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A walk around... Edinburgh

Updated Wednesday, 3rd December 2008
Mary Queen of Scots left a trail of riots, affairs and murders in her wake - join Neil Oliver to follow that trail.

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Welcome to a walk around 16th century Edinburgh – and a story of power, politics, romance, religion, murder and treachery. Mary Queen of Scots spent six short but turbulent years here in the capital, at a pivotal time in Scottish history. And the drama that unfolded has fascinated generations ever since.

Neil Oliver: Welcome to a walk around 16th Century Edinburgh and a story of power, politics, romance, religion, murder and treachery. Mary Queen of Scots spent six short but turbulent years here in the capital at a pivotal time in Scottish history and the drama that unfolded has fascinated generations ever since.

We’re going to be following a route that Mary would have been very familiar with. From her residence at Holyrood, we’ll walk up the Royal Mile, through the Borough of Canongate to the castle with its views over the whole city. Along the way we’ll be joined by three of Scotland’s most eminent historians to find out more about the City’s historic landmarks and about Mary's life here.

Keep your map handy, as it’ll help you find the locations and it points out some of the other important landmarks we’ll be passing that don’t relate directly to Mary's story.

Point 1: Holyrood Park

Our walk starts in Holyrood Park. We’re at Point 1 on your map, on the path some 350 metres from the futuristic white Dynamic Earth building. We’re above a set of railings around a local landmark called Margaret’s Well. Here, with our backs to Salisbury Crags, we’ve got a great view over the wall into the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

View of Abbey The palace was founded as a monastery by King David I in the 12th Century, and you can still see some of the remains of the original abbey from where we’re standing. In the 15th Century, there was a guest house, next to the abbey, providing accommodation for important visitors. But by Mary’s time the palace had been built in its place and was officially the main residence of Scottish royalty. A lively old place it was too, thronging with hundreds of people - Professor Michael Lynch of Edinburgh University.

Michael Lynch: There would be musicians, poets. It’s a total centre of Scottish culture. But it’s a culture that operates in more than one language, in Scots and English, in French, in Latin and for some in Greek as well. A learned place but also a court is a place for fun, enjoyment, very conspicuous consumption. A lot of money is spent on maintaining the court.

Neil: Much of the area immediately around the palace and abbey was marshland in those days, and this has been a royal park for centuries. In the 16th Century, it was a favourite spot for courtiers to come and have a picnic, practice archery or hunt or just take a walk and discuss the events of the day. Let’s walk across to the palace and take a closer look. Cross the road and follow the wall around to the left to Point 2 on the map, at the first gates you come to, which are the side gates.

Point 2: The Palace of Holyroodhouse

What you see when you look at the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the impressive result of two Stuart kings showing off. It was in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots’ grandfather James IV that this royal residence was first called a palace, and the design of the building combines full on medieval romanticism with the Renaissance style of the period. When the spectacular frontage to the palace was constructed in the 1530s Mary's father James V was making sure he outdid his rival Henry VIII's Hampton Court. And there's another influence here. James V was a great supporter of Scotland’s old alliance with France, and you can see his love of continental culture in the architecture, particularly of the far tower.

Michael: They built it at fantastic expense. By French masons, it was a little bit like a chateau on the Loire. And above the tower we also see a conical cap, a very Burgundian feature which reminds us that it’s not just French culture that operated on Scotland, before that there had been Burgundian influence too.

Roger Mason: James V was one of the most effective and successful of the Stuart Monarchs.

Neil: Professor Roger Mason of St Andrews University.

Roger: He presided over a glittering court here at Holyrood. He married very prestigiously, first of all into the French royal house and then to Mary de Guise-Lorraine. He had two male children by Mary of Guise in the late 1530s, and it looked very much as if the Stuart dynasty, the Stuart succession was assured, and nothing more could be asked really of a ruling monarch than to ensure the succession.

Neil: The situation, however, was about to unravel dramatically. Let’s now start walking round to the main gates at point three on the map, keeping the palace wall to our right. While we do that I’ll tell you a bit more about Scotland’s situation at the time.

