The Tudor Travel Guide

Your Visitor's Companion to the Aristocratic Houses of the Sixteenth Century

It is impossible to write a series of blogs about Mary, Queen of Scots without talking about Holyroodhouse, also known as The Palace of Holyrood. It was one of Mary’s most favoured residences. It was the place in which she spent her first night on Scottish soil after her return from France in 1561; the place in which she married Henry, Lord Darnley after a short and passionate romance in 1565. It also stood witness to one of the most traumatising events of Mary’s life, the murder of her friend and secretary, David Rizzio, in March of the following year.

Today, Holyroodhouse remains a royal palace, frequented by the current queen for one week each year. While the twenty-first-century palace sits on the site of the original, it has been greatly aggrandised and remodelled over the centuries. So what remains of the sixteenth-palace that can be explored by the twenty-first-century time traveller and how do we follow in the footsteps of what happened on that murderous March evening? This blog delves into the origins of Holyroodhouse and its sixteenth-century history, before reliving the events of the night in question through the words of Mary herself.

Note: This blog accompanies this month’s Tudor Travel Show podcast. If you wish to listen in, the link can be found at the end of this blog.

A Brief History of Holyroodhouse

Long before the current palace existed, outwith the city walls of Edinburgh, there stood an Augustinian Abbey, founded by the pious King David I in 1128. From the moment of its inception, there was a strong connection with royal patronage and the abbey was visited regularly. Initially, whenever the royal entourage visited the abbey, it is believed that they were housed in guest lodgings that were an integral part of the abbey’s monastic buildings.

An early colour drawing of Holyrood Abbey and Palace
An early view of Holyrood Abbey and Palace with Arthur’s Seat behind and Cannongate (the main street leading away from Holyrood)

Until the mid-fifteenth century, Edinburgh Castle, that imposing fortress sited at the top of the Royal Mile, had served as the main lodging for Scotland’s monarch in the city. However, development was restricted to the limited space on the summit of the craggy rock upon which it had been built. Not only that, but it was also, as one commentator stated, ‘wyndy and richt unpleasand’. Having visited the castle on a day blustery day plagued with squally showers, I can wholeheartedly appreciate that sentiment!

In contrast, Holyrood Abbey was sited a half a mile or so outside the city wall. It was away from the press and smell of the city and had been built on low lying land, sheltered by Arthur’s seat, (see the image above) and surrounded by pleasant gardens and orchards. The appeal of Holyrood drew Scotland’s monarchs to visit with increasing frequency. So much so that by the early fifteenth century, it appears that the king and queen were lodged in a (no doubt splendid) guest lodging, separate to the abbey on a semi-permanent or permanent basis.

John Dunbar’s Scottish Royal Palaces shows this building being sited between the western range of the abbey cloisters (on the usual south side of the abbey church) and the monastic, western, boundary wall. In fact, he postulates that is likely stood ‘close to the site now occupied by the great tower of James V (THE place associated with Mary, as we will hear about shortly).

A black and white drawing of the gatehouse at Holyroodhouse with the James V tower in thebackground.
The sixteenth century gatehouse leading in the BAse Court of Holyroodhouse. James VI\s Tower is seen in the background.

It was James IV, Mary’s grandfather, who spent a great deal of time at Holyrood. Consequently, he instigated a massive building campaign that turned the guest lodgings into what, henceforth, became known as ‘the king’s palace near the abbey of Holyrood’ from 1503 and then, by 1513, as ‘the palace of Edinburgh’. The date is significant. James was due to marry Margaret Tudor in the abbey church at Holyrood in August 1503. It seems that he was keen to have a building that was grand enough to house the reception of his young, English bride. However, work at Holyroodhouse did not begin until the autumn of 1502 and was completed more than a year after the wedding.

As so much of this early, sixteenth-century palace has been lost to later remodelling, the exact layout of the residence that Margaret Tudor would have inhabited is unknown. However, piecing together information from the building accounts gives us a fair idea of some of the key features of the palace floor-plan at the time. Essentially, James IV’s palace built out westwards from the western side of the abbey cloisters to form a quadrangle of buildings around a central courtyard.

At this point, the north range of Holyroodhouse likely contained the chapel royal, the west range the king’s lodgings and the south range the queen’s. This latter range fronted onto an outer courtyard, or base court, which was accessed by a gatehouse (shown in the image above). It has been postulated by Dunbar that it was from windows in this south range that the James IV and Margaret Tudor watched the jousting that had been arranged to celebrate their wedding. The aforementioned imprint of the building endures to this day. However, the interiors of Holyroodhouse have been significantly remodelled.

A drawing of Holyroodhouse from a  bird's eye view

From the outset, the royal apartments at Holyroodhouse appear to have been located at first-floor level. It is possible that alongside the original queen’s apartments built for Margaret when she first arrived in Scotland, a south tower, constructed in 1505, was constructed to provide additional accommodation overlooking a new south garden, which was laid out around this time. Works accounts from James V’s reign also speak of the building, or rebuilding of a queen’s gallery, a lion house, a chapel, the queen’s great chamber, kitchens and a great hall, which Dunbar suggests was once the refectory for the abbey in the south range of the cloisters. Either way states Dunbar, ‘it was large enough for the king to practice shooting in.’

James IV was, of course, killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. When his son, James V reach his majority in 1528, a huge campaign of the building was launched at ‘nearly all the principle royal castles and palaces’. In fact, James was and still is, known as the Renaissance Monarch on account of his efforts to extensively refurbish Scotland’s royal lodgings to reflect the most swanky renaissance fashions of the day. Holyroodhouse was no exception.

It was during this period that the large rectangular tower, which would later form the privy apartments of his daughter, Mary Stuart, was constructed, between 1528-1532. Initially, a second tower in the south-east corner was planned in a design which would create symmetry across the south-facing range. However, the tower was never built, possibly on account of James V premature death. It would be his great-great-grandson, Charles II who would complete the scheme, giving us the facade of the palace you see today. Luckily for us, a sketch of this range survives from this time from a survey of 1663 (see image below).

A black and white line drawing of the south range and the James V tower at Holyroodhouse.
A View of James V’s tower and south range.

Building accounts relating to the erection of a new ‘tour and new werk of Halyrudhous’ are fulsome. From these accounts, we know that the total cost of building the four-storey tower came to around £7000 – at least. A huge amount for the time. It’s design echoes that of renaissance palaces in France, with its ‘conical roofs capped with ornamental finials in the form of lions and miniature turrets, all brightly painted and gilded.’ It must have been quite a sight! Walls were lined with pine and decorated with carved panelling. Dunbar suggests that although remodelled, the ceilings on the second floor probably date from this time.

Interestingly, the original access to this tower was not as it is today. As a twenty-first-century visitor, you will find that the tower is fully integrated into the main building. However, according to Dunbar, the original arrangement was by way of a forestair (Def: ‘an external stone stair, usually to first-floor level’) in the east wall of the tower. The entrance was secured via a drawbridge and a yett (Def: a gate or grille of latticed wrought iron bars used for defensive purposes in castles and tower houses). It seems likely that this arrangement existed only until the building of the north gallery in the 1560s. There is also some evidence that the Tower was initially surrounded by a moat, at least on its north side.

