Holyrood Abbey- This 12th Century Enchanting Old Ruin Took Our Breath

If you follow us on a regular basis, you’ve probably figured out that we’re suckers for abandoned ancient ruins that were once opulent and magnificent constructions. While we’ve seen our fair share of spectacular, breath-taking, soul-crushing wrecked structures, Holyrood Abbey continues to astonish us.

The magnificent ancient wonder is a destroyed Canon’s Regular abbey in Edinburgh, Scotland. King David, I established the abbey in 1128. The abbey guesthouse was transformed into a royal dwelling in the 15th century, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse was built further during the Scottish Reformation. The abbey church served as a parish church until the 17th century when it was demolished. The abbey’s surviving walls are located close to the palace at the eastern end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The abbey site is designated as a scheduled monument.

Legend has it that on the Feast of the Cross in 1127, King David I was thrown from his horse after it was spooked by a heart in the woodlands east of Edinburgh. The monarch was spared from being gored by the rushing animal when it was frightened by the miraculous sight of a holy cross dropping from the clouds, or by sunlight reflected from a crucifix that suddenly appeared between the heart’s antlers when the king sought to seize them in self-defense. In 1128, David I established Holyrood Abbey on the spot as a show of gratitude for his escape.

Ancient ruins of abbey which stands behind Palace of Holyrood House.
Ancient ruins of abbey which stands behind Palace of Holyrood House.

In the church was maintained, in a golden reliquary, the portion of the True Cross brought by David’s mother, St. Margaret, from Waltham Abbey, and known thereafter as the Black Rood of Scotland (the Holyrood (cross)). This magnificent relic came into the hands of the English after the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 and was put in Durham Cathedral, where it remained until the Reformation.

The abbey was initially staffed by a community of Augustinian Canons Regular from Merton Priory, and the layout of the ancient church at Holyrood, now known only via excavations, was most likely influenced by the priory’s 1125 church. Vivian, the papal legate, convened a council here in 1177. Scotland’s nobles and prelates convened here in 1189 to discuss raising a ransom for William the Lion.

Between 1195 and 1230, the ancient Holyrood Abbey Church was completely rebuilt. The finished structure had a six-bay aisled choir, three-bay transepts with a central tower above, and an eight-bay aisled nave with twin towers on its west face.

Kings David I and II, Robert, Bishop of St. Andrews, and Fergus, Lord of Galloway were among the most generous patrons of Holyrood during its four centuries as a monastic monastery.

The Scottish Parliament met in the abbey in 1256, 1285, 1327, 1366, 1384, 1389, and 1410. In 1326, Robert the Bruce conducted parliament here, and by 1329, Holyrood was being utilized as a royal home. In March 1328, Robert I signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which ended the First War of Scottish Independence, in the “King’s Chamber” at Holyrood. Because of its proximity to Edinburgh Castle, the abbey was frequently visited by Scotland’s kings, who slept in the guest house to the west of the monastery cloister.

With the rise of Edinburgh as the major seat of the royal court and the chief city in the realm in the mid-15th century, the Kings of Scots increasingly utilized the lodgings at Holyrood for secular purposes. In October 1430, James II and his twin brother Alexander, Duke of Rothesay, were born there. James was again crowned at Holyrood in 1437, and construction work was completed there beforeto his marriage in 1449. Between 1498 and 1501, James IV built a royal residence close to the monastery cloister at Holyrood. When Robert Stewart, James V’s newborn illegitimate son, was named commentator of Holyrood in 1538, royal authority over the abbey grew even stronger.

During the War of the Rough Wooing, the Earl of Hertford’s invading English soldiers caused structural damage to Holyrood Abbey in 1544 and 1547. The roof was stripped of lead, the bells were taken, and the abbey’s treasures were looted. During the Scottish Reformation in 1559, a crowd smashed the altars and plundered the rest of the church, causing significant damage to the abbey. The east end of the abbey church became obsolete with the reformation and the termination of monastic services. Adam Bothwell, the Holyrood commentator, advised the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1569 that the east end was in such ruin that the choir and transept should be dismantled.

This was completed the following year, with the nave remaining as the parish church of the burgh of Canongate. Between 1570 and 1573, an east gable was built, shutting off the east end of the ancient nave, and all but two of the nave’s windows were closed up. The royal graves were relocated to a new royal burial crypt in the south aisle, and the old east end was demolished. In preparation for Charles I’s coronation in 1633, the abbey underwent major renovations.

James VII founded a Jesuit college within Holyrood Palace in 1686. The Protestant congregation was relocated to the rebuilt Kirk of the Canongate the next year, and the abbey was turned into a Roman Catholic Chapel Royal and the Order of the Thistle chapel. The abbey church was restored according to James Smith’s ideas, with ornate thrones and stalls carved by Gibbons for the individual Knights of the Thistle.

Following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, however, an Edinburgh crowd stormed into the abbey, burned the Chapel Royal, and desecrated the royal tombs. The roof was vaulted in stone in 1758, but the work was poorly performed, and the roof fell during a storm in 1768, leaving the abbey as it remains today, a roofless ruin. The abbey has been proposed for restoration several times since the 18th century, most recently in 1835 by architect James Gillespie Graham as a meeting place for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and again in 1906 as a chapel for the Knights of the Thistle, but both proposals were rejected.

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