The Royal Mile is the heart of Edinburgh, and St Giles’ Cathedral is one of the most impressive looking buildings on the entire street. It’s stood there for centuries and been an integral part of the city and its community. So what’s the big deal with it then?
Who Is St Giles?
Giles was born in Athens, Greece, around 650 AD, but later travelled to southern France. Stories say that he lived a quiet life of meditation in the woods, and his only companion was a deer, sent by God. Until one day, the king’s men tried to shoot his deer while hunting. However, they missed and instead the arrow hit Giles in the leg – they needed to work on their aim! To compensate him, the king built him a monastery, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. He lived there until his death on 1st September, 710 AD, which is now St Giles’ Day.
Due to his injury, he became the patron saint of cripples (or now, disabled people), as well as lepers, beggars, and eventually, of Edinburgh. He might not be too well known today, but he was a popular saint in Europe during the Middle Ages. Many other churches built around the time were also dedicated to him.
King David I founded St Giles’ Cathedral during his reign, in 1124. This would make it one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh, however, much of the original building was destroyed by English raids in 1385. It’s also important to note that it wasn’t yet a cathedral, as there was no bishop holding seat there. Scotland was a Catholic country at the time though, and this was the main church for the citizens of Edinburgh. It was only formally dedicated as a Christian church, by the Bishop of St Andrews, in 1243. Then, in 1466, the Pope granted it Collegiate church status, a highly prestigious honour, presided over by a provost.
John Knox and the Reformation
The 16th century was a dramatic period of change, both for St Giles’ Cathedral, and Scotland as a whole. John Knox became the minister of the church in 1559. He had gone to find himself in Geneva some years prior, where he met the reformer, John Calvin, and converted to Protestantism. Knox returned to Edinburgh to lead the Scottish Reformation, using St Giles’ as his base. In 1560, the Parliament decreed that Scotland was a Protestant country. The new Church of Scotland was also formed, separated from the Vatican. Knox believed in Presbyterianism, inspired by the doctrines of Calvinism. This is a simple, austere form of worship, so he ordered churches to remove their stained glass windows and any fine ornamentation. St Giles’ Cathedral continues to be known as the ‘Cradle of Presbyterianism’ because of this.
Because of his impact, Knox is also one of the only people buried next to the church now. The old graveyard behind it had to be relocated when it reached capacity, but he was allowed to remain – you can find his grave in parking spot 23! Although he was a significant figure, he was also controversial, since the new religion he brought was so austere. Many people refused to abandon their Catholic faith, and had to practice in secret. He was also a firm believer that women should not be rulers or leaders! Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was the monarch throughout this period, both a woman and a Catholic, so the feud between her and Knox was very public!
Jenny Geddes and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms
Religion got even more complicated in 17th century Scotland. After the Union of Crowns in 1603, the Scottish monarchy moved to London, to rule over both Scotland and England. Later, King Charles I tried to impose episcopal, Anglican faith on the Scots, quite different to Presbyterianism. The king ordered a bishopric be established in St Giles’ in 1633, officially making it a cathedral (and making Edinburgh a city, rather than a burgh). Then, in 1637, he ordered that the Book of Common Prayer also be used in Scotland. Legend says, the day this happened, a woman named Jenny Geddes was so infuriated, she flung her stool across the church at the bishop! This ignited a riot, causing church services to be suspended, and a year later, St Giles’ no longer had a bishop.
Over the next few decades, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms raged in the UK, between Scotland, England and Ireland. Encompassing religion and politics, Protestants fought Catholics, Presbyterians fought Anglicans, Parliamentarians fought Royalists. In Scotland, people signed the National Covenant, a famous document, pledging to uphold their Presbyterian faith. Many of them were captured, tortured, and executed for doing so. The English Parliamentarians won the last Civil War in 1649, but the monarchy was restored in 1660. St Giles’ briefly had a bishop again from 1661, in a second attempt at establishing Episcopalism. However, the bishop was removed again in 1689, after the Glorious Revolution deposed King James VII, Britain‘s last Catholic monarch.