Within the Tower, the royal apartments are divided into two chambers on the first floor and two on the second: an outer and an inner chamber on both floors. Initially, James V’s lodgings were on the first floor and the queen’s on the second, adjacent, on its east side, to the chapel royal. These apartments exist, largely unaltered to this day. When Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, she occupied the rooms in this tower and after her marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley, Mary’s privy apartments were located on the second floor with Darnley’s on the first. It was in these very rooms that Mary witnessed one of the most terrifying and horrific events of her life. Thanks to Mary’s own eye-witness accounts, the following makes for a thrilling read!

9 March 1566: Murder at Holyroodhouse

The following account is based on letters written by Mary, first to the Archbishop of Glasgow and secondly to the King and Queen of France. These letters are reproduced in ‘The Fall of Mary Stuart‘ by Frank Mumby. These documents, penned by the hand of the woman at the centre of the drama, give an invaluable and detailed insight into the shocking events that unfolded at Holyroodhouse on the evening of 9 March 1566, when Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered in cold blood, inside her privy lodgings.

Black and white drawing of David Rizzio.
David Rizzio

At about 7.00 pm, the queen was enjoying supper in her privy apartments on the second floor of the aforementioned tower. Mary was ‘in her cabinet, at our supper’. This small closet, measuring just 12ft by 12ft, is sited just off Mary’s Bedchamber, and at the time is noted to have contained a small bed and table around which sat Mary and her guests: her half-sister the Countess of Argyll; her half brother and the Commendator of Holyroodhouse, Lord Robert Stewart; the laird of Creich; Arthur Erskine ‘and certain others our domestic servitors‘. According to Mary, Darnley then entered and ‘placed himself beside us at our supper.’

In the meantime, unbeknownst to Mary, but later recounted in the letter, ‘The Earl of Morton and Lord Lindsay, with their assistors, armed in warlike manner, to the number of 18 persons, occupied the whole entry of our palace,’ thus believing that no-one could enter or leave undetected. The first Mary knew of the revolt was the entry of Patrick, Lord Ruthven, ‘armed in like manner, with his accomplices‘. He demanded to speak with Rizzio. Ruthven was a leading member of the Confederate Lords, a dangerous group of committed protestants, who were deeply unsettled by the presence of their Catholic Queen.

Mary demanded if Darnley knew of this intrusion, which he flatly denied. Of course, it would become clear that Darnley had been manipulated by the Confederate Lords to be involved in the plot by stirring up jealousy in the young lad that Rizzio was sharing more than just a platonic relationship with his wife. Mary’s husband had, in fact, allowed the Lords to gain entry to the queen’s apartments via the small vice stair with connected the first with the second floor of the tower.

Mary commanded Ruthven to leave, accusing him of treason in his persistence. It was at this point that ‘for safeguard‘, David took refuge behind Mary’s back. The 2nd Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell, who was English Governor of Berwick and occasionally acted as English Ambassador in Scotland at the time, also wrote a second-hand account of events nearly three weeks after Rizzio’s murder had taken place on 27 March. He adds in his letter to the English Privy Council that Ruthven said to Rizzio that ‘he should learn better his duty (meaning he had overstepped the mark of an acceptable relationship with the queen) and ‘offering to take him by the arm, David took the Queen by the ‘blyghts’ of her gown‘. Clearly, Rizzio sensed that this was not going to end well!

Picture of mary Queen of Scots 'cabinet' in Holyrood Palace.
Mary’s Cabinet, just off her bedchamber.

Meanwhile, Ruthven ‘cast down’ the table and ‘put violent hands on him, ‘struck him over our shoulder with hangers, one part of them standing before our face with bended daggs [cocked pistols]. Although Mary does not speak of the following, the Earl of Bedford states that Mary ‘would gladly have saved him, but the King, having loosed his hands and holding her arms’ caused the terrified David to be ‘thrust out of the cabinet through the bedchamber of presence‘. He goes onto say that initially Lords Morton and Lindsay, who were in the latter chamber, had planned to have him hanged the next day. However, it seems the adrenaline and testosterone-fuelled encounter drove one of the rebels to ‘thrust him into the body with a dagger‘. Others followed suit. Mary merely states that they took her secretary ‘out of our cabinet, and at the entry to our chamber gave him fifty-six strokes with whinyards [short sword] and swords‘.

Mary was left traumatised and in ‘extreme fear‘ for her life. Ruthven stalked back into her chamber hurling accusations that the Lords were ‘highly offended with [Mary’s] proceedings and tyranny,’ which they found intolerable and that they had ‘put [David] to death.’ He charged her with maintaining the ‘ancient religion [Catholicism], debarring the Lords who were fugitives and entertaining amity with foreign princes‘. The ‘fugitives’ I am taking to be those loyal to Mary, which she lists in her letter as managing to escape Holyroodhouse; two of them James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell and George Gordon, Earl of Huntley, did so by being lower our of a back window on ‘some cords‘.

However, the drama was not yet over! Hearing of the ‘tumult in our palace‘, the Provost of Edinburgh and the town came ‘in great numbers‘ pressing to see Mary and to find out if she was alright. However, Mary was not permitted ‘to give answer‘. The Lords were harrying her and threatened her. She reported that ‘if we desired to have spoken [to] them, they [the Lords] should cut us in collops, and cast us over the walls.’ This was treason in the extreme!

Mary Queen of Scots bedchamber at Holyroodhouse
Mary’s bedchamber with a view towards the door to her Presence Chamber, where Rizzio was dragged into, before being murdered.

A Daring Escape…

Mary was detained overnight in Holyroodhouse. In the morning, ‘our brother the Earl of Murray‘ assembled the rebel Lords and together it was agreed that Mary should be moved to Stirling Castle, there to ‘approve in Parliament all their wicked enterprises, establish their religion and give the king [Darnley] the Crown Matrimonial…or else…to put us to death, or to detain us in perpetual captivity.’ Poor Mary! Yet, somehow, amidst all this life and death drama, Mary managed to keep her head. She was not going to go without a fight and already had set a plan of escape in motion. That evening, (the day after the murder), she managed to speak to Darnley and persuade him that he was a puppet and had been duped by the Lords. She convinced him ‘how miserably he would be handled if he permitted the Lords to prevail. ‘ According to Mary’s own hand: ‘By this persuasion, he was induced to condescend to the purpose taken by us, and to retire in our company to Dunbar.’

In the interim, she ‘had resolved to liberate‘ herself and ‘had secretly communicated with Earls Bothwell and Huntley to devise some mode for doing so.’ This they duly did, and in a daring feat (which she would later replicate at Borthwick Castle), Mary and Darnley were lowered down from the ‘walls of our palace in a chair by ropes and other devices which they had prepared‘. Sadly, we do not know which window the pair escaped through, but Mary was free. Although heavily pregnant, she rode through the night to the safety of Dunbar Castle. One can only imagine the expletives that rang through the Queen’s Bed-chamber at Holyroodhouse when the Lords found out she was gone!