Scotland, as we’ve heard, was allied to France, but England too had designs on the Kingdom. Henry VIII had instigated the Reformation, which turned England into a Protestant country, and he wanted Scotland to follow suit in breaking with the Roman Catholic Church and become England’s ally. James V resisted this, but suddenly tragedy struck and the landscape altered completely.

First, both of James young sons died. Then James himself became ill, and he died too in 1542. This left just a baby girl, born a week before her father’s death. Mary Stuart, the diplomatic dynamite from the moment she came into the World.

Roger: What made Mary diplomatic dynamite was the fact that whoever she married was going to become King of Scotland, and this resulted in a monumental struggle between the French monarchy and the English monarchy for control of Scotland through marrying one of their children to Mary Queen of Scots. Initially, it looked like Henry VIII was going to win this struggle. By the Treaties of Greenwich of 1543 the Scots agreed that Mary would marry Henry VIII's son, Prince Edward, the future Edward VI. But by the end of 1543 the Scots had changed their minds, and instead they began negotiating with France.

Henry VIII was absolutely livid at what he saw as the Scots’ treachery, and he launched a series of military expeditions against Scotland, known collectively as the Rough Wooing, aimed at forcing the Scots into giving up Mary and allowing her to marry Edward. Instead the Scots resisted and eventually Mary was shipped off to France, and she was betrothed to the heir to the French throne.

Neil: Mary grew up in the French court, married the Dauphin or Crown Prince and eventually became Queen of France. But when she was just 18, her husband died and she was forced to return to Scotland, not just to live but to rule as Queen. This meant stepping into an exceedingly tense situation both at home and in relation to England, where her cousin Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter, was now on the throne and watching her with deep suspicion.

You should be near the main palace gates by now.

Point 3: The main gates of the palace

Jenny Wormald: We’re standing at the spot where Mary Queen of Scots arrived back in Scotland in August 1561.

Neil: Jenny Wormald is an honorary fellow in Scottish history at Edinburgh University.

Jenny: She arrived in a thick fog, and she arrived without her own stylish horses because Elizabeth I had intercepted her ship and nicked them. But she came to Holyrood apparently behaving as if this is all she’d ever wanted which naturally enchanted her subjects.

Neil: Mary brought with her a very small entourage of barely twenty people. She’d arrived earlier than expected in to the Port of Leith, so there were few to greet her there, and frantic arrangements had to be made to transport her and her many boxes of clothing, jewels and decorations over to Holyrood. Nonetheless she always drew attention. She was six feet tall and striking in appearance, and people in general were glad to have a ruler back on Scottish soil. But in the time Mary had been away some important changes had taken place.

The Reformation had already rattled through Continental Europe splitting Christendom into two camps, Catholic and Protestant, and the year before Mary arrived back the Scottish Parliament had passed three laws making Scotland officially Protestant, ending the Pope’s authority in Scotland, banning the Catholic Mass and adopting a Protestant confession of faith. Mary had been brought up as a Catholic in France, so she was in a very tricky position. Not least because as Elizabeth I was well aware Mary had a claim, perhaps even a better claim than she did to the English throne.

Roger: In the eyes of Catholic Europe Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn and any children of that marriage were illegitimate, and in that case the rightful successor to the English throne on the death of Mary Tudor was Mary Stuart.

Neil: The way Mary decided to play the situation was to accept the Protestant faith while doing a deal with the powerful Lord James, Earl of Murray, so that she could practice her Catholic faith in private.

Jenny: Immediately, trouble flared. On the first Sunday after her return, when she was here in Mass, with Lord James guarding the door, there was a riot where we’re standing at the gates of Holyrood. This seems to have been at the time once off but may be regarded as a portent of troubles to come.

Neil: Religious tension underpinned Mary's reign in Edinburgh as we’ll hear. Let’s now turn our backs on Holyrood, cross the road and begin walking up the Royal Mile towards the castle.

