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Kings, Queens, Emperors and Heroes

24 December 2008

New research may help solve the riddle of the Stirling Heads.

The Stirling Heads are one of Scotland’s greatest but least understood Renaissance treasures.

Research sponsored by Historic Scotland is helping shed light on who might be depicted in the large oak carvings and why they were created.  

It has been carried out as part of a £12 million project to return the royal palace at Stirling Castle to how it may have looked in the 1540s and create a new gallery where the heads will go on permanent public display.

Many of the heads are now lost, but 33 survive along with sketches of two others which were destroyed in a fire.  

Measuring up to a metre in diameter and shaped like medallions, the heads date from the mid-sixteenth century, and adorned the ceilings of one, or more, of the most important chambers of the royal palace at Stirling Castle.

Dr Sally Rush, a senior lecturer from Glasgow University’s History of Art Department, believes those that have survived to the present day may include portraits of Scottish kings James I and James V, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the English King Henry VIII and his sister Margaret Tudor.  

“Had you walked into the King’s Presence Chamber when the ceiling was complete I think you would have seen a whole sequence of Stewart kings, all the James’s from I to V.

“It was a statement by James V to say that his dynasty went back a long way in an unbroken line and had the inalienable right to rule over Scotland.  

“The presence of Henry VIII and Margaret Tudor, mother of James V, is a reminder of his claim to the English throne.  

“One of the heads which was destroyed by fire, but of which we have a sketch, may have shown Henry VIII, complete with English lion, face-on in the style developed specifically for his portraits by Hans Holbein.

“Margaret Tudor is wearing a distinctive English hood and is seen with a greyhound which was one of her family’s heraldic symbols.

“There would probably have been other European rulers of the day as well, such as the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, showing that James V had powerful allies.”

The palace was begun by James V in around 1538 as a home for his new French bride Mary de Guise.  

Dr Rush suspects that the carvings of Scottish royals were taken from official portraits belonging to James V and other family members.  

It is even possible that a French portrait artist, Pierre Quesnel working at the court of James V produced drawings which were used as models for some of the carvings.

An image of Princess Madeleine of France, James V’s first wife who died of TB shortly after arriving in Scotland, may be among the survivors.  

A number of the male and female characters are in the latest Italian fashions.  

These include deeply slashed doublets for men and low-cut dresses, loose hair in long tresses topped with little caps for the women.  

Dr Rush said: “These are the latest looks that would be popular with the young bucks and high born women on the Continent.  

“They gave out a message that James V was in touch with what was going on across the channel, as part of modern Europe.

“One very beautiful carving in particular is of a woman in the most up-to-the-minute outfit – she’s right on the money for what would have been worn at the French and Italian courts.

“I suspect that a lot of Scottish courtiers would be thinking how much they wanted to  keep up by getting hold of similar clothes for themselves.”

The collection also included great heroes and historical figures with whom James V wanted to be associated.

Dr Rush believes one head shows Julius Caesar who was among the Nine Worthies.

These were Christian, Jewish and pagan figures like King Arthur, Joshua and Alexander the Great, who were famous warriors and conquerors.

Dr Rush thinks the heads showed how James V wanted to be seen – as a monarch of taste and fashion, with great classical virtues and an impressive pedigree.

They were also the king’s chance to try and determine how he would be remembered, as the herald of a new golden age.

This is especially poignant as he died in 1542 aged just 30, with the crown passing to the infant Mary Queen of Scots, leaving Scotland to endure decades of chaos.


  • A replica set of the Stirling Heads is currently being hand-carved by master craftsman John Donaldson and will be used on the ceiling of the King’s Presence Chamber, showing how it might have looked in the mid-sixteenth century.

Notes for Editors

  • Dr Rush has carried out her research by studying contemporary portraits, fashions and artistic trends across Europe. As such the heads would have been in keeping with the efforts of other rulers to show off their dynastic heritage, sometimes placing portraits in medallions in a manner popular in ancient Rome.

  • One of the big questions about the Stirling Heads is where the Scots came across the artistic ideas they embodied. The use of medallions, images of other rulers and heroes was very popular in northern Italy, which was at the cutting edge of the Renaissance, from the end of the fifteenth century. The Sforza rulers of Milan made use of carved marble medallions at the family mausoleum at the Carthusian monastery of Certosa di Pavia. The French invaded and controlled Milan for a while, and were highly influenced by its arts and fashions. James V and members of the Scottish court were closely linked to the French court meaning that they may have been exposed to Italian ideas. James may also have met important Italians who were enthusiastic patrons of the arts.

  • Poland was another possible route for the artistic styles and ideas that inspired the heads. The marriage of King Sigismund I to Bona Sforza is believed to have led to the magnificent carved heads on ceilings at the Wawel Palace, Krakow. While these are more three dimensional than the Stirling Heads, and not in medallions, they may include some of the same characters such as Charles V and Julius Caesar and have been created with a similar purpose. At this time there was a substantial Scottish ex-pat community in Poland, including many skilled artisans.

  • Dr Rush believes that some of the portraits may have been of contemporary nobles from the Scottish court and is currently comparing them with other images in search of evidence.

  • While most of the Stirling Heads are now in the care of Historic Scotland it was only in the 1970s that the remaining ones were all brought back into public hands. Many were put on display at the Smith Gallery in Stirling and three are owned by National Museums, Scotland.



Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.

For further information


Laura Varney
PR Executive
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8959 or 07769 630 763
laura.varney@scotland.gsi.gov.uk