Edinburgh Castle is one of the major tourist attractions of Scotland’s capital city and stands magnificently overlooking the city’s main street in all its glory. Here we take a look at the origins of the castle plus its chequered history that has seen battles, intrigue and the comings and goings of kings and queens a plenty over the centuries.
The Building of the Castle
Edinburgh Castle stands majestically on volcanic rock that was formed millions of years ago. The siting of the castle upon the rock means that it can be seen from all over the city, while the castle that we see today was built by David I, son of Queen Margaret of Scotland (now saint Margaret), in the twelfth century. Queen Margaret died soon after her husband Malcolm III in 1093 and a chapel dedicated to her memory was built within the castle. This chapel is the oldest part of Edinburgh Castle and has survived many incursions over the centuries.
The unique positioning of Edinburgh Castle means that whichever force held the castle was the force that held Edinburgh with the castle being subject to many sieges over the years. The surrounding town evolved from the castle down the hillside with the Royal Mile that we know today so named as this was the route many royals would travel in order to reach the castle. The ownership of Edinburgh Castle would change hands many times over the centuries and the castle played a prominent part in the shaping of the city of Edinburgh.
The Castle Faces Capture
Edward I of England captured Edinburgh Castle from the Scots in 1296 following a three day siege. The castle remained in English hands for seven years until the death of Edward. In 1314 Sir Thomas Randolph the Earl of Moray attacked and captured the castle with only thirty men on behalf of Robert the Bruce. The attack came at night, surprising the English by climbing the cliffs to the north of the castle. The castle remained under the auspice of the Scots for some twenty years when the English once again attacked and took over the castle. Another seven years of English inhabitancy came to an end when a Scottish knight named Sir William Douglas along with his men succeeded in infiltrating the castle disguised as merchants.
David’s tower was added to the castle in 1370 and was commissioned by David II who was the son of Robert the Bruce. The castle had taken quite a beating during the Wars of Independence and David’s vision was to build a tower that was three storeys high offering excellent defence against future attacks. David’s tower was destroyed during the Lang Siege a yearlong battle that ensued when Catholic Mary Queen of Scots married the Earl of Bothwell, James Hepburn, much to the chagrin of the Scottish nobles. Once the tower fell it was not long until the surrender of those who were defending the castle.
The Stuarts and Edinburgh Castle
In 1566 Mary Queen of Scots was married to Lord Darnley with whom she had a son James VI of Scotland who also eventually became James I of England. Once the two crowns of England and Scotland had been joined the royal household moved to London. Prior to her marriage to Darnley Mary had been married to the Dauphin Francis of France. This made her Queen of France as well as Scotland. The Dauphin died only one year into the marriage and Mary decided to return to Scotland even though she was advised to the contrary. Mary ruled successfully until she married Darnley which triggered unrest that was to continue for many years. Darnley was murdered by his enemies outside the walls of Edinburgh Castle on February 10th 1567. Mary’s army was defeated in battle by Protestant lords on Carberry Hill and following her incarceration at Lochleven Castle she had to agree to abdicate her throne in favour of her small son James.
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary escaped her captors in 1568 and journeyed south to London hoping her cousin Elizabeth I would offer her protection. This protection did not however materialise and Mary was instead imprisoned in England for nineteen years! Elizabeth saw Catholic Mary as a threat to Protestantism in England and on 8th February 1587 Mary was executed at Fotheringay Castle. Charles I was the last monarch to reside at Edinburgh Castle in 1633 the night before his coronation.
Jacobite with Flintlock Pistol
The Jacobites supported King James VII of Scotland and II of England as they wanted him reinstated as king following his ousting in 1689 because he was Catholic. In his place the Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange and Mary who was James’s daughter ruled. The Protestant Whigs were the sworn enemy of the Catholic Jacobites wishing England and Scotland to remain Protestant and so the rebellions ensued. The three most important Jacobite risings were
- The 1689 rising led by Bonnie Dundee
- Mars rebellion of 1715
- The Forty Five rebellion of 1745
In 1715 the Jacobites almost succeeded in taking over Edinburgh Castle by climbing the north walls just as Robert the Bruce’s men had done hundreds of years before. In 1745 the Jacobites did manage to take over Holyrood Palace which stands at the opposite end of the Royal Mile but did not succeed in breaching the castle.
Edinburgh Castle the Prison
Entrance to a Dungeon
The castle was used to hold prisoners of war for around one hundred years following the Jacobite Rebellions. Prisoners from the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, the American War of Independence 1775-83 and the Napoleonic Wars 1803-15 were all held here. This saw further building taking place within the castle walls to accommodate prisoners at the castle. The castle ceased to be used as a prison in 1814 as it was deemed unsuitable following a mass escape of prisoners in 1811 where as many as fifty people escaped via a hole in the south wall. The castle was used as a prison again during World War I and World War II.
The Honours of Scotland
The Honours of Scotland were rediscovered by Sir Walter Scott in 1818 when he broke into what is now known as the crown room to look for the lost crown of Scotland. King George IV visited the castle in 1822, while the castle opened to visitors in the 1830’s. In 1880 the Argyll Tower was built by Hyppolite Blanc a Scottish architect who was commissioned by Edinburgh publisher William Nelson. The tower was built over the portcullis gate and the great hall, while a new gatehouse was built in 1888.
In 1905 responsibility for Edinburgh Castle was given over to the Office of Works from The War Office, while in 1935 the position of Governor of Edinburgh Castle was revived. The castle came under the protection of Historic Scotland in 1991 with all the building having protected status plus World Heritage Site status.
Edinburgh Castle has seen some twenty six sieges in it’s centuries of history crediting it with the title of most attacked building in the world and most besieged place in Great Britain. The castle now houses the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown Jewells) and the National War Museum of Scotland.
Read about where the castle is now