6 times Edinburgh Castle was under siege

HAVING faced attacking forces no less than 23 times, Edinburgh Castle bears the extraordinary distinction as the most besieged place in Europe and has been rebuilt on numerous occasions.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 4th April 2017, 9:22 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:23 pm
Edinburgh Castle is thought to be the most besieged place in Europe. Picture: TSPL
Edinburgh Castle is thought to be the most besieged place in Europe. Picture: TSPL

As an ancient fortress perched on a crag overlooking a scenic European capital, it’s hardly surprising to discover that, outside of London, Edinburgh Castle is one of the top three most visited tourist attractions in the British Isles. An incredible 1.7 million people passed through its portcullis in 2016, but, judging by its violent history, it appears we are very fortunate that there’s still a castle to visit at all.

1296: The Longshanks Siege

In the year 1296 the notoriously ruthless English king Edward I invaded Scotland and made a bee-line for Edinburgh Castle. After a short three-day siege the castle was captured and a large garrison of 350 knights assembled to protect it. Master craftsmen were brought in from Wales in order to bolster the castle’s defences. Royal regalia, state records and other treasures belonging to Edinburgh Castle were plundered and sent down to London along with the Stone of Destiny from Scone Abbey. The castle would not return to Scottish hands for a very long time.

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Mons Meg, the castle's famous cannon. Picture: TSPL

1314: The ‘Bannockburn’ Siege

The English maintained a tight grip on Edinburgh Castle that would last almost 20 years. The castle was used as an important base for the English where new campaigns on the north of Scotland could be conducted, but in March 1314 the occupation came to an end. In a surprise attack, just three months prior to the Battle of Bannockburn, a small force of 20 men under the leadership of Thomas Randolph, First Earl of Moray, scaled the castle walls and recaptured it from the English. A year later, Randolph’s uncle King Robert the Bruce ordered the castle to be destroyed so that it could never fall into the hands of the enemy ever again. It would be decades before Edinburgh Castle was fully rebuilt.

1334: The Douglas Siege

Edinburgh Castle was given up to the English again in 1334, this time to King Edward III following an invasion which heralded the start of the Second War of Scottish Independence. It would take until 1341 until a Scottish force, under the command of Sir William Douglas, was able to take it back. Douglas has his men disguise themselves as merchants. They managed to infiltrate their way inside the castle and kill all 100 of the English defenders.

The castle as it looked before the Lang Siege. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

1571-3: The Lang Siege

Beginning in May 1571, the Lang Siege was a series of attacks on Edinburgh Castle which would span two years and render the ancient fortress to rubble. Government forces besieged the castle several times in quick succession after the garrison declared support for the deposed Mary Queen of Scots. The devastation inflicted during the Lang Siege shaped the castle as we know it today. The distinctive Half-Moon Battery which wraps itself around the castle’s southern face was constructed around the remains of David’s Tower in the decades which followed. The Portcullis Gate was also built to replace the wrecked Constable’s Tower. The castle was rebuilt in 1578 and today only a few isolated sections of it predate the siege.

1640: The fast siege

In 1639 General Leslie’s Covenanting army stormed Edinburgh Castle and managed to capture it in what is described as ‘the most efficient capture of Edinburgh Castle ever carried out’. Leslie is said to have distracted the castle governor while his men blew up the main gate with a ‘petard’. The royalist garrison was captured in just half an hour without General Leslie losing a single man. Edinburgh Castle was recaptured by Charles I later that year, but by June 1640 it was conquered by the Covenanters yet again. This siege lasted considerably longer, with General Leslie’s men causing great damage to the castle’s eastern defences before succeeding in taking it.

Mons Meg, the castle's famous cannon. Picture: TSPL

1745: The last siege

During the ‘45 Jacobite uprising, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s forces occupied Edinburgh and Holyrood Palace and launched an audacious attempt to take the castle. This followed previous Jacobite attempts in 1689 and 1715, both of which had failed. Sadly for the Jacobites, they weren’t any luckier in 1745 and were unsuccessful in their bid to breach the castle’s defences. After the Battle of Culloden the following year a number of leading Jacobites would find themselves occupying the castle as prisoners. 1745 would prove to be the last siege in the history of Edinburgh Castle and the garrison hasn’t witnessed conflict since - that is if we don’t count a near miss by a German Zeppelin bomb in April 1916.


The castle as it looked before the Lang Siege. Picture: Wikimedia Commons