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Mary, Queen of Scots Castles – A Guide to the British and French Castles

Mary, Queen of Scots was the queen of Scotland since she was only six days old. Her life is marked by political and religious conflicts and at age six, she was sent to the French court as the future wife of Dauphin Francis.  She was Queen Consort of France from 1559 to 1560 before she returned to Scotland to act as queen in her home country.

Mary was the cousin of Queen Elizabeth I which also gave her a claim to the English throne. Mary’s claim to the English throne and her involvement in a plot against Elizabeth led to her 18 years of imprisonment and execution in 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots lived in many castles during her lifetime. From her birthplace in Scotland to the grand castles and palaces of the French monarchs, and eventually the castles in England during her time as a prisoner. Many of Mary’s castles have survived and can now be visited where you can learn more about the fascinating life of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Early Years of Mary, Queen of Scots in Scotland

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Linlithgow Palace

On December 8 1542, Mary, Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow Palace and six days later she became Queen of Scotland. Mary initially only stayed at Linlithgow Palace for seven months, before she was taken to Stirling Castle by her mother as that castle had better protection. And also as an adult, Mary visited Linlithgow often for its peace and fresh air.

For many years, Linlithgow was the principal residence of the monarchs of Scotland. The palace was constructed in 1424 on the orders of King James I after a fire damaged an earlier castle. Linlithgow Palace was built as a ‘pleasure palace’ on the road between Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle.   

Linlithgow – which means “the loch in the damp hollow” –  fell into decline after James VI moved the royal court to London. The North quarter where Mary was born was destroyed, though James VI ordered to rebuild of this part of the castle.  In 1746, a great fire destroyed the castle leaving the castle roofless and ruined.  

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Stirling Castle

At seven months, Mary was taken to Stirling Castle escorted by the Earl of Lennox and 3,500 armed men. Stirling Castle was a Scottish Royal residence and a fortress and several Scottish Kings and Queens were crowned at Stirling, including Mary who was crowned Queen of Scots on 9 September 1543.  

King Henry VIII wanted Mary to become the wife of his son in the hope to unify England and Scotland. Nine months after Henry VIII’s death, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Pinkie. Mary was moved from Stirling for her safety several times during the Rough Wooing (the Eight Years’ War between England and Scotland). Stirling Castle is now open to visitors.

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photo: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

Inchmahome Priory

Located on the largest island in the Lake of Menteith stands Inchmahome Priory. Mary was sent here after the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. The four-year-old Mary stayed at the priory for a couple of weeks.

The buildings of the priory are now in ruins but you can see most of the 13th century priory structure. Inchamahome Priory is owned by Historic Environment Scotland and between March and September, you can visit the priory by boat that leaves from the Port of Menteith. Visit the website for opening times.    

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Dumbarton Castle

In February 1548, Mary was sent to Dumbarton Castle for her safety. The castle is located on Dumbarton Rock, a volcanic plug that overlooks the town of Dumbarton. The site has been occupied since the Iron Age and it has the longest recorded history of a stronghold in Scotland.    

To get support from the French during the Anglo-Scot war, an arrangement was made for Mary to marry the heir of King Henry II of France. Mary would stay at Dumbarton Castle for six months before she would set sail to France as the future wife of Dauphin Francis.  

Dumbarton Castle is owned by Historic Environment Scotland. Visit the website for opening times.

The French Years of Mary, Queen of Scots: Staying at the French Royal Castles

Mary would spend thirteen years at the French court. She was accompanied by two half-brothers, four companions (the “four Marys”, daughters of noble families in Scotland: the Beaton, Seton, Fleming, and Livingston families), and Janet, Lady Fleming who was Mary Fleming’s mother and King James V’s half-sister.  

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Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye

The Dauphin Francis mainly grew up at Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and it is generally assumed that Mary also spent much of her childhood at the castle. Mary first met her future mother-in-law Queen Catherine de Medici at the St. Germain Castle. The Royal household was in awe of the small Mary, who was already a Queen in her own right at that time which would also cause difficulties.  

The Renaissance castle was built by Francis I in 1539 and it was expanded several times over the years. The castle is located only twelve miles from Paris and now houses the National Museum of Archaeology.

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Château d’Amboise

King Henry II of France and his wife Catherine de’ Medici mainly raised their children and Mary Stuart at Amboise Castle and Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Château d’Amboise is located in the Loire Valley and overlooks the river Loire. The French castle had been a favorite royal residence since the Renaissance period until it eventually fell out of favor in the 16th century.

