In Good Company: The Stirling Heads

One of the nine male worthies--exemplars of courtly behaviour--in the original oak.

A visit to Stirling Castle would not be complete without a full consideration of the Stirling heads, a magical collection of portraits rendered in Polish oak in the 16th century which illustrate the wealth and connections of the Scottish monarchy.

Made to adorn the ceiling of one of the king’s audience chambers, the heads showcase both the family connections and  legendary ideals which James V desired to promote. For historians, their value as royal propaganda is augmented by the insights they provide into fashion, status, and exhibitionism.

The heads, however, didn’t have an easy path through history. During the conversion of the Castle and its palace buildings into a military post in the 18th century, the heads were dismantled as part of a replacement of the ceilings. After this point, in 1777, they began to disperse into private collections. Fortunately, Jane Graham, wife to the Castle’s deputy governor, fell in love with a small selection of the heads and worked to reunite them, making accurate sketches of those she found and publishing them as the Lacunar Strevelinense in 1817.

A volume of Jane Graham's 19th century sketches in the Stirling Heads Gallery.

Thanks to her efforts, 34 Stirling heads have survived, and a further two can be reconstructed from her drawings. Housed in a specially designed gallery, the heads now confront their viewers face to face, and vividly depict the world of the court in the 16th century.

Portrait of a woman with elaborate Renaissance fashion.

The head above, for example, demonstrates the complex hair-styling of the time and also wears a highly fashionable gown. Because they are so detailed, these heads can be tied to trends in courtly garments both in Italy and in France, illustrating Scotland’s international connections and the cosmopolitan nature of the monarchy.

Other figures, like the jester, capture the individuals at the court, allowing the heads to be seen as a microcosm of the complex relationships surrounding the king while also emphasising his power and connections.

The court jester, in a lively and active Stirling head.

Particularly important in this respect were James V’s relatives–both by blood and by marriage–whose presence articulated his membership in the club of European royalty.

The father and great-great-grandfather of James V, establishing his credentials as monarch.

James V was not only interested in comparing himself with his near contemporaries, however. Some panels display the 16th century interest in the Classical world, whether in the form of Roman emperors or Greek heroes. My favourite from this group is the following ‘head’, depicting Hercules and the Nemean lion.

The defeat of the Nemean lion was one of the 7 labours of Hercules, well known during the Renaissance.

Its depiction of strength, courage, and heroism would have been intended to communicate James V’s own qualities, both as a man of taste (in commissioning the theme) and as a man of martial ability. Together, then, these heads present a manifesto for kingship in late mediaeval/early modern Scotland, where family connections, manly virtues, and international style all increased the prestige of the monarchy.

Although the heads today display the rich original colouring of the wood, they once would have been brightly painted and displayed on the ceiling in the royal apartments. Thanks to a few remaining fragments of paint, however, some of the original colour has been reconstructed. As part of the broader efforts to restore the palace, Historic Scotland has used this to create an entire set of replica heads, carved by hand, that now take the supposed place of the originals.

The reproduction heads, in full colour. One of the Roman heads (left middle) as well as a portrait of Margaret Tudor (left top) can be seen.

The effect is ostentatious, to say the least, but I can’t help feeling such an effect was precisely the impression that James V was aiming for.

P.S. You can find more photos of the heads by heading over to the Mediaevalmusings Facebook page!

8 thoughts on “In Good Company: The Stirling Heads

  1. This was a fantastic post! I would never get to see as much, myself – how magnificent, your photos. It was like reading a friendly encyclopaedia🙂

  2. Great post, we are more than likely going to pop up to the Orkneys later in the year so may just pop in to see Stirling

    • Thanks! I have to say that Stirling is absolutely worth the visit, despite the high ticket price (but avoid the Wallace Monument–it’s a tourist trap!) The Orkneys is also on my list, but unfortunately I haven’t made it yet–I can’t wait to see your photos.🙂

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