Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh

Holyrood Palace (also called the Palace of Holyroodhouse) in Edinburgh is the primary royal residence in Scotland. The palace was built next the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey, from which it gets its name. Ruins of the abbey can be seen on the palace property, and the palace itself has several interesting historical sights.


History of Holyrood Abbey

Holyrood Abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I for the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, who came from St. Andrews. The foundation is said to have been an act of thanksgiving for the king's miraculous escape from the horns of a hart while hunting near Edinburgh on Holy Cross Day ("rood" means "cross").

The abbey church was given a fragment of the True Cross by David's mother, St. Margaret, which came from Waltham Abbey. The relic was known thereafter as the Black Rood of Scotland. At the battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, the relic fell into the hands of the English, and was placed in Durham Cathedral. It later disappeared during the Reformation.

Twice during the 14th century the abbey suffered from the invasion of English kings: the army of Edward II plundered it in 1322, and it was burnt in 1305 by Richard II, but soon restored.

The 29th and last Catholic abbot was Robert, a natural son of James V, who converted to Protestantism in 1559, married, and exchanged his abbacy with Adam, Bishop of Orkney, for the temporalities of that diocese. Adam resigned the abbacy in 1581 to John, the last who bore the title of abbot.

King James I of Scotland's twin sons, of whom the younger succeeded his father as James II, were born within the abbey in 1430, and Mary of Gueldres, queen of James II, was crowned in the abbey church in 1449. Twenty years later James III was married there to Margaret of Denmark.

In the 16th century, James IV built Holyrood Palace adjacent to the abbey. Only the north tower of James's palace remains; what you see today was mostly built by Charles II in 1670.

In 1547 the conventual buildings, as well as the choir, lady chapel, and transepts of the church were destroyed by the commissioners of the English Protector Somerset, and 20 years later John Knox's "rascal multitude" sacked the interior of the church in a Protestant frenzy.

On July 22, 1565, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots married her cousin Lord Darnley in the Holyrood Abbey church. And the following year saw Holyrood's most dramatic incident: Mary Queen of Scots' Italian secretary and suspected lover, David Rizzio, was murdered by her jealous husband and friends in the stairwell of the royal apartments. The Queen witnessed the brutal event and she believed the ultimate intent of the attack was to cause her to miscarry her child. But she did not, and her son was the future King James. A plaque – and a bloodstain still visible on the floor – marks the spot where Rizzio died.

The Order of the Thistle was created in 1687 by King James VII of Scotland (King James II of England), and the nave of Holyrood Abbey was adapted as its chapel. In 1688, the Abbey was ransacked by the Edinburgh mob, furious at King James' Roman Catholic allegiance. The Order of the Thistle was left without a chapel until the Thistle Chapel was added to St. Giles' Cathedral in 1911.

For its part, the Palace of Holyroodhouse suffered long periods of neglect. It did, however, enjoy brief glory in the mid-18th century as the headquarters of Bonnie Prince Charlie during the peak of his feverish (and doomed) rebellion to restore the Stuart line to the monarchy.

The abbey's nave roof was vaulted in stone in 1758, but fell in shortly afterwards. The Palace of Holyrood was restored by Queen Victoria and the British royal family stays here whenever they visit Edinburgh. The palace is not open to visitors when they are in residence, but they don't come too often.

What to See at Holyrood Abbey

All that remains of the once famous Holyrood Abbey church is the ruined and roofless nave of the purest Early English architecture, with some remains of the earlier Norman work. It is nevertheless an interesting and atmospheric ruin that is worth visiting.

The highlights of the palace are in the oldest surviving section, King James Tower, where Mary Queen of Scots lived on the second floor, with Lord Darnley's rooms below. Mary's chambers are approached up a small winding staircase.

Queen Mary's Bed Chamber has been described as the most famous room in Scotland. Some of the rich tapestries, paneling, massive fireplaces, and antiques from the 1700s are still in place.

Behind Holyroodhouse is Holyrood Park, Edinburgh's largest park. With rocky crags, a loch, sweeping meadows, and the ruins of a chapel, it's a bit of the Scottish countryside in the city, and a great place for hiking, biking, or a picnic.

At the top of the park is the 250m-high (823-ft.) Arthur's Seat, which provides breathtaking views all the way to the sea. The name doesn't refer to King Arthur, as many people assume, but perhaps is a reference to Prince Arthur of Strathclyde or a corruption of Ard Thor, Gaelic for "height of Thor."

Quick Facts on Holyrood Abbey

Site Information
Names:Holyrood Abbey
Categories:monasteries; ruins
Dedication: Holy Cross
Status: ruins
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:55.953152° N, 3.171578° W
Address:Canongate, Royal Mile
Edinburgh, Scotland
Hours:Apr-Oct: Daily 9:30am-6pm
Nov-Mar: 9:30am-3:45pm.
Closed 2 weeks in mid-May, 2 weeks in late June, Christmas, and anytime the royal family is in residence.
Lodging:View hotels near Holyrood Abbey
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.


  1. Personal visits (1999-2000).
  2. Frommer's Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1st ed.
  3. Holyrood AbbeyCatholic Encyclopedia

More Information

© David Bramhall
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Map of Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh

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