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The Siege of LeithThe siege of
Leith has to a certain extent been forgotten and regarded as just
another incident in an eventful and bloody period of Scottish history
however it has great significance. For one thing it was the first time
that Scotland and England fought side by side. It could also be
considered as the last significant foreign occupation of the British
mainland and marked and end to both the alliance with France and the
catholic domination of Scotland.
1560, a siege of Leith by an English army – against the occupying French
– marked both the end of the ‘Auld Alliance’ that had been in place for
265 years and the establishment of the Protestant religion in Scotland.
James V died in 1542, days after his army was routed by the English at
Solway Moss, leaving his new-born daughter Mary as his heir and the Earl
of Arran as Regent. The late king’s widow, Mary of Guise, kept control
of their daughter. The vacillating Arran was soon facing armed challenge
to his leadership, as well as trying to balance the aspirations of the
queen for a French alliance and a faction of Protestant lords wanting
rapprochement with England.
Advised by the astute Cardinal Beaton, the queen waged a skillful
campaign to preserve the Roman Catholic religion. The church had long
been corrupt and controlled half the wealth of the nation. Reformers had
been working in Scotland since the 1520s and had gradually built up
popular support. The dissolution of the monasteries in England after
Henry VIII declared himself head of the church and the parceling out of
their land to the aristocracy led much of the Scots nobility to become
enthusiastic supporters of reform. Beaton and Mary were in favor of an
alliance with France, which was also at war with England; the reformers
wanted closer ties with England and, particularly, its wealth.
King Henry wished the infant Mary to marry his son, but the Catholic
faction, with the support of the parliament, preferred a French union.
So English armies rolled north in what came to be called the ‘Rough
Wooing,’ creating mayhem in much of Scotland. After the assassination of
Beaton in 1546, the campaign culminated in the battle of Pinkie Cleugh
in 1547, which cost up to 15,000 Scots lives against 2,600 English.
The critical national situation quelled the dissent of the pro-English
faction of Reformers and strengthened the hand of Mary of Guise. France
had already sent troops to help Scotland and now 10,000 of their
soldiers landed at the port of Leith and fortified the town. The infant
queen was sent to France and betrothed to the Dauphin in August 1548.
The regent Arran was created Duke of Chatelherault by Henry II of France
for arranging the French marriage and in 1555 he handed the regency over
to Mary, who ran the country with the help of French advisers. They were
quite popular, but the Protestant magnates were resentful of their power
and influence. Declaring themselves to be the Lords of the Congregation
and allying themselves with John Knox, they deprived Mary of the regency
and raised an army of 12,000 to expel the French. They soon controlled
the Lowlands and Edinburgh, but Mary retook Edinburgh and settled in the
castle. Her troops continued to fortify Leith, enclosing about 90 acres
with huge earth ramparts and bastions.
In October 1559, the Lords of the Congregation blockaded the town. They
built ladders to scale its defenses and mounted an assault. The ladders
were too short and the attack was easily repulsed. The ladders had been
built in St Giles church – an impious use of the building – and the Lord
consequently had frowned upon the enterprise. The Scots army was unpaid,
lacked much interest in a battle and was no match for the 3,000
experienced French soldiers who sallied out from behind their earth
ramparts to plunder for provisions and launch small-scale attacks.
The Lords of the Congregation asked for help from the newly crowned
Queen Elizabeth. In 1560, at the beginning of April, 6,000 troops and
artillery arrived and the English fleet sealed the port. The English
raised mounds round the fortifications for their guns and began to
bombard the town. They succeeded in knocking down the steeple of St
Anthony’s church, on top of which the French had winched a cannon. The
French commanders were celebrating Easter mass in South Leith Parish
Church. During the service a cannonball passed harmlessly in through a
window and out of the church door.
The French continued to make damaging sallies; many such skirmishes took
place on Leith Links in full view of the opposing commanders so they
were desperate affairs as each side sought to prove its gallantry.
A major assault with more than 5,000 men was launched against the town
on May 7th. Once again the ladders were too short and it was
repulsed with a loss of 1500 men. The French lost less than 20. It was
reported that the ramparts were defended by women hurling rocks down on
the attackers and supplying the men with ammunition. The Frenchmen’s
harlots were of the most part Scotch strumpets, remarked John Knox. As
the siege continued, provisions within Leith were running very low. They
were eating horses and harvesting weeds from the ramparts.
Then, on the June 11th, Mary of Guise died at the castle. She
was known to be suffering from dropsy – heart failure – but her death
had not been expected. She was the reason that the French were in
Scotland and so a truce was arranged. On June 20th, the
opposing sides feasted together on the beach. The English brought beef,
bacon, poultry, wine and beer, the French cold roast chickens, a horse
pie and six roast rats.
The hostilities were officially ended by the Treaty of Edinburgh signed
on July 7th in the names of Elizabeth, Queen of England, and
Francois and Mary, King and Queen of France and Scotland. The French and
English troops left Scotland and the Edinburgh town treasury had to pay
for clearing up the mess they left behind.
During the following month, the Scots parliament abolished the
jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church and instituted the Reformed
Confession of Faith drawn up by John Knox and his colleagues. A year
later the Catholic Queen Mary, by then a 19 year-old widow, landed at
Leith to take up her kingdom, the most fiercely Protestant nation in