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The Story of Leith
XII. Leith in the Fifteenth Century


THE cruel and savage murder of James I. at Perth had an important influence on the fortunes of Edinburgh, and, therefore, on those of Leith, for it proved that Perth was no safe place for a royal residence. The queen at once removed to Edinburgh, bringing the little king with her. His boyhood’s associations with the city of his birth were to engender in the king a strong affection for it, and to Ms reign we may date the foundation of the Palace, as distinct from the Abbey, of Holyrood. which was to make Edinburgh the favourite place of royal residence, and the capital of Scotland.

This could not but add greatly to the prosperity and commercial importance of Leith. Yet James II. does not seem to have had such close association with the Port as his father had through his foundation and building of the King’s Wark, his fondness for pleasure-cruising on the waters of the Firth, and his interest in shipbuilding and commerce which he did so much to encourage. Perhaps we might have heard more of the interest of James II. in Leith, and his connection with it, had the chronicles of his reign not been so meagre and scanty. Legend, however, sometimes comes to our aid, and we have a very picturesque one describing James’s first recorded visit to Leith, although he must often have been in the town with his parents and sisters on their way across the Firth to Perth.

Sir William Crichton, the Governor of Edinburgh Castle, who, you remember, was one of the benefactors of St. Anthony’s Hospital, had the queen-mother and the little king so completely in his power in Edinburgh Castle that they were virtually prisoners. But Crichton was cleverly outwitted by the queen, who pretended she was going on a pilgrimage to pray for her son’s health, and earnestly commended him to his tender care during her absence. Starting early in the morning she placed her luggage in one chest and the little king in another, and slung them both from the back of a sumpter horse. Instead of riding to the shrine of Our Lady at Whitekirk, however, she galloped to the King’s Wark on the Shore, and embarking, perhaps in the king’s barge, perhaps in her own "new little ship," and sailing under a fair breeze, she was well on her way to Stirling Castle before Crichton discovered how the queen had proved too clever for him.

In spite of the strife and disorder that prevailed even in our own neighbourhood between Crichton and the Forresters of Corstorphine, the trade and commerce of Leith steadily increased. In 1438, the very first year of James’s reign, we get a glimpse of her growing wool trade with Flanders in the regulations enjoining all traders sailing outward from the port to give a sack freight in support of the Scots chaplain at St. Ninian’s Chapel in the Carmelite church at Bruges. Although we have scant record of any association of James Mm-self with our town, yet he did much to encourage its commerce.

Like his father, King James granted a charter to the merchant burgesses of Edinburgh, empowering them to levy certain tolls and dues on the shipping for the upkeep of the harbour, whose state of disrepair had been the cause of much loss of life. The Leithers, being "unfree," were again treated as strangers in their own town, and had to pay the double dues of foreigners. This, of course, was in strict accordance with the laws and customs of the time, and, while the Leithers might try to evade the higher charges, they did not regard them as unjust, for they were equally ready when occasion arose to prevent strangers from sharing any of the few privileges they themselves possessed.

There was constant coming and going of embassies for the promotion of trade between Leith and Flanders throughout the whole of James II.’s reign. To add Iustre to one of these, the king sent with it his own sister Mary, when he, no doubt, came down from Holyrood to the Shore with a company of nobles to see her off. In her honour splendid receptions were held at Bruges, and the trade between Leith and that noted seat of commerce was placed on a more flourishing basis. Another frequent voyager between Leith and Flanders on business of state, mostly connected with trade, was Alexander Napier, upon whom for his many services James bestowed the lands of Merchiston, which, with the old castle of the same name, the family still possess.

Two events of this time were to place the peoples of Scotland and the Netherlands on a very friendly footing all through James’s reign. The first of these was the marriage of the king’s sister Mary in 1444 with the Lord of Veere, in Holland. There is a tradition that the Princess Mary, as we would expect, encouraged Scots traders to come to Veere. However this may be, Veere some time after became the chief centre of Leith’s commercial intercourse with the Continent, and continued to hold this position right down to the period of tile Napoleonic wars.

