Seton Collegiate Church
Serving the Setons | A college of priests | War damage
Serving the Setons
Seton is one of the finest medieval collegiate churches surviving in Scotland. Its story begins in the 12th century, when the site was chosen for a new church serving the parishioners of Seton. In the 15th century, the church was increasingly used as the private place of worship and burial vault of the Seton family, the local landowners. (Their residence, Seton Castle, lay immediately to the west on a site now occupied by Seton Palace.)
The 1st Lord Seton introduced the college of priests in 1470, and his son secured papal approval for full collegiate status in 1492. But following the death of the widow of the 3rd Lord in 1558, the Protestant Reformation of 1560 effectively put paid to the church being used for masses for the souls of the Setons.
Seton continued for a while thereafter as the parish kirk. But following the union of the parishes of Seton and Tranent in 1580, the building fell out of active use. The kirk was ransacked, and the Seton tombs broken into after the 1715 Jacobite Rising, for the Setons had supported the exiled James Edward Stuart.
Later that century the estate passed to the Earl of Wemyss, who restored what survived of the kirk as his family’s burial place.
A college of priests
Collegiate churches are so called because they housed a college, or community, of priests. These were brought together by the local landowner to pray for his and his family’s salvation. During the course of the 15th century, the Setons began the process of raising their parish church to collegiate status. After the death of Lord John Seton in 1434, his widow, Lady Catherine, added a small side-chapel to the south side of the church, to house her late husband’s tomb and a private altar. (The chapel no longer exists.)
In 1470, Lady Catherine’s grandson, George, 1st Lord Seton, founded the college of priests, without securing papal permission. He also started building the splendid new choir that now dominates the site, and a small sacristy, where the priests prepared themselves for the mass. His son finally gained the pope’s blessing in 1492, and completed his father’s building programme. The church was dedicated to St Mary and the Holy Cross, and the college comprised a provost, six priests, a clerk and two choir boys. Their domestic quarters survive as foundations only to the NW of the church.
During the Wars of the Rough Wooing between Scotland and England in the 1540s, the English burned the timber work and stole the bells and organ. Lady Janet, widow of the 3rd Lord Seton, did her best to repair the damage, demolishing Lady Catherine’s chapel and building the present transepts and bell tower. But the Reformation of 1560 effectively brought an end to the collegiate life.