Secrets of Great British Castles (2015–…): Season 1, Episode 5 - Stirling Castle - full transcript

Perched high on a volcanic crag overlooking the River Forth, Stirling has long been one of the most strategically important castles in Britain. Guarding the gateway to the Highlands, its battle-scarred walls have witnessed savager...

DAN JONES: For me a great British castle
is a fortress, a palace, a home.

And a symbol of power, majesty and fear.

For nearly a thousand years,

castles have shaped
Britain's famous landscape.

These magnificent buildings have been home
to some of the greatest heroes

and villains in our national history.

And many of them
still stand proudly today,

bursting with incredible stories
of warfare,

treachery, intrigue and even murder.

Join me, Dan Jones,

as I uncover the secrets behind
six great British castles.

This time, I'm in Stirling.

For centuries, this castle
divided the warring nations

of England and Scotland.

But ultimately,
it was the key to uniting them

to make Britain as we know it today.

Watch any video online with Open-SUBTITLES
Free Browser extension:

The Forth Rail Bridge
is one of Scotland's most famous sights.

It's big, it's red,
and it takes a very long time to paint.

But it's more than
just a pretty piece of engineering.

This bridge connects or divides

the Scottish Highlands
and the rest of the kingdom.

In the Middle Ages, the Forth estuary
was known as the Scottish Sea.

It was wide and inaccessible

and the land on the other side
was known as Scotia ultra marina,

Scotland beyond the sea.

Controlling the crossing of this river

was the key to controlling
the whole of Scotland.

And if you wanted to get beyond the sea,

you had to cross the river.

But in the Middle Ages,
you couldn't just hop on the train.

You had to walk or ride
34 miles along the river bank

to this place.

The city of Stirling was known
as the gateway to the Highlands,

and for good reason.

For centuries, the first point upstream

where you could cross the River
Forth was here at Stirling.

The old medieval bridge
was only a few feet away,

but it was so narrow that only two men
could cross it at a time.

You couldn't control Scotland
without controlling Stirling Bridge.

Something that important,

needed to be protected.

Legend has it that everyone
from the Romans to King Arthur

built the first castle at Stirling.

It's not hard to see why.

It's high on a volcanic crag

and surrounded on three sides
by steep cliffs.

And it commands the crossing of the river.

In fact, the first man to fortify it

was the Scottish king Alexander I
in the 12th century.

It soon became a favorite royal palace,

and each generation for the next 600 years

added new walls, turrets and buildings.

Stirling was built to be unbreakable.

And in the late 13th century,
it was put to the test for the first time.

In 1286, King Alexander III
died without a male heir.

The crown of Scotland fell into dispute.

Fourteen men claimed the throne.

So the Scots invited their neighbor,

Edward I of England, to mediate.

It was a bad move.

Instead of trying to help,

Edward invaded Scotland
and tried to conquer it.

The war he began lasted almost a century

and claimed tens of thousands of lives.

One of its most famous battles

was fought directly below the castle,

which was in English hands.

It was the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

By 1296, Edward I
had given up on mediation

and switched into full conquest mode.

He sent 6,000 men
to this side of the river,

because waiting on the other side
on top of that hill

was a man called William Wallace,

who history or cinema
has remembered as Braveheart.

Wallace was an obscure,
small-time nobleman.

But he knew
how to fight in Scotland and win.

He relied on smart tactics
and making the most of local terrain.

Which was just as well,
because on September 11, 1297,

the whole future of Scotland
depended on Wallace

and a tiny force of loyal men
defending Stirling Bridge.

The English were a well-organized army
with hundreds of cavalry.

The Scots were mainly infantry.

But on the morning of the battle
there were three problems.

First, the bridge was so narrow,

the English could only cross two by two.

Secondly, the bridge came out
on a narrow spit of land

formed by a horseshoe in the river,

and third, William Wallace attacked early.

There were almost 6,000 English soldiers,

but only some of them
had crossed the bridge

when Wallace attacked.