You’ll pass the new Scottish Parliament building on your left. This lower section of the Royal Mile is known as the Canongate, and it’s called that because it was originally the walk of the Augustinian canons from the abbey. The town here was known as the Borough of Canongate with Edinburgh itself further up the hill. Keep walking until you see the tolbooth on your right which is the building with the very prominent clock. This is Point 4 on the map.

Point 4: Tolbooth

The Tolbooth was the townhouse of the Borough of Canongate. This was the meeting place for the town council and was also the place where the standard borough weights were kept for the regulation of traders. By the 16th Century this area is where people close to the court wanted to have their residencies. So either side of the Canongate we have to imagine fine houses of the nobility and courtiers.

Jenny: The prestige demands that they want their own houses but of course, as Scottish nobles do, they turn up with large retinues, their households, their kinsmen, their friends. What does that mean in the crowded area of the Royal Mile, occasional violence, punch ups, knife fights, now gun fights.

Michael: And as well what we have to realise as we go up the Royal Mile is every few yards there's a pub, there's a tavern, literally. The noble men would of course drink fine French claret and there is the Buckfast of the day, there's ale houses. Ale is sold from buckets by women in the street. And the mixture of weapons and drink produces the inevitable results.

Neil: Let’s get back to Mary's story as we continue walking up the Royal Mile. Here’s Roger Mason again.

Roger: One of Mary’s main preoccupations after she came back to Scotland and indeed one of the main preoccupations of her subjects in Scotland was who she would marry.

As far as Mary was concerned this is very much a diplomatic and political event. It’s not something in the 16th Century that you did out of love. As far as marriage was concerned there were various options open to Mary and various options were considered but one of the prime candidates was her cousin Lord Darnley a member of the Lennox Stuart family. Domestically he was quite an attractive choice because he too had a claim to the English throne, and because he was a native Englishman that claim allied to Mary’s or united with Mary’s would be very powerful. In any event Mary and Darnley met, and they seemed to have struck up some sort of rapport shall we say.

Neil: Darnley would undoubtedly have visited some of the taverns in this area during his time in Edinburgh. He was young, handsome and tall like Mary, and portraits from the time show him as well dressed and attractive. Whether Mary fell for his looks or just saw him as a good bet, politically, we don’t know.

In terms of religion Darnley had a foot in both camps. His father was a Protestant and his mother was a fervent Catholic. They were married in the Royal Chapel at Holyroodhouse on 29th of July 1565.

Elizabeth I was furious. She felt she should have been asked permission since Darnley was an English subject, and she wasn’t the only one who was unhappy.

Roger: There were massive protests from the Protestant community in Scotland because it was a marriage by Catholic rite. Mary overrode those protests, or rode them out, and everything seemed to set fair, a new King who claimed the crown matrimonial which was the formal gift of kingship. But by the time this was being discussed Mary had realised that behind the outward attractive appearance of Darnley lay a rather different sort of personality - someone who was irresponsible, arrogant, often drunk and who really didn’t have what it took to be a 16th Century ruler.

Neil: As King, Darnley tried to demand the power that he felt went with the title and before long the taverns around here would have been buzzing with gossip about what happened next. Mary had become close friends with her secretary, the Italian musician David Rizzio. If you asked some of today’s tour guides they’ll tell you Mary and Rizzio were having an affair. In fact, there's no evidence for this, but all the same Darnley was deeply jealous. And as a Catholic Rizzio was a natural target for those opposed to Catholicism.

In March 1566, he was murdered by a group of Protestant nobles right in front of Mary’s eyes and her husband Darnley was implicated as one of the murderers.

Jenny: The murder itself was exceedingly brutal. The conspirators burst into Mary’s little supper room, grabbed the unfortunate musician, who clung to the Queen’s skirts, and stabbed him endlessly, very pointedly leaving Darnley’s dagger notably there.

Rather amazingly Mary recovers. She manages to escape, get out of Holyrood and hot foots it down to Dunbar Castle where she regroups. The trouble is Dunbar Castle is of course the possession of the Earl of Bothwell, and he is the next big figure to create scandal and mayhem in Mary’s life. And with that of course we move on to what made the Rizzio murder look not only farcical but small beer, and that is the murder of Darnley himself.

