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Chapter 4 – Castle of Edinburgh (continued)., pp.26-31.

Progress of the City – Ambassador of Charles VI. – Edinburgh burned – Henry IV. baffled – Albany’s Prophecy – Laws regarding the Building of Houses – Sumptuary Laws, 1457 – Murder of James I. – Coronation of James II. – Court Intrigues – Lord Chancellor Crichton – Arrogance of the Earl of Douglas – Faction Wars – The Castle Besieged – “The Black Dinner” – Edinburgh walled – Its Strength – Bale-fires.


THE chief characteristic of the infant city now was that of a frontier town, ever on the watch to take arms against an invader, and resolute to resist him. Walsingham speaks of it as a village; and in 1385 its population is supposed to have barely exceeded 2,000; yet Froissart called it the Paris of Scotland, though its central street presented but a meagre line of thatched or stane-sclated houses, few of which were more than twenty feet in height. Froissart numbers them at 4,000, which would give a greater population than has been alleged. With the accession of Robert II. – the first of the Stuart monarchs – a new era began in its history, and it took a standing as the chief burgh in Scotland, the relations of which with England, for generations after, partook rather of a vague prolonged armistice in time of war than a settled peace, and thus all rational progress was arrested or paralysed, and was never likely to be otherwise so long as the kings of England maintained the insane pretensions of Edward I., deduced from Brute the fabulous first king of Albion!

In 1383 Robert II. Was holding his court in the Castle when he received there the ambassador of Charles VI., on the 20th August, renewing the ancient league with France. In the following year a truce ended; the Earls of March and Douglas began the war with spirit, and cut off a rich convoy on its way to Roxburgh. This brought the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl of Buckingham before Edinburgh. Their army was almost innumerable (according to Abercrombie, following Walsingham), but the former spared the city in remembrance of his hospitable treatment by the people when he was among them, an exile from the English court – a kindness for which the Scots cared so little that they followed up his retreat so sharply, that he laid the town and its great church in ashes when he returned in the following year.

In 1390 Robert III, ascended the throne, and in that year we find the ambassadors of Charles VI. again witnessing in the Castle the royal seal and signature attached to the treaty for mutual aid and defence against England in all time coming. This brought Henry IV., as we have said, before the Castle in 1400, with a well-appointed and numerous army, in August.

From the fortress the young and gallant David Duke of Rothesay sent a herald with a challenge to meet him in mortal combat, where and when he chose, with a hundred men of good blood on each side, and determine the war in that way. “But King Henry was in no humour to forego the advantage he already possessed, at the head of a more numerous army than Scotland could then raise; and so, contenting himself with a verbal equivocation in reply to this knightly challenge, he sat down with his numerous host before the Castle till (with the usual consequences of the Scottish reception of such invaders) cold and rain, and absolute dearth of provisions, compelled him to raise the inglorious siege, and hastily re-cross the borders, without doing any notable injury either in his progress or retreat.”1

When unable to resist, the people of the entire town and country, who were not secured in castles, resorted to the simple expedient of driving off all the cattle and sheep, provisions and goods, even to the thatch of their houses, and leaving nothing but bare walls for the enemy to wreak their vengeance on; but they never put up their swords till, by a terrible retaliating invasion into the more fertile parts of England, they fully made up for their losses. And this wretched state of affairs, for nearly 500 years, lies at the door of the Plantagenet and Tudor kings.

The aged King Robert III. and his queen, the once beautiful Annabella Drummond, resided in the Castle and in the abbey of Holyrood alternately. We are told that on one occasion, when the Duke of Albany, with several of the courtiers, were conversing one night on the ramparts of the former, a singular light was seen afar off at the horizon, and across the starry sky there flashed a bright meteor, carrying behind it a long train of sparks.

“Mark ye, sirs!” Said Albany, “yonder prodigy portends either the ruin of a nation or the downfall of some great prince;” and an old chronicler omits not to record that the Duke of Rothesay (who, had he ascended the throne, would have been David III.), perished soon after of famine, in the hands of Ramornie, at Falkland.

