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A Piece of String

Andrew Burnett, Interpretation Manager, shares his favourite tale from Stirling Castle.

A costumed performer portraying Mary de Guise in the Great Hall at Stirling Castle

The French Mary of Guise and James V, King of Scots, both recently widowed, married in 1538, and Mary lived for the rest of her life in Scotland. With King James, she had two sons, who both died as infants. Then, in December 1542, she gave birth to Princess Mary, who became Mary Queen of Scots when the king died six days later.

Mary’s eldest son from her previous marriage, Francois, now Duc de Longueville, would write to her periodically, and on one occasion in 1545, aged nine, he sent her a letter containing a piece of string about 140cm long. This, he explained, was how tall he had grown.

I imagine Mary – a mother of five with three sons already dead – reading this letter, probably in her main residence at Stirling Castle, and knowing that her surviving boy was growing up without her. The piece of string seems such a poignant and evocative token of childhood – it must have been a very bittersweet gift.

In 1548, the young Queen Mary departed for France. Mary of Guise remained in Scotland, while both her surviving children were living in France. During her visit to France in 1550–51, Francois, aged 15, fell sick and eventually died. This visit was also the last time she saw Queen Mary, now her only living child. Returning to Scotland, she somehow overcame patriarchy and xenophobia to become regent, governing the country for several years on behalf of her daughter. Despite her extraordinary resilience, she herself was overthrown by a Protestant rebellion in 1559 and died in 1560.