Neil: Mary returned to Edinburgh, and we’ll hear more about the next chain of events in a moment. But meanwhile let’s continue walking up the Royal Mile to Point 5 - the junction with St Mary’s Street.

Point 5: Netherbow

Where we’re standing now is called the Netherbow. This is where the Canongate ended and Edinburgh began.

In Mary’s time, there was a vast defensive wall here, a legacy of Scotland’s stormy relationship with the neighbours down south. The main gate or port would have been right in front of us. The wall was begun in her grandfather’s time but took almost 50 years to finish. Professor Michael Lynch...

Michael: If we look to our left, we can see the best remains of the Flodden Wall. That wall encircled most of Edinburgh. Edinburgh was one of the very few Scottish towns that did have a wall round it. But more than that it was a wall that was crenelated, it had battlements on it, for show as well as for defence, at which shows Edinburgh’s position as a royal borough and also as the capital of Scotland.

Neil: Now cross the road and continue walking up the Royal Mile. As we do this, let me tell you about another source of conflict for the Stuarts, not the English but John Knox, the fiery Protestant preacher. Walk up the right hand side of the road for twenty metres until you come to Point 6 on the map. This is where the buildings retreat into a corner and you can see the signs for the John Knox House.

Point 6: John Knox House

So here we are in a corner of medieval Edinburgh at what's known as the John Knox House.

Michael: It’s a very typical Edinburgh house of the period. We mustn’t think of tenements of five and six storeys. Here we have a house of three storeys or two and a bit. It has a four stair but that would be later, dating to the 17th Century. There is a close, one of Edinburgh’s very typical narrow closes next to it, going down the steep hill towards the Nor’ Loch.

Neil: The Nor’ Loch was in what's now Princes Street Gardens. No doubt smelling to high heaven as people used to throw all their rubbish into it.

This is the oldest house in Edinburgh, and the person who actually lived here in Mary’s time was a goldsmith called James Mossman. You can see him pictured on the right of the panel in front of you. You can also see John Knox’s image and the entrance to the museum here that's dedicated to him.

Roger: John Knox was one of the great and influential Scotsmen of the 16th Century. But he’s actually much more than just a Scotsman; he’s a very cosmopolitan figure.

Initially a Catholic priest, he converted to Protestantism in the 1540s, but caught up in the hostilities of the ‘Rough Wooing’ he actually ended up as a slave on a French galley ship. He was released and rather than returning to Scotland, which was still Catholic at the time, he settled in England, and it was there that he made his reputation as one of the great Protestant preachers. He’s not a great intellectual but he’s clearly a very forceful personality and a very powerful preacher.

Neil: Knox was appalled at Mary continuing to practice her faith, and it was he who led the riots against her when she went to that first Mass in her chapel at Holyrood, which he described as more dangerous than ten thousand armed Frenchmen.

Let’s continue walking up the Royal Mile to what's now St Giles’ Cathedral on our left. This was the parish church of Edinburgh and was where John Knox preached. As you approach you’ll see the spire is shaped like a closed imperial crown. This was a symbol of both the borough as the capital of Scotland and of the monarch. It was already a motif on Scots coins and James V commissioned a real imperial crown to be made which was first used at Mary’s coronation. This is still part of Scotland’s honours or crown jewels and is on display in Edinburgh Castle.

Just before you reach St Giles’ you’ll pass the market cross. This is a small monument right beside St Giles’ with a unicorn and a saltire on top, both symbols of Scotland. It’s easily missed but it signified the centre of Edinburgh and therefore the whole country. When Mary was crowned, the area all around would have been packed with revellers.

Point 7: St Giles' Cathedral

St Giles’ wasn’t always a cathedral. In Mary’s day, it was just a very large, very noisy church, divided into three mini churches inside. This was partly to help with the acoustics but had also been part of the Reformation process to move the attention from the Old Catholic high altar to the pulpit which was now given centre stage.