King Charles VIII died at Amboise Castle but the castle is also the burial place of another influential man. Leonardo da Vinci – painter of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper – became friends with King Francis I of France. He was allowed to stay at Clos Lucé, a manor house near the Château d’Amboise. On 2 May 1519, Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, after which he was buried at the church at Château d’Amboise.

This Royal Castle in the Loire Valley that was once the home of Mary Stuart is open to the public. Visit the website for opening times.   

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Louvre Palace

Before the Louvre became a world-famous museum, it was a royal castle. The Louvre Castle was built in the 12th century by Philip II of France. The castle was slowly demolished over a period of 150 years to make way for the Louvre Palace.

The Louvre Palace was a royal residence from the 14th to the 18th century. It displays a variety of architectural styles from Gothic to French Renaissance and Neoclassical. The palace now houses the famous Louvre Museum.

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Château Royal de Blois

After Francis became king in 1559, a year after his wedding to Mary Stuart, the royal court moved to the Château de Blois in the Loire Valley. The castle is located in the center of the city of Blois and has been a royal residence since the late 15th century.

The royal castle shows a unique mixture of architecture. The four castle wings display architectural styles ranging from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Many influential people were born and died at the castle King Louis XII was born here and Francis’ mother, Catherine de’ Medici died at the castle.

The castle is now open to visitors showing the Royal Apartments as well as the Museum of Fine Arts. Visit the website for opening times.

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photo: Jvillafruela / CC BY-SA 4.0

Château de Fontainebleau

The Palace of Fontainebleau is the birthplace of Mary’s future husband Francis. The Medieval castle was transformed into a Renaissance castle by King Francis I. King Henry II and Catherine de Medici enlarged the castle adding the first famous horseshoe-shaped staircase, a grand ballroom, and the gallery of Ulysses with murals by Francesco Primaticcio.

Later monarchs also put their stamp on the castle and it turned into one of the largest French royal castles. The palace now shows the Grand Apartments ranging from Francis I’s time to Napoleon’s. A few highlights of the palace are the Gallery of Francis I (one of the first and finest examples of Renaissance decoration), the Ballroom, the Queen’s Bedroom, the Boudoir of Marie Antoinette, the Throne Room of Napoleon, the Gallery of Diana, the Apartments of Napoleon, and the Chinese Museum.

The decoration of the Palace of Fontainebleau includes work from Italian and French craftsmen. The style became known as the School of Fontainebleau.

The palace is now open to visitors. Visit the website for opening times.  

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Château de Chambord

Château de Chambord is one of the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture. The world-famous castle in the Loire Valley was built by King Francis I as a hunting lodge. Leonardo da Vinci, a friend of the King, also helped with the design of the castle. It is certain that he designed the central staircase at Château de Chambord.

The castle was built for short visits so it is not certain that Mary ever stayed at the castle also because it was mainly left alone after the death of Francis I, one year before Mary’s arrival in France.   

It is however an important royal castle that was already used during Mary’s time in France and a castle that inspired many other castles all over Europe. During the Second World War, Chambord Castle was used to store artworks from the Louvre. The castle is now open to visitors. Visit the website for opening times.

The Queen Returns to Scotland

Nine months after the death of her husband did Mary return to Scotland. She arrived in Leith on 19 August 1561 after having lived most of her life in France.  

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Holyrood Palace

After her return to Scotland, primarily stayed in the Royal Apartments of The Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. The apartments are located in the James V’s tower. In the Outer Chamber, she received visitors such as the audience with John Knox. In 1565, Mary married her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley at Holyrood Palace.

The Outer Chamber at the Palace is the room where Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio was stabbed to death by Lord Darnley and his confederates.

The room is now used to display Stuart and Jacobite relics that have been collected by a range of Scottish monarchs. The palace is still used as the principal royal residence in Scotland. Next to Mary’s Apartment, you can also visit the State Apartments. Visit the website for opening times.

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photo: Visit European Castles

Edinburgh Castle

Standing on Castle Rock, overlooking the city of Edinburgh stands Edinburgh Castle. The castle had been a royal residence since the time of David I in the 12th century and would stay a royal residence until the 17th century.  

