In 1570 Scotland was a country plagued by civil unrest and deep divisions. Three years had passed since the forced abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots in favour of her infant son James VI. Mary had split the nation in 1567 by marrying James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell who had only recently been acquitted of murdering her second husband, Lord Darnley. Civil war ensued and the queen was imprisoned. Following a daring escape in May 1568 Mary and her forces were crushed at the Battle of Langside. She fled to England where she would again be imprisoned, never to return.
The people of Scotland were torn in their allegiance. On the one side there were those loyal to the absent queen, while on the other, the king’s party were in support of the regent, the Earl of Moray who was responsible for Scotland while James VI was in his infancy. Edinburgh was controlled by Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange, a trusted lieutenant of the regent and supporter of the king’s party – but not for long.
While on a visit to Linlithgow in 1570, the Earl of Moray earned the unfortunate distinction of being the first head of state ever to be assassinated with a firearm.
If news of the regent’s death had been unexpected, few could have anticipated what was to happen next. Aided by a large number of troops, Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange, swapped allegiance and claimed Edinburgh for Queen Mary. The resulting stand-off would take two long years to resolve.
The Lang Siege
The Lang Siege began in May 1571. The initial attack on Edinburgh lasted a month with a second short siege following in October. The king’s party lacked the necessary firepower to crush Kirkaldy and his men and eventually resorted to starving their adversaries out. A year of fighting would pass before a truce was signed in July 1572. Kirkaldy and his beleaguered forces surrendered the city to take up residence in a reinforced Edinburgh Castle. Six months of anxious waiting followed.
On 1 January 1573 the truce expired and the violent exchanges recommenced. Kirkaldy’s men used their lofty position to their advantage. Edinburgh Castle was virtually impenetrable from all sides but one – the slope down towards the town itself. Kirkaldy focused his artillery bombardment accordingly and hundreds of houses to the immediate east of the castle were either blown to bits or burned to the ground by his soldiers. Any civilians who attempted to prevent their actions were dealt with in brutal fashion.
Not that the king’s party were intent on playing nice either. St Margaret’s well, the castle’s primary source of clean drinking water, was poisoned. It is not recorded what method was used in this early example of biological warfare, but the loss of valuable fresh water would have been devastating for those defending the castle.
As spring approached, fortunes for Kirkaldy’s garrison worsened. The Earl of Morton had sent out a plea to Elizabeth I for help. The Protestant English queen was only too happy to assist those fighting against the supporters of the Catholic Queen Mary, and approximately 1,000 footsoldiers, 300 cavalry and 27 cannon made their way to the Scottish capital. Six artillery batteries were erected around Edinburgh Castle.
17 May 1573 sparked a period of ten days continuous bombardment from the English cannons. The castle was pounded to such an extent that cannon shrapnel would continue to be discovered well into the 1800s. Up to 3,000 shots were fired leaving Edinburgh’s greatest civic structure in a ruinous state, and when the castle’s magnificent David’s Tower came tumbling down it took the castle’s last remaining well with it. The game was well and truly up.
Having run out of supplies, Kirkaldy and his men were all but finished. Surrender came on 28 May. Kirkaldy was hanged for treason at the Mercat Cross along with two burgesses who had been minting Mary’s coins deep within the castle. His men, oddly enough, were pardoned.
The devastation inflicted during the Lang Siege shaped Edinburgh Castle as we know it today. The distinctive Half-Moon Battery which wraps itself around the castle’s southern face was constructed around the remains of David’s Tower in the decades which followed. The Portcullis Gate was also built to replace the wrecked Constable’s Tower. There are only a few isolated parts of Edinburgh Castle which predate the siege.
Edinburgh would of course face attack in the future but never again would its castle be rendered to rubble as it was in 1573.