St Andrews Castle

A Bishop’s Residence-St Andrews Castle

The St Andrews Castle ruins are a sight to behold. This rugged castle is situated in the Royal Burgh of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland and is home to many mishaps and historical misdemeanours. St Andrews Castle was mainly used as a bishop’s residence, and later on archbishops as well, throughout the Middle Ages and stood sturdy amongst many conflicts. It is said that its sheer size was mainly to signal and interpret the power and wealth of the important churchmen it played home to.

St Andrews Castles history can only be described as tragic, at times it has been a victim of sieges, murder, burning, and many other unfortunate events. What we see today is a mystical, intriguing, and somewhat rugged building, however, in past times, it was the residence where explicit violence and downright misery came forth.

Exterior of St Andrews Castle on a sunny day and the ocean and sky in the background
Exterior of St Andrews Castle. Source: Flickr

St Andrews Castles History

Tragedy and terror have reigned supreme on this rugged and ruined castle, and it is no doubt that it had its fair share of violence within its time. In the Middle Ages, Scotland’s churchmen were demanding protection and safety to defend themselves, and so the ever so grand St Andrews Castle was built as an honourable strength for them to dwell in. It is no lie that St Andrews Castle boasts strength, power, and wealth which is one of the reasons the bishops felt so safe within its walls.

Over time, St Andrews Castle saw many acts of violence and treachery throughout its walls and it was home to many, many historical Scottish events which have still left their marks on the castle right up until the current day. With a long history, it is no surprise that it has seen so many large and distinguished events and even played a significant part in them. Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at the magnificent and scarred St Andrews Castle ruins and the intriguing history that came beforehand.

The early history of St Andrews Castle

The castle we see today is merely a reflection of what used to be, in fact, St Andrews Castle in the early days was actually referred to as ‘Kilrymont’ which means ‘church on the head of the King’s mount’. This is the place that is known to have housed a series of religious people (essentially a community), who are known to have existed since the 8th century AD. Though never confirmed, speculation says that the castle was soon after referred to as St Andrews when relics of the saint were brought to Fife as part of the foundation of the first Benedictine community (at nearby Dunfermline).

It is said that the significant name change alone had a whole lot to do with the influx of religious communities soon after. By the time the 1100s had come around, the site had become fortified and then in around 1200, it began to play home to the beloved bishops and archbishops of St Andrews. It is said that the castle played home to the most wealthy and well-known bishops and archbishops. Since the times of Bishop Roger between 1189 and 1202, there has been a castle standing on the site and the wonderful St Andrews Castle you see today actually isn’t the original.

The Archbishops of St Andrews actually wrote of the castle as their Palace, signing, “apud Palatium nostrum”. Bishop Roger was the one who actually put the idea of a castle forth to become his official residence and he then demanded that it be built, he was readily listened to and so the original St Andrews Castle came to light. Before the castle was built, the holders of the Episcopal See had simply resided either in the Monastery of Culdees (now Kirkhill) or in the house of the Prior, adjoining the Cathedral, however with the strengthening of the See’s power, it was important that Bishop Roger also had a habitation for himself.

Wars of Scottish Independence

During the Wars of Independence (1296-1357), St Andrews Castle was significantly damaged many times and had to be rebuilt every single time destruction happened. As well as this, the castle changed hands an absurd amount of times at first with the English and then eventually with the Scots having the upper hand. In 1296, soon after the sack of Berwick led by Edward I of England, once again, the castle changed hands and was made readily available for the English king in the year 1303.

The caste fell back into the hands of a bishop in 1314 when Scotland had concluded with victory. It was Bishop William Lamberton, Guardian of Scotland, who was a loyal supporter of King Robert the Bruce who had taken over St Andrews Castle this time, however, it didn’t last long. By the time that the 1330s came around, England had recaptured the castle and when 1336 came around, they had completely redone and secured the defences of the castle, though they weren’t successful in holding the castle.

Notable figures in the first Scottish War of Independence. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After Sir Andrew Moray, Regent of Scotland recaptured the castle after a siege that lasted three weeks in the absence of David II, all was thought to be well again. Unfortunately, the castle was then completely destroyed from the year 1336 to 1337, by the Scots so that the English could no longer use the castle as a stronghold. The castle then fell into somewhat of a ruined state; however, it was never completely allowed to ruin due to the fact that it was still highly regarded in the religious and political circles during that time. While ruin definitely reached it, it never completely fell victim to forgetfulness.


Before the end of the 14th century, after all the violence was essentially said and done, Bishop Walter Tail got straight to work on the rebuilding of the castle so it could be restored back to its former glory. What we see today is largely his influence and work and it is certainly a sight to see. It was in 1400 that he eventually completed the works needing to be done and while he put so much hard work and dedication into this large building process, he didn’t get to bask in the glory for long because, in 1401, he, unfortunately, passed within the walls of St Andrews Castle.

It was at this time that David, first Duke of Rothesay, and son of Robert III, believed sufficiently that it was his duty to occupy the Castle after the death of the Bishop until a suitable successor was appointed. However, the young Duke was well on his way to Fife when he was waylaid by the emissaries of the 1st Duke of Albany, his uncle, and unfortunately, he became imprisoned at Saint Andrew’s Castle.

