Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Edinburgh Castle

By James Turner

Few indeed are those architectural legacies still remaining to us that can boast the iconic status of Edinburgh Castle, its distinctive silhouette known throughout the world, accompanied by the gently wafting of bagpipes. Far rarer still are those structures with a comparably singular influence upon the shaping of a nation.

While Stirling and its castle were the bridge that sutured Scotland’s ragged halves together; the point where rolling hills and breweries turn to heather strewn mountains and distilleries, Edinburgh Castle was the nucleus around which the fledging nation crystallised and a principal engine of its expansion. Scotland’s genesis was as hard-fought as it was unlikely, a seething storm of fiercely distinct tribes and weltering wars, this boiling mess of Picts, Irish, Britons, Saxons, Norse and later Normans was forged into a country bound together by a new, shared identity. Edinburgh Castle, a place of shelter and hearthside stretching back into the mists of time was the springboard for the reinvention and consolidation of this emerging state.


Its formidable natural defences and strategic importance quickly transformed the castle into a seat of royal power and a principal node in the unfolding nervous system of the country’s administration; a key influence in both defining the new and ever-evolving nation and allowing it to function and thrive, an infusion of symbolic and tangible relevance which saw the castle targeted many times in the cyclic wars for control of the country. Even in the face of an absentee monarchy and the country’s initially meandering and grudging integration into the newly realised Britain, Edinburgh Castle, set grandly above Scotland’s first city, remained one of Scotland’s most potent symbols. Today, Edinburgh Castle stands ensconced within the heart of Edinburgh, amongst the highest concentration of shortbread tins and those tiny bottles of whisky per mile found anywhere in the world. Scotland like the city itself, unfolding and growing within its shadow.

Castle Rock, which would be an impressive spectacle even stripped of the eponymous castle was home to limited Bronze Age settlement,  although interestingly evidence suggests that nearby sites enjoyed far more intensive and sustained habitation and that the iconic rock was relatively insignificant to the regretfully still obscure goings-on of Bronze Age society. The site would eventually become home to a more substantive Iron Age Celtic settlement, the ever fastidious but ethnographically obsessed Roman historians claiming the site was a stronghold of the Votandini.


While the site is bereft of Roman ruins, archaeologists have discovered the existence of a number of Roman artefacts; this evidence of an ongoing trade relationship with Rome and the settlement’s position south of the Antonine Wall, the high-water mark of Roman expansion stretching from the Clyde to the Forth, suggests the site was under at least tacit Roman sovereignty if not an actual occupation in the indistinct and ill-defined frontier province.  From the power vacuum created by the Roman withdrawal from Britain, emerged the Brittonic speaking Romano-Briton Kingdoms, one of which, Gododdin, was centred upon Edinburgh and quickly became heavily engaged in a bitter war for survival with the multitude of land-starved settlers descending on Britain.

It seems that in 638 AD, Irish invaders from the Kingdom of Dal Riata besieged the fortress but were successfully repulsed only for the great fort to be taken and the entire Kingdom destroyed later that year by the Saxons of Northumbria.  The Saxons brief ascendancy in the south of Scotland did little to stem the endemic warfare and as Northumbria’s power waned, new factions struggled to the fore. In 954 Edinburgh was captured by King Indulf of Alba, which completed the integration of Lothian into the emerging proto-state. The great victories of his kinsman and eventual successor, the warlike and capable Malcolm II, over the Anglo-Danish firmly established the border with England while his overlordship of the Kingdom of Strathclyde and possibly of the Norse-Gael kingdoms of the Islands established Scotland as the predominant power within the region. A process his heirs would continue up to and beyond the Norman-inspired cultural revolution.

Edinburgh Castle first came to prominence during the reign of Malcolm III who spent much of his time in residence there, where he began the castle’s transformation into the principal royal bastion and administrative centre.  Sometime between 1140 -1150 Malcolm’s son, David I, constructed a chapel within the castle’s confines, dedicated to his then canonized mother St Margret, the granddaughter and great-niece of two English Kings, Edmund Ironside and Edward the Confessor. Additionally, during this period the Castle played host to a great council of the Kingdom’s most prominent noblemen and clergy summoned by David I; a proto parliament which facilitated the numerous administrative and structural reforms by which David sought to exert power and influence throughout his kingdom.

