Markle Castle

Andrew Spratt contributes:

North of the East Lothian village of East Linton on a rocky mound a few fragmented walls remain of Markle castle, with the shell of a 1300's tower and a 1500's hall house to the east forming a small courtyard. The entire site was originally surrounded by a fortified ditch which helped highlight it's position. There was a village of Markle. But it has long since vanished, so too have the monastic buildings mentioned in early accounts.

The castle name Markle originally 'Merkill' has one claim to fame which pre-dates the castle and goes back to 832 A.D. The hillside of 'Merkill' was where the Scots/Picts army under King Angus rested while watching the approach of King Athel and his Southern 'English' raiders (some accounts call them 'Saxons' or even 'Angles'). King Athel was in hot pursuit of the Scots for having stolen cattle, women and children from Northumberland which was regarded as 'Saxon' raiding ground. In this whole affair the poor people of Northumberland were the innocent victims caught between the Scots from the North and the 'Saxons' from the south. This was a pattern which would repeat itself in the border land wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.

As King Angus withdrew from 'Merkill' over the ford some distance east of the present day Athelstaneford village, the clouds above formed a diagonal cross. Angus took this to be a good omen and in the ensuing battle of Athelstaneford, King Athel was killed and the 'Saxons' defeated. With this event the white cross on blue was adopted as Scotland's banner and Saint Andrew as Scotland's Saint. The name Athelstaneford is said to come from King Athel being killed stone dead at the ford and 'Merkill' is said to come from a miracle where the clouds formed a cross in the sky.

The background history to Markle castle like the ruin is very sparse, although it is closely inter-linked with Hailes castle which was held by the Dunbars, the Hepburns and the Stewarts. It was the Hepburns who first raised a tower of Markle in the late 1300's.The Hepburns were descended from a Northumbrian knight 'Adam de Hepburne' who in 1271was captured in battle by Lord Dunbar, Earl of March. Later 'Hepburne' saved Lord Dunbar from a wild horse and was rewarded by marrying Lord Dunbar's daughter and becoming a Dunbar vassal Lord holding Hailes castle which encompassed the lands of 'Merkill'.

The Hepburns rose from vassaldom in the 1400's to become powerful Lothian Lairds in their own right, holding the castles of Hailes ,Markle, Waughton,a town house at Haddington, St Martins and Nunraw tower. Branches of the family in the 1500's held Bolton, Beanston, Humbie, Monkrigg, Morham tower and Smeaton tower. This rise ended abruptly with James Hepburn 4th Earl of Bothwell, 'Mary's Bothwell', third husband of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567),chief instigator in the assassination of Lord Darnley, Mary's second husband. After the defeat of Mary's forces at Carberry hill and then Langside, Hepburn fled to Scandinavia where he died insane in the prison of Dragsholm castle. Hailes castle and Markle then passed to the Stewart Earls of Bothwell.

Markle castle was attacked on two occasions. First in 1401 by George Dunbar exiled owner of Dunbar castle with the aid of the English Knight 'Hotspur' Percy. Secondly it was burnt in 1544 by the Earl of Hereford's men during the wars of the 'Rough Wooing' where by use of force the English hoped to bring about the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots to the English Prince Edward.

In 1396,George Dunbar, Earl of March's daughter Elizabeth was married to Prince David. However, Archibald the 'Grim' 3rd Earl of Douglas secretly suggested to King Robert III of Scots (1390-1406) that the marriage should be abandoned in favor of his daughter Marjory. To this end, the King, totally out of character, massed an army at Haddington with 'Black' Douglas support and besieged Dunbar castle "in connection with the irregular marriage of his son and a daughter of the Earl of March". The King also invoked the wrath of the church, claiming the marriage had gone ahead before the permission of Pope XIII had officially been given.

The siege dragged on into February 1397 when George Dunbar obtained a safe-conduct order from King Richard II of England (1377-1399) for himself and one hundred of his household to travel and reside in England for six months. On the 10th of March, the Pope dissolved the marriage, ending the King's assault on Dunbar castle. Surprisingly, Dunbar returned to his castle bearing the King no ill-will since he was under the misconception that when enough time had passed and the Pope gave his blessing, Prince David would officially re-marry his daughter. Dunbar seemed to be totally oblivious to Archibald's scheme.

In 1400, the news broke of Prince David's proposed marriage to Archibald's daughter. Angered by this insult to his daughter, Dunbar challenged the King to "keep his agreement with him, or he would arrange for something unheard of and unusual to be done in the Kingdom." The marriage went ahead despite Dunbar's threats and, to add insult to injury, Prince David made the Master of Douglas (Archibald's son) lifetime keeper of Edinburgh castle, effectively turning it into a 'Black' Douglas stronghold within striking distance of Dunbar's Lothian lands and his principal seat, Dunbar castle itself.

Dunbar met with several of his vassalmen, including the Hepburns, divulging his plans to switch allegiance from King Robert III to King Henry IV of England (1399-1413). He commanded them to return to their respective castles and prepare for war, in case King Robert's forces attacked. George Dunbar then left his castle defended by his nephew Maitland of Lethington (Lennoxlove tower) while he and one hundred of his men traveled to England to offer to offer his services as a soldier, including the use of such castles as Billie, Cockburnspath and Dunbar itself as staging posts for any planned invasion of Scotland. 'Hotspur' Percy was about to take Dunbar up on his offer when news came that Dunbar castle had been attacked by the Master of Douglas, acting in King Robert's name. To save bloodshed, Maitland had thrown open the gates and surrendered on reasonable terms, since Dunbar's family were courteously allowed time to pack up their belongings and leave. Billie castle and Cockburnspath tower were still in Dunbar hands unlike Hailes castle and Markle castle as their keepers, the Hepburns had sided with the Douglases.

