Pit Prisons and the Bottle Dungeon

I always assumed that the dungeon at St Andrews Castle, carved out of rock and worn smooth by its many occupants, was unique.

Named the bottle dungeon for reasons which are soon obvious to any visitor, it is indeed unique – in shape. But the principle of keeping prisoners in a pit prison was fairly universal.

There were of course others forms of punishment, often about humiliation more than pain

masks of shame the castilians
Masks of Shame displayed in Mdina, Malta

Cardinal Beaton, who was instrumental in the death of George Wishart was himself held prisoner at Blackness Castle

Blackness Castle

but, as a rich and powerful man, Cardinal Beaton’s incarceration was quite different from that of general prisoners

Cardinal Beaton's prison accommodation at Blackness was spread over three floors
Cardinal Beaton’s prison accommodation at Blackness was spread over three floors

Of course Beaton had to pay for his comfortable living, but then any prisoner had to rely on family or friends to provide food, heat, bedding, bribes and a ransom…so if you were poor you were in desperate straits.

The Cardinal did end up in the bottle dungeon a few years later, where the Lairds who murdered him are said to have kept his mutilated body…

Leslie wants the Cardinal’s body brought out of the dungeon and laid to rest somewhere more fitting. Will hangs his head over the bottle neck and quickly hauls it out again. The smell is bad: dank, airless and putrid. Surely the Cardinal can’t still be rotting after more than a year pickled in salt.

bottle dungeon St Andrews Castle

The men below shout up; they need help. Will sighs, grasps a rope and slides down to join them. No doubt they will soon be imprisoned here themselves, and he would prefer it if the Cardinal was first removed.

They balance awkwardly on the curve of the hollowed-out floor of the dungeon. The coffin slips and crashes to the ground. The ill-fitting lid slides open.

Will looks down upon the tightly packed body and the Cardinal’s face stares up at him. He steps back with a sharp intake of breath, and he’s not the only one. He rubs his eyes hard, God’s blood, he would swear on his life he saw Beaton’s unquiet spirit escape.

They ram the lid back on and get the coffin tied up, and hauled to the surface without any further mishap. He climbs back up the rope and the group, staggering under the weight as they slip and slither in the muck, take it in turns to carry it across the rain-soaked, cannon- blasted courtyard. Will notices that Norman Leslie takes no further part in proceedings.’

The Castilians , currently on the Amazon BEST SELLER List, is on offer until 16 September.

The sequel, The Conversos, will be released on 30 November.

And a final postscript…I love chatting to readers and, if you’d like to join in and receive infrequent updates on research, sneak peeks into what new books I’m working on and the occasional giveaways then please do sign up to my newsletter.

You can unsubscribe at any time and I promise to write out only occasionally and not to clog up your inbox.

The Sea Yett and the Perilous Climb

When I was plotting The Castilians I had to work out how I was going to sneak its heroine, Bethia, inside St Andrews Castle. The obvious way – through the gate in the curtain wall, and across the drawbridge — wasn’t going to work.

Main entrance to St Andrews Castle – although it was re-positioned here during the re-building work after the Siege.

Although around 2500 people lived in St Andrews in the 1500s (there were 60 bakers alone), the chances of Bethia, as the daughter of the well-kent Merchant Seton,  being observed by someone who knew her were high. 

A solution was for her to gain entry by a gate on the seaward side and, in the ruins of the castle, such a gate still exists.…

The Sea Yett – there is some debate as to when it was knocked through, however I’m going with those chroniclers who think it was already there in the time of the Siege. It would’ve been essential for the off-loading of Cardinal Beaton’s rich supplies, especially as it was much easier and cheaper to transport goods by sea.

Problem solved.

But how is she going to get in here? The castle sits perched on a cliff. Last summer I realised I needed to get a good look at the castle from the sea, but this is COVID times and there were no boats going out. Instead I went at low tide and scrambled over the rocks in a most precarious, and undignified, manner.

Wow, the castle is impressive from the seaward side. Shame about the graffiti halfway up, which rather destroys the atmosphere.