The second and more important of the two events that drew into closer alliance the people of Scotland with those of the Netherlands was the marriage of James II. himself to Mary, the only daughter and heiress of the wealthy Duke of Gueldres. Leith was the natural port of arrival for distinguished foreigners on their way to the Court at Holyrood, and it was to Leith that this beautiful and accomplished princess came in 1449, the first of several foreign princesses who landed at the Shore of Leith to become Scottish queens. Her departure from Holland had been delayed by fear of attacks from English warships, which were ever ready, even in times of peace, to waylay ships sailing to and from Scotland. The fleet arrived safely at Leith, however, where the princess and her brilliant train were met by the Provost of Edinburgh and a great concourse of citizens as she stepped ashore at the King’s Wark.

We can picture to ourselves the gay and splendid scene on the Shore on that sunny day in June, when Sir William Crichton, who had been sent to accompany her to Scotland, introduced the princess to the provost and the gay company of lords and ladies who had ridden down from Holyrood to meet her. It is difficult for us in our day, when dress is so simple in form and sober in colour, to realize the pomp and splendour of a royal progress in medieval times, when costume was so gay, and so extravagant in fashion, and its costly materials showed, as they no longer do in our time, the rank and wealth of their wearers. The arrival of the king’s chosen bride aroused the greatest interest and enthusiasm. The people crowded the narrow thoroughfares, that did duty for streets in the Leith of those days, and the galleries and outside stairs of the quaint, timber-fronted houses, which were gaily decorated with flowers and tapestry.

The Rotten Row, now Water Street The princess had a joyous welcome as she rode on horseback, pillionwise, behind the Lord of Veere in accordance with the custom of the time, for side-saddles for ladies were unknown in Scotland until Mary Queen of Scots brought them with her from France. It was with difficulty that the cavalcade made its way by the Rotten Row and the Kirkgate to St. Anthony’s Hospital, where Alexander Napier, the king’s treasurer, had arranged for refreshment before the princess set out for the city. In the Guest-house of the Blackfriars’ Monastery, whose vaulted gateway stood at the Cowgate end of the Blackfriars’ Wynd, the princess was warmly welcomed by the youthful king.

James, like his father, was keenly interested in artillery, and during his reign "bombards," as the great guns of those times were called, were frequent articles of cargo between Flanders and Leith, where they were stored in the King’s Wark or taken to Edinburgh Castle. Among these was the great cannon from Mons, which, as Mons Meg, is still an object of so much interest and curiosity to all visitors to the Castle. We can easily imagine the excited interest Meg’s arrival on the Shore would arouse among all the people of the surrounding district, and we may feel certain that, in her progress towards Edinburgh, she would be accompanied by as large and curious crowds as Leith showed on the arrival of the first "tank."

His interest in gunnery was to cost James his life, for he was killed at the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460 by the bursting of one of those bombards in which he used to take such pride. We may look on Trinity College Church and the King’s Pillar in St. Giles’ as tributes of his sorrowing queen to the memory of her ill-fated husband, whose untimely death plunged Scotland once more into all the disorder and lawlessness that were wont to prevail when the king was a child, and which did so much injury to trade and commerce.

During the minority of James III. the country was undisturbed by foreign invasion, for England was distracted by the Wars of the Roses, and Scotland was thus left in peace. That is why trade and commerce still made some progress in spite of James’s weak rule, for he was neither a soldier nor a statesman. As he grew to man’s estate strife and lawlessness continued, for he developed all the Stuarts’ love for favourites, and thus set the nobles against him. One of his early favourites was Thomas Boyd, a man of great charm of manner, whom the king had created Earl of Arran, and had married to his sister Mary. It was this Arran who sailed from Leith on an embassy to the Court of Denmark to arrange a treaty of marriage between King James and the saintly Princess Margaret of that country.

The Bernard Street corner of The Shore His embassy was successful in its mission. By the terms of the marriage treaty, which is still preserved in the Register House, the Orkney and Shetland Islands came to Scotland as Margaret’s dowry, for her father had no money to spare her. Arran conducted the princess from Denmark to Leith in July 1469, where her landing rivalled in pomp and splendour that of Mary of Gueldres some twenty years before. But in the pageantry of this gala day the brilliant Arran had no share. During his absence his many enemies had poisoned the mind of the king against him, and his life was forfeit. Anxiously and in secret, somewhere near the Shore, his devoted wife, the Princess Mary, awaited his arrival with the Danish fleet in Leith Roads, and, stealing aboard, warned him of the fate awaiting him. He had sail immediately hoisted on one of the Danish convoy ships, and, accompanied by his wife, at once returned to Copenhagen.

