The Palace of Holyroodhouse

“Rood” is the Scottish word for “The True Cross,” the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, so the word, “Holyrood,” meant “Holy Cross,” and the Abbey was the “Holyroodhouse.”

It is more usually called Holyrood Abbey, for brevity’s sake. It was founded in 1128 by King David I in honor of his mother, Margaret, who was later made a saint. The Palace began life as a guesthouse for the Abbey, and then the Abbey gave its name to the Palace of Holyroodhouse when it was expanded to be a royal residence in the 15th century, and became the large and lovely place it is today.

The outer courtyard is large, but still dominated by this beautiful fountain. Everywhere I looked on it, it had another face, another animal, another figure or foliage. It’s amazing. Many hours of meditation are available here.

The Unicorn, a symbol of the Scottish nation, and the thistle, the national flower.
When I saw these two fellows, I wondered why they were grasping two ends of a sword, but not in a proper grip for fighting. It’s the problem with no guides to ask.

The palace is built in a large, square shape. The side facing the outer courtyard has the entry gate, and twin towers on both front corners. These particular towers, pictured below, are where Mary, Queen of Scots’ private royal chambers were.

The northwest tower, where Mary, Queen of Scots, had her chambers.
The entrance to the inner courtyard, and palace proper. The northwest tower is quite large – not just the two turrets that one sees from the front.
The gate to the inner courtyard. The entrance is closed by a pair of large wooden doors.
One way to know that this palace was built when Scotland was a separate country, is that there is no lion facing the unicorn on this coat of arms over the gate. It is two unicorns, the symbolic animal of Scotland, and thistles, the flower of Scotland.
Having just entered, looking straight across the inner courtyard.

It was a rainy day when I visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The rain came and went. The clouds hung around, sometimes lighter, sometimes darker, but always present. If you are concerned about having fresh water, you should come here.

A display of swords with the Scottish “basket” handle, designed to protect the hand holding the sword.
The ceiling of the Great Stair in the southwest tower, plaster images and friezes. Paintings are plentiful throughout the palace. The art work in the palace is wonderful. Decorations for this area were chosen mainly by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.
A corner detail of the ceiling.
The formal dining room is by the Great Stair.
Partially blocked by the candles and chandelier is a portrait of George IV in the Highland dress outfit he had made especially to visit Scotland in 1822. The kilt is the Royal Stewart Tartan, along with a dirk, sword, belt, and powder horn.
These thrones were commissioned by King George V in 1911, for himself and Queen Mary.

Queen Elizabeth II stays here during Holyrood Week, and hosts lunch in the Throne Room for Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Thistle, the highest order of chivalry in Scotland. “Holyrood Week” is held in mid-summer and is designed to celebrate Scottish culture and history – probably skipping the rebellions.

Anyone who watched the BBC series of 2003 about Charles II will recognize this portrait that hangs in the Throne Room. It was painted by John Mitchell Wright (1617 – 1694,) a skilled painter, judging by his success in portraying the variety of textures that appear: ermine, satin, woven cloth, hair, and tapestries. Charles II died in 1685 of apoplexy, and was succeeded by his brother, James II.
The anteroom to the Privy Chamber. Guests waited here for their audience with the King.
Queen Elizabeth II has a small collection of family photos on display here.
The Privy Chamber, which apparently doubled as a place to entertain, judging by the card table.
The surface is covered with playing card imagery. I think it would be hard to play bridge on a table like this, but maybe a person becomes accustomed to it.
The needlework covering the chairs was stunning.
The KIng’s Bedchamber, just as the sign says. Tapestries lined the walls, and the ceiling was decorated with plaster and painted artworks.
The plaster work had amazing detail.
In this chamber occupied by Queen Victoria, you now see the Lion and the Unicorn representing Scotland and England. I couldn’t make out the Irish harp on the shield, but it should be there. Most of the rooms have ropes delineating where you may walk and where you may leave well enough alone, thank you. I couldn’t go close enough to look for the harp(s).
The Great Gallery, filled with portraits of kings, queens, and heroes past.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie returned to claim Scotland’s throne for his father in 1745, he stayed at the Holyroodhouse Palace for six weeks. During this brief time, the Great Gallery was used to host the Scottish lords and clan leaders with food, music, and other entertainment. Prince Charles then went on to the Battle of Culloden, which he lost, and with it was lost the dream of a Stuart Restoration. Prince Charles escaped to Europe, where he and his father lived in exile the rest of their days. (Recently, I read where an heir to the throne, descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie, has been identified and confirmed through DNA analysis. He did not, however, indicate any plans to raise an army.)

