Holyrood Palace was once the home of the Scottish monarchy, so its walls are rich with stories from over the years. Plus, the Abbey is from the 12th century! So what has all happened there?
King David I and the Abbey
So the story here starts with Holyrood Abbey, built long before the palace was added. King David I is very important in Edinburgh‘s history, being the king who made the town a royal burgh. Other notable buildings from his reign include St Giles’ Cathedral, and St Margaret’s Chapel, inside Edinburgh Castle – he certainly liked his Christian sites!
Anyways, the legend goes that in 1127, David was hunting in the forest east of Edinburgh (now Holyrood Park), when a stag appeared and startled his horse, throwing him off. The stag – a white hart, to be specific, now the name of an Edinburgh pub! – would have mauled him, but a crucifix suddenly appeared between the stag’s antlers – yes, this is really the story! David seized it and the stag backed off from him. In gratitude for saving him, David decided to build a monastery on that site, and name it after the Holy Rude (Scots word for cross) that had saved him.
King David founded Holyrood Abbey in 1128, though the actual construction took many decades. The Romanesque door remains from the 12th century, while most of the building is Gothic in style, from the 13th century. It also once housed a fragment of the True Cross, known as the Black Rood of Scotland – or the Holy Rood, possibly another, more plausible reason behind the abbey’s name. Queen Margaret, David’s mother, brought it from Waltham Abbey in England, though the English later took it back in the 14th century, and it has since been lost.
Edinburgh: Seat of Royalty
Now, like most royal families, the Scottish monarchy didn’t just have one home, but instead dozens of castles and palaces. When in Edinburgh, the king stayed in Edinburgh Castle. However, the royals soon realised that the Holyrood Abbey guesthouse was much more comfortable than the fortress-like castle, and used it as a residence from at least the 14th century. The Abbey also functioned as a meeting place for Parliament – most famously, for Robert the Bruce, in 1326.
It’s also important to note that at this time, Scotland didn’t have an official capital city. Perth was the de facto site, as it was where the Stone of Destiny was housed (until stolen by the English in 1296) in Scone Abbey, and where coronations took place. King James I (House Stuart) made Perth his primary home, and held all parliamentary sessions there as well. That is, until he was brutally murdered in 1437, in a failed coup. This put a bit of a dampener on the city! His son, King James II, held his coronation in Holyrood Abbey, and Edinburgh now became the capital – though Holyrood was actually outside the city walls then! James II is also buried in the Abbey, alongside David II and James V.
It was then King James IV who decided to build the Palace of Holyroodhouse, to use its full title – mostly to impress his new wife! Work began in 1503, to build a new Gothic palace, and he also drained a nearby loch to develop the gardens. Nothing remains of his building though. His son, James V, expanded and remodelled the palace in the Renaissance style, between 1528-1536. He was practical, making the palace more secure, by adding a moat and drawbridge. He also built the north-west tower, the oldest surviving part of the palace today.
The Reformation & Mary Queen of Scots
The 16th century wasn’t much fun for Holyrood Abbey! In the 1540s, England attacked Scotland – hardly unusual! – and they burned and looted the Abbey. Then in 1559, came the Reformation, when Protestantism was replacing Catholicism in Scotland. A Protestant mob attacked the Catholic Abbey, destroying the altars. The Reformation became official in 1560, and only the nave was kept, to serve as the parish church for Canongate. The transept and choir were also pulled down in 1570, useless to the practices of the Protestant church.
Meanwhile, Holyrood Palace was faring much better, serving as home to one of its most famous residents, Mary Queen of Scots. She had grown up in France, and married King Francis II, becoming Queen of France for a time. But with his death in 1560, she returned to Scotland the following year. She lived in the north west tower, and you can still see her apartments, including her bedchamber. She married her second and third husbands, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell, in the palace.
