In the 1540s the authority of the established Church became increasingly under threat from growing numbers of reformers. They were dissatisfied with the bishops and archbishops, who they believed were failing to carry out their religious duties. Many senior clerics held well paid positions in the church, to which they gave little time. As a result they enjoyed lavish lifestyles despite their vows of poverty and celibacy.
On the 1st of March 1546, in front of the castle walls, the Protestant preacher George Wishart was burned for heresy at the behest of Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews. By this act the cardinal, an extremely powerful figure in Scotland, hoped to counter the religious and political threat posed to his authority by the reformers.
In the early hours of the 29th of May 1546 a group of Fife Lairds, including Norman Leslie (son of the earl of Rothes), John Leslie of Oarkhill (Norman’s uncle) and William Kirkcaldy, met in the cathedral burial ground between five and six o’clock in the morning. They set off towards the castle, where workmen were busy around the castle walls, and the drawbridge had been lowered to allow materials inside. Disguised as masons, the conspirators were able to enter the castle grounds unnoticed.
Kirkcaldy distracted the porter at the outer gate, while Norman Leslie and one or two companions reached the main entrance. When the alarm was eventually raised, the porter was murdered and thrown into the ditch. The workmen and guards fled and the castle was taken.
On hearing the commotions outside, Cardinal Beaton looked out of his chamber window. After realising that the castle had been overrun, he hurriedly hid his gold, while his servant barricaded the door against the coming attackers. When the conspirators threatened to burn their way in, the door was opened but, despite pleading for his life, Beaton was slain. His naked body was displayed from one of the artillery blockhouses and later his corpse was thrown into the Bottle Dungeon and covered in salt to ‘keap him frome styncking’.
After the murder of Cardinal Beaton, the Earl of Arran, Regent of Scotland, ordered the occupiers to be dislodged from the castle and laid siege to it. However, he didn’t want to attempt anything excessively violent, as his son was being held hostage inside the castle. Towards the end of 1546, in an attempt to hasten the end of the siege, the attackers tried to break through the defences by digging a mine beneath the tower gate, which they hoped would allow them to bring down the walls by igniting gunpowder under the foundations.
The ploy was foiled by those in the castle, who responded by digging a counter-mine to intercept that of the Regent. The counter-miners could see only the entrance point of Arran’s mine, and were guided solely by the sounds of the underground excavation. After two unsuccessful attempts, and with very little time to spare, a third mine was excavated to the west of the fore tunnel. Initially, it swung too far to the east and had to be re-routed. They eventually broke through and the besiegers were dispelled. By this time the attackers had reached half way to the fore tower.
After the siege, both were in-filled to prevent re-use. They were only rediscovered in 1879, when the foundations of a new house were being dug. Today, the mine and the counter-mine survive as one of the most extraordinary examples of siege engineering to survive anywhere in Europe.
The two mines are contrasting in style. Arran’s tunnel is a spacious stepped corridor, high and wide enough for a pack of animals to be used in the removal of the rock. The defenders’ mine reflects their desperation in its cramped and hastily dug style. Both still bear the pick marks made by the diggers.
The two unsuccessful tunnels can still be seen in the chambers on either side of the entrance pend. The original entrance to Arran’s mine is on the far side of the road, marked by a circular manhole cover. The existing entrance to the mine and counter-mine is located beyond the east range and, from here, visitors can explore the two tunnels.
N.B. Those who wish to explore the tunnels should be fit and not prone to claustrophobia. The path is uneven, slippery, dark and at times very cramped.
- Information signs at St Andrews Castle
- Official Souvenir Guide: St Andrews Castle, Cathedral and Historic Burgh