The History of Leith

August 8, 2007

The Days of Blood and Thunder

During the 16th Century Scotland was in the throes of Civil War and the Scottish Reformation. The French who had come to Scotland to help drive out the English who had invaded Scotland in 1544 and 1547 started to demand the High Offices of State in Scotland and treated Scotland merely as a province of France. So for both political and religious reasons the great lords rebelled and started to push the French out. Eventually the French Army was pushed into Leith the bolt hole of Mary of Guise

The Lords of the Congregation (ie the Protestant Lords) sent a demand to Leith in October 1559, it was for the Town of Leith to surrender within twelve hours or the war would start in earnest. This demand of course was ignored. Within Leith were 3000 French Soldiers. Although the Scots army was larger, it was largely undisciplined and didn’t stand much of a chance against a disciplined French army fresh from the wars in Europe.

After several skirmishes the French were slowly winning, capturing the Congregation’s Guns on the Calton Hill. Even the ladders used to scale the walls were too short. They captured supplies meant for Edinburgh.

The troops of the congregation now imagined that God and heaven was against them and soldiers started to desert. Not only was their money to pay the soldiers starting to run out. John Knox said, The men of war were men without God or honesty. They had become a rabble and mutiny was threated in the ranks. In their desperation the Lords of the congregation asked England for help and a meeting was held at Berwick and from this came money and supplies. Not only this but by March 1560 the Lords of the Congregation now ordered a General muster before the walls of Leith and by April an English Army under Lord Grey de Wilton marched into Scotland with Sir James Croft as second in command. The English force consisting of 1250 Calvary and 6000 infantry. Their first stop was at Douglas and then at Haddington, but it was at Prestonpans that they met the Scottish leaders as this was to become one of the most important battles in Scottish History as this was the first time that the Scots and English came together as allies.

The Queen who by this time, is said to have left Leith for Edinburgh Castle, was slowly dying. From where she observed the Scottish and English Armies. The French now had about 5000 troops in Leith; where given orders that the town would be defended to the last of their blood and breath. The English encamped at Restalrig and were immediately attacked by the French. Marching across the links, this force took possession of the wooded hill named Hawkhill and a battle ensued for possession of the Hill. The battle went on for several hours and the battered French returned to Leith and the English mounted cannon on Hawkhill. Gradually they took Hermitage Hill and so the English controlled all the high ground facing Leith.

After this a truce was called and the French came out and milled about at Restalrig but gradually arguments broke out and a full scale battle started after guns were fired by the French into the faces of the English soldiers. The French were driven back at the cost of one hundred and forty men killed, the English losses were greater due to them being taken by surprise.

The next event was a French attack on the English. The French destroying three cannons and putting 600 English to the sword. The war became intense and the very bitter. The Scots and English now met every attack with an equal force and bloody battles were fought across what was to become Leith Links. Into this came more English Troops and a really determined attack was made to capture Leith which failed. However by this time famine was starting to affect Leith as the French couldn’t supply Leith from the sea as it was being blocked by the ships of the English navy under Lord Winter.

As the war went on heavy cannon was placed nearer and nearer to Leith. One Gun mount called Mount Falcon just opposite Leith Hospital kepted up a constant bombardment of the Sheriff Brae and Coal Hill along with the English navy. Gradually death worked overtime in Leith, between the constant heavy bombardment and the famine many of the people within Leith were killed. Leith had been turned into a slaughterhouse but the French showed no signs of surrender. Suddenly a fire broke out in the Sheriff Brae and along the west side of Leith and the glare could be seen for miles. This was due to many houses in Leith being timber fronted. The flames could be seen for miles and the English continued pounding the town. To the sad and tearful Maria de Guise the Governor of Edinburgh Castle said “Indeed Madam, since it seems beyond the power of man to drive out the beggarly French, God himself is taking the matter in hand.

The siege went on day after bloody day. Eventually the French troops were reduced to eating horsemeat. Confirmation of this was found in the 19th century with the discovery of a well at the foot of what is now Easter Road full of horse’s heads.

The town itself was slowly being reduced to rubble. The East end of South Leith Church was destroyed and the Preceptory of St Anthony was a ruin as it’s tower was used to mount French cannon in order to gain altitude and to make the cannonballs go further. Which would have caused a serious problem but for the English and Scots heavy Bombardment which brought the tower down. What was to become the Foot of Leith Walk, Great Junction St, The Sheriff Brae and the Coal Hill become a killing ground, and proof lies beneath our feet as to this day human remains, cannonballs, armour and the paraphernalia of war are dug up from time to time.

Yet for all their privations with true French style, vowing never to surrender while a horse was left. The Cook of the Marshall Strozzi still produced twelve dishes a day but was eventually reduced to a quarter of a carrion horse, dressed with a few weeds from the town wall.

The unfortunate Mary de Guise was dying in Edinburgh Castle and would not see the end of the Siege of Leith. She tried to arrange a peace treaty but died on the 10th June 1560. However by this time fresh forces of 12000 Scots had arrive and the French position was starting to look impossible and slow starvation faced the defenders.

So with death of Mary de Guise peace negotiations began and it was stipulated that the French army would leave Leith and be conveyed in English Ships back to France. At the same time the English started on their homeward march back to England. So by the 16th July 1560, the French troops reduced now to 4000 troops marched out of Leith after sacking it and so twelve years of French involvement in Scotland came to an end.

However another of the stipulations of the treaty was that Mary Queen of Scots was to remove the English Coat of Arms from her shield. The point being Mary Queen of Scots was only a heart beat away from the throne of England (being the Grand-daughter of James IV and Margaret Tudor who was sister of Henry VIII and daughter of Henry VII of England. On Mary Queen of Scots subsequent marriage to Darnley this claim became stronger. This was due to his mother Margaret Douglas being the daughter of Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas. Who she married after the death of James IV at Flodden ). This was the reason Mary refused to sign the treaty presented to her by Sir James Sandilands and was indirectly the reason she was executed in 1587. To whom she said “How could a Templar bring such a treaty to her” Sir James according to history was the last Templar preceptor in Scotland and in fact passed Templar land to the Crown just to receive them back.

It was to a battered and smoking ruin that Mary; Queen of Scots came, when she arrived in Leith on 20th of August 1561. No trace of where she landed now exists but according to legend it was at the foot of the Burgess Close. Again it is often stated that she stayed at the house of Andrew Lamb, which she probably did, which of course is supposed to be the present day Lambs House. However this cannot be true because at one time the Close was a lot narrower and the house has probably been demolished a long time ago. Certainly Lambs House is a typical 17th century Merchants House but there is no absolute proof that she ever stayed there. The fact that she stayed at Andrew Lambs house is indirect evidence that Mary de Guise didn’t actually have a House in Leith at all.

The important thing about the Siege of Leith is this is the turning point in British history. Not only is it the end of the Auld Alliance with France and the completion of the Reformation in Scotland. It sees the beginning of the idea of a United Kingdom which came about in 1707.

For a plan of Leith in 1560 click here

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