Holyrood wasn’t always a happy home for her though. In 1566, a pregnant Mary was dining with her secretary, David Rizzio, when her husband, Lord Darnley, entered her apartments. Darnley was jealous of Rizzio, believing the two were having an affair – this is still unconfirmed though! He stabbed Rizzio in front of her, 56 times – it is said you can still see the bloodstains! Mary first had him buried in Holyrood Abbey – strengthening rumours of their affair. A century later, he was moved to Canongate Kirkyard, but no one knows why or by whom! This was the start of Mary’s downfall – when Darnley was later murdered, she and her third husband, Bothwell, were blamed – also unconfirmed! – and she was forced to abdicate in 1567, leaving Holyrood.
The Union of Crowns & the Revolution
Mary’s son, James VI, became king when he was just a year old. However, in 1603, with the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England, James now became King James I of England. He now held two countries and two titles! He moved to London, and Edinburgh lost much of its royal privilege. Holyrood sat empty for long periods, although improvements were made when James returned to visit in 1617, and more again, when his son, Charles I, returned for his Scottish coronation in 1633.
Disaster struck again for Holyrood though, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Oliver Cromwell had executed Charles I, and Britain was a Commonwealth, without a monarch, for several years. In 1650, Cromwell’s troops were using Holyrood as a barracks, when a section of the east range caught fire. Charles II was eventually restored in 1660, and Holyrood again became a royal palace. He expanded it greatly, with a new design by Sir William Bruce. His palace was completed in 1679, and is largely what we see today. Charles also commissioned the 111 portraits of Scottish monarchs in the Great Gallery.
Things went less well for Holyrood Abbey though. In 1687, King James VII (II of England) made the Abbey a Catholic Chapel Royal. The Protestant congregation was moved to Canongate Kirk, founded in 1688, which now replaced the Abbey as the Canongate parish church. Later that year, religious conflict sparked the Glorious Revolution, and Catholic James was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter, Mary. A mob broke into the Abbey and destroyed the interior, and from then, it was virtually abandoned. In 1768, the roof collapsed from structural integrity problems, leaving the ruin we see today.
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Return
Since the Union of Crowns, no one had lived in Holyrood Palace full time. And with the Act of Union in 1707, merging Scotland and England as the UK, Edinburgh lost even more status. That was all to change though, with the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of the deposed King James VII and II. He had been living in exile in France with his father. They still believed they were the rightful heirs to the British throne. But they were Catholics, and Britain was officially Protestant now. The Jacobites, James VII’s supporters, had started several unsuccessful rebellions, in attempts to restore James, his son, and now grandson. They hadn’t given up though, and Bonnie Prince Charlie came to Scotland in 1745, to try to reclaim the kingdom.
Edinburgh greeted him in September, with huge crowds of supporters. He moved into Holyrood, bringing the palace back to life. He took over the Great Gallery, using it as an audience chamber by day. By night, it became a ballroom, where he hosted grand, lavish parties. He slept in Lord Darnley’s old bedchamber, beneath Mary Queen of Scots’ apartments. It was a brief stay though, as he left after six weeks, to continue his quest. Parties would hardly win him a country! It wasn’t to be though, as the Jacobites were defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and Charlie returned to exile in Europe.
19th Century to the Present
For decades, no British monarch visited Scotland – King Charles I had been the last! Even though Charles II rebuilt Holyrood Palace, he never saw it himself! It was in 1822, when King George IV finally came to Edinburgh, to the delight of the Scots, almost two centuries since the last royal visit. He stayed in Dalkeith Palace, but visited Holyrood and ordered repairs to take place. Further renovations took place under Queen Victoria‘s reign, and she was actually able to stay in the palace itself. Also, in 1854, they opened the north-west tower to the public for the first time.
Later, during the reign of George V, the palace was transformed. They installed modern amenities, including central heating and electricity, before his visit in 1911. And in 1920, Holyrood formally became the official royal residence in Scotland, alongside Balmoral Castle, in Aberdeenshire – royals always have multiple homes, of course! Their main official residence is Buckingham Palace, in London. However, despite proposals to restore Holyrood Abbey, it still lies in ruins, open to the sky and the elements.
