An 18th century design for the palace
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A palace for a Renaissance monarch

In the latter part of his reign, James V created a place within the castle for himself and his French queen, Mary of Guise, with grand apartments fit for a major European monarch. The king died prematurely in 1542, but the palace continued to be occupied by Mary of Guise and later by James VI.

The exterior of the palace has long been esteemed for the wealth of its sculpture, bold carvings of classical and allegorical figures, as well as a more restrained figure of James V himself. Their vigorous carving and the wealth of imagery puzzled many 19th century writers, who often describe them as ‘grotesque,’ but recent work has recognised them as a unique collection of Scottish Renaissance sculpture. The sculptors also made use of a wide repertoire of Renaissance ornament showing the contact of Scotland with mainstream trends in art and architecture. A devil and armed figures face the outside world, while goddesses and musicians provide a gentler accompaniment to the facade of the inner courtyard. Some of the figures have a definite lascivious nature and the excavations added to this corpus with the discovery of a fragment in the form of a female breast. Within, there is further carving on the fireplaces, with figural and heraldic designs. The fireplaces still have traces of red and yellow paint giving a further indication of the colourful interiors of the Renaissance palace, evidence that survived generations of military whitewash and Ministry of Works cleaning. Also, the 1540s doorways survive, with great roll mouldings presenting a bold front to their outer faces. But the general impression to the more casual visitor is one of great empty rooms that do not at all convey the lavish extravagance of a Renaissance court. Inventories from the sixteenth century give us a glimpse of the tapestries and clothes of state and furnishings that decorated the interiors and the rich costumes and hunting accessories that played such an important role in emphasising the importance of the display of magnificence in the court, as befitted a European monarch.

The palace continued as a major royal residence from the 16th century until the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when the court removed to London. After this there was comparatively little structural alteration to the palace. This neglect resulted in the remarkable survival of the 16th century layout of the principal rooms. This was an almost symmetrical arrangement of the King’s and Queen’s apartments around a central courtyard, the Lion’s Den. Each side consisted of three chambers, still known in the early eighteenth century as the Guard Hall, Presence Chamber and Bedchamber, with the bedchambers conjoining. Recording of the standing structure revealed further blocked doorways leading to an understanding of the use and manipulation of the space in which the rituals of Renaissance court life were enacted to produce both a feeling of theatre, and an increasing sense of exclusiveness as the innermost chambers were approached. The entrances to the King’s and Queen’s apartments were linked by a gallery which provided a processional area as well as acting as an antechamber. Here a late 19th century mezzanine floor was removed (in its final phase, a ladies toilet), to reveal some of the grandeur of the original space.

The noblest I ever saw in Europe

Some of the decorative woodwork that adorned the palace remained in situ until the latter part of the 18th century. John Mackay, an English visitor in 1723 described the rooms as ‘the noblest I ever saw in Europe, both for height, length and breadth, and for the fineness of the carved work in wainscot and on the ceiling’. Some of the ceilings were decorated with great wooden roundels portraying heads in contemporary and classical costume, ranging from kings and classical heroes to court jesters. Thirty-three of these survive, although no longer in place. Analysis of the timber has shown that it came from an area of, what is today, Poland. Part of the palace project has involved the carving of a set of replica heads in order to recreate the ceiling of the King’s inner hall, as it might have looked in the 16th century. This work has revealed much information about the techniques involved in their creation, and clarified the nature of later alterations to the heads.

Although the decorative ceilings are no longer in place, the original beams are in situ and, with the removal of the early 20th century plaster ceilings, the opportunity was taken to record them in detail. Dendrochronological analysis of the timbers of the north and south ranges of the palace indicate a felling date for the timbers c.1538-9, indicating that this part of the palace was completed soon after 1539. The substructure of the ceiling of the king’s bedchamber differs in its construction from all the others. It consists of five beams of native oak, 2.28m apart, diagonally set to rest on their arris, thus displaying two faces of each timber. Dendrochronogical analysis showed that several crossboard doors in the principal floor of the palace were of early 16th date and therefore contemporary with the c.1540 construction of the palace, having survived centuries of military occupation. This included the great exterior door of the palace that undobtedly gave an overwhelming impression of courtly might to the contemporary visitor.

