Stirling Castle

20 November 2020

A day in the life of Mary of Guise

What was a typical day like for Queen Mary of Guise? Read on to follow in the footsteps of the 16th century regent and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Portrait of a costumed performer portraying Mary de Guise, Stirling Castle.

We often think of royal life as one long party. But what was a typical day like for Queen Mary of Guise? Nicki Scott from our Cultural Resources Team steps into the shoes of one of her attendants and gives us an insider’s view…

three women in renaissance costume talk with each other

Portrait of costumed performers portraying Mary de Guise and Members of Court, Great Hall, Stirling Castle.

Morning routine

Before waking Her Grace, I make sure that there is water ready for her washing. Every day she makes sure to at least wash her face and hands before dressing. Yesterday was a full bath, so thankfully we don’t have to do that today.

As the daughter of a powerful French duke, Her Grace is used to the best. She seems to be content in the new palace despite the hardships she went through in the past few years.

She came over from France in 1538 to be married. Since then, she lost both of her sons by James V and, of course, the king himself. Only the little queen survived but she was sent to live in France. Her Grace acts as regent in the meantime. This little daughter was Mary, Queen of Scots, a name echoes through time.

Getting the tub ready and heating and carrying all the water to fill it is lots of work for us! And then it all must be taken away again, but at least it’s not hot then. I’m lucky and don’t have to do much of the carrying but I do have to help her at her bath. Never alone she is.

I’ve been tempted a time or two to jump in the bath when she’s finished with it…but there’s the chamber pot to take away and empty over the castle wall and replace with a clean one.

Food fit for a queen

I must make sure there’s food ready for her too. She’s lucky in getting to break her fast with some bread and cheese first thing, even meat some days! Most of us have to wait until the kitchen is ready to serve the main meal. And that can be a long wait at this time of year. The cooks really need daylight to work and cooking can take a long time. So it’ll be late morning before dinner gets served. It also means the supper comes quite quickly after and leaves a big gap to the next day for most of us.

illustration of men working in a kitchen

An illustration of a typical castle kitchen of the time. During this period cooking was typically undertaken by men. This reconstruction is by artist David Lawrence.

It’s not a big feast day thank goodness, but Her Grace’ll have company for dinner and supper. She likes the chance to speak to people and it’s a good chance for her to find out what’s going on away from court. Folks want to dine with her. It’s a great honour to be so close to a queen. And there’s always better food served at her table. She gets the finest white bread, and there’ll be meats like mutton, bacon, rabbits from Dunbar and the best wines are saved for Her Grace.

Finger on the pulse

No two days are ever the same for Mary but she’s always kept busy. No doubt her secretary has a long list of letters for her to see to and they’ll need to be replied to. I don’t fancy the job of writing them, but I know they are so important to make sure she stays in touch with all her supporters around the country and abroad.

She sends frequently to her brothers in France to keep them up to date on what’s happening here. And she loves best to get letters from her son who writes often, or get news of her daughter the little queen.

A reconstruction of the Queen's Bed Chamber in the Palace at the time of Queen Mary of Guise

It is likely that the Queen would have dealt with her correspondence in her bed chamber. This reconstruction is by artist David Simon.

Her hall’s probably already full of folk wanting to gain some favour from her. Or a pension. They know she has a good income from her French lands. But checking those payments and the other household accounts does take up a lot of her time.

Mind, body and soul

I hope she decides to go for a horse ride at some point. It does her good and she enjoys it. She can take some of those visitors with her and discuss business on the way. But I’ll encourage her at least to take a walk outside, in the gardens maybe, or spend some time with her chickens. Those silly birds always make her smile.

All visitors who come to the Palace admire the Stirling Heads on the ceiling of the Inner Hall. The round oak plates were made for her late husband James V. They show some of his mighty allies, family members and ancient heroes from history. One of them shows Her Grace herself! They’re a lovely sight and it’s a shame he never got to enjoy them himself.

brightly painted carved panel featuring a woman's profile

Mary of Guise, as depicted in the replica of the lost Renaissance masterpiece.

Oh, I need to make sure her altar is all ready for her. Her Grace’s faith is so important to her and she always finds time in the day to pray. Of course, it’s also important to show to people how pious she is, especially now. Those Protestant Reformers are getting more blatant every day, but she wants to keep Scotland a Catholic country and keep that link to her native France.

An altar topped with a tryptic

A reconstruction of the Queen’s altar in her bedchamber in the Palace at Stirling Castle.

Relaxing before bed

There’ll be time for some relaxing in the evening. Playing cards is a favourite past time for the queen, or maybe just gossiping with her ladies while the minstrels play. Her grace can afford lots of candles so she can even have people read to her if she wants.

three musicians in Renaissance costume. They play a lute, a clarsach and a pipe.

It’ll be bedtime again before we know it. Poor woman won’t even get to be alone then, as some of us will sleep on the floor nearby, in case she needs us in the night. And then it’s time to do it all again tomorrow…

About the Author

Nicki is a Senior Cultural Resources Advisor with our Cultural Resources team. A historian by trade, Nicki mainly gives historical advice relating to our Historic Scotland properties.