Edinburgh was prosperous enough to be able to contribute 50,000 merks towards the ransom of James I., the gifted author of “The King’s Quhair” (or Book), who had been lawlessly captured at sea in his boyhood by the English, and was left in their hands for nineteen years a captive by his designing uncle the Regent Albany; and though his plans for the pacification of the Highlands kept him much in Perth, yet, in 1430, he was in Edinburgh with Queen Jane and the Court, when he received the surrender of Alexander Earl of Ross, who had been in rebellion but was defeated by the royal troops in Lochaber.

As yet no Scottish noble had built a mansion in Edinburgh, where a great number of the houses were actually constructed of wood from the adjacent forest, thatched with straw, and few were more than two storeys in height; but in the third Parliament of James I., held at Perth in 1425, to avert the conflagrations to which the Edinburghers were so liable, laws were ordained requiring the magistrates to have in readiness seven or eight ladders of twenty feet in length, with three or four large saws, for the common use, and six or more “cliekes of iron, to draw down timber and ruiffes that are fired;” and that no fire was to be conveyed from one house to another within the town, unless in a covered vessel or lantern. Another law forbade people on visits to live with their friends, but to resort to “hostillaries,” for the encouragement of the latter.

During the reign of James I. and his successor laws were passed against excess in dress; and it has been said that, though edicts were passed for everything in Scotland, even to the shape of a woman’s cap, it was perhaps the most lawless land in Europe.

All save those who possessed 200 merks of yearly rent were forbidden to wear silk or furs, or borderings of pearl or bullion; and the feminine love of display attracted the attention of Parliament at Edinburgh in 1457. It was ordained that citizens should make their wives and daughters appear in costumes suitable to their estate and position; on their heads short curches with little hoods; “and as to their gownes, that na woman weare mertrickes nor letteis, nor tailes unfit in length, nor furred under, but on the Halie-daie;” and that no labourers nor husbandmen were to wear anything on work-days but grey and white; and even on holidays but light blue, green, red, and their wives the same; the curches of the latter to be of their own making, and not to exceed the price “of xl pennyes the elne.”

By the same laws, advocates who spoke for money in Parliament were ordained “to have habits of grene, of the fassoun of a tuneike, and the sleeves to be oppin as a tabert.”

From the date of the cruel assassination of James I. – the poet, soldier, and lawgiver – may be considered the time when Edinburgh became really the permanent and undisputed capital of Scotland. Sorrow and indignation spread over all the realm when the fate of James was heard, and no place seemed to afford such security to the royal person as the impregnable Castle of Edinburgh; thus Queen Jane, ignorant of the ramifications of that conspiracy by which her princely husband was slain (actually in her arms), instantly joined her son James II., who since his birth had dwelt there. It was then in the hands of William Baron of Crichton – a powerful, subtle, and ambitious statesman, who was Master of the Household.

Within forty days nearly all concerned in the murder of the late king were brought to Edinburgh, where the ignoble were at once consigned to the hangman; but for the Earl of Athol and other titled leaders were devised tortures worthy alone of Chinese or Kaffir ingenuity. Crowned by a red-hot diadem as “King of Traitors,” at the Market Cross, after undergoing three days of unexampled agonies in sight of the people and the Papal Nuncio, afterwards Pius II., the body of the earl was dragged nude through the streets; it was then beheaded and quartered.

On the assembly of the Lords of Parliament, their first care was the coronation of James II., who was conducted in procession from the Castle to the church of Holyrood, where he was crowned, with every solemnity, on the 20th of March, 1438. The queen-mother was named his guardian, with an allowance of 4,000 merks yearly, and Archibald the great Earl of Douglas and Angus (Duke of Touraine) was appointed lieutenant-general of the kingdom. During the two subsequent years the little king resided entirely in the Castle under the custody of Crichton, now Lord Chancellor, greatly to the displeasure of the queen and her party, who found him thus placed completely beyond their control or influence.

In short, it was no longer the queen-mother, but the crafty Crichton, who had uncontrolled custody of the little sovereign, and who thus was enabled to seize the revenues, and surround him by a host of parasites, who permitted neither her, nor the Regent, Sir Alexander Livingstone of Callender, to have any share in the government. A bitter feud was the consequence, and Scotland again was rent into two hostile factions, a state of matters of which the English could not, as usual, make profit, as they were embroiled among themselves. The queen remained with the regent at Stirling, while her son was literally a prisoner at Edinburgh; but, womanlike, the mother formed a plan of her own to outwit the enemy.

