Explore the palace’s close associations with some of Scotland’s most well-known historical figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and learn how today it is used by The Queen when carrying out official engagements in Scotland.

Walk in royal footsteps around Holyrood Abbey, founded by David I in 1128. The cloister precinct was later turned into a modern Renaissance palace – Holyroodhouse – and became the royal family’s main home in Scotland.

Things to do

  • Wander through the abbey nave and gardens after touring the Palace of Holyroodhouse (run by the Royal Collection Trust)
  • Admire the east processional doorway, the only surviving part of David I’s original ‘monastery of the Holy Rood’
  • Take in the west front of the rebuilt abbey church, one of the most impressive Gothic façades anywhere in Scotland
  • View the royal vault, the final resting place of both royalty and Augustinian canons

Opening times

  • Access to Holyrood Abbey is through the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland.
  • To visit the Abbey you must pay the entrance fee to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (this includes Historic Scotland Members and Explorer Pass holders).
  • 20% discount for Historic Scotland members on productions of your membership card.

Access

  • Access to Holyrood Abbey is through the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland.
  • To find out more, call 0131 556 5100 or visit the Royal Collection Trust website.

 

History

All that survives of the rebuilt church is the nave. This was spared at the Protestant Reformation in 1560 because it served as the parish church of Canongate, the next burgh. The choir and transepts were destroyed in 1570.

Well before the Reformation, the Stewart monarchs had almost entirely taken over the canons’ cloister as their Edinburgh residence. Charles II rebuilt it to its present appearance.

In 1687, James VII and II – Charles’s Catholic brother and successor – evicted the nave’s Protestant congregation. He then restored it as a chapel of his revived Order of the Thistle. Within a year, the chapel had been ransacked, and James forced into exile.

The abbey nave has been a ruin ever since.

Legend of the ‘Holy Rude’

Legend has it that David I was hunting in the royal forest of Drumsheugh when he was thrown from his horse below Salisbury Crags. He was speared in the thigh by the antlers of a ‘muckle white hart’.

Had it not been for the ‘holy rood’ (crucifix) that miraculously appeared in the king’s hands as he grappled with the animal, he would surely have died. In thanks to God, David endowed a ‘monastery of the Holy Rood’ close to where he escaped death.

Gothic medieval nave

The surviving nave is a precious fragment of Gothic medieval architecture, dating primarily from the 1200s. Its design is similar to that of Lincoln Cathedral, especially the nave interior. But much of what we see is particular to the site.

Features of Holyrood’s nave include the:

  • Unusual placement of the flanking towers
  • Passageways within the west front
  • The west front has one of Scotland’s most impressive processional doorways. A Romanesque (Norman-style) door from the 1100s survives: it had been moved to the east end of the south wall.

Royal residence and mausoleum

Holyrood Abbey served as a royal residence from the start. Edinburgh Castle was an imposing fortress but was less private than the abbey.

David I and his successors probably stayed in a royal guesthouse to the west of the canons’ cloister at Holyrood.

The royal family stayed at the abbey more often as Edinburgh grew in importance. The cloister precinct was converted into a modern Renaissance palace and became their principal home in Scotland by the time of the Reformation.

A number of royals were buried in the abbey choir:

  • David II
  • James II
  • James V
  • King Henry – better known as Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots
  • Their remains now lie in the royal vault, in the nave’s south aisle.

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