In the Picture Gallery at Holyrood may be seen four fine examples of Flemish painting of this period, which originally formed the altar-piece of the Church of tile Holy Trinity, built by Mary of Gueldres to commemorate her ill-fated husband, James II. Two of these paintings show full-length portraits of James III. and his queen, the Princess Margaret of Denmark, whose reception at the King’s Wark amid so many demonstrations of welcome on that far-off July day of 1469 forms one of the many brilliant pageants that have been witnessed by the Bernard Street corner of the Shore—a street that in many ways still has about it much of the spell of ancient days, and seems ever to remind us of our long and close commercial intercourse with the Netherlands in centuries gone by. In walking here we might almost believe ourselves to be on the quayside street of some old Flemish port. And how much more real must the resemblance have seemed in the days before the formation of the now extensive docks, when the Shore was the only harbour and its quays were crowded with great ships, while the sky overhead was chequered with the picturesque outlines of their masts, yards, and cordage.

Arran was not the only great personage of James’s reign to whom Leith offered a ready means of escape when his life was forfeit. The king, for reasons we do not fully know, had imprisoned his brother, the Duke of Albany, in Edinburgh Castle. His friends, knowing his life to be in danger, endeavoured to effect his escape. Just at this time a French vessel laden with Gascon wine had opportunely arrived, and was riding at anchor off the pier of Leith. From the French vessel they sent him two runlets of wine, which, luckily, were passed by his guards unexamined and untasted. In one of these was a rope and a waxen roll enclosing a letter intimating that he was to die ere next day’s sunset, and urging him to make an immediate endeavour to escape, when a boat from the French vessel would come ashore for him at Leith.

Albany knew he must either do or die. He invited his guards to join him in doing honour to the wine, whose excellence was their undoing, for, when they had become tipsy, they were slain by Albany. He then escaped to the ramparts overlooking Princes Street. But in the descent by means of the rope his servant fell and broke his leg. Albany was unwilling to leave his faithful servant to the tender mercies of his enemies. Being a man of unusual size and strength, he put him over his shoulders, and, aided by the darkness, carried him safely to Leith, where a boat from the French trader awaited them. Daylight revealed the rope dangling over the Castle rock; but by this time Albany was well on his way down the Firth to his own Castle of Dunbar, from which he eventually escaped to France.

James III. became more and more at odds with his nobles as the years passed. They accused him, among other misdeeds, of debasing the coinage by mixing brass and lead in the silver money, and making it pass as fine silver. Like other needy kings, both before and after him, this he had undoubtedly done. That is why a pound in Scots money gradually deteriorated in value until it was worth only a twelfth of our British sovereign. This debasing of the coinage greatly hampered Leith shipmen and Edinburgh merchants trading abroad, yet King James III. had no more loyal subjects than the people of these two towns, and, when the nobles imprisoned him in Edinburgh Castle after the belling of the cat at Lauder Bridge in 1482, it was the provost and citizens of Edinburgh who were the chief agents in effecting his freedom. The grateful monarch, believing, as he said, that "we should bestow most on those by whom we are most beloved," in return for this and other services granted to the city the deed known as the "Golden Charter," an incident depicted in one of the picture panels decorating the City Chambers.

The Golden Charter conferred many benefits upon the citizens. We are not concerned with these further than they affected our town of Leith. This Golden Charter, whose name is an estimate of how highly it was valued by the citizens of Edinburgh, conferred upon them the right to levy many new tolls and dues on the shipping of Leith, with the ownership of the land along the shore for several miles on both sides of the harbour, and all the roads leading thereto. As in the charter granted by James I., the dues chargeable to strangers (foreigners) were to be twice those of freemen. Now the folk of Leith, being "unfree," had to pay the same double dues as foreigners in shipping goods into the harbour of their own town. This was not a decree of the city of Edinburgh. It was a provision of the king’s charter, and that provision was there because the law of the land in those days conferred rights and privileges on the freemen of royal burghs like Edinburgh that it denied to the unfreemen of those burghs and to dwellers in towns like Leith, which were considered unfree because they were not numbered among the favoured royal burghs.


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