By Fiona Grahame Images By Martin Laird
It is very easy to think that we are the only ones who have ever lived in exceptional times. In every historical era people have faced challenges and adversities – threats even to the very existence of themselves and to their communities.
John Clere, was born into a well to do family during the turbulent reign of Henry VIII of England. You had to watch your step if you wanted to keep your head, and fulfil your ambitions, in Henry’s court. During his tyrannical reign Henry both tried to woo and subjugate Scotland, considering it part of his realm of England.
Henry VIII was Uncle to James V of Scotland but not to let family ties get in the way he conducted coastal and border raids on his neighbour, invading Scotland several times.
John Clere, inherited estates from both his mother and father. He was even a Member of the English Parliament for a spell. It was his service in England’s naval forces that was to be of interest to the Scots and to be his undoing.
Henry VIII died in 1547 and his son, Edward VI ruled before the throne passed to his sister Mary in 1553. She appointed John Clere, now knighted, as her Vice Admiral.
His second assignment in this role was to take him on the campaign trail against Scotland.
Orkney has always been an important archipelago. It’s location between mainland Scotland and the important fishing grounds to the North was a prime target for the English navy.
Mary of Guise, was regent of Scotland while her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was installed at the French court. Orkney, as part of Scotland, was under the governance of Bishop Robert Reid. He only visited Orkney a few times but this highly educated and politically savvy man made a lot of changes during his administration.
In particular he improved many of the ecclesiastical buildings which had fallen into disrepair. He restored Kirkwall’s St Olaf’s Kirk and added to St Magnus Cathedral. He commissioned the artist Andrew Bairham to decorate the internal walls so the lovely sandstone you see inside today was once vividly coloured.
Bishop Reid also restored the 12th Century Bishop’s Palace, building the Round Tower, and brought to Orkney Guillaume Lubias, a gardener, to improve the Palace grounds.
In August of 1557, the Vice Admiral of England, Sir John Clere, arrived in the waters around Orkney with a fleet of 13 ships. On the 11th and 12th the English force came ashore at Kirkwall. They soon captured the Cathedral and burned part of the town.
Kirkwall Castle was a formidable structure with thick well defended walls. Heavy artillery was brought ashore in an attempt to take the castle. Land has since been reclaimed but once the sea came further into the town than it does today. This meant that heavy artillery could be more easily brought in.
When you look at Kirkwall today you can see how close together all these buildings are. The Bishop’s Palace is opposite the Cathedral and the Castle which no longer exists was just a few yards away. It is hard to imagine the bloody fighting and destruction that took place in what is now a gentrified town centre.
For the defenders it must have been a case of holding out till reinforcements came. By the 13th the English made an attempt to capture The Bishop’s Palace. They were met by a force of 3,000 Orcadians.
As is the case in so many events in Orkney’s past, the weather was to play an even greater role than the men of Orkney. A great storm arose and the English ships were trapped. A chaotic retreat took place as panic ensued amongst the invading force. Harried by the Orcadians and hampered by the heavy artillery they had transported ashore, the English took to their small landing boats and tried to make it to their ships.
Vice Admiral Sir John Clere drowned when his boat capsized. In all 97 of the invading force were killed including 3 ships’ captains. The large pieces of abandoned English artillery were captured as were many prisoners who were subsequently held to ransom.
For Queen Mary of England it was a naval disaster. The English held an inquiry into the disorders committed by their forces which even in the 16th Century had been shocking. For Bishop Reid there was not much to be victorious about as he died a year later in Dieppe on his homeward journey having been present at the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots to Francis, Dauphin of France.
This article was first published in iScot Magazine.