In 1546 Scotland is under attack by Henry VIII, determined to marry his son to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. A few among the Scottish Lairds, for both political and religious reasons, are eager for this alliance too. They kill Cardinal Beaton, who is Mary’s great protector, and take his castle at St Andrews, expecting rescue any day from England. But the Cardinal wasn’t so innocent either, for barely two months earlier he had burnt a Protestant preacher at the stake.
The Castilians bumps up against some real historical characters but I was as much interested in what the siege was like for the local people. The story is told through the eyes of a sister and brother, spirited Bethia and rebellious Will who live in St Andrews and are caught up on opposite sides of the siege; Will with the renegades inside the castle and Bethia living in the town outside. The siege for them becomes a fight for survival and a test of their loyalties. What’s more important: to save their family, stay true to their beliefs, or to save themselves.
The purpose of a siege tunnel, as I discovered when I came to write the story of The Castilians, is not to dig your way into the castle. The purpose is to dig your way under the castle wall, set up explosives, blow up the wall, and thereby break the siege and take the castle. It makes sense I suppose, otherwise the defenders would just pick off the attackers as they emerged, one by one, from the tunnel.
It also explains something which had always puzzled me about the siege tunnel dug at St Andrews Castle, Scotland, in 1546, and which my novel tells the story of… why was the tunnel referred to as a mine…and countermine. Now I understand it’s because they were mining, not tunnelling, and the defenders countermined fast and furious to reach their attackers before they could blow up the curtain wall. They were successful and visitors can still go down the tunnel/mine in St Andrews today.
Growing up in a St Andrews was like living in the middle of a history lesson…but we weren’t told much of the story. Of course what the town is most famous for is golf. It’s been played there since at least the 1500s when, after complaints from the townsfolk, an ordinance was issued forbidding young men to golf in the streets and they moved off to the Old Course.
Despite the pre-eminence of golf, it wasn’t taught at school and we were only given a smidgeon of the history of the town — its ruined castle, cathedral and the university founded in 1413. We knew our city was named after Jesus’s disciple Andrew, some of whose bones were once venerated in the cathedral. We did not know that St Andrews was once a huge centre of pilgrimage to rival Santiago de Compostela — for everything had changed with the Reformation in 1560.
It now seems a terrible act of vandalism that the huge cathedral was destroyed, and much of its stones, along with those of the ruined castle, pilfered over the following centuries by the townsfolk to repair the pier and build their houses.
When I first crept down the castle’s siege tunnel, dug out of rock I was already a teenager — and immediately fascinated. And when I heard that those who took the castle, killed its Cardinal and held it under siege for 14 months, called themselves the Castilians I knew it was the perfect title for a novel.
Yet, when I came to write the novel, I was surprised how little historical research on the siege was available. It features as a short chapter or a footnote in some reference books but no one, as far as I could ascertain, has told the story in full. And there’s so much to tell…
In writing the novel, I finally came to know and understand the history that was all around me as a child, and which I took for granted. The Castilians is the story of a remarkable period in the life of a town with which I feel a deep connection. It’s also a rattling good yarn!
Meet V.E.H. Masters
VEH Masters was born and brought up on a farm a few miles outside St Andrews, Scotland. The first time she ever visited St Andrews Castle was aged 12, when her history teacher took the class on a school trip. They crept down the siege tunnel and peered into the bottle dungeon, where Cardinal Beaton’s body was said to have been kept pickled in salt for the 14 months of the siege. She was hooked!
The Castilians is her debut novel and she’s currently working on a sequel. She loves to chat (blether we would say in Scotland) and is keen to hear readers comments, ideas and suggestions. You’ll find out more at https://vehmasters.com/ and can contact her there, and join the special Readers Group.
She’s also on facebook https://www.facebook.com/VEHMastersBooks and on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56074977
And Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/VickiMasters9
Instagram and Pinterest – but probably that’s too many links for now!!