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The Story of Leith
XXII. The Siege of Leith

DURING the regency of Mary of Guise, the queen-mother, the differences between the two factions in Scotland became more acute, and a great struggle began as to whether the country was to become Protestant or to remain Catholic. That struggle was to be fought out in Leith. After the Battle of Pinkie, Somerset had left several strong English garrisons in Scotland, one of which occupied Inchkeith and constantly menaced the shipping of the Port. To help in driving out these garrisons some thousands of French troops had landed in Leith, which became their headquarters. These French troops, who brought with them their wives and children, were to play a great part in the fight between the Reformers and those who adhered to the old faith.

The French commander, Monsieur D’Essé, soon perceived the strategic importance of Leith, if fortified, as a stronghold and seaport. It would at once form a safe retreat should he chance to be defeated by the English, and at the same time be a gateway by which lie could keep up communication with France, on which country he was to a large extent dependent for supplies. He therefore at once set about its fortification. Under his skilled direction the town was speedily enclosed within strong walls, constructed in accordance with the most approved principles of military science then practised on the Continent. Indeed so skilfully had the French constructed their defensive works that they baffled every attempt of the Scots, aided by the English, to carry them by assault.

Plan of Leith, showing French Fortifications of 1560.

A large and strong bastion, which bore the name of Ramsay’s Fort, was built immediately north of the King’s Wark. A similar and equally strong bastion was erected on the opposite side of the river. These two works formed an adequate defence for the harbour against attack from the sea. Ramsay’s Fort and its companion bastion on the north side of the water were built entirely of stone and were heavily armed with guns, whereas the rampart with which D’Essé enclosed the town was constructed mostly of earth, where shot from an enemy’s guns would simply find a grave in which to bury themselves. No vestiges of D’Essé’s fortifications or of those which succeeded them in Covenanting times remain to-day. Their memory, however, is still preserved in the name of Sandport Street, which was so called because a port or gate in the rampart there led out on to the Short Sands, where the Custom House now is. The last portion, removed on the construction of the lower and earlier part of Constitution Street and the erection of the Assembly Rooms, was known as the Ladies’ Walk, from its having been a favourite promenade of the Leith belles because of its fine seaward views.

Inchkeith was still occupied by its English garrison. Whoever held Inchkeith possessed the key to the Forth in those days as in ours. From that important strategic position, therefore, the French in Leith now determined to drive the English out, for not only did they persistently plunder the neighbouring shores with such vessels as they had, but they were constantly attacking the shipping passing up and down the Firth. Luckily, however, their powers of mischief had its limits. They lamented they had no "tall" ships, meaning ships of war. "Had I a ship like the Mary Willoughby," wrote the English commander to Somerset, "I would employ her well. The prizes I have lost would have paid all the charges of our men here." A ship with Flanders wares, one of the Old Leith "Wha daur meddle wi’ me?" type that cared naught for the English garrison on Inchkeith, had just sailed into the harbour under his very nose, but her whole appearance forbade attack, and hence his Laments to Somerset. Mary of Guise had been a frequent visitor to Leith since the arrival of her countrymen in the town. She took so much interest in the expedition against Inchkeith that she came down to the Shore to see it embark, and with the fair ladies of her Court waved her encouragement and wished them a pleasant trip on the Forth as they set out on their venture. After a prolonged and fierce fight the English commander was slain, when the garrison surrendered and the expedition returned in triumph to the harbour.

By the Treaty of Boulogne in 1550 war between England and France came to an end, and Scotland was included in the peace. Such English garrisons as still remained in Scotland now withdrew to their own country, but the French refused to return overseas. It now seemed as if Scotland had exchanged the domination of England for that of France, and would eventually become a mere French province. This feeling was intensified when Queen Mary was married to Francis II. in 1558. The French had long outstayed their welcome. The country was thawing more and more to the side of the Reformers, who had repeatedly demanded from the queen-regent that her countrymen should depart "furth the kingdom." This she refused, and both sides then prepared to settle the dispute by force of arms.

As the Governor of Edinburgh Castle refused to have any dealings either with Mary of Guise and the French, or with the Lords of the Congregation, as the Protestant leaders were now called, the queen-regent, feeling herself unsafe in Holyrood, sought protection with the French garrison behind the strong defences of Leith. Here she built for herself a mansion in the Rotten Row which stood between Quality Lane and the modern Mary of Guise Buildings. This once royal mansion was demolished in the early eighteenth century, while an immediately adjacent building of the same period long known as "Mary of Guise House," which may, indeed, have been part of the queen-regent’s residence, was removed in 1878.

