Leading the Charge?: Leadership in war in late medieval Scottish burghs

Town governments in Scotland in the late medieval period were commonly dominated by a merchant elite who prioritised the stability, security and trading privileges of their burgh. A burgh council was usually led by an alderman, later known as a provost, and a number of burgh baillies (in Aberdeen there were four) elected annually. When the burgh was threatened, the aldermen and baillies took the lead in defensive preparations.[1] However, a brief entry from the council registers of the burgh of Aberdeen encourages an examination into the role these men played in offensive expeditions as well. The entry from 28th September 1485 noted that the town’s council elections for that year were to be delayed until ‘the aldirman and baillies that now ar[e] into thare officis… thare hamecuming fra the [h]oist quhilkis ar[e] now to pas[s] to the asseging [sieging] of berwick.’[2] Four days earlier an order had been proclaimed to tax the burgh inhabitants to cover the expenses of those who ‘passis to the asseging of berwick.’[3]

Fig. 1: Knight effigy in St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen – often attributed to be Robert Davidson but more likely to be the effigy of Alexander Chalmers, a close relative, probably the father, of the man elected as alderman in 1484. For more information see M. Cochrane Scott, ‘Dress in Scotland, 1406-1460’ (Unpublished PhD, University of London (Courtauld), 1987): 105.

Missing in Action?

Admittedly, further investigation suggests that the burgh officials’ involvement in conflict in 1485 may have been more limited than this extract initially implies. Very little is known about any action around Berwick, a town on the border between Scotland and England, that year. The town had been re-captured by the English in 1482 and an English Crown commission, dated 15th October 1485, warned that a Scottish attempt to retake Berwick was suspected.[4] However, wider evidence suggests that the threatened siege never materialised and Scottish resources were instead diverted to nearby Dunbar Castle which was re-taken by the Scots by mid-1486.[5]  Indeed, additional evidence from Aberdeen’s burgh records suggests that while the alderman and baillies may have left the burgh to go to the site of the gathering of a host it is unlikely they made it to Berwick. The burgh baillies were certainly present in the burgh court on 26th September and appear again to be present on the 3rd October, with the, only slightly delayed council elections, being held the following week.[6] With the option of travel by either sea or land, and the location of the hosting site in 1485 unclear, the possibility that the councillors did, at the very least, leave the burgh cannot be ruled out. However, the limited window of time available, combined with a lack of evidence for conflict around Berwick in 1485, makes any participation by an Aberdeen contingent in conflict that year highly unlikely.

Fig. 2: A section of an early seventeenth century map of Scotland, by Jodocus Hondius. Aberdeen and Berwick are both marked on the east coast of the map. Hosts for royal armies to fight England commonly mustered south of Edinburgh. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Taking the Lead?

What is clear, however, is that, in 1485, Aberdeen’s aldermen and baillies were expected to lead a representation from the town to war. Indeed, this is a view supported by wider evidence. In 1411, Aberdeen’s alderman, Robert Davidson, was killed at the battle of Harlaw while in 1547, two burgh baillies were granted an exemption from attending an army raised by the Scottish Regent but were expected to send their sons in their place. [7] Meanwhile the Edinburgh records make clear that in the early sixteenth century the burgh provost and baillies were all part of the force sent to the battlefield at Flodden in 1513, appointing interim office holders in their absence to maintain urban government.[8] This role for burgh leaders is perhaps not unexpected – all men within Scotland were, at least in theory, expected to fight in this period if required to by the monarch. However, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that those who led in urban communities in Scotland during times of peace were also expected to lead in times of war.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the SGSAH, and the UKRI, for their financial support for my PhD project from which this research is drawn.

[1] i.e. ACA/1/9, p. 294; ACA/1/12, p. 130.  

[2] E. Frankot, A. Havinga, C. Hawes, W. Hepburn, W. Peters, J. Armstrong, P. Astley, A. Mackillop, A. Simpson & A. Wyner (eds), Aberdeen Registers Online (ARO): 1398-1511 (Aberdeen, 2019) <https://www.abdn.ac.uk/aro> [22/02/2021].

ARO-6-0934-01. The individuals elected in 1484, were all re-elected as general council members in 1485 and either they, or a relative of the same name, held office as either an alderman or baillie again later in the 1480s or 1490s (ARO-6-0935-02; ARO-7-0079-04; ARO-7-0141-02; ARO-7-0465-02).

[3] ARO-6-0933-01.

[4] W. Campbell, Materials for a History of the Reign of Henry VII, Vol I (1865): 579.

[5] N. Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh, 2009): 200, 312; RPS 1484/2/31; A payment for the building of a boat from Berwick by the Scottish Exchequer was made in 1486, which may relate to the conflict. However, the context of the entry ensures this cannot be definitively proved (G. Burnett (ed.) The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland Vol IX (Edinburgh, 1886): 434).

[6] ARO-6-0933-01; ARO-6-0933-03, ARO-6-0934-02; ARO-6-0934-04.

