Review of “Towers, Lost & Found – Revealing medieval Edinburgh Castle 1100-1573” – a talk by Peter Yeoman at Lauriston Castle.

This morning I went along to a very well-attended talk by Peter Yeoman at Lauriston Castle, sponsored by Archaeology Scotland and Edinburgh Museums. It was titled “Towers, Lost & Found – Revealing medieval Edinburgh Castle 1100-1573”. As some of you may know, a couple of years ago I put together a substantial guide to the castle with a detailed history of it, so I was interested to find out what light Peter – who has been involved in the archaeological work at Edinburgh Castle for over 30 years – could shed upon the subject.

As might be gleaned from the title, the main focus of the talk was considering the various towers that are considered to have made up the various stages of the medieval castle prior to its destruction during and immediately after the Lang Siege of 1573.

Peter began the talk with a brief consideration of the first tower, describing it as the keep of David I, dating it to about 1130. In doing so, attention was paid to the earliest building on site, the chapel of St Margaret, which is dated to about this period. He highlighted the theory put forward by Eric Fernie in the 1970s that the chapel was originally an integral part of a square keep similar in concept to those at Carlisle and Bamburgh, and in a series of illustrations showed how the chapel could have fitted into the footprint of such a building. The illustrations placed the chapel in the southern wall of the keep, which was depicted extending to the north and slightly to the west of the chapel building.

Photographs of the chapel were shown, clearly indicating the horizontal breaks in the masonry of the building, and that none of the masonry on the northern side of the chapel is original. In an imaginative reconstruction drawing, the keep is shown as the only stone building within an irregularly shaped enclosure surrounded by a curtain wall of stone crowned with a timber palisade, and a gateway facing roughly west. The reconstruction was flagged with the date 1296.

Peter explained how the castle would have served multiple functions; as the high status residence of the Kings of Scots down to the more prosaic larder, and was at pains to highlight how Edinburgh would have been considered the premium site associated with the Scottish Crown at this period. I personally have my doubts about this, along with the presence of a square tower-keep dating to David’s reign which to my mind would not have been representative of the Scottish crown. In fact I have encountered no evidence whatsoever for such a building in the whole of Scotland of this period, and I personally view Edinburgh as being of lesser importance or status to Stirling at this time. St Margarets Chapel is a complex building, certainly, and there are definitely questions to be answered about it, but it does not, to me, fit within the concept of a keep, and the local topography does not match particularly well for a tower site as suggested.
Of more direct significance to me was Peter’s explanation about the discovery of a major paved roadway which ran in a line under the courtyard between the One O’Clock Gun and up the slope towards the vicinity of the Whisky Shop. Artifacts clearly dated tis road to the late 13th/early 14th century, and it appears to have been in use during the refortification of the castle under Edward III in the 1330s. Unfortunately we cannot be sure whether this was the construction date – or indeed where the road went to and from. Projecting the line of the road, it appears to head directly towards the western postern, but whether this has any relevance at all is unknown.

This was, unfortunately, all the content which related to the layout of the castle prior to the destruction wrought by Robert Bruce and his men post 1314. Thomas Randolph and 30 men are reported to have climbed up the northern cliff edge and over the wall to take the castle, butchered the garrison and then, according to Barbour (writing some 60 years later) who is the source for the story, Bruce arrived and the “tower and wall were mined completely to the ground”.

Whether Barbour had any first hand knowledge of the layout of Edinburgh prior to 1314 is questionable. However, Peter highlighted that in July 1335, the Count of Namur retreated to the “rock of the destroyed castle” and that no buildings were reported as standing at that time. He also suggested that Namur may have been on a reconnaissance mission since two months later Edward III started to rebuild the castle. I think this is perfectly feasible.

From here we moved on to the second tower – and with this we are on firmer ground – which was the great tower of David II. There are images of this tower dating from the 16th century prior to its eventual destruction by artillery – and the lower section of this tower can be seen by appointment behind the masonry of the Half Moon Battery (which is far more impressive than the publicly visible section). When the Treaty of Berwick was signed in 1357, the wars of independence were over, and this allowed David to return to Scotland. However it was not until the end of his “cold war” with Robert Stewart that he was able to start rebuilding at Edinburgh, probably about 1367. As the Stewarts held Stirling by this time, I suspect this is the point at which Edinburgh attained primary status for the Scottish Crown.

Peter highlighted that David had spent a number of years in captivity and had been exposed to many foreign influences which gave him different ideas about the nature of monarchy – and I believe there is great merit in this. However, the great stepped tower that he began to build (it was not completed until after his death in 1371) does not have obvious precedents in England or France. It is my personal opinion that David’s personal preference for crusader knights at his court (and his desire for an heir) may have influenced a desire to create a building inspired by the Holy Land – Jerusalem being known as David’s City and the Citadel being known as the Tower of David. Although Peter suggested that the stepped appearance of the tower was due to local lack of knowledge and was an engineering matter, it is of note that the Phasael Tower is also stepped.