The notorious prison

During this time, the castle had also become a prison that was known around all of the lands as one of the most horrible prisons. It was well-known for the many terrifying features throughout the castle that would frighten even the most hardened of criminals at times. It was known above all for its 24-foot-deep bottle dungeon which was essentially a stale and airless pit that had been cut out of solid rock below the northwest tower.

It was enough to put fear into the heart of anyone because of the fact that many hardened criminals were kept in this treacherous place. The Duke of Rothesay who was previously imprisoned was then later taken to Falkland Palace, where he met a terrible fate. Some fairly popular figures who were imprisoned in the castle include individuals such as David Stuart, Duke Murdoch in 1425, and Archbishop Patrick Graham, who was said to be insane and was then imprisoned in his own castle in 1478.

As time continued on, St Andrews Castle continued to gain popularity and it didn’t take long for it to once again become a beloved castle. Later on, in time, Bishop James Kennedy, who was a very much trusted advisor of James II of Scotland presided over the Castle. Then, in 1445, the castle was no longer known for imprisonment, instead, it became the birthplace of James III.

Bottle dungeon at St Andrews Castle
Bottle dungeon at St Andrews Castle. Source: Geograph

A series of murders

For a long while, everything seemed to be good and well within the castle walls until the time of the Scottish Reformation in which the castle became a centre full of religious controversy and persecution which started a small war of its own without anyone knowing. In reference to the terrible bottle dungeon, the Scottish reformer, John Knox, wrote, “Many of God’s Children were imprisoned here.” Then, in 1521, James Beaton, who at the time was the Archbishop of Glasgow, won the seat of St Andrews and, in turn, took up residence in the castle.

He then worked tirelessly to enhance the defences of the castles to make sure that in a time of battle it would stand up to at least a heavy artillery attack, he was more than ready for what was to come. Many people believe that reason for James Beaton’s uprise in defences was to essentially threaten the English about the growing tensions between English Protestants and Scottish Catholics. In 1538, James Beaton was effectively succeeded by his ambitious and wealthy nephew, Cardinal David Beaton.

He opposed very strongly to the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Prince Edward (later King Edward VI) which soon after sparked an already bulging feud. Scottish Protestants were becoming greatly viewed as dangerous turncoats who sided with the English and then all hell literally broke loose. It was then, in 1546, that David Beaton decided to imprison Protestant preacher George Wishart (1513-1546) in the castle’s Sea Tower.

After imprisonment, he had George Wishart burnt at the stake just outside of the castle walls on March 1st. This was met with plenty of mixed emotions and though it wasn’t the first death at St Andrew’s Castle, it was said to be one of the first deceitfully evil deaths there. To this day, you can stand exactly where George Wishart was burned to death and there are even bricks in the shape of his initials to signify his tragic death and the spot in which it all happened.

In the same year only months after, George Wishart’s friends began to rally and soon began to conspire against the cardinal. On the tragic day of May 26, they disguised themselves as masons at the time of some building works being done and gained easy access into the castle. They say an eye for an eye makes everyone blind, but back then, this phrase didn’t exist and once they had overcome the garrison and found David Beaton, they brutally murdered him and hung his lifeless body from his window at the front of the castle.

The siege that ended it all

Following the gruesome murder of David Beaton, the protestants took refuge within the castle walls and formed the very first Protestant congregation in Scotland. The Scottish Regent, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran then forcefully requested a long siege. In October of 1546, a mine was started by the attackers which was successfully counter-mined by the defenders and both the mine and counter-mine cut through solid rock which was a feat in itself.

Detail of an engraving of a portrait of James Hamilton Duke of Chatellerault and 2nd Earl of Arran.
Detail of an engraving of a portrait of James Hamilton Duke of Chatellerault and 2nd Earl of Arran. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The St Andrews Castle tunnels were once again found in the year 1879 and remain open to the public right up until this very day. During an armistice in around April of 1547, John Knox entered the castle and served as the garrison’s preacher for the remainder of the siege and for some time after, he was enabled to pass to and from the castle to preach in the parish church. With all of this in mind, the siege eventually concluded, however, it all blew up again when a French fleet arrived with an Italian engineer known as Leone Strozzi, who then directed a devastating artillery bombardment to dislodge the Protestant lairds.

Everyone caught on fast that an expert was at the centre of this attack when their own Italian engineer observed certain cannons being winched into position with ropes rather than exposing the besiegers to their fire. According to Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, the castle was quickly rendered indefensible. The defeated Protestants were taken away: some were imprisoned in France while others, including Knox, were condemned to the galleys.

The present day

After all of this Protestant defeat had concluded, the castle was once again rebuilt by Archbishop John Hamilton, who was the illegitimate brother of Regent Arran. Following his death in 1571 it was mainly occupied by a succession of constables. The present days sees St Andrews Castle as a stunning castle ruin which is loved by many people near and far. There is even a beautiful little golf course on the grounds known as the St Andrews Castle course.

Visiting St Andrews Castle is a beautiful day out for the whole family and it is a lovely way to go back in time and experience what life would have been like back then. You can get tickets here!

You may enjoy reading about other Scottish castles such as Inverness Castle.

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