Stirling Castle is equalled only by Edinburgh Castle in age and prestige. It was in royal hands from at least 1110 and played a key role in the Wars of Independence (1296-1357). Over the centuries the castle suffered 15 sieges, including the last on British soil when it was attacked by a force of Jacobites in January 1746.
Stirling Castle stands on Castle Rock, which was created when a volcano erupted around 350 million years ago. The solidified lava was slowly buried under sandstone sediments and ice. When the ice melted, more than 10,000 years ago, the rock was sculpted by the retreating glaciers.
The castle is impregnable on three sides, commanding the countryside for miles around. The rock faces to the north and west are nearly vertical, while the formation of the rock to the south and east predetermined the siting of buildings and defensive circuits. The castle’s purpose was to control the crossing on the River Forth to the east and it was described as “a huge brooch clasping the Highlands and the Lowlands together”. The approach from the town to the south-east of the castle is now dominated by artillery defences, created by Theodore Dury in the early 1700s, which mask the towered frontage created by James IV.
It is believed that Agricola, the Gallo-Roman general, established a stronghold on the castle rock during the Roman invasion of Scotland around 80 AD. The earliest known reference to Stirling is in the Life of St Monenna, which was written in the late 11th century by a scholar named Conchubranus. Around 1110 King Alexander I made arrangements for the financial support of a chapel already existing in the castle, newly dedicated to St Michael. As a royal castle, Stirling had to provide residential accommodation for the king and his court but must also house his administrative officers. Around 1140 David I, King of the Scots, founded Cambuskenneth Abbey nearby, partly to meet his secretarial and spiritual needs.
In 1174 then king, William I, was captured by the English and forced to surrender several castles, including Stirling. The English did not occupy the castle at this time and it was handed back by Richard I of England in 1189. It continued to be the favoured royal residence and William I died there in 1214.
In 1286 King Alexander III was riding from Edinburgh Castle to his home in Fife on a stormy night. He got separated from his riding party and when the thunder startled his horse it fell and the king was killed. His untimely death caused a breakdown in royal succession and the end of the peace between Scotland and England. Alexander III’s wife and sons had passed away before him and he only had an infant granddaughter, who lived in Norway. The four year old was sent for but did not survive the trip to Scotland.
The death of Alexander’s granddaughter left no clear heir to the throne and Edward I of England was invited to adjudicate between rival claimants. He favoured John Balliol, Lord of Galloway, thinking he was the weaker opponent and one he would be able to puppet. Balliol was made king the following year. In 1295 King John’s nobles negotiated a treaty with France against England, which resulted in decades of intermittent warfare known as the Wars of Independence.
King Edward ransacked towns and villages, capturing both Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle. In 1297 Stirling Castle was retaken by the Scots, following the victory of William Wallace’s army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but the Scots were defeated when the two armies next met at the Falkirk. Between 1296 and 1342 Stirling Castle spent more time occupied by the English than the Scots and some sieges lasted months, wreaking havoc on the castle’s buildings. In 1342 the castle finally returned to Scottish control after a six month siege.
After the Wars of Independence, Stirling Castle continued to develop at the heart of the nations’ affairs, and its role as a royal residence grew in importance. In 1372 Robert the Steward came to the throne as Robert II, establishing Scotland’s greatest dynasty, the royal Stewarts. Siege damage was reparied and the North Gate was constructed.
In 1424 Stirling Castle was part of the jointure (marriage settlement) given to James I’s wife, Joan Beaufort, establishing a tradition that later monarchs continued. James I, James II and James III all favoured Stirling as a royal residence and James III had building work commissioned and repairs done to the castle walls.
When James IV assumed the throne, following the death of his father, he became a popular and successful king. He carried out more work at Stirling than at any other royal castle and created much of what can be seen today.
The Great Hall is the grandest and best preserved element of James IV’s ambitious building programme at Stirling. It provided a spectacular setting for a century of state events and upon completion in 1503 it became the largest secular space in the kingdom.
By 1513 James IV was at the peak of his powers. When war broke out between England and France he found himself in a difficult position as an ally to both. Henry VIII of England invaded France and James IV declared war against England, encouraged by the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. He was excommunicated from the church as punishment for breaking the Truce of Perpetual Peace signed between England and Scotland in 1502. James IV led a military expedition into the north of England but the Scots were massacred at the Battle of Flodden Field in Northumbria and James IV was killed.
Once again Scotland was left with an infant monarch – the one-year-old James V. James V was crowned king as a baby, however during his early years Scotland was governed by a series of regents, the last of whom effectively held the young king prisoner. In 1528, at the age of 16, James V took control of his kingdom.