The English army was now split
between the two ends of the bridge.

The Scots swooped
on the cavalry that had crossed

and began to run them through
with their spears.

Then it got worse for the English.

The land they marched onto
was soft and muddy

and not suitable
for heavily armored horses and riders.

The Scots captured the bridgehead

and slaughtered the English
who were trapped behind their lines.

Those left on the English side,
bottled it and ran away.

One of the English leaders,
Hugh de Cressingham was flayed.

His skin was divided up as trophies
and William Wallace supposedly

used some of it
to make a belt for his sword.

For the English,
this was a total disgrace.

They lost over half their army

to a ragtag force
of peasants and part-timers.

They abandoned the castle to Wallace.

Edward I was humiliated.

And he would take terrible revenge.

He spent years hunting Wallace,

eventually bringing him to London

to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Meanwhile, the war dragged on.

In 1303, Edward launched
another military campaign

right into the heart of Scotland.

This time the Scots occupied Stirling.

The English king
didn't just want to kick them out,

he wanted to teach them a lesson
they wouldn't forget.

Edward knew that taking this castle

was far too important
to leave to his minions.

So he decided to come himself.

And he decided to bring with him

the biggest and most feared weapon
in the medieval world.


At the start of the 14th century,

Stirling Castle,
the toughest fortress in Scotland,

was about to face
the meanest military machine

in medieval history.

The siege began
on the 21st of April, 1304.

Inside the castle
was William Oliphant and a handful of men,

but outside

was the entire might of Edward I's army.

The English had 17 siege engines,

including one weapon bigger than anything
that had ever been seen before.

The castle was about to take a battering.

But it wasn't just shock-and-awe tactics,

this was also public entertainment.

It was a spectator event.

So stands had been built for onlookers.

The Queen's apartments had a specially
large window cut into them

so she could watch what was going on.

And the siege engines
had been given special nicknames,

Lincoln, the Vicar, Segrave, Kingston,

but the biggest attraction of all
was War Wolf.

War Wolf was the largest catapult, or
trebuchet, that had ever been conceived.

It was built outside the castle walls

and took 50 carpenters
at least three months to complete.

In July 1304, War Wolf was ready.

It really was a monster.

In the thick of war,
this would be a terrifying thing to see.

I honestly cannot imagine
what it must have felt like.

You're under siege,
your food's running short,

and then suddenly all these carts
start arriving on the field

and then they start to assemble
outside the front of the castle

-these great siege engines.

PRIOR: And you know
within two or three days

that your castle
is going to be pounded into oblivion

by huge stone balls
flying through the air.

It must have been terrifying.

And what are we firing, I mean,
what, stones? Fire?

What's coming out the end of it?

So, cattle carcasses,
diseased cattle carcasses,

the remains of your enemy,

you catch people that have come out
of the castle on sorties,

behead them and fling the heads
back over the wall,

and very often the heads would go back
over with wall with notes attached.

And the other thing is Greek fire,

no one really knows what it was,
we've lost the recipe for it,

pine resin, naphtha, saltpeter.

Essentially it was something
that would just continue to burn,

so probably some kind of
petroleum-based or tar-based substance

that was sticky, that would float,

that would stick to everything
and just keep burning.

A bit like some medieval napalm.

Yes, that's exactly what it is.
That's exactly what it is,

and it would stick to everything
and just burn and burn and burn.

And you know,
once you get fire in a castle,

it's, you know...
It's a lethal combination.

JONES: When the garrison
saw this beast being assembled,

they did what any sane
human being would do,

they surrendered.

But Edward was having none of it.

He'd built his toy, he wanted to use it,

and he ordered them to stay in the castle

until he was ready to fire.

The guys are gonna get out
and get on the brakes.

If you need it slowing down
at any point...


...tell these guys here and they will just

put a little bit of pressure on the brakes

and it will slow down
and you will be fine.

-Just remember to keep walking fast.
-Keep walking.

Just keep on walking and you'll be fine.

Super, stylish.

WOMAN: Guys, are you ready?