Today, you can visit the rooms in which all this drama played out; the closet, bed-chamber and chamber of presence all remain in situ, the latter containing a whole host of Mary, Stuart and other sixteenth-century treasures, not least, the Lennox Jewel which is mesmerisingly beautiful. The intimacy of these chambers holds the energy of the Scots Queen so that her presence, and the dark deeds of the Spring evening, are tangible beyond the veil of time. I lingered for the longest time, reflecting on this turning point in Mary’s life, for we might say that although Mary Stuart could not have known it, things were only going to get a whole lot worse from this point forth.

Picture of the Lennox Jewel
The Lennox Jewel

PODCAST: To listen to the podcast which accompanies this blog, follow this link.


Sources I have found useful in writing this blog:

Scottish Royal Palaces, by John G. Dunbar.

Holyrood Abbey: The Disappearance of a Monastery, by Dennis B Gallagher.

The Fall of Mary Stuart, by Frank Mumby.

For a fleeting period of time, in the autumn of 1566, those standing around the bed of Mary, Queen of Scots thought she was dead. Her near demise has often been blamed on an extraordinary 50-60 mile round-trip that Mary undertook, on horseback, from the town of Jedburgh to visit the badly wounded Earl of Bothwell at Hermitage Castle – a feat completed within the same day. Sadly, many accounts, which are easily accessible online, have reduced the story to its bare-bones. This is a shame, as the ‘full’ story, based on contemporary letters, reveals an all-together much more dramatic sequence of events.

When I set out to write this blog, all the online accounts that I read regurgitated the same story. The tale goes along these lines; Mary visited Jedburgh; while there, she heard the news that the Earl of Bothwell had been mortally wounded. The Scots Queen set out to ride to where he lay at his castle in the Borders, returning to Jedburgh the same day. It was a gruelling ride and soon after, she fell mortally ill and was thought to have died. Thanks to the intervention of her physician she eventually made a miraculous recovery.

Image of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots

My intention was to delve a little deeper into the likely cause behind Mary’s illness and highlight the importance of Jedburgh as a place to follow in the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots.

As an ex-medic myself, I am fascinated by attempts to unravel what lies behind various sixteenth-century accounts of illnesses that were little understood at the time. With my medical background, I could not help but be drawn in by a more detailed and riveting account of Mary’s illness, which I stumbled across in Mumby’s The Fall of Mary Stuart, published in 1921. This was the first account that I came across that recounted in greater depth the nature of the symptoms suffered by the Scots queen, drawing directly original sources. It describes the progression of the illness, as witnessed by those around the queen, which was recorded in various letters penned at the time. Interestingly, the publication of the book in 1921, stimulated correspondence in various medical journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, with medics taking their best guess at just exactly what did happen to Mary over those few days in the autumn of 1566.

As I continued to read, I was lead from one account to another; some primary and some secondary; from original letters to later historical accounts dating from the early nineteenth century, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. All these are listed at the end of the blog and as some of them are online, you can read them for yourself. While the essence of the story aligned across all sources, it did not take me long to find some conflicting accounts of exactly what took place in October 1566, including in the contemporary letters collated in the Calendar of State Papers for Scotland (CSP). This, I admit, has been confusing!

So, in the end, this blog will not only cover Jedburgh as an interesting location for anyone wanting to travel in the footsteps of Mary but will, I hope, provide a much more comprehensive account than is often found online of the Scots queen’s illness at Jedburgh when her life hung precariously in the balance. Along the way, I will try and highlight the discrepancies I have noted thus far and my differential diagnosis of Mary’s near-death encounter.

The Scots Queen Visits Jedburgh

Jedburgh is situated about 20 miles or so within the Scottish lowlands. Today it is in the county of Roxburghshire, about 40 miles south-east of Edinburgh. During her relatively short, six years living in Scotland as it’s reigning monarch, Mary travelled extensively throughout her kingdom. This was partly so that she could be seen by her people. However, another requirement of the monarch at the time was to fulfil a roll in administering justice throughout the realm. This the king or queen would do so in the ‘eyre courts’ (I have also seen it written as ‘ayre’ or ‘oyer’), which were held provincially throughout Scotland.

In 1566, when Mary was 23 years old, the Scots queen came to the town of Jedburgh for that very purpose. The Border area was lawless and had seen such a rise in crime that was thought to reflect a certain level of ‘contempt and disowning’ of Queen’s authority in her Realm. Thus, Mary decided to hold a justice court at Jedburgh ‘for the trial and punishment of all loose, disorderly, and traitorous persons’ (according to a proclamation made a Jedburgh). As James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell was Lord Lieutenant of the area, Keith’s History of the Affairs of Church and State in Scotland states that Mary dispatched him ahead of the royal court and council to prepare the way for the arrival of the queen.

Painting of James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell painted the year of his near-death experience!

The same account has Bothwell leaving Edinburgh in the afternoon of the 6 October. Mary rode out a couple of days later, reaching Jedburgh on the 8 October (Rethe Warnike’s account gives the 9th as the date). The following day, she met with her counsellors to set tariffs in the town. This was to prevent merchants from taking advantage of the higher demand brought about by the influx of courtiers to the town. Meanwhile, on 7 October (possibly 8th according to some accounts), Bothwell had been seriously wounded in a skirmish close to one of his properties: Hermitage Castle. This was located some 24 miles away, in Liddesdale, also in the Scottish Borders.

The Earl had been exerting his authority in the area on behalf of the queen. Along the way, he had encountered ‘John Eliot of the Park’, a notorious thief and murderer. The pair ended up in hand-to-hand combat; Bothwell shot Eliott in the thigh and the latter subsequently died but not before Bothwell was attacked with a ‘two-handed sword’ and was hurt ‘in divers parts of his body and head, that hardly he escaped with safety of his life’. The Earl was carried back to the castle. According to John Guy, there were initial reports that the Earl was dead. However, it soon became clear that he was alive, although some thought that he was likely to die on account of the injuries he sustained. There is a letter in the CSP for Scotland dated 14 October from Lord Scrope to William Cecil stating, ‘Has learned that although Bothwell was carried in a cart for dead yet is he recovered.—Carlisle.’ So far, so good.

It has often been reported that Mary rushed to his side upon hearing the news and that this was a sign that they had already developed a relationship. Of course, we know that, in time, Mary would come to marry the Earl after a rather questionable episode when the Scots Queen was abducted by Bothwell at Linlithgow Bridge as she was leaving her palace at Linlithgow. That is perhaps another story for another time!

Hermitage Castle
Hermitage Castle

Confusingly, a letter in the CSP for Scotland dated 15 October from Sir John Forster to Cecil says that ‘Bothwell came this day to Jedburgh in a litter.‘ And yet, on 17 October, Lord Scrope writes again to Cecil from Carlise that ‘The Queen of Scots on Tuesday the 15th instant, visited the Earl of Bothwell at the Hermitage.’ So, we have two different primary sources giving two completely opposite accounts of what happened on the same day – did Bothwell come to Jedburgh to see Mary, or was it the other way around? Neither of the two historians, whose bios of Mary I have read, mentioned the first letter and I am left wondering why? if you know, I would love to hear from you!