[7] S. Boardman, ‘The Burgh and the Realm’ in E.P. Dennison, D. Ditchburn and M. Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002): 213; ACA/1/19: 222, 391.

[8] J. Marwick (ed.), Extract from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh Vol I 1403-1528 (Edinburgh, 1869): 142.

Mastering Artillery and Festivities?: Burgh Appointments in Aberdeen in 1523

In April 1523, an entry in the council register of the Scottish burgh of Aberdeen appointed two individuals, Thomas Menzies and Patrick Lesly, as Masters of Artillery for the following year.[1] Out of context, this appointment seems unsurprising. The first recorded Masters of Artillery in Aberdeen were appointed in 1512; both Menzies and Lesly were significantly involved in burgh government in the 1520s and in April 1523 had also been appointed to a small council advising on defence against a feared English attack.[2] However, eyebrows are often raised for, in the same register entry, the two men were also appointed as Lords of Bon-Accord, Aberdeen’s ‘lord of misrule’ figure, who led the burgh’s traditional seasonal celebrations.[3] At first, appointing the Lords of Bon-Accord to take charge of the burgh artillery, particularly in a year in which war with England threatened, seems irresponsible, if not wilfully ignorant, on the part of the burgh council. However, further investigation highlights that the two roles shared several key similarities.  

Image: Map of New Aberdeen from James Gordon, Abredoniae novae et veteris description (1661). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland from https://maps.nls.uk/towns/rec/209


Firstly, it is important to recognise the organisational scope of both roles. The Lords of Bon-Accord might be expected to organise plays, burgh ridings, decorations, dances, and banquets.[4] The role of the Masters of Artillery in Aberdeen involved acquiring supplies for the artillery, raising relevant funds, ensuring gunners were paid, and playing a role in organising the physical defence of the burgh.[5] Both roles therefore required an individual with both the time to facilitate, and the skill to organise, the activities within their remit.


Aberdeen’s civic government was relatively closed, and only limited individuals, like Menzies and Lesly, would be considered appropriate holders for roles which confirmed, or affirmed, status. Indeed, in Aberdeen in 1531 the role of the Lord of Bon-Accord was described specifically as ‘an office of honour.’[6] While the prestige of the role of the Master of Artillery was less explicitly stated, at the national level Lord Methven, the third husband of the Dowager Queen Margaret, was, in 1528, appointed ‘gret Lieutennat of the gret artilyhie quhilk with us is an office honourable’, suggesting that a command role over artillery imparted a degree of status and honour.[7] It is also notable that the Menzies family, who dominated Aberdeen’s politics in the sixteenth century, continually ensured their control of the burgh’s artillery, seemingly both for security and as a statement of status and authority.

Utilising Gunpowder

Masters of Artillery were involved in ensuring the burgh was supplied with gunpowder which was, in turn, frequently used during burgh festivities. Gunners commonly played a role on these occasions while, in Edinburgh, entertainments in the first half of the sixteenth century often referenced payments for gunpowder, sometimes explicitly delivered to the local equivalent of the Lord of Bon-Accord.[8] In Aberdeen, it is also known that an artillery salute was fired in 1512 at the royal entry of Queen Margaret, and that the Lords of Bon-Accord were heavily involved in organising royal visits to the burgh in 1492 and 1552.[9] It is highly likely, therefore, that the Lords of Bon-Accord would have played a role in organising the salute in 1512, although it is perhaps not coincidental that this is also the first year for which a record of the Masters of Artillery survives for the burgh.

The roles of Master of Artillery and Lord of Bon-Accord therefore, shared several common features – both required organisational skills, bestowed status and required a degree of mutual knowledge. While there is no evidence at present that the conflation of these roles was explicitly repeated, a recurrence would perhaps not be as surprising as it had, at first, appeared.

[1] Anna Mill, Medieval Plays in Scotland (Norwood, 1978), p. 142.

[2] ACA/1/9, p.108; ACA/1/11, p. 272; William Kennedy, An Alphabetical Index [….] 1398 – 1800 (copy), MS 595 (1826), Vol. 10 p.81; Vol. 11 p.99.

[3] Mill, Medieval Plays, p.142; Michael Lynch & H. Dingwall, ‘Elite Society in Town and Country’ in E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn & Michael Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002), p. 183.

[4] Mill, Medieval Plays, p. 27.

[5]ACA/1/11, p 90.

[6] Mill, Medieval Plays, p. 143.

[7] David Caldwell, Guns in Scotland: The manufacture and use of guns and their influence on warfare from the fourteenth century to c. 1625 (University of Edinburgh, Unpublished PhD thesis, 1981), pp. 181-2.

[8] Philip Butterworth, ‘Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre’ (London, 1998), pp. 132-3; John Smith, The Hammermen of Edinburgh and the Altar in St Giles Church (Edinburgh, 1906), p.30.

[9] Mills, Medieval Plays, p. 133, 149; Priscilla Bawcutt (ed.), The Poems of William Dunbar, Vol. 1 (Glasgow, 1998), p. 64.

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