St Andrews Cathedral
Headquarters of the medieval Scottish Church | St Rule’s Tower | Scotland’s greatest cathedral | The cathedral and the Protestant Reformation
Headquarters of the medieval Scottish Church
St Andrews Cathedral dominated the history of the medieval church in Scotland from its construction in the 12th century until the Protestant Reformation in 1560.
Scotland’s largest and most magnificent medieval church, the cathedral was the seat of Scotland’s leading bishops (and from 1472 archbishops). It occupied a site used for worship since the 8th century AD, when the relics of St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, are said to have been brought here.
The cathedral buildings are surrounded by a graveyard, and encircled by the most complete and imposing monastic enclosure walls in Scotland. Even in its ruinous state the cathedral remains a prominent landmark, the focus of the three medieval streets of St Andrews, and highly visible from the sea.
St Rule’s Tower
St Rule’s Church, with its 33m tower, was probably built around 1130 as the first place of worship for the newly-arrived Augustinian canons. This Continental priestly order supplanted the Culdees, a Celtic monastic order that had been present on the site for centuries. The lofty tower may have been a beacon for pilgrims heading for the shrine of St Andrew.
Scotland’s greatest cathedral
The cathedral was begun in 1160–2 by Bishop Arnold. Work continued over the next 150 years, interrupted by a storm in 1272 which blew down the west front, and the first War of Independence against England (1296–1307). The cathedral was eventually dedicated in 1318, in the presence of King Robert I, by which date it was by far the largest church in Scotland.
The cathedral church is now ruined. Substantial, and superb, fragments survive, including the east gable of the presbytery, where the relics of St Andrew were held in veneration, the south wall of the nave, and the majestic west front. The cloister to the south retains its ruined chapter house and stone-vaulted undercrofts. The latter now house the cathedral museum, with its fascinating collection spanning the period from the 8th century to post-Reformation times.
Beyond the church and cloister stand other substantial architectural fragments, including the Pends Gate and much of the precinct wall. Outside the wall, on a ledge overlooking the sea, are the foundations of the church of St Mary on the Rock (St Mary Kirkheugh), probably marking the site of the first church.
The cathedral and the Protestant Reformation
In 1559, John Knox preached a fiery sermon in St Andrews parish church, and the cathedral was ‘cleansed’ as a result. In 1561 it was abandoned and replaced by the parish church as the chief place of worship. Thereafter the former headquarters of the Scottish Church was left to fall into ruin.