However, what does seem to be true is that contrary to some accounts you may read, Mary did not drop everything and go to Bothwell’s bedside. If she did indeed travel to Hermitage Castle (and let’s assume that is the version of events), she waited for the court business to be concluded before riding out from Jedburgh on the 15 October, accompanied by some of her council, including the Earl of Moray. Keith, Warnicke and John Guy’s all conclude that Mary’s business was primarily State business and not personal. Although, her visit was clearly a mark of deep personal respect for one of her councillors, who had been severely injured during the course of carrying out his faithful duty to the monarch.

Mary’s near 60-mile roundtrip to Hermitage Castle was quite some feat of personal endurance: although certainly not impossible if the weather was fair. Nobody knows quite why Mary undertook such an exhausting ride, staying for only 2 hours at the Hermitage, according to Tytler’s History of Scotland. It is possible that there was not enough room to lodge a royal court at Hermitage Castle and so she felt compelled to return to Jedburgh. It is also possible that with Hermitage Castle being only some 10 miles from the English border, she felt unsafe to remain there, as the land was always subject to incursions from the English, making the Scottish queen vulnerable to attack. 

A Mysterious Illness Strikes…

Although Mary was still a young woman in her prime, from an early age she seems to have had a delicate constitution. Furthermore, we should remember that 1566 was the most traumatic and eventful year yet for the Scots queen. She had witnessed the horrific murder of her secretary, David Rizzio in March, had fled fearing for her life to ultimately take refuge, then give birth to her son, at Edinburgh Castle in June. All the while, Darnley had been a persistent thorn in her side and their earlier, intense romance of mid-1565 had disintegrated into squabbles, arguments, threats and recriminations. Although she had rested following the birth of her son through June and July, Mary must have been exhausted from the relentless stress and pressure arising from the events of the previous few months.

Black and white drawing of William Maitland
William Maitland: one of Mary’s councillors who witnessed her illness and whose letters survive to tell the tale.

On this occasion, the extraordinarily long ride to Hermitage Castle took its toll. For shortly after arriving back at Jedburgh, Mary fell dangerously ill. To try to unravel just what happened, we can now turn to various accounts, which go into some detail regarding the events as they unfolded over several days. Contemporary sources come largely from letters sent from those who were apparently physically close to Mary at the time, including William Maitland, Bishop Lesley and the new French Ambassador, Philibert Du Croc. Once again, although the essence of all the accounts tells the same story, the details and sequence are a little more tricky to put together…

According to Warnicke, by 17 October, Mary was suffering from severe left-sided abdominal pain. Her physician diagnosed a disorder of the spleen. She then vomited 50-60 times. Keith states that at first she ‘swooned away and lay as dead for the space of two hours‘. Then, the ‘fever became so violent as to deprive her of the use of her senses‘. Clearly, Mary rallied and a letter from the aforementioned French ambassador says that: ‘We begin to have more hope of the Queen, for the present, the doctors have no fears. She has vomitings after what she takes, which are a little troublesome‘.

Whatever was afflicting the queen seemed to wax and wane in severity over several days. One minute, Mary seems to have been on death’s door, the next the worst seems to have passed and everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. However, Mary certainly feared for her life. She ‘desired the Lords present to pray for her, and behaved herself with much piety and wisdom during all the course of her illness, and her Majesty was pleased to recommend her son to the guardianship of the Queen of England‘. Prayers were said for her in the churches of Edinburgh.

Mary Queen of Scots house at Jedburgh
Mary, Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh

On 24 October, William Maitland, one of Mary’s Councillors, who was at Jedburgh, wrote to Cecil that, ‘The Queen of Scots has been so sick that her life was in danger.’ Du Croc reports on the same day that Darnley ‘has not come to this place, although he has both received advertisement, and has had time enough to come had he been willing. This is such a fault as I know not how to apologize for it‘. He also reports that Mary’s ‘whole body became so cold that those present thought she was dead. The Earl of Murray began to lay hands on the most precious articles, such as her silver plate and rings.’ Mary must have been in this moribund state for time enough that, ‘mourning dresses were ordered and arrangements made for the funeral.’ It seems, therefore, that Mary was in a coma, a deeply reduced state of consciousness, with no obvious signs of life. Despite this, at some point, ‘Gradually the Queen regained consciousness.’ Once more though, this was not the end of Mary’s ordeal.

A second letter, written a few days later, this time from one of Mary’s most steadfast supporters, Bishop Lesley, to Archbishop Beaton, describes how Mary became ill again within a few days and that the Queen began, ‘swooning again and failed in her sight. Her feet and knees were cold. Her Majesty got some relief until about six hours in the morning on Friday when Her Majesty became dead, and all her members cold, eyes closed, mouth fast, and feet and arms stiff and cold.’ This could suggest cardiovascular collapse, in other words, an extreme drop in blood pressure, which was so severe as to render no real signs of life. Nevertheless, ‘Master Nau [Mary’s physician], who is a perfect man of his craft, would not give the matter over in that manner, but anew began to draw her knees, legs, arms and feet and the rest, with such vehement torments, which lasted the space of three hours, until Her Majesty recovered her sight and speech, and got a great sweating, which was held as a relief of the sickness.’

Without the availability of any modern cardiovascular support, such as a transfusion, Mary’s physician’s efforts were heroic – and nothing short of genius! Interestingly, he also poured wine down her throat (which might well have choked her if she had been unconscious at the time). Nevertheless, he seems to have gotten away with that. Instead, it was reported that the Queen then vomited a large amount of blood (‘old’ blood, according to John Guy), before beginning to regain consciousness and slowly coming back to health. On 26 October, Maitland writes again to Cecil that ‘Upon a new accident which fell to the Queen yesterday morning, for half an hour they were all desperate of her life, but now they perceive evident signs of convalescence.’

Mary Queen of Scots house at Jedburgh
Mary, Queen of Scots House from the rear

Mary was on her way back to health. But what was the cause of her illness? There seem to be two leading hypotheses. All the sources I looked at raised the possibility of a ruptured gastric ulcer, brought on by excessive stress. Haemorrhage into the stomach could have accounted for the acute onset of symptoms, blood in the stomach and cardiovascular collapse resulting in unconsciousness. The other possibility is porphyria, a genetically linked enzyme deficiency affecting the liver. While John Guy dismisses this possibility out of hand, I am not so sure and don’t understand the basis of his outright rejection of this possibility. The symptom profile fits well. Warnicke also highlights that clinical observations of Mary’s son, James, while King of England and Scotland displayed similar symptoms. Furthermore, two later Hanoverian Kings of England ‘tested positive for the disorder’. Both were also direct descendants of Mary. I have not investigated this but if you wish to read Warnicke’s account, you can grab yourself a copy of the book (detailed below).

Mary, Queen of Scots House at Jedburgh

But where exactly did all this happen? Legend has it that this traumatic incident unfolded in a tower house at Jedburgh, which today is known as Queen Mary‘s house. There is some controversy as to whether the current house, which stands in well-tended, pretty gardens, is the original building in which Mary lay gravely ill. Some historians have argued that the house was built during the reign of her son James VI of Scotland. Therefore, the events could not have unfolded in the building that you can see today if you visit. However, it is not the original house, it certainly stands in the same position. 

