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St Andrews Castle was the official residence of Scotland’s bishops (and later archbishops) throughout the Middle Ages. They were Scotland’s leading churchmen so had to be prepared to defend themselves and the property of the Church – hence their strong castle. Its scale demonstrated the power and wealth of the bishops, and it was the setting for many important events which determined the course of Scottish history. During its 450-year history, the castle served as an episcopal palace, fortress and state prison. Some of the key moments leading up to the Scottish Reformation in 1560 were played out within its precinct. These include the burning of George Wishart, the Protestant preacher, the murder of Cardinal Beaton, and the great siege of 1546–7.
In the 10th century, the bishops of St Andrews gained overarching responsibility for the Scottish Church. Bishop Arnold (1160–2) began building a new cathedral on an unprecedented scale, and Bishop Roger (1189–1202) began the new castle as his official residence. During the Wars of Independence with England (1296–1356), the castle suffered significant damage, and had to be substantially rebuilt by Bishop Walter Trail (1385–1401).
During these years, the castle also served as a notorious prison. The castle’s “bottle dungeon” is a dank and airless pit cut out of solid rock below the north-west tower. It housed local miscreants who fell under the Bishop’s jurisdiction as well as several more prominent individuals such as David Stuart, Duke of Rothesay in 1402, Duke Murdoch in 1425, and Archbishop Patrick Graham, who was judged to be insane and imprisoned in his own castle in 1478.
It remained in this ruined state until Bishop Walter Trail rebuilt it at the turn of the century. His castle forms the basis of what can be seen today. He completed work on the castle in about 1400 and died within its walls in 1401.
The increasing religious tensions in the early 16th century led to further building works. Archbishop James Beaton (1521–39) strengthened the castle’s defences by building new gun towers. They were soon put to the test. His nephew, Cardinal David Beaton (1539–46), vehemently opposed the progressive move to closer political ties with Henry VIII’s Protestant England. Beaton had the Protestant preacher, George Wishart, burned in front of the castle. This provoked a raid on the castle by a group of Protestant nobles, who killed Beaton and took over the castle.
The ensuing siege by the Regent Arran caused wholesale damage. It also resulted in the castle acquiring perhaps its most treasured feature – the mine and countermine. These underground passages are unique survivals of medieval siege warfare. These features still remain to this day and can be viewed on a visit to the castle.
The badly damaged castle was repaired by Archbishop John Hamilton (1546–71), his most obvious contribution being the new entrance front, known as the Hamilton Façade. This sumptuous work contrasts with the defensive works of his predecessors, and implies that Hamilton regarded his castle as a residence more than a fortification.
The castle’s grounds are now maintained by Historic Scotland, and are entered through a visitor centre with displays on its history. Some of the best surviving carved fragments from the castle are displayed in the centre, which also has a shop.
The Cathedral of St Andrew (often referred to as St Andrews Cathedral) is a ruined Roman Catholic cathedral. It was built in 1158 and became the centre of the Medieval Catholic Church in Scotland as the seat of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and the Bishops and Archbishops of St Andrews. It fell into disuse and ruin after Catholic mass was outlawed during the 16th-century Scottish Reformation.
The cathedral was begun in 1160–2 by Bishop Arnold. Work continued over the next 150 years, interrupted by a storm in 1272 which blew down the west front, and the first War of Independence against England (1296–1307). The cathedral was eventually dedicated in 1318, in the presence of King Robert I.
The ruins indicate that the building was approximately 119m (391 feet) long, and is Scotland’s largest and most magnificent medieval church, the cathedral was the seat of Scotland’s leading bishops (and from 1472 archbishops). It occupied a site used for worship since the 8th century AD, when the relics of St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, are said to have been brought here.
The cathedral buildings are surrounded by a graveyard, and encircled by the most complete and imposing monastic enclosure walls in Scotland. Even in its ruinous state the cathedral remains a prominent landmark, the focus of the three medieval streets of St Andrews, and highly visible from the sea. Some of the more well-known names buried here are Old and Young Tom Morris, Saint Andrew and Charles Wordsworth.
St Rule’s Church, with its 33m tower, is located in the Cathedral grounds but predates it, having served as the church of the priory up to the early 12th century. The building was retained to allow worship to continue uninterrupted during the building of its much larger successor. Originally, the tower and adjoining choir were part of the church built in the 11th century to house the relics of St Andrew. The nave, with twin western turrets, and the apse of the church no longer stand. The church’s original appearance is illustrated in stylised form on some of the early seals of the Cathedral Priory. Legend credits St Rule (also known as St Regulus) with bringing relics of St Andrew to the area from their original location at Patras in Greece.
Today the tower commands an admirable view of the town, harbour, sea, and surrounding countryside. Beautifully built in grey sandstone ashlar, and (for its date) immensely tall, it is a land- and sea-mark seen from many miles away, its prominence doubtless meant to guide pilgrims to the place of the Apostle’s relics.
In the Middle Ages a spire atop the tower made it even more prominent. The tower was originally ascended using ladders between wooden floors, but a stone spiral staircase was inserted in the 18th century.
In 1559, during the Scottish reformation, the building was stripped of its altars and images; and by 1561 it had been abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
At the end of the seventeenth century some of the priory buildings remained entire and considerable remains of others existed, but nearly all traces have now disappeared except portions of the priory wall and the archways, known as The Pends.
The cathedral church is now ruined. Substantial, and superb, fragments survive, including the east gable of the presbytery, where the relics of St Andrew were held in veneration, the south wall of the nave, and the majestic west front. The cloister to the south retains its ruined chapter house and stone-vaulted undercrofts. The latter now house the cathedral museum, with its fascinating collection spanning the period from the 8th century to post-Reformation times.
Beyond the church and cloister stand other substantial architectural fragments, including the Pends Gate and much of the precinct wall. Outside the wall, on a ledge overlooking the sea, are the foundations of the church of St Mary on the Rock (St Mary Kirkheugh), probably marking the site of the first church.
It is currently a monument in the custody of Historic Scotland.
Credits: Historic Scotland