HENRY VIII’S ORDERS – ‘BURN EDINBURGH’ – ‘PUT ALL TO FIRE AND SWORD’
10 April 1544
The popular Ladybird History of the Kings and Queens of England acclaims Henry VIII ‘as the right kind of king needed by England at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century.’ The country had benefited from the fact that he was ‘clever and determined that England should be powerful and prosperous,’ though it notes that he could also be ‘strong and ruthless.’1 The book, aimed primarily at schoolchildren, does not mention that on 10 April 1544, Henry VIII instructed his brother-in-law Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, to lead a punitive expeditionary force against Scotland. References to the military operation are also left out of most British histories of the period.
Henry’s written orders detailed that Seymour should ‘put all to fire and sword, burn Edinburgh town,’ urging him that it should be ‘so razed and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what ye can of it, as there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God lightened upon (them) for their falsehood and disloyalty.’ He was also to destroy ‘as many towns and villages about Edinburgh as ye may conveniently, sack Leith and burn and subvert it and all the rest, putting man, woman and child to fire and sword, without exception, where any resistance shall be made against you.’2
The intolerable provocation was the Scottish parliament’s decision in December 1543 to vote against the Treaty of Greenwich, signed two months earlier, by which Henry’s son was to marry the infant Mary Queen of Scots.3 Like other English monarchs and governments, Henry’s plan was to annex Scotland or at least to assert England’s hegemony, even if it meant forcing the Scots to pay a terrible price for their insolent spirit of independence.
In May, Seymour’s invasion fleet, carrying 10,000 heavily armed soldiers, sailed up the Forth, burning St. Mynettes on the northern shore before crossing to the southern side and burning Leith, including St. Ninian’s chapel, on 4 May. Leith’s capture enabled the English to bring in their ships and unload their siege artillery and the following day they fought their way into Edinburgh. Seymour encouraged his soldiers to rape the women, while reminding them that they must put all to the sword. He also ordered the burning and destruction of every building in the city, including Holyrood Abbey and the palace.4
Some of the city’s defenders managed to escape to the castle and were able to harass the rampaging soldiers with cannon fire. Although they forced the English troops to retreat that evening, they returned the next day and over the next two weeks continued their burn-all, kill-all, loot-all mission. In the words of Walter Lynne, a London printer, ‘burnying and destroyeng the country about, sparying nether castel, towne, pyle nor village,’ until almost exhausted by the business of slaughter and plunder, the majority of the English army retreated overland, still torching towns and villages, while the remaining troops loaded the ships at Leith with loot before sailing south.5
- The 1968 edition cited in David Crowther, ‘Some Opinions About Henry VIII,’ The History of England, accessed online at url https://thehistoryofengland.co.uk/resource/some-opinions-about-henry-viii/
- Jenny Wormald, Mary Queen of Scots: Pride, Passion and a Kingdom Lost, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London, 2001, p. 58.
- Chris McCall, ‘The Story of England’s “Rough Wooing of Scotland,”‘ The Scotsman, 7 April 2016 accessed online at url https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle-2-15039/the-story-of-england-s-rough-wooing-of-scotland-1-4093982
- Neil Oliver, A History of Scotland, Phoenix, London, 2010, p. 209.
- John Carion, Three Books of Cronicles, London, 1550, p.cliii.
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