Visiting the Castle, she professed a great regard for the Chancellor, and a desire to be with her son, with whom she took up her abode. After having effectually lulled all suspicion, she affected to remember a vow she had made to visit the White Kirk of Brechin (according to the “Chronicles of Pitscottie”), and bade adieu to the Chancellor overnight, with many tender recommendations of the young king to his care. She set forth betimes next morning with her retinue, and baggage borne on sumpter horses. In one of the arks or chests strapped on one of these she had the young king concealed, with his own consent. He was thus conveyed to Leith, and from thence by water to Stirling, where she placed him in the hands of the Regent Livingstone, while the haughty Douglas kept aloof, as one who took no interest in the petty intrigues around the throne. Livingstone now unfurled the royal standard, levied troops, and laid siege to the Castle of Edinburgh; but the wary Chancellor, finding that he had been outwitted, pretended to compromise matters by delivering the keys of the gates into the hands of the king, after which they all supper together in the great hall of the fortress. Crichton was confirmed in his office of Chancellor, and the other as regent and guardian of the royal person, a state of affairs not fated to last long.

Livingstone having quarrelled with the queen, she carried off the young king again, and restored him to the custody of the Chancellor in the Castle of Edinburgh. Under the guidance of the Bishops of Moray and Aberdeen, then resident in the city, a conference was held in the church of St. Giles, making him and his rival joint guardians, which, from their mutual dread and hatred of the Earl of Douglas, led to an amicable arrangement, and the young king chose the Castle as his future place of residence.

The great house of Douglas had now reached the zenith of its baronial power and pride. The earl possessed Annandale, Galloway, and other extensive dominions in the southern counties, where all men bowed to his authority. He had the dukedom of Touraine and lordship of Longueville in France. He was allied to the royal family of Scotland, and had at his back a powerful force of devoted vassals, trained to arms, led by brave knights, who were ripe at all times for revolt and strife.

“The Regent and the Chancellor are both alike to me,” said he, scornfully; “tis no matter which may overcome, and if both perish the country will be the better; and it is a pleasant sight for honest men to see such fencers yoked together.”

But soon after the potent Douglas died at Restalrig – in June, 1440 – and was succeeded by his son William, then in his sixteenth year; and now the subtle and unscrupulous old Chancellor thought that the time had come to destroy with safety a family he alike feared and detested. In the flush of his youth and pride, fired by the flattery of his dependents, the young earl, in the retinue and splendour that surrounded him far surpassed his sovereign. He never rode abroad with less than two thousand lances under his banner, well horsed, and sheathed in mail, and he actually, according to Buchanan, sent as his ambassadors to the court of France Sir Malcolm Fleming and Sir John Lauder of the Bass, to obtain for him a new patent of the duchy of Touraine, which had been conferred on his grandfather by Charles VII. Arrogance so unwonted and grandeur so great alarmed both Crichton and Livingstone, who could not see where all this was to end.

Any resort to violence would lead to civil war. He was therefore, with many flatteries, lured to partake of a banquet in the Castle of Edinburgh, accompanied by his brother the little Lord David and Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld. With every show of welcome they were placed at the same table with the king, while the portcullis was suddenly lowered, the gates carefully shut, and their numerous and suspicious train excluded. Towards the close of the entertainment a black bull’s head – an ancient Scottish symbol that some one was doomed to death – was suddenly placed upon the board. The brave boys sprang up, and drew their swords; but a band of Crichton’s vassals, in complete armour, rushed in from a chamber called the Tiring-house, and dragged forth the three guests, despite the tears and entreaties of the young king.

They were immediately beheaded – on the 24th of November, 1440 – according to Godscroft, “in the back court of the Castle that lyeth to the west” (where the barracks now stand); in the great hall, according to Balfour. They were buried in the fortress, and when, in 1753, some workmen, in digging a foundation there, found the plate and handles of a coffin all of which were pure gold, they were supposed to belong to that in which the Earl of Douglas was placed. Singular to say, Crichton was never brought to trial for this terrible outrage. “Venomous viper!” Exclaims the old historian of the Douglases, “that could hide so deadly poyson under so faire showes! unworthy tongue, unelesse to be cut oute for example to all ages! A lion or tiger for cruelty of heart – a waspe or spider for spight!” He also refers to a rude ballad on the subject, beginning –

“Edinburgh Castle, towne and tower,
God grant thou sinke for sinne,
  An that even for the black dinner
Earle Douglas got therein.”

