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Macé de Villebresme's Epistres du Turc and the fortifications at Dunbar, 1515-1523

An important turning point in Albany’s career took place on 9 September 1513, when James IV was killed at Flodden, leaving an infant James V as his successor. On 3 July 1515, the lords of the council recorded ‘that ane excellent and mychti prince Johnne duke of Albany, governour and protectour of Scotland and tutour to the kingis grace to his perfite age, arivit in the said realme the XVIII day of May’.15 At this time, literary figures in Scotland were employed in composing flattering poems to welcome the new regent, intended perhaps to reassure an apprehensive populace of Albany’s good intentions and fine credentials.16 Albany visited Scotland three times over the course of his regency: May 1515 to June 1517; November 1521 to October 1522; and September 1523 to May 1524. His first visit is generally considered the most successful, during which time he brought a degree of stability back to Scottish governance.17

Antoine d’Acres, seigneur de la Bastie, travelled to Scotland in late 1513, receiving in Albany’s name the strategically important fortress of Dunbar, part of the Albany property which belonged to the family through the Earldom of March and which had been confiscated when Albany’s father had been banished by James III.18 During Albany’s time in Scotland, he made Dunbar Castle his principal base where he was allowed, under the terms of his regency, to keep a French garrison. In terms of Albany’s patronage of architectural projects in Scotland, Dunbar Castle was an important focus for his building activities.

Today, the fragmentary remains of the castle are scattered on a rock standing approximately 80 feet above the sea. To the south-west of the structure built, or repaired, forjantes IV, a great blockhouse dating to Albany’s regency stands on a neighbouring island-like promontory.19 The blockhouse was originally joined to the castle by a substantial traverse wall built across a tidal chasm.20 The blockhouse was apparently unroofed, consisting of four large ground-level casemates which are deeply recessed into the rampart and open to the rear. Seven gunholes survive. The gunhole throats are large enough to hold substantial pieces of artillery, and it has been noted that this blockhouse provides the earliest datable examples of this type of gunhole in Scotland.21 Above the casemates is evidence of a large parapet, perhaps originally about two metres thick. It has been suggested that the parapet may have had a curvilinear profile.22 The general shape of the blockhouse echoes that of a contemporary Italian angle bastion in the shape of its faces.23 The surviving physical evidence of the castle and blockhouse may, furthermore, be reconciled with contemporary literary accounts.

The most significant contemporary record of the castle and its appearance survives in the form of reconnaissance conducted by Lord Dacre, a field commander for Cardinal Wolsey. In response to a request for information on the state of the castle, Dacre reported back to Wolsey on the 26 June 1523 that:

and finally touching the state and strength of the castell of Dunbar whereof your grace is desirous to be advised, I assure your grace it is a thing in manner imprenable for I have bene in it. It standith upon a crag and there is no waye to go to it but one which is strongly and substantially made with a new bulwerk and sett with ordinance as can be devised by the duke of Albany for in the said castell is all the said duke’s trust. And if the said Bulwerk could be won I think there is no doubt but the castell might be won semblably be reason that the said castell stands low upon a crag and the erth without it is high about it, and so there could nothing stirr within it but the ordinance that were without the castell shulde bete it.24

This communiqué provides crucial evidence that Albany was responsible for the new bulwark and that this was complete by 1523.25

In examining possible sources for Albany’s military architecture at Dunbar, it is instructive to consider evidence of his literary interests during this period. A fascinating document, held at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, is important in this respect. The manuscript begins with the epistles of Mehmet II, translated from Latin (by Landin, knight of Jerusalem) into French, by Macé de Villebresme in 1515 and dedicated to Jehan, Duke of Albanye, regent and governor of Scotland’.26 Macé de Villbresme was a courtier and valet de chambre to Louis XII.27 He also acted as French ambassador to Scotland in 1515. He is recorded as having brought letters, which told of the ratification by Francis I of the treaty made by his predecessor with England, with the inclusion of Scotland on the condition of hostilities ceasing on the English borders.28 His exhortations were supported by

Balthasar Stewart, who was an envoy of Pope Leo X, and had been in Scotland for a year using all his efforts to persuade the Scots to abstain from war with England, and join in the crusade against the Turks.29 Villebresme died in August 1517. It is, therefore, likely that this work was translated for presentation to Albany on Villebresme’s visit to Scotland in 1515. Villebresme notes in the prologue to the work that he had pondered long and hard who to present the work to and had decided that there was no one better than Albany given his ‘curiosity’ in such affairs. It appears, therefore, to provide evidence of Albany’s interest in, and preoccupation with, the military matters he engaged with on his crusade some years earlier.30 The date of the presentation of this document precisely coincides with the beginning of Albany’s campaign to fortify Dunbar, and it is feasible, therefore, to assume that these events are connected.

The presentation of this unusual literary work by Villebresme attests to Albany’s preoccupation with military affairs relating to the crusades. Other works in the manuscript, moreover, indicate a broader interest in the works of Greek and Roman authors and testify to Albany’s keen interest in military matters relating to classical antiquity.31 The architectural work that Albany undertook in relation to the fortification of Dunbar appears to reflect, what he had experienced whilst employed in a military capacity in Italy, or developments he had encountered on his crusade to the Eastern Mediterranean. In either case, the work he commissioned in Scotland appears to have been the first of its kind in the British Isles and attests to his importance as a conduit for architectural and military ideas to Scotland from the Continent.32

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