MEN: Ready!

WOMAN: Grinders, are you ready?

BOTH: Born ready!


There you go.

Oh, this is a strange sensation.

JONES: Trebuchets use
massive counterweights

to rotate a throwing arm
loaded with a projectile.

The shooting process uses brute manpower
to raise the counterweight.

With a machine this size,
that's a lot of manpower.

WOMAN: Fire in the hole!

-One down done?

-Is it all the way down?
-No, it's half way.

Bloody hell.

-All right?
-I know how a hamster feels.


Are we nearly there yet?

Oh, getting there.



WOMAN: Prepare to load!

It's live.

-We did that.

When you drop the box, you flip the arm
and away goes your projectile.

Well, I shall take a certain personal
satisfaction in seeing this one go.


WOMAN: Fire! Fire!

Fire again!


Good God!


JONES: A single shot from War Wolf

completely destroyed
the castle's gatehouse.

Stirling was in English hands again.

But the victory was short-lived.

Three years later, Edward was dead.

His hapless son
Edward II became king of England.

And the Scots came roaring back.

They retook nearly every castle.

Only Roxburgh, Edinburgh,
Berwick and Stirling remained.

They did it thanks to one of the most
famous kings in their entire history,

Robert the Bruce.

Bruce was a tough, shrewd soldier.

In spring 1314,

he sent his brother
to put Stirling Castle under siege

and flush the English out.

In June, Edward II marched an army north
to relieve the castle.

By June the 22nd, Edward was only
15 miles away at Falkirk,

and it seemed like
nothing was going to stop him

from relieving Stirling Castle.

Only one thing stood in his way,


The Battle of Bannockburn
was fought within sight of Stirling Castle

on boggy ground near the River Forth.

It was the most notorious clash
in the War of Scottish Independence

and one of the most celebrated moments
in the whole of Scottish history.

On one side was a Scottish army

of around 6,000 infantry and 500 cavalry,

under Robert the Bruce.

On the other, was 15,000 English infantry

and over 2,000 mounted troops.

The only possible outcome

seemed to be
a crushing victory for the invaders.

To defend against the English cavalry,

Bruce divided his troops into schiltrons.

These were tightly packed groups
bristling with pikes

and virtually impregnable
to a heavy horse charge.

The English fell into their trap.

They charged the schiltrons

and their horsemen
were impaled on Scottish spears.

Unable to hold formation,

they broke ranks and fled.


The English weren't just defeated,
they were crushed, humiliated.

Their knights gored by the Scottish spears

and others trampled to death
quite literally in a river of blood.

And amidst all this chaos
and this carnage,

the English king Edward II
turned and fled.

And when Robert the Bruce
took possession of the castle,

he did what he always did.

He destroyed it,

so it would be of no use
to his enemies again.

Bruce has a statue outside Stirling today,

but when he'd finished
with the castle in 1314,

its towers and defenses had been torn down
and its buildings burned.

For more than 20 years,

this mighty fortress was a useless shell.

But Scotland's great stone guardian
would rise again.

And from within its walls

would come one of British history's
most dangerous figures.

Not a warrior, but a woman.

Her name was Mary Queen of Scots.

In the late 14th century,
Stirling Castle was a wreck.

It had survived attacks by English armies,

but a Scottish king, Robert the Bruce,
had burned it to the ground.

But the castle was soon reborn.

Its patrons were the Stuart family,

a line of kings
who rose to rule not only Scotland,

but all of Britain.

Today, the oldest parts of Stirling Castle

date from the 1380s,
when the Stuarts first held it.

The family repaired
and reinforced the north and south gates.

They built a royal chapel
and redesigned the gardens.

But if the castle
was starting to look prettier,

it still had a dark side.

These new kings of Scotland
also used Stirling

as a place to do their dirty work.

The early Stuarts
were a brutal, violent mob.

James I had several of his cousins
executed outside these castle walls.

James II stabbed the Earl of Douglas
to death

and threw his body out of
one of those windows.