There seems to be another distinct possibility. At the time, whatever building was on the site, it was certainly owned by the Kerr family. They also owned nearby Fernlie Castle and there is some suggestion that Mary may have been cared for there during her short illness. 

Mary Queen of Scots house at Jedburgh through flowers in the garden
The Tower house today sits among pretty gardens

Today, this three-story tower house has been converted to a museum in honour of the Scots Queen. And so it is possible to gain access to those upper rooms in which, for a fleeting period of time, Mary’s life hung in the balance. Mary herself must have hoped that her annus horribilis was over. She could not have envisioned that if 1566 was a traumatic year, the following, 1567, would be infinitely worse. Mary would lose her crown, be imprisoned, miscarry of twins and flee for sanctuary to England. At the end of that long road, while awaiting execution at Fotheringhay, she herself lamented, ‘would that I had died at Jedburgh’. It was a close-run thing…but cruel fate had not finished with the scots Queen.

Visitor Information

I was lucky enough to visit during my recent trip to Scotland, following in the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots. The tower house is sited close to the main high street, amidst pretty gardens, which are well cared for and in the summer months, full of flowers. There are a couple of car parks in walking distance, including Jedburgh Car Park that sits on the outskirts of the town beneath the town’s impressive abbey ruins, or another off the A68, near Jedburgh Tourist Information Centre. Jedburgh is a relatively small town, so unless you have mobility issues, either car park is within a 5-10 minute walk of the tower house, which today is called the ‘Mary, Queen of Scots Visitor Centre’.

You are unlikely to miss the impressive ruins of Jedburgh Abbey, the most obvious and impressive historic building related to the town. Under normal circumstances, you can explore the ruins for yourself. for a link to the visitor information website click here. It was attacked and burnt twice by invading English forces but its ultimate demise came in 1559 when it was suppressed as part of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.


History of the Affairs of Church and State in Scotland, from the beginning of the Reformation to the year 1568. Vol 2, p. 462, by The Right Rev. Robert Keith. 1845.

Calendar of State Papers for Scotland

My Heart is my Own, by John Guy. 2004.

Mary Queen of Scots, by Rethe Warnicke. 2006.

History of Scotland, Vol 7, by Patrick Fraser Tytler

This month, The Tudor Travel Show podcast celebrates the life of Mary Queen of Scots. We will be delving into some of the most iconic places in which she lived during her time in Scotland. Of course, the tale is one of two halves. Mary’s first stint in Scotland covers her early childhood. In the podcast, we will be focusing on two locations that relate to this time, Linlithgow Palace, the place of her birth, and Stirling Castle, which, for all intents and purposes can be considered to be Mary’s childhood home. It was from Stirling that Mary was taken by her mother to Inchmahome Priory to escape England’s ‘rough wooing’ of the infant queen, and it is this location that we shall cover in today’s blog.

While Mary only remained at the priory for a fleeting three week period during the autumn of 1547, it is such a romantic spot to visit that it is worthy of being included on any time traveller’s itinerary.

Mary Queen of Scots by Francois Clouet. Painted shortly after her arrival in France and much as she would have looked during her brief time at Inchmanhome Priory

Note: In writing this blog, I am deeply indebted to Catherine Vost, historian, who has had a life-long interest in Inchmahome Priory and has studied the site extensively. Catherine generously gave of her time in speaking with me and sharing some of her notes about the location; the output of which is woven into the writing below.

A Brief History of Inchmahome Priory

Inchmahome Priory is located on an island in the Lake of Menteith, close to Aberfoyle. It terms of our story, its geography is highly relevant. Sited some 15 miles to the west of Stirling Castle, its remote location, deep into the heart of Scotland, made it an ideal refuge for Mary’s mother, Marie de Guise, to bring little Mary at a time when the English were pressing for the young queen’s hand in marriage. As mentioned above, this is now known infamously as the ‘rough wooing’ of the Queen of Scots. More on those events shortly…

Inchmahome Priory from the air

According to Catherine Vost, the medieval priory that was founded in 1238 by Walter Comyn, 4th Earl of Menteith, ‘was probably predated by an earlier Christian monastery’. Given its isolated and dreamy location, it is easy to see why it had become established as a place of spiritual reflection and worship. Indeed the name itself comes from the Gaelic Innis MoCholmaig, meaning Island of St Colmaig; it was also known as The Isle of Rest. Thus, it would remain so for the next 400 years; a peaceful idyll and home to an order of Augustinian Black Canons, their patrons, benefactors, parishioners and visitors.

However, with the decline of Catholicism in the sixteenth century, monastic life slowly, but surely, began to ebb away. The heads of religious foundations subsequently became appointees of local landowners. In 1547, John, Lord Erskine, later the Earl of Mar, was appointed as such. He also happened to be Mary’s guardian as Regent of Scotland. It was on account of these connections that Mary was brought to Inchmahome when her safety was threatened by English incursions across the border.

By the mid-1500s, shortly after Mary’s departure for France, the Protestant Reformation in Scotland finally brought monastic life to a close. According to Catherine, ‘the land was leased to a lay family, after which it became, to all intents and purposes, the heritable property of the Erskines’.

Mary’s Flight to Inchmahome Priory

The events which culminated in Mary’s flight to Inchmahome began some four years earlier, shortly after the birth of the Scots queen in December 1542. Reeling from the crushing defeat by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss, when much of the cream of Scotland’s nobility perished, the Scots acquiesced to Henry VIII petition for the betrothal of little Mary to Henry’s five-year-old son, Edward.

It would have been a powerful dynastic union, replicating the one Henry VII had successfully arranged between his daughter and Mary’s grandfather, James IV. The Treat of Greenwich, which sought to bind the youngsters together, was signed on 1 July 1543. Mary was not yet one-year-old. Although some Scottish nobles favoured the union, others, including Mary’s mother, preferred an alliance with France and the Papacy. As a result, a good deal of prevarication ensued. This ultimately ended with the Scottish Parliament rejecting the agreement in December of the same year.

Prince Edward as a baby.

Furious at the deceit, Henry VIII began what would turn out to be an eight-year campaign against the Scots. It is this campaign that became known as the ‘rough wooing’, and although Henry himself died in January 1547, Lord Protector Somerset continued to press the Scots for their adherence to the treaty. This eventually culminated in the catastrophic slaughter of the Scots army at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (at Musselborough, just outside Edinburgh) on 10 September 1547.

To understand the scale of the defeat, and why Mary’s mother subsequently decided to take flight, we might pause for a moment and consider this horrific eyewitness account:

Soon after this notable strewing of their footmen’s weapons, began a pitiful sight of the dead corpses lying dispersed abroad, some their legs off, some but houghed, and left lying half-dead, some thrust quite through the body, others the arms cut off, diverse their necks half asunder, many their heads cloven, of sundry the brains pasht out, some others again their heads quite off, with other many kinds of killing. After that and further in chase, all for the most part killed either in the head or in the neck, for our horsemen could not well reach the lower with their swords. And thus with blood and slaughter of the enemy, this chase was continued five miles [eight kilometres] in length westward from the place of their standing, which was in the fallow fields of Inveresk until Edinburgh Park and well nigh to the gates of the town itself and unto Leith, and in breadth nigh 4 miles [6 kilometres], from the Firth sands up toward Dalkeith southward.

