Mystery of the child's bones hidden in Edinburgh Castle walls – Part 3

Writing in 1929, the antiquary Grant R Francis brought forward a novel suggestion: ​'​It does not appear unlikely, however, that the so-called coffin was merely a reliquary wrapped in part of a vestment, that the skeleton was the relic, and that the whole was hidden during the Reformation after Mary’s departure from Edinburgh.​'​
Edinburgh CastleEdinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Although he admitted that James VI and the second Earl of Mar resembled each other, there was nothing to suggest that James VI was any other person than the son of Henry Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots. In rebuttal, the antiquary K Heanley reasoned that James VI’s repulsive appearance, disgraceful conduct and contemptible cowardice rendered it impossible that he was the son of Mary Queen of Scots. He simply had to be a changeling, probably of common origin due to his boorish manner; had ​to have ​been born in some den in the Cowgate, to be purchased for a pittance and hauled up to the heights of the Castle in a crib?

Finally, in 1944, a mystery man who called himself Frank Gent wrote a very able review of the controversy about the Edinburgh Castle Mystery, quoting all previous writers at length, and discovering the original reports of the discovery in the Edinburgh Advertiser and the Glasgow Courier. He remained no closer to solving the mystery, however, and since there was a war on, his contribution was largely ignored.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Eschewing the flights of fancy quoted earlier, the solid facts remain that in 1830, a number of bones were found hidden inside a wall at the royal apartments in the castle. It is possible, albeit not​ ​conclusively proven, that these bones had been placed in some kind of wooden container, like a box or a chest. One of the bones, said to have resembled a rib, was handed over to the Society of Antiquaries.

Jan BondesonJan Bondeson
Jan Bondeson

Since it is an established fact in forensic medicine that after the disposal of a body or a skeleton, the bones remaining the longest are the skull, the pelvis and the vertebral column, the bones found at the castle are highly unlikely to have represented an entire skeleton, either human or animal. If a rib had survived intact, so would the skull and pelvis, of which no contemporary mention was made.

A more difficult problem to address is what the bones were doing in the Castle wall in the first place. Already back in 1907, there was a suggestion that they represented a construction sacrifice, emanating from some animal walled-up alive when the royal apartments were built in the late 15th century, in order to provide good luck and drive off evil spirits.

This theory would have received support if it had been established that such barbaric and inhumane practices were current among the late-middle-age Scots, when erecting buildings intended for the highest in the land. ​​Moreover, the animals immured in construction sacrifices tend to become mummified rather than to just deteriorate into a collection of bones. The walling-up of a collection of human or animal bones would have had no folkloric significance as a construction sacrifice.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Then we have the suggestion by Grant R Francis that the box of bones was a reliquary; this hypothesis would explain much that otherwise would have been obscure, had it been possible to explain why a valuable reliquary would be wantonly hidden in a wall. The suggestion of Francis that it had to do with the Reformation would have received useful support if other relics had been found hidden in such a manner at the time; for a devout Roman Catholic, it would have been sacrilege to treat a holy object with such disrespect. And a reliquary typically contains just one bone or other relic, and hardly a number of them.

There is of course the possibility that fearful of John Knox and his fanatical followers, some desperate Catholic would have emptied all the Castle reliquaries into a box and walled the holy bones up inside the royal apartments, but again, this would have been sacrilegious behaviour.

Thirdly and finally, there is of course also the possibility of some frolicsome young officers hiding the box of bones in the wall beforehand, as a hoax, but this would require a triple-alliance of superior historical knowledge, good access to bones from some ossuary, and a perverted sense of humour in setting up such a pointless charade.

The Edinburgh Castle Mystery is a mystery still, albeit one unlikely to have any royal involvement.It is hereby argued that the importance of the bones in the wall at the castle has been vastly exaggerated by imaginative writers; in reality, we do not even know whether they were of human or animal origin, and there is nothing to connect them with Mary Queen of Scots.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Of the amateur historians discussing the mystery, some have gone into extravagant discussions of changelings on the throne, but Queen Mary surely must have been aware whether her new-born son was alive or dead, and it is not compatible with what is known of her character that she would willingly have played a role in such a charade.

In all likelihood, James VI of Scotland, to become James I of England, was the son of Henry Darnley and Mary Stuart.This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s book Phillimore’s Edinburgh, published by Amberley Publishing

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.