It’s also high – how am I going to get Bethia safely in and out of there, especially if the sea is rough?

Stormy Seas seen from St Andrews Castle

They reach their destination sooner than she expects, bumping up against smooth rocks which form a jetty below the cliff. Geordie leaps out and offers his hand to steady her. She tips her head back; the crumbling sandstone is soothing to the eye, but the castle wall rising over it is grey and forbidding.  She can see a small gate high above, but she can’t see any way to reach it.

Geordie shouts and after a few moments a face peers through the bars of the yett. Geordie sniffs, ‘They must be thinking God is keeping watch for them, since they’re no bothering.’

‘Bethia Seton, what are you doing here?’

She sees James of Nydie’s blonde head and frowning face looking down.

‘Is there a way up, I need to speak with Will.’

‘There is a ladder but it’s not an easy climb.’

‘I’ll manage,’ she calls, voice quivering.

A rope ladder is unraveled and hangs, swinging in the breeze. Geordie grabs the end and she goes to step on.

‘Wait,’ cries James and the end of a rope comes slithering down. ‘Tie it around you.’

Up she goes, the ladder swaying and banging off the cliff. She keeps her eyes fixed on the uneven rock close to her face, so close in places that her nose and knees bump off it, and her knuckles scrape over it. Her skirts catch around her legs, restricting movement. Her breathing is loud in her ears, fluttering and panicked. She’s grateful to James for the rope, doesn’t think she could have done it otherwise.

Ye’d better no be long,’ Geordie shouts, as she’s crawling through the gate. ‘If the tide gets too far out the boat will be stuck till it rises again.’

One day recently I visited Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick. Castles served different purposes and St Andrews Castle is really a wee fortified bishop’s palace. Tantallon is a BIG castle on a GRAND scale.

Tantallon Castle

And there I found the perfect explanation of how goods would be lifted from the deck of a ship a long, long way below and hoisted into the castle.

Drawing of the winch for bringing goods up from a ship and/or jetty at Tantallon Castle

Perhaps Bethia could have been hauled up this way— but I suspect she’d prefer to stay with the ladder, rather than being swung around in the air in a most unsafe, wind-tossed ascent.

Ps Do note the walkways around Tantallon – all without barriers. Terrifying!!

And a final postscript…I love chatting to readers and, if you’d like to join in and receive infrequent updates on research, sneak peeks into what new books I’m working on and the occasional giveaways then please do sign up to my newsletter.

You can unsubscribe at any time and I promise to write out only occasionally and not to clog up your inbox.

Usurper King – Guest Post

It’s a great moment for a newbie author to have her first guest post and I’m delighted to welcome Mercedes Rochelle who has been kind enough to answer the three short questions I posed. Mercedes has recently published book three of her Plantagenet Series, Usurper King to add to what is a growing list of previously published books, both fiction and non fiction.

Mercedes was born in Missouri but now lives in New Jersey and I was curious as to what drew her to become a writer of medieval historical fiction.

Your novels are all set in England. What got you hooked about English History?

It seems like an accident, but I keep bumping into Shakespeare as inspiration for my novels. The first, HEIR TO A PROPHECY was actually inspired by “the Scottish play”, but most of the action is in England anyway. Could it be because most of us Americans have a soft spot for our ancestors? I feel that I can relate to the English, and the Plantagenets really call to me. My thirty years as a medieval reenactor probably has much to do with it, too.

The characters you write about were often blood-thirsty and cruel. How do you make them appealing to the reader (and to you as the writer)?

I would say that the middle ages were pretty blood-thirsty and cruel in general, though they probably didn’t see themselves that way. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that good fiction thrives on conflict. I also believe that nobody is 100% evil. After all, the villain is the hero of his own story!

So part of the conflict, as I see it, is the innate contradiction between a character’s good and bad side. Does the protagonist always have to be a hero? Trying to see past the actions to the man inside keeps me interested. King Richard II was a prime example. He did so many questionable things! Of course, that’s why he lost his crown.

