Tours of the romantic Abbey ruins launched this summer at the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Release date: 
Thursday, 10 June 2010

The abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland for the Augustinian Canons.  According to medieval legend, a vision of a stag with a cross glowing between its antlers came to David while hunting in the area.  Interpreting this as an act of God, the King declared that an abbey should be built on the same spot.  Holy Rood, the name of the abbey and subsequently the Palace, means ‘Holy Cross’, a fragment of which had been brought to Scotland by David I’s mother, St. Margaret, and kept at the abbey until the 14th century.

The Augustinian Canons were an integral part of the Burgh of Canongate, supporting the sick and poor within the surrounding community.  They were entirely self-sufficient, growing their own food, vegetables and plants, and grazing sheep to trade and export their wool.  Extensive monastic buildings, revealed during excavations in 2006, were added to accommodate the large community.  They included cloisters, a chapter house, a refectory, and monastic and royal guest houses.  Today only a processional door leading from the cloisters survives from this period.  Most of the remaining structure dates from the early 13th century, when the original building was remodelled into a more magnificent cathedral-like edifice.  As work progressed, the abbey’s distinctive Romanesque architecture gave way to a more gothic style, reflecting changing fashions.

Holyrood Abbey has witnessed many remarkable events during its 900-year history, including the marriage of James III (r.1460-88) and Margaret of Denmark, and the Scottish coronation of Charles I in 1633.  It is also the site of the Royal Vault, the final resting place of David II (1329-71), James II of Scotland (1437-60), James V (1513-42), the father of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry, Lord Darnley (1545-67), her infamous second husband.

From an early date the abbey contained royal chambers for use by the sovereign.  By the 15th century, when Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland, the monarch preferred to stay at the abbey, surrounded by gardens and hunting grounds, rather than at the Castle. These royal lodgings came to eclipse the abbey in both size and importance until
James IV (1488-1513) converted them into a palace.  For the Scottish coronation of Charles I in 1633, the east end of the abbey was remodelled to include a large tracery window and the west front was embellished.  Although the abbey’s south tower was eventually absorbed into the Palace, the north tower survives and today dominates the view down the Canongate.

The abbey was a thriving and profitable religious institution until the mid-16th century, when it suffered badly from a number of raids. Among the most destructive were those by Henry VIII’s army in 1544 and 1547.  After the Reformation, the abbey’s monastic buildings were abandoned by the Canons, and in 1570 the eastern parts of the church and the outbuildings were demolished.  In 1768 the roof of the abbey collapsed, and the building was left ruined.

The picturesque remains of the Holyrood Abbey have influenced numerous artists and writers, among them Felix Mendelssohn. Their melancholy grandeur inspired the composer’s great Scottish symphony.   In 1910-11 the site of the transepts and choir was excavated by the Office of Works and the foundations were left exposed in the garden to show the extent of the once magnificent structure.

Tours of Holyrood Abbey are part of a visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse from 18 July to 30 September 2010. They take place on the hour (10:00-17:00, except midday) and last approximately 30 minutes.

Admission prices (includes audio tour): Adult £10.25, Over 60/Student £9.30, Under 17 £6.20, Under 5 Free, Family £27.00 (2 adults and 3 under 17s). On-the-day tickets from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Advance tickets or 0131 556 5100 (a booking fee applies).

Further information and photographs are available from Public Relations and Marketing, 
the Royal Collection, (+44) (0)20 7839 1377,

Admission to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is managed by the Royal Collection Trust, a charity registered in England and Wales (1016972) and in Scotland (SCO39772).