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Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Stirling Castle

By James Turner

Stirling Castle perched imperiously upon a vast crag of rough primeval rock enfolded on every side by its sweeping lines of carved stone and mortar serves as an unblinking sentinel over the suture that joins the whisky and industry soaked lowlands to the whisky and romance soaked highlands. For the majority of the trackless depths of Scotland’s history, wreathed as the popular consciousness of most foreigners and some natives would have it in equal levels of mist and martial strife, the town of Stirling has served as the gateway between the country’s often disparate halves.

Stirling Castle - Photo from Flickr

This eminence results from the ford across the river Forth, which alongside the various incarnations of Stirling Bridge, made the town the most reliable and robust point of transition across the river. Indeed the concept resonated within the minds of our medieval forebears to such an extent that in many maps of Britain, the highlands appear isolated amidst the sea divorced from the mainland but for a single bridge linking the two ‘Islands’.  In an age driven by symbolism, cartographers evidently were yet to develop the keen eye for detail for which their profession was to become so well known. If the town and its bridge have played a unique and crucial role in Scotland’s history, no less can be said of the Castle which so emphatically dominates both; the bulk of its imposing edifice articulating its importance in forging the destiny of a nation.

The earliest history of the site’s political significance has now thoroughly enmeshed into legend.  It seems that the fortress played a significant role in the swirling anarchy of the Picts, Celts, Scots and Saxons relentless scrabbling wars of dominion in the 7th and 8th centuries.  The Castle was even at one point in the 15th century strongly identified, by some, with the stronghold of the mythic yet strangely irrepressible King Arthur.  It is notable, however, that this can be said of virtually every castle, fort and hill within the British Isles.  The first indisputable evidence of the castle originates from 1107 when Alexander I constructed a chapel there, suggesting that the site had already been occupied for some time and that it was a place of considerable significance to the burgeoning Scottish monarchy.

Alexander’s successor, David I raised both the profile and Royal affinity of the Castle, also turning the town into a royal burgh.  When William the Lion was captured at the Battle of Alnwick by Ranulf De Glanvill in 1174, he was compelled by the infamously opportunistic and ambitious Henry II to sign the Treaty of Falaise whereby many of Scotland’s key castles, including those at Stirling and Edinburgh, were placed into English hands.  Thankfully for the Scots, this staggering strategic advantage was bartered away by Richard I in short order when he allowed the Scottish King to buy out of the treaty in 1189 during his fundraising activities for the Second Crusade.

Stirling Castle Battlements - Photo by Dun Deagh / Flickr
Stirling Castle Battlements – Photo by Dun Deagh / Flickr

The Castle went on to play a pivotal role in the Wars of Scottish Independence where despite the prodigious nature of its defences, both artificial and natural, it was to change hands with almost dizzying regularity. These frighteningly literal home invasions were often preceded by one of the    disastrous reversals in fortunes that so characterised the Wars of Independence such as the Battles of Stirling Bridge or Falkirk. In 1314 it fell to Edward II to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when the newly minted King Robert the Bruce of Scotland defeated him at the Battle at Bannockburn; a battle which was triggered when Edward marched north of the border in order to relieve the Castle’s besieged garrison. The victory of the native Scottish King who had earlier heaped such patronage upon it proved to be a melancholy event for the Castle since in the wake of his victory Bruce had the fortress demolished to prevent recapture by the enemy.  However, the Castle was soon to be resurrected, rising out of the fires of the second War of Independence where in 1336 it once more fell under the yoke of English control only to be retaken by the future King Robert Stuart after a gruelling siege in 1342.

Over the next two hundred years Stirling was gradually transformed from a medieval castle into an increasingly extravagant royal residence. Stirling was to become the favoured residence of James II who had spent much of his childhood there. This pattern of close attachment to Stirling Castle was played out by his son James III who was both born within the Castle and died within sight of it at the Battle of Sauchieburn. Extensive building work was undertaken during the reign of the singularly ambitious James IV who sought to turn Stirling Castle into the heart of a true renaissance kingdom and rebuilt his ancestral residence to reflect the latest architectural fashions and military innovations from the Continent.