David’s grandson and immediate successor, Malcolm IV spent much of his reign in heated negotiations with Henry II of England and his own rebellious nobles; a process from which he eventually triumphed in 1164 after Somerled, King of the Isles, was slain in battle by the forces of the Bishop of Glasgow. Malcolm was succeeded by his brother William the Lion, highly ambitious and determined to propagate his dynastic power. William saw the 1173 uprising against England’s volatile but Machiavellian Henry II as an opportunity to re-establish his family’s claim to the Earldoms of Northumbria and Huntington.

Edinburgh Castle 1573
Edinburgh Castle in 1573

Unfortunately for William, he was almost immediately captured, after rashly charging the English army more or less alone during the Battle of Alnwick in 1174 and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Falaise, by which William ceded Edinburgh alongside several other significant Scottish castles to Henry who he was forced to acknowledge as his feudal overlord. For the first time, Scotland’s premier Castle was in English hands.  William eventually reclaimed Edinburgh after agreeing to marry Henry’s illegitimate cousin, Ermengrade de Beaumont. William, his martial ambitions thwarted, spent the remainder of his long reign continuing the work of his grandfather ratifying law codes, founding burghs and modernising Scotland’s infrastructure as a way of further building and disseminating royal influence. Much of this work was done from Edinburgh Castle which some time during this period came to house the repository of government charters and writs placing the castle at the centre of Scotland’s ongoing transformation.

The death of Alexander III with no clear heir caused a period of internal instability in Scotland as the nobles bickered over who would succeed him; two of the main claimants being the powerful Bruce and Balliol families. In order to avoid further bloodshed and stabilise the situation, Edward I of England was appointed to arbitrate the dispute. Given that Edward, fresh from his subjugation of Wales, was a blood-stained conqueror who burned with the desire to reclaim the temporal glories of his ancestors and unite all of Britain under English rule, this might be considered something of a mistake. Edward attempted to use the dispute to exert overlordship upon this northern neighbour and after negotiations failed to deliver the desired results, he resolved to impose order, not to mention his authority, at the point of the sword.

In 1296, Edinburgh Castle was taken by the invading English after a brutally short three day siege. The English quickly set about restoring and improving the castle’s defences, after which it stood unassailable as the Scottish War for Independence raged around it. In 1314, however, with the Scots now largely unified under Robert the Bruce and the English hampered by the inept leadership of the hapless Edward II, the military situation had undergone an almost complete reversal. The exhausted English war effort was dealt a further blow when Earl Thomas Randolph of Moray led a daring night raid on Edinburgh Castle, taking the walls through stealth and guile, the victorious raiders then raised what sections of the castle they could to preclude the English reoccupying the site.


Despite Robert Bruce’s decisive victory at Bannockburn, the whole bloody drama was to play out yet again a generation later when in 1332 those exiled lords who had, as a result of siding with the wrong claimant, lost their Scottish lands banded together and invaded a suddenly vulnerable Scotland ruled by the young David II. Their success at the Battle of Dupplin Moor fired the imagination of Edward III who resurrecting his grandfather’s ambitions invaded Scotland in 1333, declaring his intent to place his ally and vassal Edward Balliol on the throne.

In 1335, the Castle once more fell into English hands, only for the resurgent Scots to reclaim it in 1341 in a dramatic and Looney Tunes-esque escapade featuring a number of Scottish soldiers gaining entrance to the Castle under the guise of merchants, whereupon they prevented the gates being closed.  In 1346, David II leading a counter-invasion when he was captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. Luckily, however, for the young King, Edward III had decided that he would much rather be King of France than make someone else King of Scotland and David, although now burdened with a hefty ransom, was released following a promise to name Edward as his successor.

Following his return to Scotland, David took up residence in Edinburgh Castle where he began construction of the imposing David Tower, further strengthening the castle’s already formidable defences.

In 1400, the castle was besieged by Henry IV but his inability to take it effectively stymied the already inauspicious invasion and the English army was compelled to retreat.  Throughout the 15th century, the castle saw sustained building work designed to modernise it, making provision for artillery as well as the construction of a new palace complex. Edinburgh Castle briefly came under siege in 1440 by the Douglas family after the chancellor, Sir William Crichton, had the Earl of Douglas assassinated within its walls.  Its increased militarisation and the vigorous demands of a royal court meant that the royal family avoided the castle, preferring to take up residence within the City itself.


In the religiously fuelled clash between Mary Queen of Scots and members of her bitterly misogynistic and staunchly Protestant nobility, who rallied around her infant son James VI as a figurehead, Edinburgh Castle became the last stand of Mary’s forces when the castellan Sir William Kirkcaldy refused to surrender in the Lang Siege, or for those of you who don’t speak Scottish, the long siege, of 1571-1573. The siege was only brought to a conclusion with the arrival of a huge artillery train from England which devastated the Castle, destroying the David Tower and compelling the defenders to finally surrender.

