New research has revealed the cosmopolitan character of the Renaissance Scottish court, including what may be the first clear record of Africans at the royal palace in Stirling.
Freelance historian, John Harrison, has been investigating original documents as part of Historic Scotland’s £12 million project to return the royal palace within the walls of Stirling Castle to how it may have looked in the mid-16th century.
Among Mr Harrison’s sources is The Bread Book, an account of who received loaves from the royal kitchens throughout 1549 when the palace was the main residence of Scotland’s queen mother, and future regent, Mary de Guise.
His research has been published as a paper entitled ‘The Bread Book’ and the Court and Household of Mary de Guise, in the current edition of Scottish Archives, the journal of the Scottish Records Association.
The bread being allocated would have been white rolls called pain de bouche, which was for the upper echelons who at ‘at the queen’s board’ and which would have been made daily by a dedicated baker. Then there was pain commun for other folk, which was probably light brown, wheaten loaves.
The range of people provided with bread by the court was wide. It could include lords and ladies, military officers, either Scottish or mercenaries from overseas, servants, muleteers and even the man ‘who dichts the place’ – the palace cleaner.
On most days a loaf was granted to the Morys – or Moors – who Mr Harrison believes were probably either black Africans or Arabs originating from North Africa.
“This is a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of the royal court at Stirling in the mid-16th century. It was quite cosmopolitan at the time, with the French Mary de Guise at its head, and surrounded not just by Scots but by people from Spain, the Rhineland and what is now Belgium.
“There were a few English, but they were mostly prisoners. Just who the Moors were, and what they were doing, is difficult to say. They were quite low in the court hierarchy, but were part of the household and getting bread at royal expense.”
Hints have survived that there may have been Africans in Scotland even earlier. There is a poetic reference by Dunbar to a woman who has been assumed to be – ‘the Lady with the Meikle Lips’.
Such references are mostly rather uncertain, and may have other explanations, and the importance of The Bread Book is its clarity at a time when record-keeping was still relatively thin.
“Quite a wide range of people had access to her, not ordinary farmers but lots of people who were fairly well-to-do, which is important as she was working hard to build and protect the interests of her young daughter – Mary, Queen of Scots.
“Mary de Guise was an intelligent, decisive woman and a smart operator. In modern terms she was networking, building contacts, hearing news, being seen and generating support.
“Just as important is that this tells us that she was part of a tradition that allowed a queen to work in this way.”
The years around 1549 were of enormous importance in Scottish history. Government was controlled by the Earl of Arran, who was regent, and the young Mary, Queen of Scots had been sent to France for her own safety as Scotland was facing repeated military aggression from England.
Mary de Guise, as widow of James V and with an important influence on access to French money and troops, was hard at work building her political strength. This is reflected in the lists of people she entertained such as Arran, the Argylls, the Gordons of Huntly and the Kennedys of Cassillis.
The records studied by Mr Harrison also show that Mary de Guise would lay on the very best cuisine for honoured guests. Some were even treated to sweets such as gateaux, which were a great luxury at a time when sugar was an expensive rarity.
According to Mr Harrison there were also specific practical advantages in following the French style and eating in the outer hall of the palace.
“It had the easiest access to the kitchens and was also the largest space. And once everyone had finished eating the tables could be cleared away to make space for dancing and entertainment.”
The research has been commissioned by Historic Scotland which is gathering as much information as possible about court life in the mid 16th-century to tell this story to visitors. The palace will reopen to the public in 2011 as a major new Scottish visitor experience.
Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “When the palace opens to the public in 2011 there will be costumed interpreters to tell them about the people and events in each of the rooms.
“Research like this allows us to recapture exactly what was going on and give them a sense of life in the 1540s. It helps us make sure that visitors will have an experience that is authentic, informative and a great deal of fun.”