Princes and witches

The Prince's Tower, an earlier structure on the south side of the palace, was traditionally the nursery of the Scottish kings and certainly that of James VI and then his son, Prince Henry. Dendrochronological analysis of the timbers has shown that, in addition to early sixteenth century timber, there had been a refurbishment in c.1593. This was likely connected with the birth of Prince Henry, who was born on 19th February 1594. Graffiti was found on the plaster of a window reveal in script of that period, inscribed ‘God made Man and [Wom]an God made Man’ and ‘James 6’. The use of the arabic six in the context of the monarch was normal in 16th century Scotland. Only after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 was it replaced by the use of Roman numerals.

James VI spent his youth in the palace and was a frequent visitor in his later years. One interesting aspect of his life was his fascination with witchcraft; his book 'Daemonologie' was published in Edinburgh in 1597. This relates tales of how witches could change into ‘the likeness of a little beast or foule’ and thereby enter houses and churches. Careful examination of the palace doors doors revealed two ritual protection marks (witch marks) - of particular interest given that this was the home of James VI. The great outer door of the palace had inscribed upon it a conjoined 'AMV,' for Ave Maria Virginus, while there was an incised marigold on the inner face of his closet door.

The King's closet

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, which saw the removal of the court to England, the palace lost its prime purpose. The King's Bedchamber remained ready however, throughout the 17th century, for a royal visitor. Next to the bedchamber was the King’s Closet, designed as an intimate and secure room for the monarch’s personal use. Investigations here revealed aspects of its earlier importance that survived later uses, such as a barber’s shop and a urinal. Major changes took place in the early 17th century when the closet was given a ceiling of stone slabs and a straight stair was inserted, providing access between the bedchamber and the upper floor. This latter arrangement proved convenient during the visit of James VI - when his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, occupied the upper chamber. The innermost part of the closet had also served as a strongroom. Investigations showed that it formerly had been entered via two doors, at each end of a short corridor. Here the king would keep valuable possessions. A document of 1676 refers to this area as the place where the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) were kept, most likely in the aumbry that still survives despite being masked behind the later urinals.

James VI/I, Charles I and Charles II all paid brief visits to the palace during their respective reigns, but the rooms of the principal floor that had been a setting for Renaissance grandeur were gradually adapted to a much more utilitarian role as soldiers’ barracks, with the army remaining in occupation until 1964.

The Governor's residence

In the later 17th century the upper floor of the palace was remodelled as a fashionable residence for the governor of the castle, the Earl of Mar. Study of the structure, accompanied with documentary research, has shown that a huge reconstruction took place in the early 1670s when the floors were strengthened with extra timbers and the roof replaced. Extensive dendrochronological analysis of the pine has given a felling date of 1671. This pine came from within the Baltic area or northern Europe. The presence of wooden pegs, protruding from some of the timbers (and redundant in the actual structure), is seen as evidence of the rafting of the timber down rivers before shipping, a common practice in northern Europe.

The interior of the palace was decorated in a manner befitting a fashionable residence of the period. Documentation survives for the ordering of chinoiserie-style furniture and ‘stamped’ wallpaper. A small scrap of the latter was discovered in the upper floor of the palace; more may still survive behind later surfaces. Chinese porcelain excavated in a mid-17th century deposit adjacent to the palace was evidence for a slightly earlier fashion for oriental imports in Stirling.

One of the worst barracks in the three kingdoms

The eighteenth century saw the gradual conversion of the principal floor of the palace into barracks, with officer accommodation above. This was a process that accelerated with the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars. Graffiti in the King’s closet included the date 1787, although its precise significance is unknown. The building recording showed how the great Renaissance rooms were adapted in the late eighteenth century with the insertion of mezzanine floors. In 1828 there was a complete rearrangement of access following the introduction of iron bedsteads, with old doorways blocked and new direct access provided to the exterior. This blocking helped to preserve several of the 16th century doors which otherwise may have been destroyed through wear and modernisation. A report of 1859 described the palace as ‘one of the worst barracks in the three kingdoms’. The castle became the regimental depot of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the palace continued to be the temporary home of many recruits until it passed out of army use in 1964. There was some restoration in the early 20th century under the Ministry of Works; new timber beams in King’s Presence Chamber had the name of the carpenter and the date 1912. The rooms in the palace and the adjacent Princes Tower underwent many changes of use during this period, as they were adapted to the changing conditions of army life. An example is the lowest chamber in the Princes Tower which, in 1826, changed from use as a 'girl’s school' into a ‘black hole’ (a prison cell for soldiers) and finally, in the early 1960s becamea night club with its walls and ceiling painted black.

In plan

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