Peter showed a number of reconstruction drawings showing how David’s Tower was constructed, which include cutaway sections, and these were hugely useful to understand the building. He also showed the depictions of the castle from the 1544 Richard Lee sketch of Edinburgh and the siege of Leith drawing, but elected not to show the Braun & Hogenburg one, which shows much more detail. Peter also highlighted the possibility that a sequence of horizontal lines on Lee’s Drawing might represent the Lang Stairs in addition to internal buildings, Davids Tower and the Constables Tower. This appeared compelling, but closer examination of the image on the British Library shows that the lines continue well down the page below this and may only be an artefact.
From here we moved on to the “Great Chamber” of James I which Peter suggested was actually another tower, and returned to the reconstruction drawings which showed how this interacted directly with Davids Tower as part of a royal residential complex. The footprint of this may well be retained within the later Palace buildings dating to the 17th century. He reported that “huge sums” were spent on the building, and it would be informative to understand how this compared with sums spent at Stirling by the Duke of Albany.

From here we moved on to a more general look at the towers of the castle. Peter identified that by the 15th century there were a sequence of towers, many of which could be considered self-contained homes for high status officials, with their own halls, chambers and kitchens, along with a list of named towers. I am not sure where this assertion comes from as I have not been able to identify specific references to rooms within subsidiary towers, but it is a possibility. The names of the towers were tentatively associated with towers as depicted on the 1573 image of the Lang Siege in Holinsheds Chronicle. Some of these, such as the Register Tower, are identified with confidence, others less so, and the name list is in any case incomplete.
Interestingly, the Register Tower, which occupies the angle between David’s Tower and the later Great Hall, appears to combine with the Great Chamber of James I and Davids Tower itself to create a palace based around three towers, which is another interesting parallel with the Citadel in Jerusalem, which is also based on three towers.

A quick overview of the importance of the water supply to the castle was covered in relation to the Wellhouse Tower, the ruins of which can be seen in the park to the north of the castle adjacent to the railway line. There was no well on the castle rock, Peter explained, the “wells” identified actually being cisterns for storing water, not wells leading to the water table. The Wellhouse Tower, which is probably 14th century, was connected via two cranes to the rock summit, and was clearly a vulnerable point in the defences as the castle seems to have fallen very quickly soon after the water supply was lost.

Peter then moved onto a view of the castle today from the south-east, showing the external faces of the Palace, Great Hall, and the connecting block between them. This view shows masonry scars which almost certainly are echoes of old towers, as well as a line of corbelling which Peter identified as being early and representative of an early wallhead. I’m not so sure of this personally given the 16th century depictions of the castle which do not show a continuous wallhead of this nature. However I do think that a detailed and careful study of this profile would provide us with useful information about the build programme and phasing.

As we moved towards the end of the lecture, Peter showed a cross section (hypothetical) showing the projected ground levels from the uppermost part of the castle down to the area of the Argyle Tower and Portcullis Gate, highlighting again the massive heightening of the curtain wall which took place in conjunction with the rebuilding of the castle after the Lang Siege. This brought into sharp focus the report from the 1573 siege which recorded that there were two tiers of guns facing the town in this area; one of these must have been in the area to the north of the main chapel (now the site of the National War Memorial) with a second along the line of the current battery but about 5 metres lower down.

Finally the subsequent history of the castle was summarised, including the 1689 siege during which the castle suffered massive bombardment and destruction, and amusing anecdotes about visitor experiences and feedback from their time at the castle. Peter then opened the floor to questions. My own contribution was to ask about the defences of the castle to the south-west, and whether it had been established where towers were and if the area was defended in the medieval period – but unfortunately due to a lack of excavation in this area there is no information to illuminate this beyond what had already been discussed.

I found the talk an extremely interesting refresher, and clearly there is far more to the archaeology of the castle than has been made publicly available at this point. It is also the case that there are massive gaps in the history of the castle’s development which can only be filled by significant excavation that is currently unplanned. Virtually every area which is not covered by buildings would be viable, but perhaps the most fruitful areas would be the ground around St Margarets Chapel, and the massively backfilled area to the north and east of the War Memorial. Stripping these areas back to the original ground level would not only identify the scale and location of any old buildings but since the infill is almost certainly largely made up of the demolished medieval structures, it would also provide valuable insight into their nature.

For further details about my thoughts on Edinburgh Castle, please feel free to download my Guide which can be found here.