At the same time, he was very kind to his wives and to children. He wasn’t a bad man—just traumatized by events in his minority. I don’t think he could help himself. I hope that the circumstances surrounding his fall made up for the fact that he wasn’t particularly sympathetic. I didn’t want to whitewash him, so explaining his actions rather than excusing them was my solution.

Henry Bolingbroke with Richard II at Flint Castle from Jean Creton’s The Capture and Death of King Richard. Harleian Collection, British Library

What’s the biggest challenge in writing about people and events from over 700 years ago, and what’s the most fun part?

In essence, I don’t think people were all that different than today. One of my challenges is the language. Idioms are anathema, and at the same time we often don’t even realize we are using them. I always have an etymological dictionary running in the background and look up words that sound modern to me. If the word was first used in the 17th century, for example, I’ll find something else. It limits my vocabulary!

The other thing I struggle with is travel time. Often and again I’ll read a history that claims so-and-so traveled in an impossibly short time (Harold Godwineson from London to Stamford Bridge in 1066, for example. I wrote a blog post about it.) Under the best of circumstances, a man probably wouldn’t travel more than 50 miles in a day; the average was more like thirty. How about the second day? Without a relay, the horse would give out. I really don’t think they had relay, or posting stations before the 18th century (except for the Romans). So I also have a map running in the background so I don’t screw up my distances.

My enjoyment comes from deciphering the events I’m reading about. We almost never learn exactly what, why, or how a person decides to do something. We just learn about the fact. When a character acts “out of character”, it’s quite a challenge trying to sort out a reasonable explanation. Why did Hotspur rebel against the king, when he had so much to lose? Why did his father, the formidable Henry Percy, fail to show up for the Battle of Shrewsbury? Why did King Richard go to Ireland immediately after he took away Henry Bolingbroke’s inheritance? To me, these are the things that make historical fiction rock!!

THE USURPER KING

First, he led his own uprising. Then he captured a forsaken king. Henry had no intention of taking the crown for himself; it was given to him by popular acclaim. Alas, it didn’t take long to realize that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it. Only three months after his coronation, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard’s disgruntled favorites.

Repressive measures led to more discontent. His own supporters turned against him, demanding more than he could give. The haughty Percies precipitated the Battle of Shrewsbury which nearly cost him the throne—and his life. To make matters worse, even after Richard II’s funeral, the deposed monarch was rumored to be in Scotland, planning his return. The king just wouldn’t stay down and malcontents wanted him back.

Where to buy, & more information

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ps. Mercedes writes a very informative blog, fascinating to any history buff.

pps. Her books are available in Audible too.

How do you dig a Siege Tunnel?

I was twelve when I first went down the siege tunnel at St Andrews Castle. It was scary and, if you are at all claustrophobic, it’s definitely not for you.

For, the first part you bend double, creeping down the central trench, at risk of scraping  your back on the rough stone above.

The Counter-Mine and narrow entrance to the siege tunnel

Then suddenly the passage ends in a wall of rock. There is a narrow, jagged hole beneath you.  Do you dare squeeze yourself though it and descend the metal ladder to find out what’s below?

Down you go and the space opens out. The tunnel is a tale of two halves and this part is broad and high with steps leading to the sealed off entrance, which is beneath a house in North Street.  There’s also a grating visible, which my brother and his friends entertained themselves during school lunchbreaks by howling  down into, from the street above, to terrify (or perhaps create atmosphere for) the visiting American tourists creeping around below.

Where the mine was begun, the entrance now sealed off beneath a house in North Street

I have so far called this ‘a tunnel’ and was always baffled as to why it was referred to as ‘a mine.’ When I was researching The Castilians I finally understood. Here’s an extract where Will discovers what the tunnelling/mining is about …

Will works away clearing rubble but puzzling over what they’re doing.

‘Why do we not wait for our attackers to break through and then pick them off as they emerge? Then we would not have to expend effort digging, and surely it is better than both attackers and defenders meeting underground,’ he whispers to an equally baffled Nydie.