Doorway from Mary of Guise House, Water StreetSome interesting relics of these buildings have been preserved. One is a beautifully carved stone, having the Guise arms quartered with those of Scotland, which once adorned the front of Mary of Guise’s house and is now built into the vestibule of South Leith Church. Two others, a finely carved oak door and a window frame, are in the safe keeping of the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. Unfortunately only the lower part of the window frame has been preserved. It differs from those now in use in having wooden panels instead of glass in the lower sash, as all windows in Leith and Edinburgh, even those of Holyrood Palace, had down to the middle of the seventeenth century, when glass was less plentiful than now because much more expensive. Such a window may still be seen in Baile Macmorran’s house in Riddle’s Close, Lawnmarket.

The door giving entry to Mary of Guise’s house had neither bell nor knocker, but was provided with a pin or risp, of which a picture of one from an old house in Leith is given below. No hero Tirling Pinin the old ballads ever came to his lady love’s door but he "tirled at the pin." Tirling pins are still commemorated in the old rhyme,

"Tirl the pin, peep in,
Lift the latch, and walk in."

There is a tirling pin on the kitchen door of Pilrig House, and one has been placed on the door of the Cannonball House, on the Castle Hill.

With the queen-regent in Leith were few Scots of note save the far-seeing Maitland of Lethington, who before long deserted her to join the Reformers, and the wayward and unstable Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig. The great majority had joined the Lords of the Congregation, who sent a messenger to Leith to summon the town by sound of trumpet to surrender within the space of twelve hours. The trumpeter’s blast, of course, was ignored, and war then began in earnest. The French troops in Leith numbered just over three thousand men, but they were all trained veterans who had seen much service in continental wars. Moreover, they were admirably led, for their commander, Monsieur D’Oysel, was a man of the greatest courage, and skilled in the art of war. He felt himself more than a match for the leaders of the Congregation and their undisciplined and untrained troops. The latter had no artillery worth the name, and that fact made it impossible for them to conduct a siege with any hope of success.

After several petty skirmishes had taken place in which the French were invariably the victors, the leaders of the Congregation resolved to carry the town by assault, and marched against it with a force of twelve thousand men. Scaling ladders for mounting the walls had been prepared in St. Giles’ Church, which led the more strictly religious to predict that nothing but evil would follow such unholy doings. Their fears proved true. The ladders were found to be much too short; and the French making a sudden sally, the besiegers fled back to the city in the greatest disorder. The Protestant leaders having no money wherewith to pay their men were reduced to coining their "cupboard" plate, but before this could be done many of their men had deserted. The French in Leith, hearing of this further misfortune, sallied out from the town, attacked and silenced a battery of guns on the Calton Hill, and chased the panic-stricken enemy even into the city itself, where they made such a fray that all was disorder and uproar for two hours. They then returned in triumph to Leith laden with plunder, and were joyfully received by the queen-regent, who had seated herself upon the ramparts to welcome their victorious return.

Misfortunes, according to the proverb, never come singly. Nothing at this time seemed to escape the vigilance of the French. A convoy of provisions was to come to Edinburgh by the coast road from Musselburgh in the grey light of early morning. Now, as the long-expected French ships with supplies had not yet arrived in Leith, indeed were never to arrive, there was nothing the poor Leithers and the French stood more in need of than provisions. "Soldiers," exclaimed D’Oysel, addressing his hungry troops, "we can have ample supplies of food and drink if we have but the courage to take them." This was welcome news, and the French troops were at once eager for the venture. D’Oysel embarked a chosen body of his men in boats, to escape detection, and sent them along the coast to lie in ambush at a point on the Figgate Whins, near Restairig, where the convoy must pass. The troops sent to protect the provisions were unexpectedly set upon and driven in headlong flight into the city, while the convoy was compelled to change its course for Leith.

The poor Leithers must have had a sorry time with over three thousand French troops billeted on them. These occupied the best rooms in their houses and had the first share of any food that was going. But the Leithers were to have a sorrier time before the siege was over, for it was as yet not well begun. Fortune was to prove unkind to the brave and chivalrous D’Oysel. Queen Elizabeth made a treaty, the Treaty of Berwick, with the leaders of the Congregation, by which she agreed to help them with men, money, and a fleet to drive out the French and to establish Protestantism in Scotland.

In accordance with the terms of this treaty an English fleet under Admiral Winter arrived in the Forth. It had been delayed by storms, but the same storm that had detained Winter’s ships had also driven a French fleet on its way to Leith to ruin on the Danish coast. Two of these French ships, however, richly laden with much-needed stores, eluded the English vessels and came to anchor off the mouth of the harbour under the protection of the French guns. But misfortune was yet to overtake them, for while their officers, in the belief that their ships were perfectly safe, were supping with the queen-regent, a Leith sailorman, Andrew Sandes by name and one of a family of noted Leith mariners, with some kindred spirits, all apparently of Protestant leanings and all in league with the English admiral, stealthily rowed out to the Roads in the darkness of the winter night, boarded the two French ships, and, after a sharp conflict, carried them off to the English fleet.

