, and the palace courtyard sparkled with frost. Shortly after the doors opened I followed behind a party of pre-schoolers in their fluorescent vests. Holding hands, they disappeared in pairs through the entranceway like a procession of jelly babies. They were later to be found crosslegged in Charles II’s Throne Room, close to a gigantic twinkling Christmas tree. They did not seem to register the stern-faced portraits all around the walls studying them while their teacher talked.

Of all the locations associated with Mary Stuart, Holyrood feels most majestic. A living palace, where the Queen and her family regularly visit, it is undeniably magnificent. It is also unexpectedly lovely. The rooms are decorated with chandeliers, paintings, and richly upholstered furniture and tapestries. The Royal Dining Room table is laid out with silverware and crystal as if a banquet is about to begin. Under the benign gaze of portraits of the Queen Mother and the Queen herself, it offers a keyhole into the style, and formality, in which today’s royals live and work.

An edited extract from Homecoming: The Scottish Years of Mary, Queen of Scots by Rosemary Goring

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