In reply, King Henry with Dunbar and 'Hotspur' invaded Scotland besieging Edinburgh castle which was defended by Archibald the 'Grim' and his son-in-law, Prince David the Duke of Rothesay. The siege proved ineffective and Henry declined David's offer of ten or twenty of their best men to fight to the death to settle the outcome of the siege, since Henry had superior numbers and time on his side. Though his camp was heckled by the Master of Douglas with the help of the Ramsays of Dalhousie castle near Bonnyrigg. During these raids, the Master of Douglas discovered Prince David's uncle, the Stewart Duke of Albany, with a large army nearby. But Albany refused to join in the assaults on the English camp. Likely he wanted Edinburgh castle to fall and Prince David to be killed or captured so he would be a step closer to seizing the throne from his weak willed brother King Robert III. As these camp raids continued Henry, at Dunbar's insistence sent a task force to besiege Dalhousie. Both sieges of Edinburgh and Dalhousie were suddenly abandoned when reports came that Owen of Glendower, the self-styled Prince of Wales had revolted against his English over Lords and was attacking Caerphilly castle. Henry and his entire army marched quickly south to Wales to prevent Owen's rebellion from gaining support and to save Caerphilly, a key symbol of English domination over the Welsh.

In 1401,Dunbar and 'Hotspur' with 2,000 men made a lightning raid into the Lothians burning down Markle castle and village along with the villages of Traprain and Hailes. The castle of Hailes proved too strong stoutly defended by the Hepburns who, as ex-Dunbar vassals, recognized Lord Dunbar would give them no quarter making their resistance all the more determined. Today the ruin of Hailes castle below Traprain law appears a weak site. However, in the 1400,the Traprain burn was dammed back, trapping rainwater from the hillside and flooding the castle ditches on three sides before cascading down on the river Tyne which protected the north side. Dunbar and 'Hotspur' made two unsuccessful assaults on the castle before making camp for the night, planning to attack again at first light.

In the darkness, disguising his small numbers, Archibald 4th Earl of Douglas with an 'armed force' from Edinburgh castle threw the English camp into total confusion. The Hepburns raced out from their castle to join in the slaughter which ensued. Somehow Dunbar and 'Hotspur' escaped with 'loss of camp and booty.' The remaining English fled to Cockburnspath tower but this was soon stormed by the Scots and captives taken. Others fled to Berwick where one knight, Thomas Talbot, tried to make a stand against the pursuing Douglases before the town walls, but was unhorsed and his banner taken as a trophy.

In June 1402,the Hepburns with about 500 horsemen raided the north of England. On their return, they were engaged and defeated at the second battle of Nisbet near Duns by Dunbar and 'Hotspur'. At first the battle was favourable to the Scots but at the last moment Dunbar's son arrived with reinforcements from Berwick castle, winning the day for the English. Dunbar then executed Patrick Hepburn, son of Hepburn of Hailes and Markle. A few months later Dunbar and 'Hotspur' defeated the Douglases at the battle of Homildon hill near Wooler. With his old scores settled George Dunbar returned to the Scots side in 1409 and was given back his castle of Dunbar by the Duke of Albany, who was ruling as 'Governor' of Scotland while King James I of Scots (1406-1437) was held captive by the English.

In 1434,Adam Hepburn of Hailes and Markle with William the 'Red' Douglas of Tantallon castle near North Berwick, seized Dunbar castle by royal decree when the Dunbars once again fell from favour. The Dunbars fled to England calling for help in regaining Dunbar castle by force of arms. This help materialised in the spring of 1435 when Sir Robert Ogle, the Governor of Berwick, with the Percies and 1,600 men marched north to take Dunbar. However, he was met and defeated by the Hepburns, the Douglases and the Ramsays of Dalhousie at the battle of Piperdean just short of Cockburnspath tower.

In 1544 Markle was burnt by the English along with several other Lothian castles. However, in the invasion of 1547 when the same castles were burnt Markle is not mentioned. It could be that the Hepburns left Markle a burnt out shell, while they concentrated their forces at Hailes and Waughton. During the 1547 invasion the Hailes gunners released a great barrage on the English army of 16,000 men as they crossed the valley. This was ignored, so the daring Hepburns then charged out to attack the rear of the convoy almost capturing the Earl of Warwick, before being chased by superior numbers.

With the English re-invasion of 1548 Hailes and Waughton were both captured, but yet again no mention of Markle. In 1588 Markle castle reappears in the 'Register of the Great Seal of Scotland' when it was held by the Stewarts. So sometime between the end of the 'Rough Wooing' wars in 1550 and 1588 Markle was rebuilt. Markle is last shown in the 'Great Seal' in 1635 but as to its condition in 1650-51 during Cromwell's destruction of Lothian castles no record exist. Some time between 1635 and the 1700's Markle became a quarry. The fact that anything remains of Markle castle considering the actions of the Hepburns and its position on an ancient invasion route is in itself a 'Merkill' or miracle.




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