Walking the Lanes of History, St. Andrews Castle ~ A Castle Blog Hop Post

Haddon Hall copy

When you live in a place, you don’t much notice things like castles.  Or if you do notice them, well, they’re just part of the scenery which you see every day.  You don’t visit them unless you have out-of-town guests, they’re just there…one strand among many in the fabric of everyday life.

The Castle in St. Andrews is just one of many ancient buildings which I saw every day when I was a student at the university there, and like all the centuries-old buildings there or ruins, it’s one of those features of the town and of living there that even today keeps history daily brushing soft against your cheek.

The history books will tell you that it’s built on a promontory sticking out into the North Sea–from which you may infer that the wind will never stop howling in your ears or buffeting your back as you walk along the Scores (the most sea-ward road) which takes you past the entrance.  I suppose like many castle fortresses, they built it out there as a defense against anyone mad enough to try to invade from the sea.

castle1Anyway, the castle has an ancient and tumultuous history, of course.  This is Scotland.  There’s been a castle in that spot–where the wind and waves never cease–since the late 12th century, when the Bishop of St. Andrews (who was the son of the Earl of Leicester) thought it would be a good idea to live in a place of mediaeval splendour.  After all, until the Reformation, St. Andrews was the ecclesiastical seat of all Scotland, and the Bishop was a powerful man…so he needed a suitable residence to reflect that.  Ehem.

However, just as they were getting the decor right (I’m joking here–castles are draughty places at the best of times) the wars of Scottish Independence began to sweep the land, sweeping with them all hope of peace, prosperity, or domestic tranquillity.  And as a power-player in the doings, the Bishop of St. Andrews’ residence, the Castle, was a ready target for any adversary.  So, over the next decades, the castle was taken and destroyed and rebuilt and retaken by Scots and English forces as they vied for supremacy.   Edward I took it after 1296, when he’d successfully besieged Berwick, and it would seem planned to use it as a residence.

But Bannockburn in 1314 put paid to that plan and ownership was returned to Bishop William Lamberton (he’d supported the winning side led by Robert the Bruce), who undertook some needed repairs.  But that situation didn’t last either.  And by 1336, the place was once again under English siege.  The English captured it; the Scots retook it and destroyed it so the English couldn’t capture it again…And, it wasn’t until the very end of the century that things had settled down enough for the Bishop to set about rebuilding the place, and it’s these remains that one sees today and that I saw every day when I walked past.

At that point, the Castle came into its own as a seat of power and princes.  James I spent time there, James II’s adviser lived there, James III was born there…and on the other end of the scale, this is the period of bottleneck dungeons and all that, and the castle had its fair share of these too and given the cold and the damp of the place, I still pity those unfortunates who were dropped down into the depths of rock, never to emerge…

castle2Of course, by the 16th century, the religious tumult of the Reformation was bringing upheaval to Scotland and the Archbishop from 1521, James Beaton, deemed it appropriate to build up the defences so that the castle could withstand heavy artillery.  Naturally, as events unfolded and the two sides of the Reformation polarised, the Castle grounds were once more the scene of mayhem and murder.  The Protestant Reformer, George Wishart, was burned at the stake there on 1 March 1546.

His friends and supporters therefore came up with a plan and in May snuck into the Castle and murdered the Bishop, David Beaton, and hung his body from a window so all could see.  Not only that, but they also decided that they rather liked the old place, and it appeared to them defensible, so they stayed put and it was there that the first Scottish Protestant congregation was formed,

But the chappie who held power and had an army, the 2nd Earl of Arran, didn’t much like that.  So there followed a period of mining the place, countermining the place and all sorts.  Henry VIII promised aid to the Protestants and was meant to send forces to relieve them, but that never happened.  And Edward VI didn’t send forces either…

However, during an armistice, John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, got into the Castle to act as preacher.  Which may have seemed a good idea at the time, however, a French fleet soon appeared on the horizon and they carried a rather clever military man who brought with him cannon, which he soon had winched into place on the nearby Cathedral’s towers.  The Protestant lairds and men (and John Knox) didn’t last long under that kind of directed siege–the whole business was over in six hours.  The Protestants were captured and sent either to prison in France or condemned to the galleys, which is what happened to John Knox.  (Strange, one doesn’t think of him sitting chained at an oar, does one?)