‘It would not,’ sighs Lee who has overheard them…

‘Arran’s intent is not to gain entry. The purpose of a siege tunnel is to undermine the castle defences and that is why we call it a mine. Our attackers will begin at a safe distance from the castle so they cannot be seen or fired upon, which is how we cannot yet be sure they are digging.’

‘How will it cause the castle walls to collapse, unless they mine close beneath the surface?’ Nydie asks.

‘No, that would not be wise – else they would find themselves buried alive if the wall collapsed unexpectedly. Once they believe themselves to be underneath the castle walls they’ll hollow out an area, which is supported by timber props to keep those digging safe, until all is ready. Then explosives will be laid and fires set below each prop and, when the miners are confident the fire has taken hold, they’ll flee out of the mine to safety. The conflagration will cause the tunnel to cave in and, if they’ve done their work well, the defensive wall above the tunnel will tumble down and our besiegers can take the castle.’ 

The ladder linking the two halves, and the mine built on a larger scale to set explosives beneath the curtain wall

The mine and counter-mine at St Andrews Castle have been dug through rock, which is remarkable — and why it’s still there after nearly five hundred years. It’s also the best surviving example of siege tunnelling in Europe, from that period.

I still wonder at the amazing feat to dig, and dig so fast. There’s little reference to it in the papers of the time. The French ambassador to the English Court mentions the mine and counter-mine in his letters of November 1546, but by December it’s over and the attempt to break the siege has failed again…

They hear sounds of alarm; it seems they are discovered. Any attempt to stay quiet is given up and they excavate as hard and fast as they can. Someone has fetched Richard Lee and he squeezes past Will, directing them to attack the ground beneath, and not before them.

‘We must be quick,’ he hisses, ‘else they’ll have time to set explosives and blow us into eternity.’

Will shovels the rubble behind him to keep the area clear for the miners to work – there’s no time to scuttle back up the passageway with it now. A hole has appeared in the floor of the tunnel. Lee has a man shield the candles, whispering that he needs it dark to see if there’s torchlight shining through from below.

Will, Lee and the two miners all squeezed tight together nudge one another: light is shining through. They enlarge the hole, cries beneath them growing loud, then fading. Lee kneels at the edge, and sticks his head through. Will can feel Lee’s body tense, ready to jerk his head out if necessary. He is a brave man. They wait.

Lee lifts his head out and smiles. ‘It could not be more perfect.’

If you’re ever in St Andrews Castle, don’t forget to see the mine and counter-mine. It’s one of the most atmospheric places you’ll ever visit. And in answer to the question, how do you dig a siege tunnel…it’s backbreaking work mostly using  a  pick-axe, partly because the besiegers are trying to attack without those inside the castle knowing.

frontage of the ruin of St Andrews Castle
Castle frontage and the dry moat, where the entrance to the mine can be found

Caitchpule

A reader writes to ask what is a caitchpule — and I realise I have made an assumption. In The Castilians I mention King James V’s fondness for the game of caitch, which he regularly played at Falkland Palace. Growing up nearby I was always aware of the famous tennis court at the Palace, and so I wrote as though readers would understand what I was talking about when I mentioned the words ‘caitchpule’ and ‘Falkland Palace’ in the same sentence.

Ooops!

 What I didn’t know, before I wrote the novel, was that real tennis was called caitch and the tennis court a caitchpule. The game is the precursor to lawn tennis played at Wimbledon since the the 1800s.

Real Tennis Court – the Caitchpule

Real tennis is more like squash in that it uses the walls surrounding the enclosed court and the sloping roof above the viewing gallery, to bounce the ball off.  Lawn tennis, although played differently, copied the same scoring system as real tennis.

Viewing Gallery at Falkland Palace

James’s uncle, King Henry VIII of England, was also a keen tennis player in his youth.  There was a caitchpule in St Andrews, so it’s entirely possible my characters in The Castilians may have played the game – at least those with the wealth and leisure to do so.

Real tennis is still played at Falkland Palace by local residents, who would most certainly not have been permitted anywhere near the caitchpule in the 1500s.

Falkland Palace