(Not So) Great Balls of Fire: St. Andrews Castle

The wee town of St. Andrews sits on the coast of the Kingdom of Fife, the region just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. It sits so close to the coast, in fact, that part of it has fallen into the sea.

Let me back up.

 

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St. Andrew has long been associated with Scotland – in fact, he’s the patron saint of Scotland. The story goes that his bones washed up on the shores of Scotland, in the spot where the town of St. Andrews stands today. Another, less romantic version of the story says that St. Regulus brought St. Andrew’s kneecap, arm, and three of his fingers to Scotland in the mid-8th century. Catholics love relics of their saints, which is why saints’ bodies quite regularly end up in bits and pieces around the world (despite our belief in the resurrection of the body, ironically), so this second story is probably the more likely of the two. Either way, the spit of land that would become St. Andrews came to be incredibly important to the spiritual life of ancient Scotland.

 

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Once a church was built for the relics, it was decided that a bishop should live in the town to offer spiritual guidance to the pilgrims who made their way there to visit the precious objects. That bishop then needed a place to live. As so often happens, the bishop’s house got bigger and bigger and more and more luxurious until, in the 13th century, they gave up trying to make do with a regular old house and built a castle. (I might point out here that, while this was probably mostly spurred by corruption, it did also serve a practical purpose: Bishops were elite and educated members of society, and were often very involved in political matters, which required them to live in close proximity to the nobles and royalty. Thus, a castle.)

 

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To a certain extent, the castle in St. Andrews was just as important to the spiritual life of the Scots as the cathedral. This was due to the symbolism of the bishop. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the sticking points for the Scots trying to break away from the church was the office of bishop, which Protestants believed to have become corrupt beyond salvaging. The Scottish people (at least the Lowlanders) adopted Presbyterianism, which did not have a hierarchy, let alone the office of bishop. For the Catholic authorities to continue to hold a castle while the majority of the people had adopted Presbyterianism was too much to be borne.

 

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In 1546, the Cardinal who was living in the castle (a Cardinal is essentially a bishop with voting rights in the Catholic Church) was assassinated by a small ring of Protestants and his body hung from the ramparts. This move proved to be even more unpopular than the thought of a Catholic living in a castle, and the Protestants themselves had to occupy the castle in order to defend themselves from the Catholics in the town. The Catholics surrounded the castle, and the siege was begun.

 

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The most interesting part of this siege was the addition to the castle made during this time: a mineshaft. The Catholic besiegers planned on undermining – literally – the castle walls, stuffing the resulting mineshaft with gunpowder, and blowing the walls sky-high. The Protestants caught wind of the plot, and dug their own counter-mine. Actually, they dug three. Since no one could get in or out of the castle to see what was going on, the Protestants directed their digging solely by listening for the sounds of the Catholics’ excavating. The two mineshafts finally met, and, their plan foiled, the Catholics returned to a more traditional siege. You can still visit the mineshaft today – but be advised that the ceilings are low and the floor is uneven.

 

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And there’s a ladder involved.

 

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The castle was eventually taken, and everyone inside (including a certain John Knox, in the prime of his fiery youth) were sent to France to work as galley slaves.

 

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Since then, the castle at St. Andrews has been fairly quiet. When Presbyterianism became widespread, the office of bishop was all but completely done away with in Scotland, and wouldn’t resurface until the Scottish Troubles in the 17th century. The castle has sat empty for some time now. It fell derelict in the 19th century, when the Great Hall was washed away due to erosion. The castle is now maintained by the Historic Environment Scotland, and is open to visitors.

 

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Visiting St. Andrews Castle: 

Getting there: The easiest way to get to the castle is to walk; St. Andrews is a small town, and the castle is right on the main street.

Opening hours: Between April and September, the castle is open daily from 9:30 to 5:30. From October to March, it’s open daily from 10:00 to 4:00 (although they reserve the right to close early due to bad weather).

Admission: Adult tickets cost £6, and children’s cost £3.60. A combined cathedral and castle ticket costs £9 for an adult and £5.40 for a child. Both the castle and cathedral are free to Historic Scotland members – click here for more details on Historic Scotland membership.

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