Mary gave birth to their son James at Edinburgh Castle one year after her wedding to Lord Darnley. She choose to give birth at Edinburgh Castle because there was better security at this castle.

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photo: Stephen Dickson / CC BY-SA 4.0

Falkland Palace

Falkland Palace is a royal palace of the Scottish monarch that was often visited by Mary, Queen of Scots to escape the political and religious turmoil and to hunt. The Renaissance palace was used as a Royal Hunting Lodge and it also houses the oldest original tennis courts in Great Britain.

The Stuart royals transformed this castle to make it look like a French château. It is one of the finest Renaissance buildings in Scotland. Visit the website for opening times.

Wemyss Castle

Wemyss Castle is an early 15th century castle and the ancient seat of the Earls of Wemyss. Mary, Queen of Scots met her future husband Lord Darnley at this castle on 17 February 1565.

The castle is located on a cliff overlooking the Firth of Forth. The oldest part of the building is the 15th century tower but it also has 19th century stables and gatepiers.

The castle is now best known for its castle gardens that have been planted since the 17th century with a large collection of spring and summer flowers. The castle gardens are open to visitors. Visit the website for opening times.   

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photo: Coastal East Lothian : Dunbar Castle by Richard West / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dunbar Castle

Two days after the death of David Rizzio, Mary and Lord Darnley fled to Dunbar Castle. Mary was heavily pregnant at the time with their first child, the future King James VI of Scotland. Despite her condition, she rode five hours on horseback to Dunbar Castle. They stayed here a week before returning to Edinburgh.

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photo: Craigmillar Castle in the snow by M J Richardson / CC BY-SA 2.0

Craigmillar Castle

The marriage between Mary and Lord Darnley became problematic after the stabbing of Rizzio. Mary and leading nobles met at Craigmillar Castle, in November 1566, to discuss the “Darnley problem”.

Three months later, Darnley was found dead in the garden of the residence in Kirk o’ Field where he was staying.  

Craigmillar Castle transformed from a tower house residence dating from the late 1300s into a grand castle. It is the first castle of its sort of have been built in Scotland. The walls of the Tower House are three meters thick and this structure holds a maze of rooms, including a great hall.

Mary, Queen of Scots had a multi roomed apartment at Craigmillar Castle. The owner of the castle at that tme was Sir Simon Preston who was one of Mary’s loyal supporters. However, he would also become her jailor when she was made a prisoner in 1567.

The castle is now oned by Historc Environment Scotland and it is open to the public. Visit the website for opening times.

Mary’s son, James, was staying at Stirling Castle where she also lived as a small girl. On April 24 1567, after visiting her son in Stirling, she was abducted by Lord Bothwell and taken to Dunbar Castle. Mary and Lord Bothwell married in Edinburgh (at Holyrood Palace or Holyrood Abbey) in May. The nobles didn’t agree with this marriage and after The Battle of Carberry Hill, Mary was captured and imprisoned.

The First Castles Where Mary, Queen of Scots Was Held Prisoner

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photo: Gunther Tschuch / CC BY-SA 4.0

Loch Leven Castle

On June 16 1567, Mary was taken to Loch Leven Castle. The castle is located on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. At the castle, she miscarried twins and only days later she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son.

Mary had also visited Loch Leven Castle before her imprisonment, but for almost eleven months she was a prisoner under the custody of Sir William Douglas of Lochleven at this castle. Mary stayed at the Glassin Tower and during her time here she managed to win over George Douglas, Sir William’s brother. After two failed escape attempts she managed to escape the castle with the help of George Douglas.

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photo: Niddry Castle from the 18th fairway by Greg Fitchett / CC BY-SA 2.0

Niddry Castle

After her escape from Loch Leven Castle, Mary stayed at Niddry Castle, a 16th century tower house near Winchburgh. She raised an army of 6.000 men but her army was defeated at the Battle of Langside.

Workington Hall

After her defeat, Mary fled south to England and ended up at Workington Hall, an early 15th century fortified tower house. Mary was captured again by order of Queen Elizabeth I and sent to Carlisle Castle.

Carlisle Castle

Mary was imprisoned at Carlisle Castle for a couple of months in 1567. Sir Francis Knollys was in charge of her imprisonment and he took her for walks at the front of the castle. This is now known as “Lady’s Walk”. During her time here, she stayed in the Warden’s Tower.