The next century would see the Castle change hands and eventually fall into ruin…

But, here’s the thing.  By sometime in the 16th century, the Archbishop (who probably owned most of the land round about anyway) had constructed for himself a dandy little palace on the outskirts of the town, known as Strathtyrum.  And while I was studying at the university there, that’s where I lived–in a cottage on the estate.  And every day, I passed this lesser known site on my way to lectures.

But actually, I passed lots of sites…because that’s where Archbishop James Sharpe was murdered by Covenanters in 1679.  And the story goes that a band of these chappies, armed with axes and swords, fell upon the Archbishop’s coach not 500 yards from my front door at the time, and with his niece watching (and screaming one presumes) from the inside of the coach, hacked him to death.  The story also goes that his ghost carriage passes down the Long Drive and from there down the front drive and drives into the sea every year on the anniversary of his death and if you see it…well, start making preparations for your own funeral.  I didn’t see it.


Thus, in the 18th century, the house was bought by the Cheape family, who hired some local lads by the name of Adam to gussy the old Tudor-like palace up and give it a new front.  And they made a spiffing job of it!

When I was a student, no one really knew anything about it at all.

But now, as times have changed, its beauty and tranquillity are now open to the public…though perhaps looking at the picture, you can imagine that time, many years ago now, when this author passed daily this beautiful frontage on her way to lectures and tutorials, each day being drawn further into the elegance and balance of Georgian art and architecture and away from her studies as a mediaevalist, before climbing to the top floor of the old university building where her tutorials were held, with the window that overlooked the ruined Castle.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddWhere did this journey end, you ask?  Well, in the late Georgian period, as witnessed by several of the essays I contributed to the newly released compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon US and UK, as well as Barnes and Noble.

Also, to celebrate a bit more of this place where I learned to walk with history, I will be giving away a copy of my novel, May 1812, the Kindle edition, which is also newly revised…because the drive up to the house at Britwell Park in the novel is really the drive up to the house at Strathtyrum, as it was all those years ago.

Please follow the links below to see some other castles…Slainte!



12 comments on “Walking the Lanes of History, St. Andrews Castle ~ A Castle Blog Hop Post

  1. What a beautiful and informative post. And no, John Knox chained to an oar is a bit difficult to square with other images of him – but I dare say the experience further strengthened his spiritual resilience (sounds nicer than “streak of stubbornness”)

  2. Debra Brown says:

    These things that seemed so ordinary to you- how nice that you developed the state of awe that ended with your sharing the information with us. Great post! Thank you for being a part of the hop.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s been a pleasure to write this one, a pleasure to walk in my mind those once-familiar paths and recognise how privileged I am to have had these experiences…

  3. prue batten says:

    I wonder how long it was before you as a student ceased to pass by driveways and castle ruins as if they were so ‘everyday’ to develop the awe and passion that is evident in what you write now. Or was it like that from the beginning? St.Andrew’s castle is never one I have thought of and thank you for bringing it to our attention so well.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I loved it there. It’s that simple, Prue. I just loved it. When I first arrived–and this is God’s own truth–I wanted to kiss the ground of the place. From the tang of the air to the wind that buffets one’s back to the tiny wynds that make navigation in the town centre a mediaeval walking tour not for the easily lost, to the grey stone buildings to the lecturers in their black gowns, to my cottage on the Strathtyrum estate and the cattle shed outside my kitchen window, to the best fish and chips in the world and fudge doughnuts from Fisher and Donaldson, I loved it.

  4. Very nice post, my sister was at Uni in St Andrews and its such a quaint town. I’m having a feast going round all these castles – each one is great. Can feel a Castles book coming on from EHFA (slaps hand over mouth) ; )

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