And James III was so feckless,
lazy and irresponsible,

his own son was implicated in his death
at the Battle of Sauchieburn.

That son was James IV.

James has gone down in history
as Scotland's first true Renaissance king.

He was pious, well-read,
charming, creative

and spoke at least eight languages.

He was the first Stuart
more interested in art and learning

than in having his relatives murdered.

All the same,
he kept some pretty peculiar company.

And under his rule,

Stirling Castle hosted some of Europe's
most extraordinary

and eccentric characters.

James' reign might have begun
in rebellion and intrigue,

but it soon blossomed as he brought

the best of the European Renaissance
to Scotland.

He built the Great Hall here at Stirling,

filled it with artists, poets, composers,

scientists, doctors, diplomats,


and best of all,
his own personal alchemist.

The goal of the alchemist was simple,

to discover the mythical fifth element,
or quintessence,

and turn base metals into gold.

James' alchemist was a man
called John Damian,

who came from Europe to Scotland
claiming to be a doctor.

The records describe him
as the French leech,

because he used leeches to bleed people
in surgical procedures.

The problem was he wasn't very good at it.

And the records say,

"In leech craft, he was homicide."

So he reinvented himself as an alchemist

and persuaded James to pay
for his furnaces here at Stirling Castle.

And very clearly,
alchemy didn't come cheap.

Royal account books from the time
give us a remarkable insight

into the workings of Damian's laboratory.

We start with his clothes.

He has a long damask gown
lined with lambskin,

scarlet hose, velvet breeches,
a cape and a hat.

In other words, he looked like a wizard.

But it's his list of ingredients
which are great,

coal and wood for his furnaces,
tin, silver, salt.

Aqua vitae, which is a famous Scottish
chemical compound better known as whiskey,

and gold coins, obviously,
to get the potion started.

Manuscripts of the period say
he needed a quantity of good wine

which would be distilled several times
over furnaces.

So basically, he's making very strong,
pure alcohol

which would bring back the spring of youth

and put the king
and John Damian in a state

of great highness of glorification.

The records also show Damian winning money
from the king playing cards and dice.

I reckon he was a bit of a hustler.


But he was a showman, too.

Damian kept the court entertained with
his grand, public science experiments.


The most famous,
and ridiculous, of all of them

was quite literally launched
on the castle walls.

The story goes, and I stress "story,"
uh, that in September 1507,

he announced to James IV's court that he
would fly from Stirling Castle to France.

-JONES: To France?
-To France.

-That's quite a flight.
-It's a fair old distance.

But he was prepared.

He had wings made, made out of feathers,
a "featherim" as it was known in Scots.

Of course, when he leaps away,
he doesn't go out the way,

he goes down the way.

But he is fortunate because he lands
in a midden and has a soft landing.

JONES: He landed in a midden.
What's a midden?

Ah, a midden, another good Scots word.

A midden is essentially a rubbish dump,

all the effluence from the castle,
all the garbage from the kitchen,

all gets thrown over the walls
into the midden, the dump.

And that is what John Damian
is said to have landed in.

-Soft, at least.
-A soft landing and ensured his survival.


JONES: Although James IV was happy
to indulge men like Damian,

he also put Stirling Castle
to good political use.

Perhaps James' smartest move

was to secure an alliance with England
by marrying Margaret Tudor,

daughter of Henry VII
and sister of Henry VIII.

She came north in 1503 with lands,

a large dowry and the promise
of perpetual peace.

But what no one could have known
was that within three generations,

this marriage would put a Scottish
Stuart king on the throne of England.

Margaret gave birth to at least one
of her six children at Stirling Castle.

And in 1513,

after James IV was killed fighting
the English at the Battle of Flodden,

Margaret's 17-month-old son was crowned
King James V in the royal chapel.

When James V grew up,
he continued to develop the castle

in rather unusual style.

To the left of the gatehouse,

and forming the south side
of the Inner Close, is the royal palace.

It's one of the most architecturally
impressive buildings in all of Scotland.