In all which space, the dead bodies lay as thick as a man may note cattle grazing in a full replenished pasture. The river ran all red with blood, so that in the same chase were counted, as well by some of our men that somewhat diligently did mark it as by some of them taken prisoners, that very much did lament it, to have been slain about 14 thousand. In all this compass of ground what with weapons, arms, hands, legs, heads, blood and dead bodies, their flight might have been easily tracked to every of their three refuges. And for the smallness of our number and the shortness of the time (which was scant five hours, from one to well nigh six) the mortality was so great, as it was thought, the like aforetime not to have been seen.’

A contemporary sketch of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Marie de Guise was at Stirling Castle when she received the news of the defeat, possibly in her Presence Chamber, which you can still visit today in all its sixteenth-century glory. She was deeply afraid for the safety of her daughter and the possibility that she might be captured by English forces. After all, the English army had reached Edinburgh, only 30 miles or so miles away from Stirling. As a result, it is said that under cover of darkness, little Mary was whisked away from the castle with her mother alongside her. They were headed westwards to Inchmahome Priory.

According to Catherine Vost, ‘Inchmahome was a natural choice, not only because it was an island sanctuary but also because it’s Commendator, Robert, Master of Erskine, was the son of Mary’s guardian, Lord John Erskine’.  Unfortunately for Robert, he had been among the many Scots to die at the battle of Pinkie, but his family connections with the monarchy made Inchmahome the perfect place to retreat to – some 85 miles from the battle site itself.

Life at the Priory

The secluded ruins of Inchmahome still speak of the small scale and intimacy of life at the priory. As might be expected, the little cluster of buildings comprised the main priory church, with its great processional west door at one end and the grand east window at the other. This, of course, once lit the high altar. It can still be admired today.

The processional west door of the priory church

Cloisters lay to the south, around which conventual buildings were located. Those sited in the east are the most complete and include buildings such as the chapter house (which also still stands and has quite recently been reroofed). According to Historic Environment Scotland, the prior’s lodgings were probably located in the cloister’s west range, at first-floor level, possibly above the cellarer’s stores. However, in a paper on the monasteries of Scotland by Marilyn Guest, she states that ‘The prior’s lodging was over the northern part of the range with the guest house over the southern cellars occupying the part of the range not occupied by the cloister walk’. So, there seems to be disagreement as to the layout of the claustral buildings!

Although nobody knows exactly where Mary and her mother lodged during their three-week stay at Inchmahome Priory, protocol would dictate that the royal party were housed in the most high-status chambers available; in this case the prior’s chambers on the west side of the cloister. There Mary lived amongst the monks of the priory, far away from the chaos of the battlefield and its bloody, bitter aftermath.

According to legend, it was while staying at Inchmahome Priory that the four-year-old queen began her studies, learning her first Latin, Greek, and Italian while on the island. It is also said that in addition to her formal education, Mary began to learn how to embroider (something that would pass many a long hour later, during her interminable imprisonment in England) and tend the gardens of the priory. As Catherine states, ‘It is a testament to her legendary status that various features on the island still bear her name’; these include Queen Mary’s Bower and Queen Mary’s Garden, situated on the southern part of the island. However, they are not thought to be associated directly with her, rather named in honour of a brief moment of time in the already turbulent life of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Inside the cloister with Chapter House on the right and the Priory Church on the left.

Leaving Inchmahome Priory

So what happened to Mary after she left Inchmahome? Well, the court returned to Stirling Castle, where Mary would spend one final Christmas with her month in Scotland. Then in February 1548, the little Queen of Scots travelled to Dumbarton Castle to await transport to France and her destiny as its new dauphine.

Five months later, in July, the Scottish Parliament agreed to her betrothal to Francois, the Dauphin of France. Finally, after adverse winds had delayed departure, the five-year-old Mary and her companions, the ‘Four Maries’, set sail for France. Another chapter in the eventful life of Mary, Queen of Scots, was about to be written.

Dumbarton Rock and Castle by Thomas Girtin

Visting Inchmahome

Read any account of visiting Inchamhome Priory and you will be struck by the effusive accounts of the natural beauty of the area. Unfortunately, time was against me during my recent visit to Scotland, but this location is firmly on my agenda for my next visit. If you want to soak in the tranquillity and spectacular scenery of this place, then check out the website for Historic Environment Scotland, who own and manage the site.

Under normal circumstances, the priory is accessible between March – October. A 12 person boat shuttles visitors back and forth to the island from the Port of Menteith on the B8034, just off the A81. However, on account of COVID-19, just like another incredible romantic site associated with Mary’s story, Loch Leven, Inchamhome will remain closed until Spring 2021.

As summer here in England begins to draw to an end, we have one final chance to savour one of its fleshy delights: the plum. In this month’s Great Tudor Bake Off, Brigitte Webster, from takes us through the Tudor history of the plum and shows us how to bake a Tudor plum tart. If you want to see a demo of how to make one, then be sure to read to the end and follow the YouTube link! It’s over to Brigitte…

A Short History of Tudor Plums

Last month, I thought I was going to do Tudor salads for August. However, all my salad herbs have died during the last few, extremely hot and dry weeks and so, keeping it still authentic and seasonal, we are going to spotlight plums today and how to use them to bake a Tudor plum tart.

Too much rain, or too little, would have been a very familiar problem for people in the sixteenth-century, but when one crop failed, another one was used in its place.

A bowl of different varieties of plums

The earliest known data of plums locates them in China, circa 470 BC. The European plum (Prunus domestica) is believed to have been discovered around two thousand years ago in Eastern Europe, or the Caucasus Mountains, near the Caspian Sea. Others say that the plum was carried to Western Europe by the Duke of Anjou as he returned from Jerusalem at the close of the 5th Crusade (1198-1204). Either way, we know that in ancient Rome, already 300 varieties were mentioned.

Plums were one of the first fruits to be domesticated by humans. Wild plums flourished in hedgerows throughout the Old World. The domestic plum that we eat today is descended from numerous sources. The plum is closely related to the apricot, peach, cherry and even the almond.

The name “plum” is derived from Old English “plume”. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the MS Ashmole 1504 contains a picture of a plum tree dating to the early 1500s.

A sixteenth-century image of a plum tree
Image of a plum tree – 1504

In 1548 William Turner has to say this about the plum in his “ The names of Herbes” : “Prunus is called in greeke Coccimelea, in English a plum tree, in duche ein pslaumen baume, in frenche Vun prunier. Prunus syluestris is called in English a slo tree, or a sle tree”

The plum, and its sister the ‘gage’, appear in a wide range of colours from dark purple, red, green or golden and are sweet and juicy. Traditionally they have been eaten fresh. Dried damson plums are often referred to as “prunes”.

Sixteenth-century text
Text by William Turner

The French elevated the status of the plum in the sixteenth-century by establishing trade with England for two of their own varieties: the damask prune, a sweet kind that was dried and sold at the grocers.

Plums were also eaten by the sailors on the Mary Rose, which sank in July 1545. About 100 plum stones were recovered from the shipwreck.

Plums make occasional appearances in upper-class cookery books of the sixteenth-century in form of fruit mousses, tarts and pies.

