The History of Leith

January 11, 2011


HERTFORD arrived in the Forth on his errand of destruction on the afternoon of Saturday, May 4, 1544. The Regent Arran (son to him who led James IV.’s navy to France) and Cardinal Beaton had got wind of the expedition a few days before, but too late to muster forces for effective resistance, and they made little or no use of those they had. They, however, warned all the inhabitants of the towns on the south shore of the Forth to fortify their towns with trenches to resist
” the Englishe mennis navye,” which those of Leith did. The people of Edinburgh and Leith gathered at every point of vantage to gaze on the great fleet of two hundred ships as they sailed up the Firth and came to anchor above Inchkeith.

Next morning the English army disembarked on the shore under the shadow of Wardie Tower, which had been built in the year 1500 by the Laird of Inverleith to defend his lands against the English ; but on this
occasion, like the Scottish leaders, Wardie Tower did nothing to oppose the enemy’s landing. The English then marched in three divisions to the Water of Leith, near Bonnington Mill, where their passage was disputed by some Scottish troops under Arran and Beaton. The Scots made but a feeble resistance? however, and were
easily repulsed. Crossing the stream, the English then turned their steps towards Leith, whose early capture was necessary that they might bring their ships into its harbour for the landing of guns and stores. They were already bringing their larger ships into Newhaven.
John Knox, who was much given to the use of exaggerated language, gives a graphic picture of the English entry into Leith that suggests a sudden surprise and flight. According to Knox the English marched
into the town, where they found ” the tables covered, the dennarts prepared,” and such abundance of wine and victuals as one could not find in any other town of the same size either in Scotland or England. Now it is hardly likely that the Leithers would prepare their Sunday dinners with the English marching towards their gates. In reality, save the defenders, all the inhabitants had fled from the town before the English arrived. But these same defenders did not allow the enemy the easy walk-over Knox would lead us to suppose. ” We captured then by force,” reports Hertford to his much gratified master, ” the entry to the town of Leith, which was stoutly defended.”
The crowd of fugitives, the stronger helping the more feeble and the sick, would make their way as best they could to the wilderness of swamp and morass that, for the greater part of the way, then extended between Duddingston and Gogar, where none could find them
save those who knew the straggling and perilous paths by which their retreats alone could be reached. English invasion had made the folk of Leith familiar with these treacherous wastes, where they could remain in comparative safety until the enemy had taken their departure. From the large amount of plunder the English carried away from the town it is evident the Leithers had fled in haste, and had had no time to take
with them more than some oatmeal, perhaps, and a few cooking utensils.

The English found two goodly ships in the harbour —the Salamander, given to James V. by the French king on his marriage with the ill-fated Madeleine, and the Unicorn, which had been built in Leith or Newhaven.
Whether the English found in the town all the sumptuous fare Knox pictures for us Hertford does not say, but that they captured a wealth of booty they had never anticipated is certain. ” The town was found fuller of riches than we expected any Scottish town to have been,”
reported the English admiral. In fact, the enemy captured booty in Leith to the value of £100,000 of our money—an amount of wealth that seems to contradict much of what we are generally told of Scotland’s poverty in those troublous times.

To be continued

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