1561-1564: Mary’s homecoming

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  • This tract by John Knox (1558) ‘against the monstrous regiment of women’ was aimed against Europe’s Catholic female rulers.
    A tract by John Knox ‘against the monstrous regiment of women’, from the National Library of Scotland
  • Mary's outer chamber in the Palace of Holyroodhouse was where she received visitors.
    Mary's outer chamber in the Palace of Holyroodhouse © Royal Collection Trust
  • Stirling Castle is the work of Mary’s father James V and is one of the finest Renaissance buildings in the whole of Britain.
    Stirling Castle © Historic Scotland

Following the death of François, Mary returned to Scotland to take up her throne. Read about how she encountered the Protestant reformer John Knox, her impressive intellectual ability, courtly life in the 1560s and the recreational activities of these times.

Homecoming: 9 August 1561

Aged 18

Nine months after the death of François II, and still only the age that a girl might enter university today, Mary returned to Scotland to take up her throne. She landed in Leith, greeted by cannon fire and the cold haar. She was obliged to borrow horses for the journey to Palace of Holyroodhouse, which was to become her main residence for the next five years. She had little knowledge of the complex and dangerous political situation in Scotland, and as a devout Catholic was regarded with suspicion by many of her subjects, as well as by her cousin Elizabeth I of England.

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Cameo pendant © National Museums ScotlandMary’s apartment and bedchamber in the Palace of Holyrood House ©  Royal Collection Trust National Museum of Scotland See the late 16th century cameo pendant in gold, with enamels, chalcedony, diamonds and native cut ruby; Mary brought numerous cameos from France as gifts for friends and supporters. 

Palace of Holyroodhouse A steep spiral staircase of 25 steps leads to Mary’s apartments and bedchamber, the latter being a very private room which has since been referred to as ‘the most famous room in Scotland’.

Old head on young shoulders: 16 September 1561

Aged 18

Scotland’s young queen soon demonstrated her political acumen. Within five weeks she had shrewdly appointed a mainly Protestant privy council, and retained her illegitimate half-brother the Earl of Moray as her chief advisor. But when the Protestant reformer John Knox preached against her, for hearing mass, dancing and dressing too elaborately, she summoned him to her presence to remonstrate with him. Knox refused to bend to her will, and so began a personal discord that blighted Mary’s remaining years upon the throne.

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Palace of Holyroodhouse Visit her outer chamber where Mary Queen of Scots received visitors, and where on successive occasions that she confronted the antipathy of Protestant clergyman John Knox.

Renaissance Europe

The Renaissance era (15th – 17th centuries) in Britain is associated with the Elizabethan period, but Mary’s sophisticated French upbringing made her no stranger to the cultural movement that was sweeping across Europe from Italy. Indeed Mary arguably played her own significant role in this time of many advances, as one of a new breed of strong female rulers. She was multilingual and the intellectual equal of her male contemporaries; a woman who could ride and sport as well as she could embroider and sing; and in possession of an educated taste when it came to the finer things of life.

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A rare 16th century Bartholomew Newsum brass clock © National Museums ScotlandNational Museum of Scotland Here you'll find a rare 16th century Bartholomew Newsum brass clock represents the amalgamation of art and science fashionable during the Renaissance. 

National Library of Scotland A tract by John Knox (1558) ‘against the monstrous regiment of women’ which was aimed against Europe’s Catholic female rulers, claiming that the Bible opposed such an order. 

Stirling Castle Visit and see one of the first buildings in Scotland to be completed in the Renaissance style, much of it is now restored to its former glittering glory.

Courtly life: 1560s

Life for royalty in these times centred on the five royal residences: the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle, Linlithgow Palace, Falkland Palace and Stirling Castle. Important state functions took place in the Great Hall, where lavish banquets were held to celebrate christenings and weddings. Mary had her own apartments in each residence, while important visitors and advisors were accommodated in their own suite of rooms. Remarkably, the royal party generally travelled with its own beds, linen, tapestries and the like, and great wooden kists containing clothes and state papers. Recreation varied from ‘real’ (royal) tennis – at which Mary is said to have shocked her courtiers by playing in breeches –  and golf, thought to be the first woman to practice the art of golf in Scotland – to indoor pastimes like backgammon, song and dance.

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National Museum of Scotland A silver gilt and gold gaming board with tablemen and dice is said to have been presented by Mary to her close friend Mary Seton, who was one of the ‘four Marys’ who accompanied her to France.Gaming board © National Museums Scotland

Harp © National Museums ScotlandNational Museum of Scotland Made of wood and brass and dating from c.1450 this harp or clarsach originally had fixed to it a gold coin with a portrait of Mary. 

Falkland Palace This is the location of the oldest real (or Royal) tennis court in Britain, built for Mary’s father, James V of Scotland. 

Stirling Castle You'll find that the six main rooms of the Royal Lodgings are today presented as they may have looked in Mary’s time.