A bowl of plum stones found on the Mary Rose
Stones from Plums found in the wreck of the Mary Rose. Image courtesy of the Mary Rose Museum

To English physicians, the plum was a cold and moist fruit that hindered digestion. They tended to recommend the plum as a laxative. Italian food writer Giacomo Castelvetro, however, tells us that they are healthy to eat – better fresh than dried – and advises that they are better eaten during meals, not afterwards, as the English do. His earlier countryman Platina (1463-65) states that the use of plums before a meal, if it is moderate, moves the bowels, tempers the bile and offers pleasure to the thirsty. He also recommends to pickle and store them in honey, making sure they don’t touch each other.

The Elizabethan herbalist, John Gerard, was proud to have over 60 different plum verities, some very rare, in his London garden. In his 1597/1633 ‘Herbal’, he mentions that the wild plum grows in most hedges. He, like his fellow contemporaries, confirms that they ‘moisten and cool’ but ‘yield unto the body very little nourishment and the same nothing good at all’. Gerard bemoans that they rot very quickly and that the plum’s juice putrefies in the body. He prefers the dried variety and believes the prunes to be more healthy.

Serious cultivation of plum varieties did not start until the seventeenth-century – John Tradescant being one of the first to actively do so.

A sixteenth-century image of red plums growing on a branch.
John Tradescant – red plums

The ‘damson’ is a subspecies of the plum and thought to have reached Europe from Damascus in Syria in pre-Christian times. It was introduced to England by the Romans. Damson stones have been found in York dating to the late Anglo-Saxon period.

Damsons are smaller, ovoid in shape, and generally less sweet than plums. They are also much hardier and generally used for cooking. These trees were used in orchards to protect less hardy ones and historically, they were the only plum planted commercially north of Norfolk. The majority of damsons are dark blue to purple in colour, but there are some now very rare forms (mentioned in 1620s sources),of white damson with green or yellow-green skin.

Damsons were a popular gift from the people of the home-counties for their king/queen. They were gathered in the wild and delivered to the royal palaces.

A sixteenth-century image of a damson tree
Damson woodcut J Gerard

Shakespeare refers to damson prunes in at least 4 plays. In Henry IV, act III, sc 3, Falstaff says, ‘There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune’. Prunes are sometimes associated with brothels, declined in popularity in the sixteenth-century in favour of raisins.

Types of Plums Used in Tudor Cooking

The Mirabelle or cherry plum is a cultivar group of the plum and is identified by its small, oval shape and its red or dark yellow colour.

The Bullace is another variety of the plum and often referred to as the wild plum, small and round in shape. Bullaces can be blue, purple, red, yellow or green in colour and ripen up to six weeks later in the year (October-November). It is possible, that the bullace is genuinely native to Great Britain. In Tudor England, the bullace was cultivated and familiar to many gardens but they gradually fell out of favour as larger and sweeter types emerged. The black bullace is the common wild one found in the woods, the white bullace has small yellowish fruit with greenish flesh. A very old one by the name of ‘cricksies’ probably originating in Anglo-Saxon ‘creke’ was grown in large quantities in Norfolk in the nineteenth-century. Bullaces are generally only used for fruit preserves.

The tart bullace was an import from France known as the ‘pruneola’; dried and stones removed, it was packed in little wooden boxes and sold as banqueting treats.

Another cousin of the plum is the Sloe, the fruit of the blackthorn which we will look at later in the year.

To Make a Tudor Plum Tart…

The ingredients for a Tudor Plum Tart

‘Put your prunes into a pot and put red wine or claret wine, and a little fair water. Stir them now and then, and they be boiled enough, put them into a bowl. Strain them with sugar, cinnamon and ginger.’

Modern interpretation :

To make a Tudor plum tart, first cook your washed & de-stoned plums in the red wine ( with a small amount of extra water if you are using dried prunes) until soft.  Strain mixture through a colander or use food blender for a smoother texture. Add the very fine sugar and cinnamon & ginger to your taste.

Serve it hot or cold as a fruit mousse or as a toast topper.

The Tudors were rather suspicious of eating raw fruit and the plum with its “cold & moist” properties needed hot & dry spices (cinnamon & ginger and sugar) to balance that. The fact, that the plum was cooked would also have helped, in their mind, to make this dish healthy.

This recipe does not clarify HOW to use this fruit filling in a tart. You could either make a blind-baked shortcrust pie (similar recipes using fruit paste in this way appear in the same cookery book) or use a ready-made one. Another possibility, following Bartolomeo Scappi’s instructions (1570) is, to serve it on a ‘sop’ which is a kind of toasted, sliced white bread. This is the variety I have gone for and provides a lovely healthy breakfast!

A picture of Tudor Plum Tart  on a pedestal platter in a garden with fresh plums around the base

Ingredients to make a Tudor Plum Tart : (circa 4 people)

Circa 170-200g plums/damsons or prunes

Stick of cinnamon (or ground)

1 cup of red wine

2-4 tbsp sugar

circa 2tbsp fresh chopped ginger (frozen or less if ground)


Slice of white bread, toasted or fried in olive oil


Short crust pie – made yourself or bought.

Watch Brigitte Make a Tudor Plum Tart…

To watch Brigitte make this recipe in her kitchen at the Old Hall in Norfolk, click on the image below:

A YouTube thumbnail for Tudor Plum Tart Recipe

About Brigitte…

Each month, our Tudor recipe is contributed by Brigitte Webster. Brigitte runs the ‘Tudor and 17th Century Experience‘. She turned her passion for early English history into a business and opened a living history guesthouse, where people step back in time and totally immerse themselves in Tudor history by sleeping in Tudor beds, eating and drinking authentic, Tudor recipes. She also provides her guests with Tudor entertainment. She loves re-creating Tudor food and gardens and researching Tudor furniture.

Sources & further reading:

Food in Modern England, by Joan Thirsk

Food in medieval times, by Melitta Weiss Adamson

Food in Early Modern Europe, by Ken Albala

The fruit, herbs & Vegetables of Italy – Giacomo Castelvetro (1614)

On Right Pleasure and Good Health – Platina (translated by Mary Ella Milham)

Botanical Shakespeare, by Gerit Quealy

The names of Herbes, by William Turner 1548

The Generall Historie of Plantes, John Gerard, 1597/1633

Flowers and Trees of Tudor England, by Clare Purnam

Categories: Cook

What are your favourite Tudor locations associated with Anne Boleyn? Where do you dream of visiting? Hever Castle? Well, of course! Hampton Court? Without a doubt! But what about some of the less often visited places? Well, in today’s blog, I wanted to share some of my favourite Anne Boleyn locations. This piece that was originally written by Natalie Gruneninger and me back in 2013, when we first launched In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn. But you won’t just be hearing from me, you’ll be hearing from Natalie too…so, where do you think we will choose – and have you been there too? Let’s find out!

Sarah’s Favourites…

I am sure that Natalie will agree with me when I say that choosing a favourite location is almost impossible, akin to choosing a favourite child. The best writing creates a deep emotional bond between subject and author, particularly true with a book like In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, where we personally visited almost all of the locations, each beguiling with its own unique brand of enigmatic charm. I want to tell you about all of them, and how each captured my heart, but if I have to choose, then I would choose those locations based in France, covered extensively in the Early Years section.

