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Holyrood Abbey

The ruined nave of the 12th and 13th century abbey church, built for Augustinian canons and a three-storey building on Abbey Strand from the late 15th or early 16th century

Holyrood Abbey

About Holyrood Abbey

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An Augustinian house

Holyrood Abbey was founded by King David I in 1128, and settled by canons of the Augustinian order. The monastery was established primarily to serve the royal castle of Edinburgh, at the other end of the via regis (the ‘Royal Mile’).

Only the east processional doorway into the cloister survives from the first church, which was lavishly rebuilt between 1195 and 1230.

Of the rebuilt church, only the nave survives. This is because, at the Protestant Reformation in 1560, the nave was serving as the parish church of the adjacent burgh of Canongate. The redundant choir and transepts were demolished in 1570.

Well before the Reformation, the Stewart monarchs had almost entirely appropriated the canons’ cloister for their Edinburgh residence. Charles II (1649–85) rebuilt it to its present appearance and renamed it the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

In 1687 Charles’s Catholic brother and successor, James VII, evicted the Protestant congregation from the nave. He then restored it as a chapel of his revived Order of the Thistle. Within a year, the chapel had been ransacked, and James forced into exile. The abbey nave has remained a ruin ever since.

The legend of the ‘Holy Rude’

According to legend, David I was hunting in the royal forest of Drumsheugh when he was thrown from his horse below Salisbury Crags. He was speared in the thigh by the antlers of a ‘muckle white hart [stag]’.

Had it not been for the ‘holy rood’, or crucifix, that miraculously appeared in the king’s hands as he grappled with the beast, he would surely have died. In thanks to God, David endowed a ‘monastery of the Holy Rood’ close to the spot of his deliverance.

A precious fragment

The surviving nave is a precious fragment of medieval architecture, straddling the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. The oldest part is the north wall, built before 1200 and characterised by tall single-lancet windows with intersecting arcading below.

Next to be built was the west front. Its eccentrically placed towers and screened windows are unparalleled anywhere else in Britain. At its centre is one of the most impressive processional doorways built in Scotland.

The nave interior was the final element, built around 1230. Architectural historians point to Lincoln Cathedral as its inspiration, particularly these features:
  • the arcades (rows of arches) below a short triforium stage (a storey of windows sited high on the walls);
  • the innovative plate-tracery (the stonework dividing the window into panes);
  • the stiff-leaf foliage carving on the pier capitals.

Royal residence and mausoleum

Holyrood Abbey served as a royal residence from the outset. Edinburgh Castle  made a great fortress but was uncomfortable as a royal residence. King David and his successors were probably accommodated in a royal guest house to the west of the canons’ cloister at Holyrood.

As Edinburgh grew in importance, so the royal family resided more frequently at the abbey. By the time of the Reformation they had made it their principal home in Scotland, converting the cloister precinct into a modern Renaissance palace.

David II, James II, James V and ‘King’ Henry (Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots) were all buried in the abbey choir. Their remains now lie in the royal vault, in the nave’s south aisle.

Highlights

  • Climax to the tour – after touring the Palace of Holyroodhouse, visitors are free to wander through the abbey nave and the gardens beyond.
  • The west front – despite its chequered history, one of the most impressive Gothic facades in Scotland.
  • The east processional doorway – the sole surviving fragment from David I’s ‘monastery of the Holy Rood’.
  • The royal vault – imagine the royal family rubbing shoulders with the Augustinian canons.

Location

Region – Edinburgh and the Lothians

Opening arrangements
Admission prices

Events at Holyrood Abbey

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20 October 2014

John Lowrie Morrison: Westlight - Northeastlight

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Ladies of the Renaissance

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