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Royal Burials

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This month’s theme for the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology is royalty. As it draws to an end, our focus falls, fittingly enough, on the end of royal life.

As we discovered in 2012, when the remains of Richard III were found under a car park in Leicester, a royal burial can stir up a lot of excitement.

No monarch has been buried in Scotland since 1542, when James V was laid to rest at Holyrood. But Scottish royal burials still generate plenty of interest and discussion.

A great deal of mythology surrounds the subject. Iona Abbey has long enjoyed a reputation as a royal burial place, but the evidence is thin and hotly debated.

Dunfermline Abbey, established by Margaret, the queen who became a saint, was certainly a site of royal interment. Among those buried there are St Margaret herself, her husband Malcolm III, their sons Alexander I and David I, and that most celebrated of warrior kings, Robert the Bruce.

St Margaret’s shrine at Dunfermline Abbey.

St Margaret’s shrine at Dunfermline Abbey

The precise whereabouts of the royal remains at Dunfermline is uncertain. Monarchs were traditionally buried close to the high altar in the east end of the church. But Dunfermline’s abbey church has been adapted, extended, partially destroyed and rebuilt – especially at the east end, where a new parish church was completed in 1821.

Long before that, in 1180, Margaret and Malcolm’s remains were moved to a different spot in the abbey church. Then, 70 years after that, they were dug up to be reinterred in a special shrine chapel. (According to legend, Margaret’s remains refused to budge beyond Malcolm’s so they both had to be moved – which is touching, if a bit ghoulish.)

At some point in all this, Margaret’s head was parted from the rest of her skeleton and enclosed in its own gilded casket. Its holy powers were said to benefit women in childbirth, so Mary Queen of Scots sent for it at Edinburgh Castle when she gave birth in 1566. (It doesn’t seem to have helped much: she had a prolonged and very painful labour.)

The small room at Edinburgh Castle where Queen Mary gave birth to Prince James.

The small room at Edinburgh Castle where Queen Mary gave birth to Prince James.

Hearts were also sometimes removed from royal corpses. Famously, the dying Robert the Bruce requested that his heart be taken on crusade by his trusted ally Sir James Douglas. Sir James obliged – though he was killed soon afterwards fighting the Moors in Spain. Bruce’s heart has featured in the Douglas coat of arms ever since.

The Douglas coat of arms.

The Douglas coat of arms.

The heart was brought back to Scotland with Sir James’s body and – again at Bruce’s request – was finally laid to rest at Melrose Abbey.

A stone slab at Melrose Abbey marking the burial place of Bruce’s heart.

A stone slab at Melrose Abbey marking the burial place of Bruce’s heart.

In some cases, we have very little idea where the bodies are buried. James IV is an example. The king who reigned in 1488–1513 was one of Scotland’s most ambitious monarchs, who commissioned major Renaissance buildings at Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Linlithgow Palace and Falkland Palace.

He was also said to be one of Scotland’s most pious kings, making numerous pilgrimages to the holy shrines at Whithorn and Tain. This was supposedly to atone for the death of his father James III, who was killed during a rebellion nominally led by his son. (He’s buried at Cambuskenneth Abbey, near Stirling.)

James III’s tomb at Cambuskenneth Abbey.

James III’s tomb at Cambuskenneth Abbey.

Whithorn Priory, visited several times by the pilgrim James IV.

Whithorn Priory, visited several times by the pilgrim James IV.

But in 1502 James IV staked his eternal soul on a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England. Eleven years later, he broke that treaty, invoking excommunication from the church. Effectively, this was a fast-track to eternal damnation.

James met his earthly punishment within days, brutally slaughtered at the Battle of Flodden, and was never given a royal burial.

James’s granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots was also denied a royal funeral.

Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots.

Resigned to death after 19 years in English captivity, Mary positioned herself as a Catholic martyr. She concealed red martyr’s robes under her somber black clothing as she was led to the executioner’s block at Fotheringhay Castle, and turned her miserable end into a theatrical display.

This was precisely what her enemies feared. In 1587, the year of Mary’s death, Scotland and England were officially Protestant – but many people still leaned towards the old Catholic beliefs. Mary could easily have become a figurehead for them – just as she had been in the Northern Rebellion of 1569.

Her clothes were burned so they could not be kept as relics. Her embalmed body was hidden at Fotheringhay for six months, then buried in a secret ceremony at Peterborough Cathedral.

It was not until 1612 that Mary’s son James, by now king of both Scotland and England, had her remains moved to Westminster Abbey, where he had commissioned her a grand monumental tomb.

King James himself was guaranteed burial at Westminster, London’s great royal mausoleum. And it was here too that most – if not quite all – of his successors would in due course be laid to rest.

As we move into March we welcome the themed month of Early Scotland – keep your eyes peeled for new blogs and don’t forget to follow us @welovehistory!

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About Author

Andrew Burnet

Andrew Burnet works in the Interpretation Unit at Historic Scotland and was the main author of Mary Was Here, about the travels of Mary Queen of Scots. His epic poem for children about Picts and Vikings has yet to find a publisher.

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