Image of the Chateau D'Amboise one of the best Anne Boleyn locations in France
Chateau D’Amboise

 As you will have already read in an earlier post, our methodology for researching and writing was to divide up the task equally and allocate locations according to interests and inclinations. I have a long-standing love affair with France and the French language, which I speak with enough competence to make conversation and to translate moderately challenging texts. This would prove invaluable for research, both when visiting locations and deciphering the plethora of French books I brought back with me about places like Calais, Paris and the sumptuous châteaux of the Loire.

It was a daunting task to begin with. I think that is why this section of the book has proved most rewarding for me. On account of the linguistic challenges, and the fact that relatively little has been written about this early part of Anne’s life, there seemed so much more of the puzzle to unravel. It was the most exciting of adventures. I was intrigued to finally see for myself those locations associated with the most formative years of Anne’s life, which when mentioned, tend to be in passing, by name alone – Amboise, Blois and Paris – with little or no detail to satisfy one’s curiosity.

To uncover the largely lost medieval capital of France was to see the city afresh. Suddenly, I too was walking through the pestilent streets, turning corners to be met by the towering edifices of the great palaces of the Hotel St Paul (Pol) and the Palais des Tournelles, gliding down La Seine in the shadow of the mighty Notre Dame, or the crumbling, medieval palace of La Louvre. As I researched Francis I, his queen, Claude, and the French court, I began to understand just how well Anne must have known Paris, arguably the cultural centre of taste, fashion and learning; how far she must have travelled with the highly itinerant French court, and perhaps most importantly how and why she became the woman that eventually enraptured the King of England.

Anne Boleyn locations: Postcard image of the Chateau de Chaumont
Chateau de Chaumont – The Loire, France

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Loire. The first location I visited there was the Château d’Amboise. I will never forget emerging onto the plateau that once formed part of the extensive complex of palace buildings and seeing the pitched leaden roof of the château against a pristine sky, swallows swooping down from their nests, tucked against the string course, or wandering through Le Grand Salle, all the windows open, with far-reaching views down La Loire; the sweet fragrance of the late summer breeze evoking the senses.

It felt as if Anne’s laughter were everywhere. I understood how carefree such times must have remained in her memory. The chambers I walked through were filled with ghosts, giants of Francis’s renaissance court; women who were the power behind the throne; Louise of Savoy and the future Margaret of Navarre; humanists, reformists and writers who etched out with their pen the ideas that would shape Anne’s own beliefs, and, of course, visionaries like Leonardo da Vinci and Francis himself – all strong, indomitable characters wielding the might of intellect and the sword to carve out the nation’s destiny.

Anne could not have been exposed to more fertile ground, and afresh, I saw her body and mind blossom before my very eyes. All over again, I found myself falling in love with her, feeling her vivacity and appetite for life, all her hopes and dreams intact. I left knowing that in some small way France would always be etched into her heart.

Natalie’s Favourites…

I completely agree with Sarah, choosing a favourite location is a near-impossible task! As I sit down to try and write this post, there are images of so many Anne Boleyn locations that I love going through my head, including the large well-known ones like Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, the obvious ‘Anne Boleyn’ gems like Hever Castle and Hampton Court Palace, the lesser-known treasures like Little Sodbury Manor and Langley, romantic ruins like Wolvesey Palace and the once great monastic houses of Reading, Abingdon and Tewkesbury.

Little Sodbury Manor
Little Sodbury Manor

While I can certainly not select a favourite … I can share with you a few places that are permanently etched on my heart. But before I do, I’d like to tell you a little bit about what all these locations have in common, beginning with the fact that they are tremendously beautiful and atmospheric, and have what Sarah and I have dubbed a strong ‘Anne vibe’. They’re places where the air is heavy with history, where the walls whisper tales of bygone days, where, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the bustle of servants and politicking of courtiers.

They are locations where Anne’s presence is strong, where the very ground evokes distant memories of her, resplendent in rich velvets and fine silks, walking in the gardens with her ladies or entertaining the king with a sweet song on the lute. They all have a sense of timelessness, a feeling that the present no longer matters, that you are one with the past. 

These Tudor time capsules include Acton Court in South Gloucestershire, one of the most beautifully preserved Tudor houses that I have ever seen. From the moment you step foot on the grounds, you know you have arrived somewhere very special.

Visitors today are greeted by an L-shaped house; partly built in 1535 by Nicholas Poyntz in anticipation of a royal visit. Poyntz, eager to impress Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, spent nine months and a great deal of money adding a magnificent new east wing to the existing moated house, which he decorated in the latest Renaissance fashion.

You can still walk through the state apartments built for the royal couple and see a spectacular survivor of Poyntz’s Renaissance decoration; a beautiful frieze on the south wall of the first-floor central room, probably designed by Hans Holbein and undoubtedly seen by Henry and Anne. Acton Court, as far as possible, has been left in its original state; the absence of furniture and decoration makes it all the more magical. It is a raw and natural beauty – a real Tudor treasure.

Sudeley Castle, situated in the heart of the Cotswolds, is just as unforgettable. Its serene atmosphere makes it one of my favourite places. Its mere mention evokes images of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, but those of us that know where to look will find Anne present too.

Photo of Sudeley Castle
The Chapel at Sudeley Castle

She and Henry stayed at Sudeley Castle for five days in July 1535 and were almost certainly lodged in the now-ruined east range, which overlooked the formal gardens, today occupied by The Queens’ Garden. It is home to a number of wonderful exhibitions, sure to delight any Tudor enthusiast, and St Mary’s church, which is the final resting place of Katherine Parr, who died at Sudeley in September 1548. Like Acton Court, there is something magical about Sudeley, a feeling that is difficult to describe and best left to be experienced.

On the edge of the Cotswolds in South Gloucestershire is Thornbury Castle, the only Tudor castle to be opened as a luxury hotel and my final ‘favourite’ for today. It was built by Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in the early sixteenth century, on the site of an earlier house and was one of the most magnificent building projects of its day, comparable only with Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court Palace.

The Duke was still enlarging and beautifying the house in 1521 when he was executed for alleged treason. So, Thornbury remains unfinished. Following Stafford’s demise, Henry VIII confiscated the house and stayed there for eight days with Anne Boleyn, in August 1535.

Anne Boleyn location - photo of Thornbury Castle and gardens
Thornbury Castle

Today, Thornbury offers guests the rare opportunity of sleeping in the very room where Henry VIII was lodged, something that my sister and I did in 2009, an unparalleled experience and one that we still talk about, fondly, today. Thornbury’s gardens are particularly atmospheric at dusk, where you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking you caught a glimpse of Anne’s sumptuous gown, rounding the yew-hedges, so palpable is the history. So what are your favourite, lesser-known, Anne Boleyn locations? Do you agree with us, or do you have your favourite? Why not leave a comment below and let us know!

About the Authors of ‘In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn’…

Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger co-authors of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, published in September 2013. In the Footsteps is a guide book to all the places and artefacts associated with one of England’s most compelling and controversial queens. If you wish to pick up your own copy, follow this link.