Edinburgh Castle sits high above the city of Edinburgh upon an extinct volcano from its position on Castle Rock. Archaeologists have established human occupation of the rock since the Iron Age (2nd century) and there has been a royal castle in situ since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century.
The original fortifications and buildings were constructed of timber, with stone structures appearing in the later 12th century. Of these, St. Margaret’s Chapel remains at the summit. A succession of battles during the late 13th and early 14th century saw the destruction of many of the original castle features and most of the battlements.
With the Treaty of Berwick (c.1357) ending the Scottish Wars of Independence, King David II returned to rule Scotland to reside within his beloved Edinburgh Castle. He was determined to fortify and remodel the structure and make Edinburgh the greatest castle in the land.
David II Edinburgh Castle c.1580
David II began by systematically replacing many of the remaining timber buildings with stone structures; however, his ultimate endeavour was to create a tower so dominating that it would be seen for hundreds of miles.
Plans were well underway by c.1361, with David referencing his ideas and seeking information of the possibility of including a ‘pit for lions’, but construction did not commence until approximately 1366 or 1367. The tower stood on the site of the present Half Moon Battery and was connected by a section of curtain wall to the smaller Constable’s Tower, a round tower built between 1375 and 1379 where the Portcullis Gate now stands. David’s Tower was built on an L-plan – the main block being 16m by 12m, with the adjoining wing measuring 6.4m by 5.5m, pointing to the west. The entrance was via a pointed-arched doorway situated within the inner angle, although in the 16th century this was filled in to make the tower a solid rectangle. The overall height was recorded at a staggering 18m.
Sadly, David was not to see his piece de resistance completed, dying in 1371 before the roof had been completed. His successor, Robert II, finished the tower in the late 1370s.
Over the successive centuries, the Scottish Royal family choose to make the Abbey of Holyrood their preferred place of residence with King James IV (r.1488–1513) building Holyrood House for this purpose. Edinburgh Castle’s role as a royal home subsequently declined, as did the buildings. During the 15th century the castle was increasingly used as an arsenal and armaments factory.
In April 1573, a force of around 1,000 English troops, led by Sir William Drury, arrived in Edinburgh. This battle was to be recorded as The Lang Siege. The English troops built an artillery emplacement on Castle Hill, with several others in outlying areas. On about the 17th of May the bombardment began. Over the next twelve days the gunners dispatched around 3,000 shots at the castle and on the 22nd May, the south wall of David’s Tower collapsed.
Half Moon Battery with sections of King David’s Tower visible
The Half Moon Battery, erected between 1753 and 1588, was built around and over the ruins of David’s Tower, two storeys of which survive beneath, with windows facing out onto the interior wall of the battery. The remaining portions of David’s Tower stand up to 15m from Castle Rock and can be seen sitting below the Half Moon Battery.
Half Moon Battery at location 16. Underground doorway located in David’s Tower
The Tower played a significant part in Scotland’s history. It housed numerous political prisoners, including Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, for plotting against his brother, King James III. In 1479, he escaped by getting his guards drunk and lowering himself from a window with the use of a rope. He fled first to France, then England, where he allied himself with King Edward IV. In 1482, Alexander marched into Scotland with Richard, Duke of Gloucester at the head of an English army. James III was captured and shut up in the very same room in which he had incarcerated his brother and there he remained until he negotiated a settlement.
Perhaps the most infamous event (one supposedly used by George R.R. Martin as the basis of his ‘Red Wedding’ scene from A Storm of Swords) took place within the tower and is remembered as the ‘Black Dinner’. In November 1440 the then ten year old King, James III ruled Scotland with the assistance of Sir William Crichton, the Chancellor of Scotland and Keeper of Edinburgh Castle. But Crichton wanted more – he had his sights set on the Regency, but the powerful Douglas clan stood in his way. Encouraging James III to invite his two childhood friends to dinner, the 16 year old William Douglas, 6th Earl Douglas and his younger brother arrived early afternoon and engaged in normal boyhood pursuits prior to the evening banquet. While they ate, a black bull’s head, the symbol of death, was brought in and placed before the Earl. The two brothers were then dragged out to Castle Hill, given a mock trial and beheaded, all the while King James pleading for their release. It is said that the older brother begged the executioner to remove his siblings head first, so as the boy would not witness what was to be his own fate.
George R.R. Martin has often stated that far worse occurred in history then ever takes place within his fantasy novels, and in this instance I would most certainly agree.
David’s Tower is mentioned on several occasions within The Gilded Crown and in particular, one very noteworthy feature –
‘As my honoured guest I have something else I wish to show you.’ David turned towards the base of a short tower and opened the timber door, pulling Catherine along with him. ‘This is to become my masterpiece, my enduring legacy. It will be long remembered for both its height and its strength.’
Removing a lit torch from the wall sconce, David led Catherine down a dark set of narrow stairs that finished directly over a deep shaft, the bottom of which she could not see.
‘My lion pit.’ David smiled. ‘Very similar to those favoured by the Romans.’
Catherine quivered with fear as David edged her closer.
Archaeological work continues within the walls of Edinburgh Castle as there is so much more to learn. Who knows what will be uncovered in the future?