On the ramparts of Edinburgh castle sits an iron-clad monster. You can see her from the doorway of St Margaret’s Chapel, that tiny little capsule of tranquillity with its extraordinary carved archway and brilliant windows.
Silent and menacing, clad in glossy black, she sits glowering across the streets of the city, her gaze riveted on the Firth of Forth.
Meet Mons Meg.
Named after Mons in Belgium, where she is thought to have been forged, Mons Meg is a siege gun, in the class known as a bombard. Weighing 15,366 pounds (nearly seven tons), with a calibre of 20 inches, she used to hurl stone cannon balls over a distance of two miles.
This deadly damsel was the pride of James II, who had a passion for big guns and – just as importantly – the opportunities to try them out. In 1457, he received Mons Meg and a ‘sister’ gun as a present from the Duke of Burgundy, whose great-niece, Mary of Guelders, was James’ wife. The Duke had thought of everything, and with these two evil ladies came an ‘unspecified number’ of gun stones. From the moment they arrived, James must have been itching to try them out.
The atmosphere at court must have been quite uneasy, to say the least. James was known for his unsteady temper; and this, together with the vermilion birthmark on his cheek, had earned him the nickname of ‘Fiery Face’ amongst his courtiers. Violence seemed to follow in his wake: in 1440 he had been present at the ‘Black Dinner’, at which the 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother were murdered; and in 1452 James himself had stabbed and killed the 8th Earl of Douglas at Stirling Castle and had his body thrown out of a window.
Now, as James gazed fondly at his new toys and possibly gave them a surreptitious polish, his friends must have been walking around on eggshells.
But then fate took a hand. In 1460, Roxburgh Castle was one of the last Scottish fortresses still held by the English, and James, then aged 29, decided to lay siege to it. Mons Meg had proved a bit unwieldy to transport onto a battlefield, so some lighter cannons were chosen instead. Feeling victory almost within his grasp, James ordered a one-and-a-half-ton siege gun known as the Lion to be loaded and fired.
Seconds later, the Lion misfired and exploded, with disastrous results. James, who was standing quite close to it, fell and died almost instantly. (How many of the Stewart monarchs died in their beds, when you think about it?)
Mons Meg saw action in 1497, when she was used against the English at Norham Castle; and her appearance at Dumbarton and Crookston Castles was enough to quell the disloyal intentions of the Earl of Lennox. In 1540 she may have been the ‘grete bumbert’ which James V took on his naval expedition around Scotland. I can find no evidence to suggest what happened to her sister, but there is a very similar bombard named ‘Dulle Griet’ or ‘Mad Meg’, which now resides in Ghent.
Back in Edinburgh, Mons Meg was fired in 1558 to celebrate the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin of France; but she didn’t take so kindly to James, Duke of Albany and York (later James II of England), because when she was fired to mark his birthday in 1681 an iron brace on her barrel burst. This wasn’t the best omen for a future King – and Meg’s instincts, as it turned out, were spot on. After languishing for a while in the Tower of London, she was brought back to Edinburgh, her rightful home, in 1829.
The stone cannon balls weigh 400 lb. A ball thought to have been fired by Mons Meg was found almost two miles away, close to the present-day Botanic Garden. On her barrel, you can see the burst iron ring which put her out of action.
Maintained by Historic Scotland, Edinburgh Castle is one of those places that you have to go and see at least once. The Honours of Scotland, including the Stone of Scone, lie deep within its Royal Apartments; it boasts the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh (St Margaret’s Chapel); it’s the setting for Scotland’s National War Museum; and it can lay claim to at least three ghosts.
For opening times and admission prices, visit the official website.
Sources and more information:
- Edinburgh Castle
- Historic Scotland
- The British Monarchy: James II
- History Today: ‘James II killed at Roxburgh‘ by Richard Cavendish
- ‘The Gun Founders of England’ by Charles Ffoulkes (1937)
- ‘Medieval Warfare: Theory and Practice of War in Europe, 300 – 1500’ by Helen Nicholson (2004)
- ‘Guns and Gunpowder in Late Medieval Scotland: Influences from Flanders’ by Morvern French (University of St Andrews)
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf
For more drama in the Stewart dynasty, check out Stirling Castle, the setting for the Earl of Douglas’ disastrous defenestration; and Linlithgow Palace, where James’ descendants played out their star-crossed lives.