Two months after Elizabeth’s fleet had begun to blockade Leith from the sea, Lord Grey and the English army joined the Scots in enclosing it on the land side. The English commander made himself comfortable in the deanery at Restalrig while his men lay encamped between that village and the Links. Whether Scotland was to remain Catholic or become Protestant was to depend upon the fate of Leith. The English troops had scarcely arrived, when the French, undeterred by their superior numbers, sallied out from Leith, and, crossing the Links, took possession of the heights of Hawkhill, where a fierce but unequal contest raged for several hours. The French were at last forced to retreat, and withdrew behind their ramparts.

The English siege trenches gradually drew closer to the town. The French, to retard the progress of the works, made frequent sorties and did as much damage as they could before they again retired. In this way many a fierce and hotly contested skirmish took place on the Links midway between the two hostile camps. But such desultory fighting did not bring the capture of the town and the expulsion of the French any nearer. Accordingly, the English abandoned their position on the Hawkhill and erected two huge mounds on the Links on which to mount their guns. These two mounds—Mount Pelham, now Lady Fife’s Brae, after the Countess of Fife, whose mansion of Hermitage House stood close by, and Mount Somerset, so well known to-day as the Giant’s Brae—were named after their respective captains of artillery. The English raised a third—Mount Falcon—in the neighbourhood of Bowling Green Street, and then, in conjunction with the fleet, began a fierce bombardment of the town. The steeple of St. Anthony’s Hospital Church was shot down, and so were the choir and tower of St. Mary’s, for they stood directly in the line of fire from Mount Somerset. The guns of Mount Falcon swept the Shore from end to end, so that to pass that way was to run the risk of almost certain death.

Lady Fife's Brae, Well and House

The bombardment went on for several weeks, yet the French showed no sign of surrender, nor had any breach been made in the walls. Many of the inhabitants were killed, and although the ramparts remained unbreached, much damage was done in the town. One night in April 1560, just after supper, a great fire broke out in the neighbourhood of the Sheriff Brae, and raged among the timber-fronted houses throughout the whole night. The glare of the fire was seen for miles around, and the English prevented any attempt of the townsfolk to extinguish it by pouring upon the spot an incessant fusilade from their guns. Mary of Guise watched the progress of the fire from the Castle ramparts. To her laments over this misfortune to her loyal Frenchmen the unfeeling Governor rudely replied, "Indeed, madam, since it seems beyond the power of man to drive out the beggarly French, God Him self is taking the matter in hand."

The blockade now began to tell upon the besieged, who suffered much from famine, and were reduced to consuming horse flesh and the bodies of animals of a much less wholesome kind. But the French were evidently great sports, for they were in no way downhearted, and fought none the less gallantly in spite of the strange meats on which they fed. They were wont to rag the English by politely asking them from the ramparts how they were progressing with the siege of Restalrig. Queen Elizabeth, too, and her ministers, seeing little or no result for their large outlay, although the siege had lasted for months, began to hint that Lord Grey must be finding the deanery at Restairig "a very sweet lodging." It was certainly exasperating to be paying £20,000 a month in what seemed a vain endeavour to drive out a few thousand ragged and hall-starved Frenchmen.

Provoked by the stubborn defence and the jibes of the Frenchmen, not to speak of the whispers from London, the fleet and the army determined to make another grand assault on the town, and spoke boastfully of how, on this occasion, they would carry all before them. But they failed as ignominiously as before, for the besieged, aided by their womenfolk and even their children, made so spirited a resistance that the besiegers were hurled headlong from the ramparts, leaving over one thousand killed and wounded around the walls.

RestalrigThe English had attempted to drive out the French from Leith by force, and had failed. Queen Elizabeth resolved to see what diplomacy could do, and a truce was made. Just at this stage Mary of Guise died. She had been long suffering from an incurable disease, and had been allowed to retire to Edinburgh Castle, from which she daily looked towards Leith to see if the banner of her faithful and gallant Frenchmen still floated over the beleaguered town. The road to peace was made easier by her death. The English were tired of the siege, and when Queen Elizabeth’s secretary, Sir William Cecil, afterwards the great Lord Burghley, arrived in the camp at Restalrig to arrange terms of peace, the soldiers made all the guns, great and small, thunder forth their welcome.

By the Treaty of Edinburgh, or the Treaty of Leith as it is sometimes called, the French were to leave the country within twenty days, the fortifications of Leith were to be demolished, and Queen Mary and Francis II. were to cease using the arms of England. But Queen Mary in France refused to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh, an act for which Elizabeth never forgave her. To the siege of Leith, then, is due in part the lifelong enmity that Elizabeth cherished toward Queen Mary. In resulting in the Treaty of Edinburgh the siege of Leith forms a great central landmark in the history of our country. The departure of the French marks the fall of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and the end of the ancient Franco-Scottish Alliance. The triumph of the leaders of the Congregation was the triumph of Protestantism, and the beginning of that union with England which gave rise to the kingdom of Great Britain, and has helped to make her the great world Power she is to-day.

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