More conflict took place after the Wars, with the Jacobite uprisings throughout the 18th century, This was primarily Highlanders fighting to restore the deposed Catholic monarchy to the throne. St Giles’ largely managed to stay out of this though, except for welcoming Bonnie Prince Charlie to Edinburgh in 1745.
Refurbishment and the Order of the Thistle
The church suffered a lot of damage over the years, so in the 19th century, William Chambers began restoring it. Several congregations had shared the building in the past, with walls dividing the space, but these were finally removed.
In 1911, the Thistle Chapel was added to the church building. The Order of the Thistle dates back to 1687. It is the highest order of chivalry in Scotland, containing only 16 members. New members can only be inducted when another passes away, and the monarch presides over them. The chapel is pretty small, but so richly decorated that it is definitely one of the most impressive parts of the church!
More changes have been made since then. New stained glass windows were installed in 1985, for the first time since the originals were destroyed in the Reformation. The Presbyterian church began to allow such windows again in the 19th century, on the basis that they could be used to depict and teach Bible stories. And in 1992, the organ was installed, with its incredible 4000 pipes!
Today, St Giles’ Cathedral continues to be an active place of worship, conducting weekly services, including Holy Communion. It remains the High Kirk of the Church of Scotland, and often hosts the Queen and other Royals, if a service takes place in the Thistle Chapel during her Holyrood Week visit. It is open to visitors who, even if they are not religious, can appreciate the beauty and the incredible history of this building.
What You’ll See – Outside
From the outside, St Giles’ is a key building on the Royal Mile, one of the major sights along the street. It was designed in the Gothic style, with many carvings above the doorway, and topped with its distinctive crown steeple, dating to the 15th century. If you could time travel back a few centuries, you wouldn’t be able to see as much of the building as you can now. The Tolbooth used to be beside it, which was a tax office and prison, among other things. And along the northern side were the Luckenbooths, the first permanent shops in the city. All were demolished in 1817, to widen the High Street.
What You’ll See – Inside
Inside the church, the focal point is right in the middle, rather than at the far end, as with most churches. The four pillars here are said to be the originals, dating from the 12th century, and support the crown spire. You can find the Holy table and pulpit here. The church has been heightened and extended over the years, making it impossible to date everything to one time period. Although not a cathedral, it has the grandeur of one, with huge, stone vaulted ceilings. Some of the most impressive features are the organ on the southern wall, and the stained glass windows. One window is dedicated to the National Bard, Robert Burns, containing a line from his poem ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’.
The church contains dedications to numerous other notable figures, such as John Knox, immortalised in the form of a statue. There are memorials to the Marquises of Argyll and of Montrose, who both signed the National Covenant. You can see an original signed copy of the Covenant in the Moray aisle, named for Mary Queen of Scots’ half-brother, the Earl of Moray. He was regent for her son, after her abdication, but was assassinated by Mary’s supporters. A plaque marks his tomb in the Holy Blood Aisle, and the window there illustrates his murder!
The Thistle Chapel is in the south-east corner of the church. It is a stunning feature, with intricate Gothic carvings covering much of the interior. There are over 100 of them, but one of the most popular, is the angel playing the bagpipes! The wooden stalls for the Knights of the Order line the walls. The crest for each Knight is above their chair, and the largest of them is for the sovereign, currently Queen Elizabeth II.
Entry: free, donations welcome. £2 for photo permit from information desk.
Opening times: check website for seasonal variations and closures
Summer – Monday-Friday 09.00-19.00, Saturday 09.00-17.00
Winter – Monday-Saturday 09.00-17.00
Year round – Sunday 13.00-17.00
St Giles’ Cathedral also offers rooftop tours at the weekends, for £6, and guided tours of the church every Tuesday at 2pm. There is also a gift shop and cafe inside. The church is closed to the public on Sunday mornings, unless you wish to attend a service taking place at that time. There is a short service daily at noon as well, and a music programme and evening service on Sundays, after closing. See their website for more details.
Have you been to St Giles’ Cathedral? Leave a comment about your experiences!