For centuries, St Andrews, a relatively small Royal Burgh on the East Coast of Fife, was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. It was the home to the largest church in Scotland – St Andrews Cathedral. The Cathedral housed of some the most important relics in Christendom, making St Andrews an important pilgrimage destination. More importantly, St Andrews became the seat of bishops, archbishops, and even a cardinal. However, for such powerful men, a mere priory would not suffice as a lodging – they wanted a ‘palace’! Luckily for them, St Andrews Castle could be that palace…or so they thought.
As we journey into the history of the Castle, a brief warning- the stories that you are about to hear are not of celestial and divine bliss, but are rather dark. They are full of violent sieges, gruesome murders, devastating storms, and more. Plus, if you are claustrophobic, be warned because we are going to go into some very tight and cramped places underground.
We start our virtual visit to St Andrews Castle with an aerial view of it from atop St Rule’s Tower at St Andrews Cathedral. This is a relevant place to begin our visit because of the legend of St Rule. According to the legend, St Rule was the guardian of the sacred artefacts relating to St Andrew during the 4th century. It is said that he received a warning from an angel about the Roman threat and fled Greece with St Andrew’s bones looking for a safe place. His voyage came to an end when he shipwrecked off the coast of Fife. St Rule decided to make this location the holy site to store the relics of St Andrew.
While there is often a kernel of truth in legends, the historical record can disqualify elements of myths or at least provide some alternative theories. This is the case for St Andrews because the earliest recorded settlements in the area don't date until the 8th century. However, even then, it was most likely already an important location both politically and religiously because it was believed to be a monastic community of Céli Dé (Culdees) monks founded by a Pictish king. At that time, St Andrews was known as Cennrigmonaid which later changed to Kilrymont. According to Historic Scotland, both names translate as, “church on the head of the king’s mount”. Finally, as a side note, the legend of St Rule wasn't even recorded until the 12th century.
Once we get to the 11th and 12th centuries, the cult of St Andrew had grown in popularity largely due to the devotion of Queen Margaret. She established a ferry service across the Firth of Forth to help pilgrims make their journey easier from southern Scotland on their way north to visit St Andrew’s relics in Kilrymont. It was during the 12th century when the construction of St Andrews Cathedral began. During its construction, the name of St Andrews was slowly adopted and eventually became the name of the surrounding village.
As the Cathedral was being built, the bishops also started the construction of the Castle which was to serve as their secular home. This would provide them security and demonstrate their authority, position, and power. Unfortunately, most of the early Castle was destroyed during the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 14th century. Throughout the Wars, control of the Castle went back and forth between the Scots and the English. In an interesting plot twist, the bulk of the destruction of the early Castle, was by the Scots themselves who wanted to make sure that it would not fall back into the hands of the English to be used as a fortress.
It is believed that the only part that remains from that earliest castle is the well in the middle of the inner courtyard. In 1385, a new bishop, Walter Traill, started the rebuilding of the Castle, giving it its pentagonal layout that you can still see in the present-day ruins. One of the best examples of what is remaining of the ‘Traill Castle’ is the Fore Tower (pictured below from the interior). However, it’s important to note that the Fore Tower also contains masonry works dating back to earlier versions of the Castle.
Moving on to the 15th century, we enter a golden age of St Andrews Castle. The Courtyard would have seen many distinguished church leaders (from home and afar), visitors, foreign dignitaries, and Scottish nobility. For example, King James I was educated at the Castle and it is believed that his grandson, King James III, was born there in 1452.
Moving from the relative tranquility of the 15th century into the 16th century, Scotland, along with the rest of Europe, was swept up in the massive societal changes of the Reformation. This time of change was also compounded by various European wars. When King Henry VIII invaded France, Scotland was drawn into the war as they had an alliance with France. The Scots were thus engaged in the Battle of Flodden with the English, and King James IV was killed as was his illegitimate son, Archbishop Alexander Stewart of St Andrews. This created a power vacuum until his place was filled by the ambitious Archbishop James Beaton.
Archbishop Beaton was not only seeking power- he also wanted to quell any Protestant ideas with a heavy hand as he considered them all to be heretics. Not only did he increase the use of the Castle as a state prison, but he also prosecuted and executed many Protestants including, most famously, preacher Patrick Hamilton who was burned at the stake in 1528. Beaton also looked to strengthen his power through fortifying the Castle by widening and strengthening the walls and block houses to better withstand modern artillery fire. At the end of the 1530s, Bishop James Beaton, was succeeded by his nephew, David Beaton.
