“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 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.