It’s a pretty grand discovery. At the end of March, browsing my Twitter account, I stumbled upon Bonhams’ Dunrobin Attic Sale in Edinburgh on Tuesday 20 April 2021. I started a quick research on Dunrobin Castle, family seat of the 25th Earl of Sutherland, “the Highlands’ premier ducal palace” and “one of Scotland’s grandest and most historic castles”, says Charlie Thomas, Director of House Sales at Bonhams. Skimming through the auctioneers’ website, amidst paintings and portraits, marble sculptures, dinner services and furniture, there appeared lot 381 and I read, holding my breath: “An important set of carved oak armorial panels, from the Queen Regent’s House, Blythe’s Close, Edinburgh”.
This « Queen Regent » is Marie of Lorraine, Queen consort of James V, King of Scots (1512-1542), dowager queen and later Queen Regent of Scotland (1554-1560). Three of these wooden medallions are described in several nineteenth century books, notably in Robert Chambers’ Traditions of Edinburgh and Daniel Wilson’s Memorials of Edinburgh. Daniel Wilson writes: “These consisted of the armorial bearings of the Duke of Chatelherault, with his initials, I. H.; those of France, with the initials H. R.; and, lastly, those of Guise, impaled with the Scottish Lion, and having the Queen Regent’s initials, M. R. ». Now this is called a perfect match! Back to my screen and the Bonhams sale, I took my first look at the carved arms of James Hamilton (c. 1516-1575), 2nd earl of Arran, Governor of Scotland and duke of Châtellerault (left), of the Royal Arms of King Henri II of France (1519-1559) (centre) and of the Royal arms of Marie of Lorraine (1515-1560), Queen Dowager of Scotland (right).
The reappearance of these three armorial roundels, unquestionably major objects of Scotland’s history, is a real highlight for any sixteenth century historian. The Blythe’s Close buildings, sometimes called “palace of Mary of Guise”, are gone for almost two hundred years – who would have thought that these wooden panels still exist?
Better still, Daniel Wilson also tells us the position of the three roundels in the now lost building: « The first of these occupied the centre of a large entablature in the ceiling of the outer vestibule of the apartment […]; and those of France were in the same position in the floor above […]; they proved to be very fine and carefully-finished carvings in oak, and retaining marks of the colours with which they had been blazoned ». Unfortunately, the colours are gone but here they are!
The next step I’d like to take is propose an approximate date of these Renaissance artworks. The duke’s coronet on the arms of James Hamilton (above left) indicates that the earliest date would be 1548, the year king Henri II of France bestowed the title of duke of Châtelherault upon the earl of Arran. Furthermore, the author of Memorials of Edinburgh mentions on one of the painted wooden ceilings of the Blythe’s Close “palace” several emblems from Claude Paradin’s Devises héroïques, a French emblem book first published in 1551. In my article “Three Scottish Residences of Marie of Lorraine (1538-1559)”, I’ve stated that eight of the 19th century sketches made in the now destroyed buildings and preserved in the Edinburgh archives of Historic Environment Scotland (HES), “closely resemble an ornamental drawing by French artist Étienne Delaune (c.1518-1583), on which circular holes in the framing decorations identical to the HEC drawings can be recognized”. However, none of the 19th century sketches of the Castle Hill complex show any arms.
It just so happens that Marie, Queen dowager of Scotland, visited her home country France between September 1550 and October 1551. Her brother Claude, duke of Aumale, had married in 1546 Louise de Brézé, a daughter of Diane de Poitiers King Henri II’s favourite. Queen Marie might have visited the duchess Diane’s château of Anet and its fashionable Renaissance decorations, she also might have returned to the château of Fontainebleau, the architectural masterpiece of the deceased King Francis I, and she might have been aware of the publication of Claude Paradin’s emblem book. All these elements suggest that the Blythe’s Close residence was probably redecorated after the Queen dowagers’ return from France in November 1551, but it is quite possible that the armorial roundels date from the year 1548.
These three armorial roundels are relics of a very particular moment in the long history of the Auld Alliance between the kings of France and Scotland. In 1548, at the age of five, Mary Stewart left Scotland for France, and King Henri II became the protector of her Scottish realm. In April 1554, the Queen dowager Marie of Lorraine was appointed Regent of Scotland by her daughter, and four years later the young Queen of Scots married the dauphin François. The idea of a Franco-Scotland became reality, but it turned out to be but an ephemeral dream of union.
The Dunrobin Attic Sale, 22 Queen Street, Edinburgh, Tuesday 20 April 2021, see bonhams.com.
Michael BATH, Renaissance Decorative Painting in Scotland, Edinburgh, NMS Publishing, 2003.
Annette BÄCHSTÄDT, “Falkland Palace, Edinburgh and Holyroodhouse: Three Scottish Residences of Marie of Lorraine”, Marie de Lorraine-Guise, un itinéraire européen, A. Bächstädt, B. Maes et C. Sukic (eds.), Annales de l’Est, 2017/1, p. 107-121.
Annette BÄCHSTÄDT, « Marie of Lorraine-Guise and the Idea of a ‘Franco-Scotland’ (1548-1560) », Women and Scotland – Literature, Culture, Politics, Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon (ed.), Besançon, Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2020, p. 89-104.
Robert CHAMBERS, Traditions of Edinburgh, London & Edinburgh, Chambers, 1931 .
Daniel WILSON, Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time, Edinburgh, Ballantyne Press, 1875 .