In fact, it wouldn't look out of place
in Versailles.

And there's a reason for that.

James V's second wife was Mary of Guise,

a Frenchwoman who had turned down
the chance to be Henry VIII's fourth wife

saying, "I may be large of body,
but my neck is small."

Together with James,
Mary created this royal palace.

It's a beacon of French culture
in the middle of Scotland.

And even today, it's one of the finest
Renaissance buildings in Britain.

Inside, the palace is divided into
two opulent apartments

with their own bedchambers
and reception rooms,

one for the King
and another for the Queen.

Most striking of all, though,

is the ceiling of the King's Chamber,

which is decorated with carved
oak portraits known as the Stirling Heads.

They depict mythical figures,
ancient emperors and Scottish royals.

And as the Stuarts would demonstrate,

there was no shortage of those.

Scottish kings had a terrible habit
of dying young

and leaving children as their heirs.

James IV was 15 years old
when he inherited his crown.

James V was only 16 months.

And when James V died,

he left a six-day-old daughter
as his heir,

a little girl who would grow up one day
to be known as Mary Queen of Scots.

From the minute she was born,

Mary was one of the most divisive
characters in all of British history.

She was talented, attractive, bright
and doomed.

Her life story is one of history's
greatest romantic tragedies.

And it began at Stirling Castle.

Mary was crowned here at Stirling
when she was just nine months old,

but in England,
Henry VIII already had his eye on her,

planning to marry her to his son

and create a dynastic union
between the two countries.

Mary's mother, Mary of Guise,

was bitterly opposed to
an English marriage for her daughter.

She knew it would break
a 300-year-old alliance

between Scotland and her native France.

But locking the princess away
in castles like Stirling,

so she couldn't be seized
and taken to England,

only made Henry VIII angry.

He ordered a series of brutal
military raids on Scotland

to bully them into releasing the princess.

It was known as the "Rough Wooing."

For her safety, Mary was shepherded
to France when she was five.

She wouldn't be back for 13 years.

By then, both Henry VIII and his son
were dead.

And Mary had married the King of France.

But in August 1561,
she returned to the land of her birth.

Why did Mary come home?

Well, in 1560, her husband had died

and she'd been sidelined
from French politics.

But more importantly, two years earlier,

Mary's cousin Elizabeth had become
Queen of England.

And this was Mary's big chance.

She had Tudor blood in her veins,
through her grandmother, Margaret.

She'd been Queen of France.

She was still Queen of Scots.

Now she wanted to be the lawful heir
to Elizabeth's English crown, too.

Mary was ambitious,

and she had plenty of supporters.

For many English Catholics,

Elizabeth was the bastard Protestant
heretic daughter of Anne Boleyn.

And Mary was the rightful
Queen of England.

So at 18, Mary was returning to Stirling,
to Scotland, and to her destiny.

Elizabeth wasn't entirely thrilled.

She refused to recognize Mary
or anyone else as her successor.

And soon, Mary had problems of her own,
back in Scotland.

In 1565, Mary married her cousin,
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

He was a violent, drunken troublemaker,

who arranged for Mary's private secretary
to be stabbed to death in front of her.

But Darnley also got Mary pregnant.

The Stuart dynasty would continue
into another generation.

When Mary had her child, it was a boy,
a male heir.

Obviously, they called him James
and had him baptized here at Stirling.

There was feasting, bonfires
and fireworks across Scotland,

but there were problems, too.

The child's godmother
was Elizabeth I of England,

but her representatives stayed
outside the chapel

to protest the Catholic ceremony.

As an adult, Mary's son would unite
the whole of Britain under his rule.

But this baby Stuart
had the worst possible start in life.

Both of his parents would soon be gone.

One of them to prison
and the other murdered.

James VI of Scotland grew up in the lavish
surroundings of Stirling Castle.

But he had two big problems, his parents.

His father, Lord Darnley had refused
to attend his son James' christening

in Stirling's royal chapel
in December 1566.

