Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

The English attack Kelso Abbey 1545

Medieval and Renaissance Scotland is portrayed as a time of interminable warfare in which castles are pre-eminent and churches are places of calm. However, the walls of St Michael's Linlithgow, St Mary's Haddington, St Mary's Dundee, St Mary's Seton, St John's Ayr, Glasgow Cathedral and Dunkeld Cathedral all carry the impact marks of bullets as do the border abbeys of Dryburgh and Melrose. This article deals with one example – Kelso Abbey.

Kelso Abbey's West Tower

Kelso was one of the largest and second richest abbey in Scotland but lying close to the border, was subject to attack and destruction by the English.

During the Wars of Independence monks had to abandon the abbey and beg for their living but nothing compares to the attacks of the 16th century culminating in 1545 under the Earl of Hertford.

Hertford was acting on the instructions of Henry VIII of England who had ordered him to:

Put all to fire and sword…
as a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God for their falsehood

Their 'falsehood' was the refusal to hand over the infant Mary Queen of Scots as future bride to his son, Edward.

LEFT: The North Trasept of Kelso Abbey
RIGHT: Kelso Abbey's modern cloister

In 1545 Hertford launched his second attack on Scotland (having previously sacked Edinburgh). His army of 16,000 included 4,000 horse (one thousand in full armour) and a large contingent of 'strangers' i.e. Spanish mercenaries.

On the 9th of September Hertford crossed the River Tweed in accordance with his orders to destroy Kelso Abbey.

The monks, assisted by townspeople, armed themselves and waited in the abbey. Surprised to find resistance where he had expected none, Hertford arranged his force and ordered the Spanish mercenaries to lead the assault. Such a hail of shot erupted from the abbey that they fell back in disorder leaving two dead on the ground.

Rebuffed, Hertford called upon the defenders to surrender but emboldened by their success and confident behind strong walls, they refused.

However, Hertford had artillery and under the protecting fire of arquebusiers, he moved up four guns. A cannonade ensued, concentrating on doors and windows. The Scots were helpless but declined surrender. After two hours of continuous fire, the walls were breached and the Spanish forced their way in. The Scots fell back and sought safety in the steeple.

As night fell, the sides disengaged. In the tower it was decision time – fight or flight? Some opted for the latter and lowered themselves by ropes and escaped. Next morning the abbey was stormed and all inside were killed.

Kelso Abbey's East Tower (top end) where the monks held out.
Historic Environment Scotland's public noticeboard at site

Hertford wished to retain and therefore fortify Kelso so plans were prepared by the Italian Archangelo Arcano and sent to King Henry. In spite of the reply that the king 'lyketh very well your new platte' it came to nothing. Kelso was ordered abandoned and the instruction given to:

Rase and deface this house of Kelso so as the enemy
shall have lytell commodity of the same

This order was carried out in full – special attention being paid to the steeple which was undermined.

He put all put to royen, houses and towers and styples

Two years later Hertford was back and anything he had overlooked was set on fire to complete the work.

Against the odds some of the monks managed to survive and it was only in 1586 that it could be recorded that:

Haill monks of the monasteries of the abbey of Kelso are dececiesit

After the Reformation a part of the abbey was patched up and served as a Presbyterian Church. During a service some stones fell on the congregation who abandoned their place of worship for a new church. In succeeding years attempts were made to preserve what remained until the state recognised its responsibility and took it into guardianship. Kelso Abbey is now managed by Historic Environment Scotland. 

Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle.

Added: 06 Feb 2020 Updated: 05 Mar 2020
Related articles (20)
Our corporate members...

Visit our Skills and Trades Section