This affair instead of pacifying the country only led to ruin and civil strife. The Douglas took arms under James IV., Duke of Touraine and seventh Earl of Douglas and Angus, and for a long space the city and neighbourhood were the scene of contest and ravage by the opposite factions. The Chancellor remained secure in the Castle, and, to be revenged on Sir John Forrester, who had laid waste his lands at Crichton in 1445, he issued forth with his troopers and garrison, and gave to fire and sword all the fertile estates of the Douglases and Forresters westward of the city, including Blackness, Abercorn, Strathbroc, and Corstorphine; and, with other pillage, carrying off a famous breed of Flanders mares, he returned to his eyry.

Douglas, who, to consolidate his power had espoused his cousin the Fair Maid of Galloway, adding this her vast estates to his own, and had now, as hereditary lieutenant-general of the kingdom, obtained the custody of the young king, came to Edinburgh with a vast force composed of the Crown vassals and his own, and laid siege to the Castle, which the Chancellor defended for nine months, nor did he surrender even to a summons sent in the king’s name till he had first secured satisfactory terms for himself; while of his less fortunate coadjutors, some only redeemed their lives with their estates, and the others, including three members of the Livingstone family, were beheaded within its walls.

The details of this long siege are unknown, but to render the investment more secure the Parliament, which had begun its sittings at Perth, was removed to Edinburgh on the 15th of July, 1446.

After all this, Earl Douglas visited Italy, and in his absence during the jubilee at Rome in 1450, Crichton contrived to regain the favour of James II., who having now the government in his own hands, naturally beheld with dread the vast power of the house of Touraine.

How Douglas perished under the king’s dagger in Stirling in 1452 is a matter of general history. His rival died at a very old age, three years afterwards, and was interred among his race in the present noble church of Crichton, which he founded.

Beneath the Castle ramparts the rising city was now fast increasing; and in 1450, after the battle of Sark, in which Douglas Earl of Ormond defeated the English with great slaughter, it was deemed necessary to enclose the city by walls, scarcely a trace of which now remains, except the picturesque old ruin known as the Well-house Tower, at the base of the Castle rock. They ran along the southern declivity of the ridge on which the most ancient parts of the town were built, and after crossing the West Bow – then deemed the grand entrance to Edinburgh – ran between the High Street and the hollow, where the Cowgate (which exhibited then but a few minor edifices) now stands; they then crossed the main ridge at the Nether Bow, and terminated at the east end of the North Loch, which was then formed as a defence on the north, and in the construction of which the Royal Gardens were sacrificed. From this line of defence the entire esplanade of the Castle was excluded. “Within these ancient limits,” says Wilson, “the Scottish capital must have possessed peculiar means of defence – a city set on a hill and guarded by the rocky fortress, there watching high the least alarms; it only wanted such ramparts, manned by its burgher watch, to enable it to give protection to its princes and to repel the inroads of the southern invader. The important position which it now held may be inferred from the investment in the following year of Patrick Cockburn of Newbigging (the Provost of Edinburgh) in the Chancellor’s office as governor of the Castle, as well as his appointment, along with other commissioners, after the great defeat of the English at the battle of Sark, to treat for the renewal of a truce.” It seemed then to be always “truce” and never peace!

In the Parliament of 1455 we find Acts passed for watching the fords of the Tweed, and the erection of bale-fires to give alarm, by day and night, of inroads from England, to warn Hume, Haddington, Dunbar, Dalkeith, Eggerhope, and Edinburgh Castle, thence to Stirling and the north – arrangements which would bring all Scotland under arms in two hours, as the same system did at the time of the False Alarm in 1803. One bale-fire was a signal that the English were in motion; two that they were advancing; four in a row signified that they were in great strength. All men in arms westward of Edinburgh were to muster there; all eastward at Haddington; and every Englishman caught in Scotland was lawfully the prisoner of whoever took him (Acts, 12th Parl. James II.). But the engendered hate and jealousy of England would seem to have nearly reached its culminating point when the 11th Parliament of James VI., chap. 104, enacted, ungallantly, “that no Scotsman marrie and Englishwoman without the king’s license under the Great Seal, under pain of death and escheat of moveables.”


1  Wilson’s “Memorials.”
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