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How to Enjoy a Medieval Feast at Borthwick Castle, Former Refuge of Mary, Queen of Scots

The special event is timed to coincide with the U.K. release of the Stuart queen’s latest biopic

On January 19, Borthwick Castle will host a six-course medieval banquet complemented by talks from local historians (Courtesy of Borthwick Castle/Tony Mars)
smithsonian.com

Scotland’s feuding nobility was none too pleased when Mary, Queen of Scots, married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, a man who had been accused of—and acquitted of in a legally suspect trial—murdering her syphilis-stricken second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, just three months earlier.

Given the unsavory implications of such a match, it’s unsurprising that soon after their wedding day, the couple was forced to seek refuge in Borthwick Castle, an ally’s seemingly impregnable 15th-century fortress.

According to Gabriella Bennett of the Times, Mary once described Borthwick Castle as the only place where she felt “truly safe and happy.” On Saturday, January 19, the public will have a chance to decide for themselves as Borthwick opens its doors for a medieval banquet held in the monarch’s former refuge. The special event is timed to coincide with the U.K. release of the new Mary Queen of Scots biopic, and according to Kevin Quinn of the Midlothian Advertiser, will feature a six-course feast, wine flight and talks by local experts from the Mary’s Meanders tour group.

Tickets aren’t cheap: According to Borthwick Castle’s website, a spot at the banquet will cost roughly $200 USD. Interested parties with deeper pockets can also book a night in one of the fortress’ 12 bedchambers.

The evening is set to begin with cocktails in the castle’s State Room, followed by a feast—complete with French onion soup that alludes to the formative years Mary spent in France as the future bride of Francis II, as well as mead sorbet and slow-cooked Scotch beef—held in the Great Hall.

“We know that Mary felt particularly at ease during her visits to Borthwick Castle,” general manager Johanne Falconer tells the Midlothian Advertiser, “and we’re looking forward to welcoming guests to take a step back in time with us.”

"Mary, Queen of Scots," after Nicholas Hilliard, 1578 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Mary may have enjoyed her time at Borthwick Castle, but as historian John Guy explains in the source text for the new film, her 1567 visit quickly turned sour. On the night of June 10, a group of Scottish lords attempted to raid the fortress, but Bothwell escaped before they could catch him. Left to defend the castle on her own, Mary entered into a “shouting match” with the dissenting nobles, who, according to biographer Antonia Fraser, called for her to abandon Bothwell and accompany them back to Edinburgh.

When the queen refused, the lords assailed her with speeches “too evil and unseemly to be told,” in the words of chronicler Drue Drury. Still, Guy writes, Mary “comfortably held her own” in the verbal sparring match.

The following night, Mary disguised herself as a man and escaped from Borthwick. After reuniting with Bothwell, the couple fled first to Dunbar Castle and then to Carberry Hill, where they encountered the Scottish lords’ rival armies. Eventually, Mary agreed to an unusual compromise: Bothwell would be allowed to escape if she surrendered herself to the nobles.

The unpopular king consort fled to Denmark, where he would die in captivity 11 years later, while Mary allowed herself to be imprisoned at Lochleven Castle. In July, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son James VI, and in August, her half-brother and former ally, the Earl of Moray, was proclaimed regent. Aside from “a few short but intoxicating weeks the following year,” Guy notes that the queen spent the rest of her life in captivity, first as a prisoner of the Scottish lords and then as the hapless house arrestee of her cousin, the English queen Elizabeth Tudor.

In the centuries since the Scottish queen’s visit to Borthwick, the castle has continued to witness its fair share of history. A 1650 cannon attack launched by Oliver Cromwell, leader of the English Civil War’s Parliamentarian faction, inflicted heavy damage on the estate, preventing the Borthwick family from returning to their home until 1810, and during World War II, the castle was used to store various national treasures.

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