Monday, April 23, 2018

St Andrews: Royal and Ancient

By Annie Whitehead

Think of St Andrews and you'll probably think of the university, the golf course, maybe even where Kate met Wills, or perhaps you'll remember that the actors portraying the 1920s Olympians ran along the beach there when filming Chariots of Fire.

But there is very much more to this ancient place, and the moment I stepped from the car I got a sense of the deep, and sometimes dark, history of St Andrews.


This curious marking on the pavement commemorates the spot where the protestant preacher, Patrick Hamilton, was killed in 1528.


It was a rather grisly welcome. But the history of St Andrews does not begin - nor indeed end, though it seemed likely for a while - with the Reformation. In fact, the earliest reference to its existence comes from the Irish Annals, known as the Annals of Ulster, and an entry for 747, when the death of Abbot Túathalán is recorded. [1] At that time, the place was called Cennrigmonaid, which means something like, 'church on the head of the king's mount'.

Royal connections were established when in the tenth century King Constantín mac Áeda abdicated and became the leader of the monastic community in 943. This was not an uncommon practice; across the border in Mercia, King Æthelred had done the same thing in 704, as had an East Anglian king, Sigeberht, although it ended less well for him when he was dragged out of his monastery to fight Penda of Mercia, and faced the invading army with only a staff as a weapon... [2]

Queen Margaret, an Anglo-Saxon by birth, was instrumental in helping the cult of St Andrew to thrive at the monastery, establishing the ferry over the Firth of Forth which enabled pilgrims to travel to the saint's shrine.


The monks at the time were Culdees. Culdee is a corrupted form of the term Céile Dé, which means 'companions of God'. Their history is hard to unravel, but it seems to have been applied to those living in monasteries by the time St Andrews was first founded.

However, in the reign of Margaret's son, Alexander I (1107-24) the bishop, Robert, decided that the Culdees should be replaced by Augustinians, and as the Culdee community lost its prominence, so too did the Gaelic place name, and Cennrigmonaid, which had become translated to Kilrymont, became St Andrews as Bishop Robert established his new cathedral priory.

No one is exactly sure where the original monastery was sited, but visitors today can see the remains of the  cathedral, which dates to around 1160 and included the Augustinian priory, and St Rule's church, which dates to the time of prior Robert. Probably. It's difficult to date it precisely. It might date back to the time of Bishop Fothad who married Malcolm III to Queen Margaret at Dunfermline in around 1070, but most of its architecture dates more securely to Robert's time.

The tower can still be climbed up - I didn't, because I'd arrived on quite a busy day and there was quite a queue - so my picture of the tower is from ground level:


The building of the cathedral took quite some time, and although it was begun in around 1160, the first bishop who was buried there was Bishop Malvoisin, in 1238. The building is a ruin, like most others of this period, but it is impossible not to be awed by the scale of it.



Perhaps it was just too big. It suffered a partial collapse in the 1270s, and then during the war with England, Edward I - Longshanks - ordered the lead stripped from the roof for use during the siege of Stirling Castle.

St Andrews, too, has a castle. It was never a royal residence, but was used by the bishops and later archbishops of St Andrews. However, it did have royal visitors, and James first celebrated Christmas there in 1425. It is possible that his grandson, James III, was born in the castle.


In 1546, Cardinal Beaton was murdered. At the battle of Flodden in 1513, James IV of Scotland had been killed, along with his illegitimate son, Archbishop Alexander Stewart of St Andrews. There followed an unseemly rush for the vacant see, won by Andrew Foreman, who was then succeeded in 1521 by James Beaton. He was a powerful influence on the young child king, James V and a vehement opponent and persecutor of protestant reformers. My guide explained to me that the memorial I had seen when I first arrived, to Patrick Hamilton, was a reminder that Hamilton had been burned at the stake on the orders of James Beaton in 1528. Just outside the castle is another macabre memorial, that of George Wishart, burned at the stake there.



But this was not at the orders of James Beaton, but his nephew and successor, David. And it was he, who in 1546, was murdered after a siege during which the castle was undermined. The assassins stabbed him and hung his naked body from the castle walls, before taking over the castle. They in turn came under siege by the forces of Regent Arran, and in 1547 during a truce, the famous reformer, John Knox, entered the castle and spoke to the murderers. He later wrote a sharp condemnation of Cardinal Beaton, whom he accused of being 'a cruel persecutor of Christ's members, a manifest and open oppressor of all true subjects', and accused him of having on his hands the blood not only of Wishart, but also of  'simple Adam Wallace, and of others who did suffer for Christ's cause only.' [3]

A French fleet arrived to assist Regent Arran  and with the artillery bombardment the castle was largely destroyed. Some rebels were imprisoned, while Knox became a galley slave and was not released until 1549.


After the reformation, the cathedral was never repaired, and in 1606 the castle was taken away from the archbishopric and given to the earl of Dunbar. Charles I of England tried to re-establish the archbishopric in 1636, but the Scottish people were suspicious of the king and his popish inclinations.

Trade declined. The university considered moving. By the 1700s visitors were greeted with grass-covered streets filled with 'dunghills which are exceedingly noisome and ready to infect the air.' [4]

The saviour of St Andrews was golf. Not just the golf course, but the manufacture of the golf balls and clubs themselves which were being exported throughout the 1800s. The Society of St Andrews Golfers was founded in 1754 and with trade and visitors, the fortunes of St Andrews were turned around.


The relationship between the burgh and the cathedral resulted in a spectacular fall from grace after the Reformation of 1560, but it did ensure that the ruins there today were not redeveloped.

As one might gather, the university did not move. It had been founded at a time when, because of the wars of independence, many students had been forced to study abroad. By the mid 1500s it had three colleges: St  Salvator’s (1450), St Leonard’s (1511) and St Mary’s (1538). The buildings of St Mary’s College and St Salvator’s Chapel date from this period. And this is where we came in. The memorial in pebbles to the martyred Patrick Hamilton is outside St Salvator's chapel, which is all that now remains of the original building.

All the places mentioned are within easy walking distance of each other. Spend an hour, spend a day. You'll be made most welcome, and take my word for it, the streets are no longer filled with dunghills.

[1] Annals of Ulster; Royal Irish Academy 747
[2] Bede Historia Ecclesiastica iii 18
[3] John Knox Select Practical Writings: Professing The Truth in Scotland
[4] Transactions of the Literary and Antiquarian Society of Perth, Volume

All photographs by and copyright of the author

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Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
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10 comments:

  1. That was really interesting - thank you

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    1. Thanks Helen - I had a wonderful time in Scotland, exploring its rich history. I'd never been to the 'Kingdom' of Fife before, and it was a revelation.

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  2. I loved St Andrews when I visited with my daughter, her partner and his mother. Did not have too much time there unfortunately so missed quite a lot. But the cathedral is magnificent (no, I didn't go up the tower either!!)

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    1. I don't blame you - I'm sure the view from the top is magnificent but nope, not for me!

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  3. When we lived in Scotland we used to visit/stay there a lot

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    1. It's a lovely place - in fact the whole coastline from Queensferry up to St Andrews is stunning, with so many interesting places to visit.

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  4. Great post, Annie! Thanks for taking us through the tour.

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  5. great post Annie ! quick question , why no mention of Mary , the 42nd Queen of Scots & her son ?

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    1. Hi Gillian - glad you enjoyed the post. I didn't mention them for a few reasons: they didn't come up in the conversations I had with people there, we have a word limit for the posts and I'd talked about them in previous posts, particularly in connection with Falkland. And I will be mentioning them a little in a future post :-)

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