Linlithgow Palace – the Birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots

Postcode EH49 7AL

National Grid reference: NS 996 774

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Linlithgow Palace

Mary was born in the palace on 7 or 8 December 1542, and spent the first seven months of her life there. Mary’s father James V died a few days after her birth of a fever made worse by depression following the defeat of his army at Solway Moss.

Mary’s mother, Marie of Guise, arranged to take Mary for safety to the much more defensible Stirling Castle, whilst some of the Scottish nobles argued and schemed about who should control the infant queen, and therefore be able to rule Scotland in her name. There was also a risk from agents working on behalf of Henry VIII. Henry intended that, by agreement or by force, his son Edward would marry Mary, giving Henry effective control of Scotland.

Linlithgow gate

The gateway to the palace. Note the gun ports – this palace was defended!

Mary didn’t return to Linlithgow until she came back to Scotland to rule as Queen of Scots in 1561, and even then she only visited for short stays. Her last visit was in April 1567, on the eve of her abduction by Patrick Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell.

Linlithgow Palace is now a ruin, but a magnificent ruin. In 1746 a fire was started by the Hanoverian troops billeted there.  The fire destroyed anything not made of stone. The Hanoverians were pursuing Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army which was retreating north, ultimately to the disaster of Culloden. How much more magnificent the palace would have been if the barbarians had not started a fire.

Linlithgow Palace is built on a slight promontory into Linlithgow Loch. Roman pottery discovered during archaeological digs indicate that the promontory was inhabited in Roman times. The palace is about half way between the royal castles of Edinburgh and Stirling, making it a convenient stopping off point for a royal party travelling between them.

Edward I of England had the area fortified in the late 13th century as part of his attempt to subjugate Scotland. But the palace that Mary knew was started by James I, following a disastrous fire in 1424 that destroyed much of Linlithgow. Several Scottish kings extended and added to the grandeur of the building in the centuries that followed.

Mary’s grandfather and father, James IV and James V, transformed the building into a magnificent renaissance palace, built around a central courtyard. James V added the beautiful fountain, to make a focus in the courtyard. It still works and is operated on occasions in the summer. James V also added an outer gateway, with four panels above displaying the coats of arms of the main chivalric orders which he was a member of. He was in some very prestigious orders; the Garter of England, the Thistle of Scotland, the Golden Fleece of Burgundy, and St Michael of France. The panels that exist today are 19th century replicas of the originals.

By the time of Mary’s birth, Linlithgow had become the most impressive palace in Scotland, and had been the favourite of several Scottish Queens. Mary’s mother Marie considered Linlithgow Palace to be the equal of the noblest chateaux in France. Soon it was to be joined by the palace in Stirling Castle, as building work there was nearing completion when Mary was born.

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The fountain in the palace courtyard

Just outside Linlithgow Palace is St Michael’s Church, where Mary was baptised. The building, which dates from the middle of the 15th century, was once elaborately decorated, as befits a building where Scottish kings and queens often worshiped. However, a great deal of damage was done to the ornamentation in 1559 by Protestants when they defaced many elaborately decorated Catholic churches and abbeys, and it is much plainer now. So much beauty was vandalised during the reaction against Catholicism. However new stained glass was added in the 19th century, and in 1964 a rather flashy aluminium crown was added to the roof.

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