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A December birth: Remembering Mary Queen of Scots

The 8 December marks the 473rd anniversary of the birth of Mary Queen of Scots on 8 December 1542.

Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow Palace, incidentally the birthplace of her father, James V of Scotland, in West Lothian, some fifteen miles distance from Edinburgh. The palace’s name translates literally as the “loch in the damp hollow” and still overlooks a inland loch. Today it is maintained by Historic Scotland and was the residence of Scotland’s monarchs in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mary’s father however preferred his beloved palace of Falkland, where he would in fact die aged thirty on 14 December 1542, having learned of the birth of his baby daughter a mere six days earlier. The true cause of the death of James V has never been satisfactorily explained, although all sources agree that the king underwent a physical and nervous collapse as a result of his humiliation and devastation at the Battle of Solway Moss. The room in which Mary was born is now little more than a romantic ruin without a roof, however its location in the north-west portion of the palace, still enjoys the view out over the loch as it did when Mary’s mother Queen Mary of Guise, gave birth to her here. History would in fact come full circle, with Mary’s own granddaughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, the so-called “Winter Queen”, residing also at Linlithgow in her time. The near-lying St. Michael’s Church is traditionally thought to have been the setting for Mary’s christening. Mary in fact only remained some months at Linlithgow, being taken onwards to the castle of Stirling by Mary of Guise. Historical doubt has arisen over the accuracy of December 8 as the actual birthday of Mary Queen of Scots and it has been suggested that the event in reality may have taken place on December 7, but that December 8 was used so that the day could coincide with the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary herself however always referred to December 8 as the day she regarded as being her birthday.

 

It is a magnificent irony, much commented on by historians, that a Scottish queen should come to lie in Westminster Abbey – the traditional burial setting for many of England’s monarchs and the setting for each royal coronation since her own death. Although Mary  had herself requested to be buried in France, this wish was not granted by Elizabeth I and she was initially interred with great solemnity at Peterborough Cathedral in late 1587, where her body remained at rest for twenty five years. It was the eventual wish of James VI/I, that her body be removed from Peterborough Cathedral to Westminster Abbey in 1612, ordering a spectacular marble canopy tomb to his mother’s memory by the sculptors Cornelius and William Cure, today to  be found opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I, in the Abbey’s south aisle of the Lady Chapel. The tomb is loaded with symbolism particular to Mary’s ancestry and life with a crowned Scottish lion,  bearing a magnificent Latin mourning inscription written by Henry, Earl of Northampton and containing two verses from the Gospel book of Peter. Close to her tomb is that of her mother-in-law, Margaret, Countess of Lennox. However, the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots did not remain undisturbed following her reburial, nor was the peace of her final resting place unbroken. Mary would come to share her burial vault with many of her descendants, including her granddaughter Elizabeth of Bohemia, the unfortunate Arbella Stuart, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the much lamented Henry Prince of Wales as well as ten infant children of James II and the eighteen babies of Queen Anne who died at birth. This search had been prompted by Dean Stanley in 1867, because the location of the coffin of Mary’s son James VI/I was at that time unknown. Logical thought led the searchers to assume that he may have been buried in the Stuart vault of his mother, although his lead coffin was eventually found in the vault of Henry VII, where he lay alongside the remains of his great-great-grandparents Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York.

The birth of Mary Queen of Scots is commemorated annually by a short private ceremony at Westminster Abbey on her birthday, 8 December, together with the laying of flowers in the Queen’s memory. Earlier this April, the Marie Stuart Society raised funds to enable a statue of the Queen to be erected on the Peel at Linlithgow Palace, the place of her birth.

 

 

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