The castle was built in 1093 during the reign of William II. Due to its close proximity to the Scottish border, the 900 years old castle has seen several battles. The castle is now owned by English Heritage and shows its fascinating history, from the story of Mary Queen of Scots to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Border Reivers. The castle is also home to the Cumbria Museum of Military Life. Visit the website for opening times.

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Bolton Castle

In July 1568, Mary was taken to Bolton Castle. Bolton Castle is a 14th century castle in Yorkshire and is located a bit further from the Scottish border than Carlisle Castle. Since its construction, the castle has been owned by the Scrope family.   

Mary stayed in the apartments of Henry Scope together with thirty of her men and six ladies in waiting. To make the castle more suitable for a former Queen, they borrowed furniture, tapestries, and rug from local houses and Barnard Castle. Mary was allowed to take walks and go hunting while at Bolton Castle. In January 1569, Mary was taken to Tutbury Castle.  

Bolton Castle is one of England’s best-preserved medieval castles and it is open to visitors. Visit the website for opening times.

Mary’s Time at The Castles of The Earl of Shrewsbury and Bess of Hardwick

In January 1569, the Earl of Shrewsbury was selected as the keeper of Mary, Queen of Scots. At that time, he was married to Bess of Hardwick (then the Countess of Shrewsbury). For the next sixteen years, he would stay the keeper of Mary. The Earl and Countess owned several houses and castles in the Midlands where Mary also stayed. Bess and Mary worked on embroidery and textile projects together. The most famous one is the Oxburgh Hangings that hang in Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

Tutbury Castle

Mary first moved to Tutbury Castle, a medieval castle whose origins go back to Norman times. Mary stayed at Tutbury on and off during her time with the Shrewsbury’s.

The castle is now ruined but with historical reenactment, archaeological excavation, an authentic Tudor garden and medieval herbery, a Great Hall, and the Kings’ Bedroom it is worthy of a visit. Visit the website for opening times.

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Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House is a 16th century stately home that was built by Bess of Hardwick (she was previously married to Sir William Cavendish). Mary stayed at Chatsworth several times in wat is now known as the Queen of Scots rooms that are located above the Great Hall.

Mary and Bess worked at the Oxburgh Hangings during their time at Chatsworth House. Chatsworth is the seat of the Duke of Devonshire and it is home to an extensive furniture, art, sculpture, and book collection. It is one of the most popular country houses in England. Visit the website for the opening times.

Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor Lodge

Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor Lodge were two residences of the Earl of Shrewsbury where Mary stayed as well. Only the Turret House of the Sheffield Manor Lodge remains of these residences. The Turret house and Tudor grounds are open to visitors.

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photo: Mball93 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Wingfield Manor

Mary stayed at Wingfield Manor several times during her imprisonment. The 15th century manor house was owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury’s family for almost two hundred years. It is suggested that Mary met Anthony Babington at Wingfield. Babington organized the Babington Plot which was a plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. This plot would eventually lead to the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. Wingfield Manor is now owned by English Heritage and is open to the public.  

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photo: Chartley Castle by Bill Boaden / CC BY-SA 2.0

Chartley Manor

A moated and battlemented timber mansion was built on the grounds of Chartley Castle. Mary was moved from Tutbury Castle to Charley in 1585, where she would spend a year.  On 11 August 1586, Mary was arrested for being involved in the Babington Plot. She would come back to Chartley before being taken to Fotheringay Castle. Ony the ruins of Chartley Castle are still visible.

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photo: Steve Teratsia / CC BY-SA 4.0

Tixall Gatehouse

Mary stayed at Tixall Manor for two weeks after her arrest. Only the gatehouse of this hall has survived.

Fotheringhay Castle

Fotheringhay Castle was a Norman motte and bailey castle in England. In the time of Mary, Fotheringhay was used as a prison and after her arrest, she was end to this castle. At Fotheringhay Castle, Mary Stuart was tried and convicted of treason.

The trial was held in the Great Hall but it took another two months for Elizabeth I to sign her death warrant. Mary spent the last hours of her life praying in the castle chapel. On 8 February 1587, Mary was beheaded in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle.

The castles of Mary, Queen of Scots played an important part in Scottish, English, and French histories. Besides the interesting connection with Mary Stuart, these castles have important stories to tell. Luckily many of Mary’s castles can be visited and while you take a trip to Scotland, England, or France you should definitely visit these historic castles.   

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