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Leith - At the Centre of History


Overview of battleground, French fortifications of Leith c.1560 (South Leith Church circled)

What does it matter if I mix up the dates of the Battle of Agincourt and the Battle of Flodden - 1415 and 1513 respectively - as I once did in conversation with an eminent historian? Or, that I’m also slightly fuzzy on the dates of the Siege of Leith? .

What matters is the context and consequences of each and that I am then able to take an educated guess on how they shaped our country.

Historical literacy matters, if we are to understand who we are now. If a student in a hundred years’ time gets the date of the first Scottish independence referendum wrong in an exam, it matters not a jot.

If they know why and how independence happened, and the unfolding of the many ups and downs along the way, then that is what counts. It’s even better if they can understand how those successes and mistakes helped shape our sovereign state in 2121.

All three of these events represent different chapters in Scotland’s near 300 years treaty with France: the Auld Alliance. First signed by John Balliol in 1295 in his attempts to keep ‘proud Edward’s army’ out of Scotland, with both countries becoming pretty fed up by this time with England’s constant colonising ambitions.

We ‘sent them homeward tae think again’ at Bannockburn in 1314, but the French weren’t so lucky. The Hundred Years War ensued as the English kings upped their claim to the French crown.

Scots fought with the French at Agincourt in 1415 and then, after that catastrophic defeat, rallied to the side of Joan of Arc in her liberation struggle, best known for the recapture of Orléans from the English. (A plaque to commemorate the part the Scots played in that siege is still there to this day.)

The Maid of Orléans may have turned the tide, resulting in the final expulsion of the English from France by 1453 (despite herself being captured and burned at the stake), but hostilities between England and France didn’t stop there.

A century later the boot was on the other foot. France was now asserting itself as a European power with ambitions in Italy. Henry VII of England joined in, siding with the Pope against the French. James IV of Scotland sent Henry an uppity letter telling him to leave the French alone, or else.

Duly discarded by Henry, James clearly felt he had no choice but to follow through on his threat, and so, according to the terms of the Auld Alliance, Flodden happened. This resounding defeat was an utter disaster for Scotland.

Not only was the death toll horrific with English troops ravaging the Borders on their way to Edinburgh (remnants of the defensive Flodden Wall still exist at the Cowgate/Pleasance crossroads to this day) but James, and most of his nobility, were slain. Leaving Scotland’s position vis-à-vis England irreparably weakened.

After Flodden the crown passed to the infant James V and was followed 30 years later by the infant Mary Queen of Scots after the death of her father following yet another battle with the English. These long periods of child monarchs created power vacuums - which were ably filled by the warring barons.

This was the time of John Knox and his Scottish version of Calvinist Protestantism, which was tearing the country apart. The nobles, split along religious lines, squabbled as to who was to take over the Regency (the stand-in for the monarch) whilst Mary was still a bairn. But they hadn’t reckoned on the determination of Mary of Guise, Mary’s French mother. She dispensed with the quarrelling nobles and took over the Regency on her daughter’s behalf.

Meanwhile the Tudor monarchs of England were growing in power and confidence, with greedy eyes set on Scotland. The Tudors had a weakness though: succession. Despite his six wives, Henry VIII sired only three children, and his only son, Edward, was a pathetic shadow of his father.

However Henry came up with a cunning plan. In a military onslaught, known as ‘the Rough Wooing’, he endeavoured to force the marriage of his young son to the infant Mary and, in the process, break the Auld Alliance with France and bring Scotland under English, and Protestant, control.

Mary’s mum and her loyal Catholic allies in Scotland were having none of it. They appealed to France for help, and help there came, in the form of three thousand French troops landing at Leith in 1548 – Scotland’s major port at the time. The French chased the Scots Protestant insurrectionists and their English allies out of Edinburgh and the Lothians and were set to free Scotland from creeping English influence.

Plans were prepared for the eventual marriage of Mary to the son of the French king, further bonding Scotland to France. After nearly 300 years, the Auld Alliance was on track to create a unified Franco-Scots kingdom. But the growing forces of Calvinism and their English allies were too strong for the French, and they were pushed back into Leith.

For twelve years the French held out, building a wall and withstanding assault, bombardment and near starvation. The English were camped at Restalrig village with numerous skirmishes taking place up and down present day Lochend Road.

The English positioned their artillery on Leith Links (the two mounds built for their cannons still being there to this day) and proceeded to knock seven bells out of the Free French Port of Leith – all to no avail.

In 1558 Elizabeth assumed the English throne and Mary married the heir to the French throne, the Dauphin. A year later the Dauphin became king and Mary became queen of both France and Scotland.

The fate of the Anglo-Scots Protestant Reformation lay in the balance, and in came the English again with the Treaty of Berwick in 1559 in which Elizabeth promised to expel the French from Leith and guarantee Scotland’s future as a Protestant country. But the French would not surrender.

The English Navy blockaded the port aiming to starve the French into submission, but to no avail. Then tragically in June 1560 the ‘Queen of Leith’ Mary of Guise died. With their leader gone and the English troops exhausted, a chastened emissary of Queen Elizabeth arrived to negotiate terms of peace.

Both sides laid down their arms and the French agreed to sail back to France, undefeated. Thus the final episode of the Auld Alliance reached its somewhat deflated denouement.

Scotland’s Protestant reformation pointed the needle of our nation’s compass away from France towards England. A shift of direction that dominates our politics today, and Leith was at the centre of it.

The project that eventually created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a Protestant project. Still to this day a Roman Catholic is legally excluded from being head of state.

Throughout our time of independence, from William Wallace to the birth pangs of the Union, France was on our side. Had John Knox and his curmudgeonly band of zealots not lit the fuse towards union with England, would we now be but a Département of France?

Who knows, but I would offer one potential piece of evidence of our three centuries bond with a protective European power, namely Scotland’s sense of itself as firmly ‘European’.

Little wonder that the rallying cry: ‘Independence in Europe’, struck such a chord in our own tireless journey towards freedom.


Queen Mary of Guise even moved her court to Leith and during this period the port became, in effect, the de-facto capital of Scotland


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