The lost royal palace that once stood in an Edinburgh close

A royal palace could once be found hidden down an Edinburgh close but the richly decorated complex of buildings has long disappeared from the city streets.

Wednesday, 18th July 2018, 6:35 pm
Updated Friday, 20th July 2018, 3:27 pm
James V and his wife Mary of Guise, who ruled Scotland as Regent following the death of her husband and lived in a palace off Castlehill which has long disappeared. PIC: Creative Commons.
James V and his wife Mary of Guise, who ruled Scotland as Regent following the death of her husband and lived in a palace off Castlehill which has long disappeared. PIC: Creative Commons.

The Palace and Chapel of Mary of Guise at 533 Castlehill was demolished in 1845 to make way for a new teaching college for the Free Church of Scotland.

Named New College, the building went on to house the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland.

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A steel key from the palace which could be accessed down one of three closes. PIC: National Museum of Scotland.

At the time the royal palace was demolished, it was a crumbling tenement building long vacated by the Queen Regent, then widow of James V.

By then, the building was occupied by those of the ‘most humble ranks of life’ with the last remaining relics from the former three-storey royal complex hastily removed before the property was pulled down.

The pieces recovered included two Holy Water fountains and the back of the chapel altar, all which ended up in a wood merchant’s yard on the Lothian Road following the demolition.

An oak door said to have been recovered from Mary of Guise's palace. PIC: National Museum of Scotland.

A tile taken from the palace used by the Queen Regent, widow of James V, also ended up in a private house in Sussex but was later returned to the city.

The palace and chapel on Castlehill was accessed through the now demolished Blyth’s, Tod’s, and Nairne’s closes.

The residence for the Queen Regent was built immediately after the burning of Holyrood Palace and the city by the English in 1544, according to accounts.

Then, in the first major act of the Rough Wooing, Henry VIII ordered the invasion of Scotland to bring to an end the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

He was also aggrieved that an agreement for his son to marry Mary of Guise’s daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, had been withdrawn.

James Grant, in his classic 19th Century text Old and New Edinburgh, described how the widowed queen, whose husband died in 1542, “would naturally seek a more secure habitation within the walls of the city, and close to the Castle guns.”

Following the death of James V, the couple’s infant daughter became Mary Queen of Scots with Mary of Guise ruling Scotland on the child’s behalf from 1554 to 1560.

It is claimed Queen Mary later took refuge at 533 Castlehill following the murder of her private secretary Rizzio in 1566 as she “feared to trust herself within the blood-stained precincts of the (Holyrood) palace.”

To the north side of the complex, which was also known as the Guise Houses, were several large windows with views over the Nor Loch, now Princes Street Gardens, surrounding farmhouses and onto the Firth of Forth and Fife.

Inside, vividly coloured friezes depicted flowers, birds, mythical beasts and geometric designs in shades of peach and blue.

Accounts of the later years of the building detailed large handsome fireplaces, clustered pillars, high ceilings, fine stucco and elaborate recesses.

Doors and panels were made in oak and finely carved, with some of these still preserved by National Museum of Scotland.

In the decorated chimney of the hall were the remains of a chain which “in Scotland, the poker and tongs were usually attached, to prevent their being used as weapons in case of any sudden quarrel,” according to Grant.

One chamber was long known as the queen’s Deld-room, where the individuals of the royal establishment were kept between their death and burial.

In 1828, a wax head and hand of a baby Jesus was found concealed in the wall of the oratory.

Robert Chambers, in his 1802 book Traditions of Edinburgh, said: “It was interesting to wander through the dusky mazes of this ancient building, and reflect that they had been occupied three centuries ago by a sovereign princess, and of the most illustrious lineage. Here was a substantial monument of the connection between Scotland and France.

“She, whose ancestors owned Lorraine as a sovereignty, who had spent her youth in the proud halls of the Guises in Picardy, and had been the spouse of a Longueville, was here content to live--in a close in Edinburgh!”

Mary of Guise died at Edinburgh Castle in 1560. The next occupant of the in the Tod’s Close portion of the palace was Edward Hope, son of John de Hope, a French-man who had come to Scotland in the retinue of Magdalene, the first queen of James V, in 1537.

From 1702, it was the abode and property of John Wightman of Mauldslie, later Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

Grant wrote: “From that period it was the residence of a succession of wealthy burgesses the closes being then, and till a comparatively recent period, exclusively occupied by peers and dignitaries of rank and wealth.

“Since then it shared the fate of all the patrician dwellings in old Edinburgh, and became the squalid abode of a host of families in the most humble ranks of life.”

Commentators wrote with regret of the demise of the palace and the chapel and their final demolition.

The destruction of the building brought to light a concealed chamber on the first floor. The entrance was covered by a movable panel, affording access to a narrow flight of steps wound round in the wall of the turnpike stair.

Grant added: “The existence of this mysterious chamber was totally unknown to the various inhabitants, and all tradition has been lost of those to whom it may have afforded escape or refuge.”