Michael: Every Scottish borough only has one church, unlike England. Lincoln for example has seventeen parish churches but in Scotland one church in the Borough. And that's why it is so large. It had to accommodate congregations of maybe three or four thousand at a time.

Jenny: It looks like a medieval church, it was indeed a medieval church, but in fact it is massively restored, what we’re really looking at is something in the 19th Century. The statues over the main entrance and so on, there's no particular evidence that they would have been there.

Michael: Yes, that 19th Century skin that was put on it to preserve the stonework from Auld Reekie, the smoke and the assaults of the weather, was very controversial at the time, and in a way it doesn’t really do justice to what is a very fine building.

We don’t know very much about the original parish church which dates to the foundation of the Borough in the 1120s. We do know that there was massive rebuilding that went on in the 14th Century and a great deal of refurbishment inside in the 15th but then of course with the Reformation it would be this massive church divided into three. And another reason it was divided is that for preaching the acoustics are terrible. Wonderful acoustics for song but even today giving a lecture or a preaching in St Giles’ is an assault on the voice.

Neil: By all accounts, though, Knox knew how to work those vocal cords. On one famous occasion, Lord Darnley came here and got a full blast.

Michael: When Darnley attended in late 1565, already married to Mary, he came to hear Knox preach from Isaiah. It wasn’t a sermon he liked very much because it said that God had called down on his people to punish them, women and boys as rulers. Darnley apparently was absolutely furious and stormed out, no doubt as he usually did for a drink.

Neil: Mary didn’t outlaw Protestantism but she did refuse to ratify the three acts of the Reformation Parliament that made Catholic Mass illegal in Scotland. But while she stood firm on spiritual matters, her private life was all too eventful.

Within a year her marriage had broken down, accelerated by Darnley’s involvement in Rizzio’s murder, but she was already pregnant, which some people say is the one positive thing her wasteful husband ever did. She gave birth to a son James and had him baptised in a lavish Catholic ceremony at Stirling Castle. Shortly afterwards Darnley became ill and was taken to a house near here called Kirk o’Fields.

Mary appeared to be nursing her husband back to health, but in February 1567 an explosion destroyed the house and Darnley was found dead in the garden outside, apparently strangled.

This threw up many questions. How much did the Queen know about what had happened? Might she even have been in cahoots with the murderers? Many people found her behaviour after Darnley’s death rather surprising.

Jenny: What she should have done was show the appropriate amount of grief, which meant going into mourning, and mourning was not just mourning clothes but being incarcerated in her rooms in Holyrood for forty days. What she in fact did was to bury Darnley secretly and then broke out of her royal mourning, went down to Seton and started playing golf, very good for her health one might say but it was not what she should have done.

Neil: Not only this but within a short space of time she’d married the main person thought responsible for the murder, the Protestant Lord Bothwell. Roger Mason...

Roger: Mary’s marriage to Bothwell was conducted according to Protestant rather than Catholic rite, and one implication of this was that Mary almost immediately lost the support that she’d hitherto had from Catholic powers on the Continent, from the Papacy, from France and so on. It was after all one thing to murder your husband who was a liability, and she might well have recovered from that, but subsequently to marry by Protestant right the person who was now held responsible for that murder was extremely foolish in diplomatic terms.

Not only that, the marriage to Bothwell quickly unravelled in domestic Scottish political terms because those who had, prior to the marriage, supported Bothwell in his efforts to become King soon changed their minds, and within a few months of the marriage there was a very large coalition of the Scottish political establishment who were prepared to oppose the marriage and liberate, as they liked to put it, Mary from Bothwell's clutches.

Neil: This would have been the talk of the Scottish court at the time. To your left, as we walk from here, this building’s now home to the Scottish law courts. As for John Knox, Mary outlived him in the end and his body is buried around the right hand side of the cathedral. You won’t find an elaborate grave though, just a pale coloured paving stone in car parking space 23 - probably not quite the ending he was hoping for on Earth.