David Beaton was even more ambitious than his uncle as he not only became the Archbishop of St Andrews, but he became a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. As with many historical figures, they tend to make friends and enemies. Beaton was a staunch supporter of the Catholic French monarchy as well as the Stewart family. In fact, he officiated the Coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1542. He was vehemently against the wishes of Henry VIII who wanted to arrange a marriage between Mary and his son, making him an enemy in the eyes of the English King.
Cardinal Beaton’s continuation of his Uncle’s policy of persecuting local Protestants ultimately became costly for him. His downfall started when he had another Protestant preacher, George Wishart, burned at the stake. The outrage caused by Wishart’s execution, led to some Protestant lairds (lords) in Fife to disguise themselves as masons to make their way into the Castle (aka Cardinal Beaton’s ‘Ecclesiastical Palace’). Once inside, they seized control of the Castle and captured and killed Cardinal Beaton. This was particularly grisly as they stabbed him multiple times, and then, as a sign of their defiance and victory, hung his naked remains onto the outside wall of the Castle.
This set off a long siege between the Protestant lairds from Fife who received help from the English and the Catholic Regent, Arran, who was ordered by Marie de Guise (Mary Queen of Scots’ mother) to take back the Castle. However, the situation was a little more complicated for Regent Arran because the Fife lairds who occupied the Castle were also holding his son hostage inside. During the siege, there is a particularly gruesome legend about the remains of Cardinal Beaton as it is said that his body was thrown down into the infamous Bottle Dungeon (pictured below) where it was preserved with salt.
Because his son was being held hostage, Regent Arran required a delicate approach to take over the Castle, which led his forces to go underground. They began to dig an underground siege mine with the plan of digging through the rock and under the Castle defenses so that they could bring the Fore Tower and walls down with an explosion from underneath.
The rebels inside the Castle realised the threat that this imposed. So, in desperation, they started to dig a counter mine to try to intercept Regent Arran’s siege mine and prevent it from reaching the Castle’s defenses. After a few failed starts, they eventually started to make progress by digging toward the sound of the Regent’s men. They finally succeeded in intercepting, thus stopping Regent Arran's plans (as a side note- for present-day visitors, this is one of the most intriguing parts of visiting St Andrews Castle as you can usually visit inside the siege and counter mines. Further, they are some of the best-preserved examples of siege mines in all of Europe).
To complicate the matters even further, John Knox joined the volatile situation by entering the Castle to try to negotiate a truce between the Protestant rebels inside and the Catholic forces outside. However, this was to no avail as Regent Arran and the Church had no desire to let Cardinal Beaton’s murderers go free. To help bring this prolonged siege to an end, Marie de Guise summoned help from the French navy.
The French took a more direct and aggressive approach during the siege by bombarding the Castle with their naval artillery. This destroyed much of the seaside defenses of the Castle including the Sea Tower, parts of the Great Hall, and some of the block houses (circular gun towers).
Ultimately, the French efforts led to the capture and imprisonment of some of the rebel lairds. As for John Knox, he was made into a galley slave on a French ship sent back to France for his role in the drama that had unfolded at St Andrews. However, this wasn’t the last St Andrews would see of Knox.
After all the drama, with much of St Andrews Castle left as rubble, and with the image of the Catholic Church also damaged, it was left to Cardinal Beaton’s successor, Archbishop John Hamilton, to try to restore both. As for the Castle, he managed to make much-needed repairs and even added some of his own personal touches. For example, the Hamilton façade still exists today and is the main entry into the Castle. As for the Church, Hamilton attempted to make changes from within in the hopes of holding the Protestant Reformation at bay.
However, all this progress was short-lived as John Knox made his return to St Andrews in 1559. He gave a fiery sermon that worked up his congregation into an angry mob that ransacked and destroyed St Andrews Cathedral. The Castle fared slightly better but was abandoned by Archbishop Hamilton who fled for his life (he was later captured and executed at Stirling).
Catholic mass was banned, therefore there was no need for the Cathedral or the Castle as its purpose as an ‘ecclesiastical palace’ for archbishops. Instead, for a brief time, St Andrews Castle was used as a prison. But, because of its dilapidated condition, it was eventually abandoned all together. From the 1600s on, on a few occasions, stones from the Castle were used to repair damages caused by storms at St Andrews’ harbour.
Although there were a few brief periods of time when there was hope that St Andrews Castle and Cathedral would be restored to their former glory, that never came to fruition. The Castle ruins faced another major storm in the early 1800s and the remains of the Great Hall and some of the walls collapsed and were washed into the sea, leaving the Castle ruins as we see it in its present state.
Nevertheless, we highly recommend that on your trip to St Andrews, you take the time to visit the Cathedral and the Castle. Both are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. Head over to their website for the most up-to-date information on how to plan your visit.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!