Through his mother, Margaret Tudor, James V was fourth in line to the English throne and a potential rival to his uncle, King Henry VIII of England. In 1534 he signed a peace treaty with his uncle, which proved to be short lived. In 1537 James V married Madeleine of Valois, the daughter of the King of France. This marriage strengthened ties between Scotland and France. Shortly after Madeleine arrived in Scotland she died.
Following the death of his first wife, James V married Mary de Guise (known as Mary of Guise), a distinguished French noblewoman, in 1538. To celebrate the marriage and declare his right to rule, James V built a new palace at Stirling Castle. Although he had inherited a kingdom almost bankrupt in 1528, his time spent in France in 1536, and his marriages, provided James with the wealth, ideas, material culture and skilled European craftsman to ensure the creation of a grand design never before seen in Scotland.
The Palace of Princelie Virtue was designed to broadcast a coherent message – that James V was a wise and virtuous ruler, whose reign would bring peace, prosperity and justice to the people of Scotland. He decorated the outside of the palace with over 250 sculptures designed to proclaim peace, prosperity and justice of his reign. He commissioned a series of carved timber portraits, known as the Stirling Heads, to decorate the palace ceilings. These portraits visually presented his credentials and demonstrated his right to rule.
Within the palace now stands an exhibit of replicas of the Stirling Heads, along with the Crowning Glory sculpture, created by John Donaldson, the woodcarver who made the replicas. The sculpture shows a moment of intimacy between James V and Mary of Guise, surrounded with imagery used to proclaim their status – the lion and unicorn to represent strength and harmony, an outline of the Scottish crown and characters from the Stirling Heads.
The Royal Lodgings of James V and Mary of Guise have been recently recreated, based on years of expert research, to allow full appreciation of how richly decorated and furnished these rooms would have been.
The fireplace in the King’s Inner Hall and Bedchambers are carved with lions, thistles and eagles. The significance of these motifs is uncertain, however a poem by the prominent Scottish poet, William Dunbar, likens the King of Scots to these three powerful symbols.
James V and Mary of Guise had two sons, who both died in infancy, and one daughter. In 1524 James V went to war with England, honouring his ties to France. At the end of the year he took ill in Falkland Palace and died, leaving the six-day-old Mary Queen of Scots to succeed him. James V may never have seen his castle fully completed.
The castle became the main residence of Mary of Guise and the infant queen who was required to take up residence in the King’s Inner Hall. The castle was seen as a safe place for Mary Queen of Scots, as it was further from the English border than Edinburgh. However, following the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, the young Mary was sent to France for safety the following year.
The Queen’s lodgings was the home of Mary of Guise, who assumed control of the nation as regent following the death of her husband. The Bedchambers are fully furnished for a royal personage in residence; the walls are hung with sumptuous brocaded cloth of gold and Persian carpets are placed by the bed and table.
Beyond the Queen’s intimate Bedchamber, to which only privileged visitors would have had access, are more public spaces, including the Queen’s Outer Hall. This area would have been used both as a waiting room and for entertainments such as music and dancing.
At the age of 15, Mary Queen of Scots married the heir to the French throne and by 1559 she was Queen of France, as well as Queen of Scotland. However, the deaths of her young husband and her mother the following year prompted her to return to Scotland to commence her personal reign. As a Catholic, she returned to a Protestant Scotland and found the Chapel Royal at Stirling was the only palace chapel still fitted out for Catholic worship. She married her cousin, Henry Stewart, and gave birth to Prince Charles James (later James VI and I). Mary was forced to abdicate in 1567, never to see her son again, and was succeeded by the infant James IV, who would emerge as the most enduring and powerful monarch the Stewart line had produced.
The Stewart dynasty to succeed the English throne was fulfilled by James VI on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Although he promised many homecomings, he found it surprisingly easy to rule Scotland from England and only made one visit. Various works were carried out within the castle in preparation for his visit in 1617 and again in 1625 in expectation of a visit from James’s son, Charles I, following his succession to the throne. Charles I did briefly visit in 1633 however, apart from this Scottish coronation visit, the palace stood empty throughout the 1600s.
The castle saw some improvements throughout the 1700s, as a response to the Jacobite rising and concerns about the weakness of Scottish castles however, long abandoned by royalty, it fell into disrepair. Occasionally used as a state prison and as the site of the last siege of the Jacobite rising in 1745-46, part of the Stirling Heads ceiling fell and the rest was removed. In the 1880s there was a drive to provide military accommodation at all major castles, following the outbreak of war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Walls and floors were inserted into the Great Hall and the castle became home to varying numbers of soldiers and adapted to meet their needs.
In 1964 the castle ceased to be the military depot for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In recent years major works of improvement have taken place to allow what is arguably the finest complex of late-medieval and royal buildings in Scotland to be seen and appreciated as the setting for the royal Stewart court at its most brilliant.
- Information provided by Discover Scotland tour guide
- Information provided at Stirling Castle
- Stirling Castle Official Souvenir Guide