By Lauren Gilbert
The Palace of Holyrood House is one of the most haunting places I have ever visited. It is inextricably linked to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, who lived there during much of her reign. However, its history extended back centuries, and continued after her. It was built next to Holyrood Abbey, where its history actually began.
The Abbey of Holyrood was founded in Edinburgh, Scotland for the Canons Regular of St. Augustine by King David I in 1128. There is a legend that the foundation was laid as an act of thanksgiving by the king, for a miraculous escape from a hunting accident on Holy Cross Day. A hart was deflected from goring the king by the reflection of sunlight on a crucifix, according to the legend. An alternate version has a crucifix appearing between the antlers, while the king was trying to save himself by grabbing the antlers. Either way, the Abbey was founded and named Holyrood (“rood” meaning cross) in honor of the king’s escape on Holy Cross Day. A fragment of the True Cross was housed in the Abbey church. It had been brought to Scotland by King David’s mother, Margaret (canonized as St. Margaret of Scotland) from Waltham Abbey, and became known as the Black Rood of Scotland. The Abbey survived and continued through the next few centuries.
|Remains of Abbey of Holyrood|
The Abbey suffered invasion by the English twice, once when it was burned by Richard II in 1305, after which it was restored, and again in 1322 when it was sacked by Edward II’s army. In 1346, at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, the Black Rood of Scotland was captured by the English and carried off to Durham Cathedral, from where it subsequently disappeared during the Reformation.
Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland in the 15th century, and the guest house of the Abbey of Holyrood was used more and more frequently by the royal family, apparently in preference to the fortress of Edinburgh Castle. James I of Scotland’s twin sons were born within the Abbey in 1430, and his queen Mary of Gueldres was crowned there in 1449. The younger of the twins became James II and he was crowned in the abbey, married there, and was finally buried there. In July of 1469, James III married Margaret of Denmark (who was only 13 years old) at least in part to resolve the feud between Scotland and Denmark over the Hebrides.
During the period from about 1500-1504, James IV built a palace for himself and his bride Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) next to the Abbey, of which little remains. His son James V extensively rebuilt the palace, possibly for his bride Madeleine (daughter of Francis I of France). His second wife, Mary of Guise, was crowned in the Abbey of Holyrood. The north tower, a large tower with round corner turrets built to be royal lodging between 1528-1532, still stands, at the front of the palace. Between 1535-6, further rebuilding was done on the other wings. During this time, Edinburgh Castle was used more as a place to confine political prisoners. James V died of fever December 15, 1542, after the Scots were defeated by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss, leaving his only legitimate child, the infant Mary, to become queen. During the “rough wooing”, the Abbey was burned and looted by the English in 1544; finally, in 1547, the English destroyed the choir, lady chapel, transepts and monastic buildings of the Abbey. Although some repairs were made, it was never fully restored.
In 1548, Mary left Scotland for France, and the French troops ended the English occupation. Her mother, Mary of Guise governed on her behalf under her death in 1560. During this period, the Reformation gained momentum, and Scotland became increasingly Protestant. After the death of her husband, Francis II of France, also in 1560, Mary returned to Scotland and made the Palace of Holyrood House her residence. This remained her primary residence through her tumultuous years as queen. Ironically, what may be the only building in Scotland directly attributed to her still remains: the bath house near what was the north side of the palace in her time.
|The Queen's Bath House|
In July of 1566, Mary married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (her cousin) in 1566 in the Abbey church. The next year, Mary’s secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered in her private apartments at the Palace, setting in train a series of events that led to the murder of Darnley, her marriage to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and ultimately the end of her reign. Religious differences accelerated and exacerbated the tumult; also in 1567, the interior of the church was pillaged by the followers of John Knox. The bloodstains left by David Rizzio’s murder are still visible on the floor in the palace.
Between the Reformation and the Restoration, the palace and abbey were largely neglected. However, in 1633, some renovations were carried out to mark the coronation of Mary’s grandson, Charles I. Unfortunately, during the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s troops were quartered in the palace, which resulted in much more damage caused by fire.
Charles II was crowned in Scotland in 1651 (before the restoration in 1660). In the 1670’s he ordered a massive rebuilding under Sir William Bruce, Scottish architect, at which time the Abbey Church was made into the Chapel Royal. When James, Duke of York, succeeded him as King James VII of Scotland/II of England, he restored the Catholic services at Holyrood, and used it as the chapel for the ceremonies of the Order of the Thistle. Unfortunately the Abbey was plundered again in 1688 by the Edinburgh mob to show their outrage at King James’ Catholic leanings.
Again there was a long period of neglect. At one point, “grace and favour” housing was provided there to poor and distressed aristocrats. For a brief period, things improved when Bonnie Prince Charlie used Holyrood as his headquarters in 1745, during his unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the throne. After that brief moment of glory, the palace sank into neglect again. The Abbey Church roof collapsed in 1768.
The site was left as it was until the early 19th century. Money was voted to improve Holyrood because of George IV’s state visit to Scotland in August of 1822. George IV decreed that Mary’s apartments in Holyrood should be preserved. Subsequently, after Queen Victoria fell in love with Scotland and purchased Balmoral, she reintroduced the custom of the Royal Family staying at Holyrood, which inspired the Scots to renovate the palace extensively. Renovations were continued by King George V and Queen Mary, installing electricity, bathrooms, and other 20th century conveniences. Today, the palace is still in use by the Royal Family when in Scotland. When they are not in residence, the palace is open for tourists. Mary Stuart’s apartments, complete with David Rizzio’s bloodstains can be seen, just as George IV would have wanted.
|Courtyard and fountain at the Palace of Holyroodhouse|
Phillips, Charles. THE ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ROYAL BRITAIN. Petro Books: New York (no date of publishing shown-sometime after 2005).
Steel, David and Judy. MARY STUART’S SCOTLAND The landscapes, life and legends of Mary Queen of Scots. Crescent Books: New York, 1987.
Castles and Palaces of the World (on line). “History of Palace of Holyroodhouse.” http://www.everycastle.com/Palace-of-Holyroodhouse.html
Catholic Encyclopedia: Holyrood Abbey. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07423a.htm
Mary Queen of Scots.com. “The Palace of Holyroodhouse & Holyrood Abbey.” http://www.marie-stuart.co.uk/Castles/Holyroodhouse.htm
Website of the British Monarchy-The Royal Residences. “The Palace of Holyroodhouse.” http://www.royal.gov.uk/TheRoyal Residences/ThePalaceofHolyroodhouse/History.aspx
SacredDestinations.com. “Holyrood Abbey – Edinburgh, Scotland.” http://www.sacred-destinations.com/scotland/edinburgh-holyrood-abbey-and-palace
Images from Wikimedia Commons.
Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel. She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on another novel which is coming out soon. You can visit her website HERE.