The Castle then served as the childhood home of James V’s heir, Mary Queen of Scots, the centre for the Regency of her mother, Mary of Guise, and the site of her heroic struggle against both the English and large elements of the Scottish aristocracy led by the Earl of Arran. Like his grandfather James V, the wearyingly named James VI was both educated and crowned within the walls of Stirling Castle in 1566. However, when following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the Scottish King also gained the English crown, he and the successive generations of the joint monarchy departed for London seldom to return. The Castle played little role in either the Bishops War where the Covenanters rose to prominence or the first stage of the War of the Three Kingdoms when they joined with the English Parliament in waging war on their shared king. However, when the English executed Charles I without the consent of their more northern comrades, the Scots quickly crowned his son Charles II who visited Stirling Castle on his march south.  Contrary to narrative conventions, however, the dashing young king was thwarted in short order and Stirling Castle was forced to capitulate to General Monck after less than a week of fighting. During the last great swell of the Jacobite cause in the 1745 rising, the Castle while besieged once and frequently threatened was stoutly garrisoned by government troops, perhaps disloyally failing to yield to the last descendent of its traditional masters.

woodcarving at Stirling - Photo by Dun Deagh / Flickr
Woodcarving at Stirling – Photo by Dun Deagh / Flickr

The oldest part of Castle still standing today was constructed in the 1490s, with subsequent construction proceeding well into the 18th century.  As such, the design and architecture eloquently attests to the Castle’s regal status and the lofty ambitions of its inhabitants. The interior as it stands now comprises of two concentric courtyards, the first of which is formed by the enclosing sections of the inner wall and the competing grandeur of the Palace of James V, festooned as it is with the baroque forms of gargoyles and Greek gods and the alarming yet authentic gold orange hue of the Great Hall constructed by his father James IV and built in 1503. The second, innermost courtyard is formed from the Great Hall and Palace pinning the old royal apartments of James IV up against the Chapel founded by James VI before his departure to London.  In 1708, worried by the potential for Jacobite uprising the defences of the then deteriorating palace complex were further strengthened with an additional outer wall being constructed around sections of the perimeter.

Stirling Castle is intimately entwined with the history of Scotland and her monarchy, a significance which is recognized and presented throughout its numerous components with admirable vigour.  The Castle’s educational resources have been well crafted and touch upon the Castle’s history almost in its entirety while exploring its main focus, the renaissance inspired nucleus of the Castle with a remarkable level of detail.  The Palace apartments have been sumptuously restored and are resplendent with contemporary finery, particularly the Queen’s wing reflecting heavily the role played by Mary of Guise in Scotland’s continued independence following the ill timed death of her husband.  Such decorations include the famous Unicorn Hunt Tapestry as well as installed replicas of the intriguing  yet somewhat eerie Stirling Heads, the intricately carved and painted visages of numerous monarchs both classical and contemporary which stare down from their mosaic like mounts upon the ceiling.  These symbolism laden artworks were meant to function as a constant reminder to the Stuart monarch of the virtues they must cultivate.

For those purists like myself who believe the Castle should be a fundamentally medieval institution all is not lost. The lower level of the palace leads to amongst other things a detailed exhibit and suitably comprehensive time-line of the Wars of Independence.  The palace vaults include for those so  blessed or burdened, a number of rooms geared to learning through play for children which are suitably thematic as well as a wisely now lion free, historic lion pen.  The most impressive forum for further education on the Castle’s long, fascinating and even occasionally glorious history is the Castle Exhibit located in the Queen Anne garden which outlines the entirety of the Castle’s known history and expands upon the numerous instances and intricacies of the Castle’s royal affinity.

Stirling Castle’s location near the centre of Scotland well represents and indeed informs its central place in the Country’s history. I would urge any with the opportunity to visit Stirling Castle to do so. It is a beautiful site displaying a variety of architectural innovations both civilian and military and what’s more it presents historical information with a remarkable frequency and exhaustive depth. The Castle sinks into the history of Scotland much like its foundations do into its living rock. The turbulence of its past written into the side of the Castle through the scars of cannon, its ambition for the future in the grandeur of its palace complex.

Click here to visit the Stirling Castle website

You can follow the castle on Twitter @stirlingcastle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Caernarfon Castle



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