Today, the monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II) stays in Holyrood Palace for one week at the start of each summer – we’re not going to put her in a hotel, are we? It’s not a holiday though! The Lord Provost ceremoniously gifts her the key to Edinburgh, she meets with the First Minister, and hosts other important visitors in the palace. She usually attends a service in St Giles’ Cathedral too – though technically, Canongate Kirk is the royal parish church for Holyrood. And, she hosts the Garden Party, where thousands of Scots of all backgrounds are invited to afternoon tea alongside the Royals. It’s very fancy if you can snag an invite!
Your entry to Holyrood Palace includes an audio guide, so you will be taken around the palace in a set route. This is a working palace, so the Queen uses all of these rooms during her annual Holyrood Week visit. Enter the grounds first, facing the front of the palace. Notice the symmetrical quadrangle shaped layout, with a tower on either side. Look out for the unicorns in the Scottish coat of arms above the entrance, and the Classical columns in the courtyard.
Head up the grand staircase to the Royal Dining Room, where the table is laid with silver banqueting service. Continue into the Throne Room, with George V’s two thrones, and portraits of various monarchs lining the walls. Beyond are the State Apartments, lined with ancient tapestries, starting with the Privy Chamber, and progressing towards the King’s Bedchamber. The rooms get grander as you go, as only the most important guests would reach the bedchamber!
Next up is the Great Gallery, with its huge collection of portraits. These depict every Scottish monarch, starting with those of legends centuries ago, and continuing up to the Stuarts, commissioned to show the Stuart ancestry. You’ll find the legendary Fergus I and Macbeth, as well as the real, historical Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots – the only Scottish Queen! There are other treasures and artefacts on display as well.
After the gallery, you’ll enter the north west tower, the oldest part of the palace. On the first floor are the chambers where Lord Darnley, Mary’s second husband, and later Bonnie Prince Charlie slept. Then, go up the narrow spiral staircase to Mary’s own apartments – including the supper room where Rizzio was murdered! Her outer chamber is full of jewels on display, and is where she received her visitors.
The Abbey & Gardens
The tour then guides you downstairs from Mary’s chambers, and outside to Holyrood Abbey. Today it lies in ruins, open to the elements since the roof collapsed. The original door, from the 12th century, still remains. From outside, the Gothic western front and the window frames still stand, giving you an idea of grand the church once was. Inside, you can see the remnants of the layout, and the Royal Vault, where several monarchs and their spouses were buried – though not all their remains are still here!
Outside the Abbey, you can wander through the palace gardens. The views here are stunning, looking towards Holyrood Park, with the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat towering above. Visitors are restricted to the public path, but you can still take in the well-kept flower beds and lawns. The Jubilee Border was added to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. There’s also Queen Mary’s sundial, installed for Charles I’s coronation in 1633. The gardens make for a quiet stroll to finish your visit, and allow you to see the rest of the palace’s exterior, before looping around to the front courtyard again.
Holyrood Palace is certainly a home fit for royalty, and a visit here allows you to se a glimpse into their world, and discover the long, complex, sometimes bloody history that has unfolded here.
Entry: Adults £15, Seniors over 60 & Students £13.50, Children under 17 & Disabled £8.70, Under 5s free
Entry includes an audio guide, available in several languages. Additional charge applies for entrance to The Queen’s Gallery.
November-March, 9.30am-16.30pm – last admission 15.15pm
April-October, 9.30am-18.00pm – last admission 16.30pm
Be aware that the Palace is closed entirely during Holyrood Week when the Queen is in residence, and may close on other dates throughout the year, sometimes at short notice – check the website for details.
The Palace and Abbey are located at the lower end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, within walking distance of all city centre locations. It is also served by several bus routes, including the hop-on-hop-off tour buses. There is a café and shop in front of the Palace. Everything is largely accessible for those with mobility issues. Note that no eating, drinking, or photography is allowed inside the Palace.
Have you visited Holyrood Palace & Abbey before? Leave a comment about your experiences!