Prince Charles Edward Stuart

At the far end of the Great Gallery, visitors pass into the earlier days of Stuarts’ reign. There are artefacts from the life of Prince Charles, but one quickly passes these and goes up the steep, narrow, winding staircase to the upper floor, where Mary, Queen of Scots, had her royal chambers. It was here that she lived from 1561 until 1567.

The stairway up to the Queen’s chambers. At the top was a very low doorway. I bumped my head because I was watching the steps. Queen Mary, I learned, grew to be six feet tall. I don’t know how she tolerated such a low door way.

The northwest tower reflects the 16th century desire for a fortified residence, but the rooms that Mary used were quite comfortable. Her bedchamber had oak panelling on the ceiling and tapestries on the wall. Her private supper room was very small. It was here that her secretary, the Italian David Riccio (or Rizzio) was murdered by Lord Darnley and his supporters. Riccio was stabbed 56 times.

Mary’s private dining room. I stood in the doorway to take this photo, to give you an idea of how small it is. This is where David Riccio was killed in 1566. Mary was pregnant at the time with her son who would become James I of Scotland, and James VI of England, in 1603.
Queen Mary’s bedchamber (and the low doorway in the background.)
Mary, Queen of Scots
Lord Darnley and the young James, destined to be King James I of Scotland, and then also King James VI of England.
David Riccio, whose grave was moved to Canongate Kirk.

In the outer chamber, now filled with displays of jewellery and artefacts, Mary received visitors, often including John Knox. The devoutly Roman Catholic Queen Mary and the equally devout Calvinist John Knox had lively debates about their religious beliefs. Too bad their tolerance was not emulated by others of their generation.

As you exit Holyrood Palace, you enter what were once Holyrood Abbey gardens. As for the Abbey itself, only ruins remain, and just the nave, at that. In the 13th century, the Abbey Church could hold a thousand worshipers for mass. It was 250 feet (76 meters) long, with high vaulted ceilings, huge stained glass windows, gilded wood, and painted stonework. Large landholdings provided financial support for the Abbey.

Holyroodhouse served the secular world as well. It was a place where parliaments and councils were held, beginning with Robert the Bruce in 1327. From that meeting came the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton that brought peace between Scotland and England, at least, temporarily. James II was born, married, crowned, and buried at Holyrood. In 1469, James III and Margaret of Denmark were married here. In 1503, Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) and James IV of Scotland were married. It was this union of Tudor and Stuart that resulted in the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England. It made Mary I, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, Queen of England, first cousins, and so when Elizabeth died without an heir, Mary’s son, James, became King of England as well as Scotland. Charles I, a Stuart king, was the last coronation at Holyroodhouse.

Within the Abbey grounds were a large octagonal chapter house, dormitories, a refectory, and cloisters. These were surrounded by gardens, providing food and medicinal herbs. Royal guests stayed in houses within the Abbey complex. The foundations of these other buildings and the larger church can be found in places around the palace gardens.

The Abbey suffered during the reign of Henry VIII, as he wrestled control away from the Pope, and the Abbey was abandoned altogether after the Protestant Reformation (1560 AD) when the eastern parts were demolished, leaving just the nave, which remains today. The chronology was not clear. It seems the church became Catholic again, because the church was attacked by Protestant citizens in 1688, destroying most of the interior and breaking open the tombs. The formerly magnificent building became a “romantic ruin,” inspiring artists over the centuries.

The Holyroodhouse church ruin. Holyrood Palace is on the left.

From the back of Holyrood Palace, there is a great view of “Arthur’s Seat,” a high bluff that is a popular place to climb for views of Edinburgh.

Arthur’s Seat, viewed from the back of Holyrood Palace.

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