Within six years Mary had managed to alienate almost everyone around her, Catholic and Protestant. Eventually the Scottish nobility raised an army and confronted her and Bothwell at nearby Carberry Hill. Bothwell fled into exile and Mary was made to surrender. She was bought back to Edinburgh on horseback all disfigured by dust and tears as one writer of the time put it.

Let’s walk further up the hill towards the castle and our next stop the part of the Royal Mile known as the Lawnmarket.

Point 8: Lawnmarket

Lawnmarket, The Royal Mile Michael: So here we are at the Lawnmarket which is where the old west port of the town was that Mary first came through in her official entry in 1561. Lawnmarket really means the land market, the market where the produce of the surrounding countryside was sold. So we have to imagine eggs, chickens, geese, rabbits, rough country folk shouting their wares, noisy, dirty, smelly again – now one of the hubs of Edinburgh in this time.

Neil: Mary had first come this way as the celebrated new Queen, a week after her arrival, greeted by a great show of celebrations. But now, six years later, she was held in almost universal disdain. The crowds jeered and shouted insults as she passed by and instead of being taken to Holyrood she was put up overnight in the relative indignity of the Provost’s House. The next day she was taken across the water to Fife, to be imprisoned on an island on Loch Leven on a charge of moral turpitude.

Jenny: So there's the end of Mary Queen of Scots’ brief six-year life in Edinburgh. She did escape from Loch Leven in 1568. She went west.

She did get support but was defeated by her half-brother, Murray, at the Battle of Langside just outside Glasgow, fled to the south west and got on a boat to England. Apparently, when on the boat she suddenly had second thoughts and suggested the boatman took her to France. Since it was an extremely small boat the boatman understandably said no, and she landed in North West England to the deep embarrassment of everyone and to the intense embarrassment and the intense problem for Elizabeth who had to cope with her for the next seventeen, eighteen years.

Neil: Ultimately, Elizabeth fixed the problem by having Mary executed for treason.

For all her life in Scotland, she was harried and hunted but her final stop up at the castle is where she achieved one lasting result that not only survived her but dramatically transformed the shape of Britain.

Point 9: Edinburgh Castle ramparts

Michael: When we get to the top of the hill, the end of the Royal Mile, we see the castle, this enormous structure in front of us.

The nearest tower is the oldest part of the castle dating to the reign of David II. Most of the rest of the castle which was constructed over and over again belongs to the 15th or 16th Century and one foreign visitor to Edinburgh in the 16th Century must have been standing somewhere near this spot, when he said if you look around you can see almost a hundred noblemen’s houses and towers studded across the landscape.

Neil: To Mary, even in happier times, the castle would have seemed a draughty old fashioned building. But this is where she came to give birth to her son James to make sure he was safe after the horrors of the Rizzio murder. And when she abdicated at the very beginning of her long imprisonment James became King.

Roger: James was barely a year old when he came to the Scottish throne, and he would spend a great deal of the rest of his life in anticipation of inheriting the English throne in addition to his Scottish one. He never really knew his mother in exile in England until she was finally executed in 1587. Of course James protested at the execution of his mother at Elizabeth’s hands, but in many respects it proved advantageous as far as James was concerned because it cleared the way for his own succession to the English throne.

Neil: With his mother ultimately beheaded as a Catholic martyr it’s deeply ironic that James eventually succeeded to not just one but two thrones - James VI of Scotland and I of England and both of them Protestant. The other irony is that every British monarch since has therefore descended not from Elizabeth Tudor but from Mary Queen of Scots.

Sometimes Elizabeth is seen as the greatest of all English monarchs, but ultimately she failed, failed to produce an heir and failed to perpetuate the Tudor dynasty. Mary, often described as a failure, succeeded in doing both. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James became King of England as well as Scotland, and the North-South torment that had raged since before Mary’s birth came to an unexpectedly peaceful conclusion and a new chapter began.

This audio walk was produced in collaboration with the Open University, further information and other walks can be found at


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