The Medieval Highlights of Edinburgh Castle

Welcome to Her Medieval Scotland! It seemed fitting that my first blog post should be about a place very close to my heart. I have had the pleasure of working at Edinburgh Castle for the last two summers and in that time have collected some wonderful memories there. It was a privilege to stroll around the castle outside of opening hours; to see the way the evening light bathed the Lang Stairs, and look out from the barracks at night across the city to the Forth beyond.

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Lang stairs by the Argyle Tower and Portcullis Gate

One of the benefits of working with thousands of people on a daily basis was seeing how in awe they were of this imposing fortress. It seems that the castle captures the imagination of so many people regardless of age or where in the world they came from, and I can completely understand why. Whilst working there I felt very connected to many of the figures of Scotland’s medieval history which the castle hosted in centuries past, the stories of some of whom are found in this post.

The history of the site is a long one; there has been a settlement on Castle Rock since at least 900 BC and it is known to have been a royal residence from the reign of King David I of Scotland (r.1124-1153). The oldest building in the castle also happens to be the oldest in Edinburgh, St Margaret’s chapel, built by David in memory of his late mother, Queen Margaret, is a twelfth-century place of worship still in use today.

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St Margaret’s Chapel built by her son David I from 1130-40.

Margaret is one of the most well-known women in medieval British history and her life has captured the imagination of historians for centuries. An heir to the throne of England, she was born in exile in Hungary, and faced many years of dangerous uncertainty about her position upon her family’s return to England in 1057. It is uncertain how or exactly when she met her husband King Malcolm III of Scotland, but the pair married in 1070 and together had eight children. Her royal household was known as the Nursery of Saints, and three of her sons went on to become king of Scotland, and her daughter Edith, Queen consort of England. A devoutly religious woman, she encouraged scholars from across Britain and the continent to populate the new religious houses which she patronised across Scotland. She is widely credited with propelling the country into the high medieval era, revolutionising the customs of the Scottish court and bringing it more up to date with those of other European kingdoms. She died in the castle mere days after her husband and eldest son were killed in battle in 1093 and was canonised in 1250.

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A memorial stained glass window to the Scottish Queen inside the chapel which bears her name.

The Stone of Scone (or The Stone of Destiny), a sacred object used in the coronation of Scottish kings for hundreds of years, also resides in the castle. Originally housed at Scone in Perthshire, the stone was taken from Scotland in 1296 during an invasion led by King Edward I at the time of the Wars of Independence. Edward then set the stone underneath the English throne in Westminster Abbey as a display of his lordship over the country. The stone was only returned to Scotland in 1996 where it is now displayed alongside the Honours of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle.

The medieval Honours, which comprise the sceptre and crown, were created for James IV and V respectively. The sceptre was gifted to the Scottish king by the Pope who recognised James as a truly Renaissance prince;  a devout Catholic, a lobbyer for peace and highly cultured.  Indeed, he was also a consistent patron of the arts, he played host to musicians, scientists and poets, in particular William Dunbar who was a regular presence at his court, and was fluent in multiple languages including Gaelic. He also made peace with England when he married Margaret, the daughter of King Henry VII, in 1503. But James was also a strong ruler, defeating multiple rebellions, building up his naval forces and finally securing the submission of the Lord of the Isles in 1493. Edinburgh Castle still retains much of James’ influence; he spent significant sums on constructing the Great Hall in the latest architectural fashion and decorating it with rich tapestries, as well as transforming part of the castle into a gun foundry.

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Due to its turbulent history, many of the castle’s medieval features are now lost, including David’s Tower built in the late 1360s, of which only ruins remain. In 1440, the tower was the venue of the Black Dinner, where William, 6th Earl of Douglas, was invited by James II to dine with him. The Douglas and his retinue were betrayed by their host and executed in the presence of the king in order to eradicate the Douglas threat to the Crown’s authority in the west of the kingdom (quite possibly, this event was J. R. R. Martin’s inspiration for the Red Wedding in his fantasy series A Game of Thrones).

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The remains of David’s Tower. Built by King David II between 1367-68, it was destroyed during the Lang Siege of 1571-73.

However, one of the medieval structures which still survives today is the royal apartments begun by James IV. It was here in 1566 that his granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots, sought refuge to give birth to her son, the future James VI, who would later unite the crowns of England and Scotland. The compact, dark, wood-panelled chamber is still decorated with images commemorating the difficult birth of the heir, and a small window looks out towards Holyrood Palace from which Mary had fled a few months before. Protestant lords intent on influencing the Catholic queen had grown jealous of the favour she had shown to her Catholic Italian secretary, David Rizzio, and so, joined by Mary’s disaffected husband, they murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Queen. Perhaps Mary looked out from her childbed onto the city in the grip of a religious reformation and wondered for her safety and that of her son, or perhaps she felt reassured that the child would secure her position on the throne. If the former, Mary’s worries were justified as she would continue to rule for little more than a year until, against her wishes, her infant son was proclaimed monarch in her stead as the Queen first fled into exile and was thereafter imprisoned.

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The birthing chamber in the Royal Apartments. The head of the royal bed most likely stood beneath the coat of arms on the far wall. A small window on the opposite wall offers some light and a view of the Royal Mile and Arthur’s Seat.

The turbulent, unpredictable and often violent reality of medieval Scottish politics prompted many monarchs to take refuge behind the defences of Edinburgh Castle, but during this time it so much more than a fortress. Over the centuries, from within its walls emanated new customs, systems of government, ideas and learning led by figures such as Margaret and James IV which permeated across the land. The castle became a symbol of the Scottish Crown’s authority over the increasingly unified kingdom as Edinburgh developed into the country’s capital, as well as outwardly displaying to other royal houses the Scottish monarchy’s place in European politics. Admittedly, it is not my favourite medieval Scottish castle (there are literally hundreds to choose from!) but there is undoubtedly a magic about it that will continue to lure me back again and again.

A big thank you to Edinburgh Castle for providing the excellent photographs.

Have you visited the castle and what was your favourite aspect?

What part of Edinburgh Castle’s history would you like to read more about? Let me know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “The Medieval Highlights of Edinburgh Castle

  1. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experi ence with us! I visited the castle in 2014 and it certainly was a surreal experience. St. Margaret’s chapel was hosting a wedding at the time, and we all had to wait for it to end so that we could visit it. 😉 Edinburgh Castle is one of my favorite castles!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Pri! I’m glad you enjoyed the castle. They host weddings regularly at the castle and I’m sure it is a surreal experience for both the married couple and the visitors 🙂 I hope you get to see some more Scottish castles in the future.

    Like

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