Soon afterwards, he contracted syphilis
and left the castle.

He went to stay in a house
on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

Weeks later, he was dead.

The house he was staying in
was blown up with gunpowder

and Darnley's naked body was found
in the garden,

the grim scene depicted
in this contemporary picture.

Though there were no signs of violence
on Darnley's corpse,

the finger of blame pointed squarely
towards men at the Queen's court.

The chief suspects were Mary's
loyal circle of lords

including the Earl of Bothwell
who was reputed to be her lover.

Bothwell was acquitted, but within
three months Mary had married him.

Placards in the street depicted Mary
as a mermaid, the symbol of a prostitute.

She was forced to abdicate,

leaving her one-year-old son
as King James VI of Scotland.

Less than a week after
Mary Queen of Scots abdicated,

James was crowned in Stirling
parish church.

He was 13 months old.

The following year Mary fled Scotland,
hounded out by her political enemies.

She headed south and threw herself
on the mercy of her cousin,

Elizabeth I of England.

But instead of helping Mary
return to rule Scotland,

Elizabeth put her in prison.

She stayed there for nearly 20 years

before being beheaded for plotting
against the English queen in 1587.

James VI didn't have
the best start in life.

After all, his father had been murdered,

his mother had been branded a whore
and forced to abdicate.

In fact, his whole family history
was of betrayal, backstabbing and murder.

You have to wonder,
what chance did this poor kid have?

The education James received at Stirling

was a matter of massive
political importance.

His attitudes towards issues
like religious reform

were going to shape Scotland's future.

Unlike his Catholic mother,

James was brought up as a member
of the Protestant Church of Scotland.

He was educated by tutors
appointed by the Privy Council.

They included the highly respected
humanist scholar George Buchanan.

This is the schoolroom where James VI

received his lessons from his tutor
George Buchanan.

James was a very good pupil.
He learned history, rhetoric,

mathematics, languages
and military strategy.

Most importantly,
Buchanan tried to teach James

about his duties and responsibilities
as a constitutional monarch.

And he wasn't afraid to beat the lessons
into the young king either.

James VI's education would set him up.

This was the king who would sponsor
the King James Bible,

and write his own treatises on kingship.

But it was his bloodline
that really changed his life.

Elizabeth I had spent much of her reign

trying to keep her cousin
Mary Queen of Scots

away from her throne.

But when Elizabeth died in 1603,
there was only one heir,

Mary's son James VI of Scotland,

who now became James I of England
and Ireland as well.

He left Stirling, and only returned
to Scotland once in his lifetime.

When James left for England
to take up his new crown,

he took his family with him.

Stirling's use
as a royal residence declined.

It was no longer a thriving palace

filled with alchemists' smoke

or the voices of young princes
in the schoolroom.

And 150 years later,
Stirling was in a very sorry state.

The great Scottish poet Robbie Burns
came to Stirling in 1787.

And he saw the terrible state the castle
was in, with the palace roof collapsed.

Now, Burns used to carry
a diamond-tipped pen

which he'd use to scratch messages
and verse into glass.

And while he was staying here he scratched
a poem into the window,

and it said,
"Here Stuarts once in triumph reigned

"And laws for Scotland's weal ordained

"But now


"their palace stands

"Their scepter swayed by other hands."

But that didn't go down very well
with the locals,

so later Burns came back
and he smashed the pane of glass.

But if Burns came here today,
he'd probably be pleasantly surprised.

Stirling doesn't just have a roof,

it's been completely restored to the glory
of its golden age under the Stuarts.

900 years after its foundation,

Stirling Castle remains a unique monument

to the history of the two kingdoms
it has both divided and united.

With names like William Wallace,
Mary Queen of Scots and Robert the Bruce,

Stirling certainly is
a very Scottish castle,

but it's a very British castle as well.

This is the palace that educated James VI,

the first man ever to claim the crowns
of England, Scotland and Ireland.

And best of all,
it's a living castle, not a ruin.

As solid and indestructible
as the rocky crag it's perched on.