Religious wars were now all the rage in Europe and in the 1639 Bishops’ War, the castle was twice captured by Covenanter forces fighting to abolish the Episcopal system which the now absentee Stuart Kings sought to foster. After the Bishops’ War had spiralled into the bloodbath of the War of Three Kingdoms, the Covenanter controlled Scottish Parliament eventually declared war on their former allies in the English Parliament, following the unsanctioned execution of their joint King, Charles I. Their coronation of Charles II provoked the pernicious Oliver Cromwell to march north and having narrowly dispatched the Scottish Army at the Battle of Dunbar he immediately besieged Edinburgh Castle, finally reducing it three months later.  Following the deposition of the Stuarts in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Castle became entangled in perhaps the most romanticised chapter of Scotland’s long, tattered but proud history, the Jacobite risings.  Edinburgh Castle was initially threatened in the first Jacobite rising of 1715 when a number of Highlanders with the help of defectors within the garrison attempted to gain entrance to the castle. This attempt was to prove no more successful than the wider rebellion and the Jacobites were soon chased off when in a darkly comedic moment, it emerged that the rope ladders were too short.

During the great uprising of 1745, Edinburgh, gripped by a great up-swell of Jacobite sentiment, opened its gates to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of the deposed James II, who triumphantly marched through the city to the adoring cheers of his subjects. The effect was ruined somewhat by the stubborn refusal of the castle’s garrison to surrender. After a half-hearted and abortive attempt to lay siege to the ancient castle, it was decided to simply leave the Castle behind as an irrelevance and begin the re-conquest of Britain elsewhere.  Yet as the Jacobite army marched away, pipes crooning and banners fluttering in the breeze, the young Prince’s inability to take the Castle revealed the logistical deficiencies and weakness of leadership which would eventually prove their undoing.

The gently muted pearly gold of Edinburgh Castle’s battlements, sprouting out of the great crag of black volcanic rock remains a powerful image in the Scottish cultural lexicon. Rising imperiously above Edinburgh’s Old Town on its primordial dais, the crest and sweep of the castle cannot help but elicit awe and reverence. This, every line of ruptured rock and carved stone seems to say, is a site whose bones are soaked deeply in the mire of history.  Entrance via the wide slope at the castle’s front is blocked by the imposing edifice of the Gate House, beyond which supplicants must pass through an upwardly winding concourse, hemmed in by the castle’s portcullis and the flexing mass of the castle’s great rock ward wall. Here at the artificially levelled plateau of the castle, stands an architectural treasure trove and study in contrasts; the Renaissance Palace complex and Great Hall jostling with the Spartan utility of the New Barracks and gun foundries. Sadly, centuries at the heart of Scotland’s often turbulent politics have taken their toll on Edinburgh Castle and nothing but vestigial foundations of the high medieval castle and, perhaps portentously given her link to the castle’s first patrons, the chapel of St Margret remain today. Yet Edinburgh Castle has always found a way to reinvent itself down the ages, changing in rhyme to the altering tempo of Scottish politics.

Today Edinburgh Castle wears the regalia of its history proudly and the site is brimming with historic artefacts and materials. The castle is home not only to the Regimental museums of the Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Dragoons which are well worth a look but also hosts the National War Museum and the National War Memorial, both paying tribute to the service of the lost generations of Scottish soldiery and as a potent reminder to subsequent generations. Perhaps, in light of the recent reorientation of Scottish national sentiment, some of Edinburgh Castle’s most relevant treasures are the Crown Sceptre and Sword of the Scottish Crown Jewels presented to James IV by the Papacy and first used in the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots. The coronation regalia was locked away and forgotten following the Union of the Crowns, after which all of Scotland’s Kings and Queens were crowned in England.

More potent a relic still of the Scottish monarchy and to many a symbol of her wounded political autonomy is the Stone of Destiny used for centuries in the coronation of the Scottish monarchy, stretching back into legend and the long years before Scotland’s political unification and the composition of a shared cultural identity. The stone made a tempting target for Edward I who capturing it, had it removed to England and incorporated into the English coronation ceremony where it remained until 1996, when it was enshrined in Edinburgh Castle. While the great pulpit of volcanic rock upon which the castle stands is long extinct, Edinburgh Castle and the ideals we eagerly project upon it smoulder still.

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Stirling Castle

Top Image: An engraving published in Maitland’s History of Edinburgh, 1753.