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Scottish Cathedrals and Abbeys

The following is from Scottish Cathedrals and Abbeys by Rev. D. Butler, M.A.:

Chapter VI - Scottish Monasticism

Holyrood Abbey

The abbey of Holyrood was founded by King David I. in 1128 for the canons regular of the order of St. Augustine, and was dedicated in honour of the holy cross or rood brought to Scotland by his mother, Queen Margaret. This cross, called the Black Rood of Scotland, fell into the hands of the English at the battle of Neville's Cross in 1346. The abbey was several times burned by the English, and the nave on the last of these occasions, 1547, was repaired with the ruins of the choir and transepts. This was used as the parish church till 1672, when it was converted into the chapel royal. In 1687 it was set apart by King James VII for the service of the Roman Catholic Church, but was plundered and again burned at the Revolution in the following year. It remained neglected until 1758, when it was repaired and roofed; the new roof, proving too heavy for the walls, fell with a crash in 1768, destroying all the new work. It suffered neglect again till 1816, when it was repaired, and in 1857 it was still further improved.

The abbey early became the occasional abode of the kings of Scotland, and James II was born, crowned, married, and buried in it. The foundations of a palace apart from the abbey were laid in the time of James IV, Edinburgh having then become the acknowledged capital of the country. Holyrood Palace was henceforth the chief seat of the Scottish sovereigns. In it the nuptials of James IV were celebrated; here also Mary Queen of Scots took up her abode in 1561 on her return from France, and here James VI dwelt much before his accession to the throne of England in 1603.

The abbey church was beautiful in its architecture and of great size. It consisted of nave, choir, transepts with aisles, and probably lady chapel to the east, two western towers, and a tower over the crossing; but of all that splendid structure there now only remain the ruins of the nave and one western tower.

The surviving nave is in a ruinous state and consists of eight bays, the main piers of which are complete on the south side, but only represented by two fragments on the north side.[318] The vaulting of the south aisle still survives, but that of the north aisle is gone. The north wall of the aisle still stands, and the east and west ends of the nave are restored. The N.W. tower is still preserved, but the companion tower at the S.W. angle was demolished when the palace was rebuilt in the seventeenth century. Some remains of the cloister are still observable on the S. side of the nave.

The chief part of the architecture is pronounced to be first pointed, but the doorway at the S.E. angle, which led from the cloister into the nave is pronounced to be of genuine though late Norman architecture. There was a nook shaft on either side, the divided cushion caps of which survive. The arch is round and contains two orders, both ornamented with zigzags. These orders are enclosed with a label, containing a double row of square facets and sinkings.

Some alterations have taken place adjoining the doorway, and two of the windows, that over the doorway and that to the west of it, are circular-headed and have a Norman character in their nook shafts and cushion caps. These windows were probably constructed in imitation of Norman windows which existed there originally. It is not improbable that the choir was built before the nave, and was of Norman work, and this supposition is regarded as accounting for the Norman work found at the first bay of the nave, and which may have been erected in connection with the choir and crossing.

The oldest part of the nave after the S.E. doorway is the wall of the north aisle. The windows above the arcade are single lancets, one in each bay. The south wall of the south aisle is similarly designed, but the details are different and of a rather later character. The lower story contains a wall arcade having single pointed arches, with first pointed mouldings. The windows over the arcade correspond generally to those in the north wall, and are all pointed except the two east bays already mentioned. The lower part of the exterior of the south wall, running westward from the Norman doorway, is arcaded with a series of large pointed arches, each enclosing five smaller pointed arches, and with a plain wall space between the large and small arches. The above large arches were the wall arches for a groined roof over the cloister walk, but whether that vault was ever built it is now regarded as impossible to say. The vaulting of both aisles has apparently been similar, but the south aisle alone retains it, which is of a simple character, consisting of transverse and diagonal ribs.

The main arcade of the nave has consisted of eight bays; the triforium is divided into two arches in each bay by a single central shaft, springing from a corbel over the apex of each arch of the main arcade, and running up to the string-course beneath the clerestory. This would suggest the view that the vaulting was sex-partite. Each arch of the triforium is acutely pointed, and contains two smaller pointed arches within it, each of which has an inner trefoiled arch. The tympanum of the large arch is pierced with a quatrefoil or trefoil. To counteract the weakening tendency of the triforium passage, saving arches, as may be seen from the south, have been introduced to carry the chief pressure across from main pier to main pier. A similar strengthening arch exists in the outer wall of the triforium gallery at Amiens. The west end is pronounced to have contained the finest work of the building, and the west door with the two towers must have presented a lovely and imposing front. The S.W. tower was removed to make way for the palace being erected, and even the W. doorway is encroached on by the palace wall. A portion of the S.W. tower is still visible in the interior, and contains a doorway. The upper part of the W. end was reconstructed by Charles I. in 1633, and contains two nondescript windows of seventeenth century Gothic with an inscription between them. The tympanum of the doorway has also been altered at this time, and an oaken lintel introduced containing a shield with the initials of Charles I. The western doorway has been a beautiful specimen of first pointed work, and the W. side of the N.W. tower is ornamented with two tiers of arcades. "The lower arcade contains five pointed arches, with a trefoiled arch within each. These rest on triple shafts, with carved caps and rounded abaci. Over each shaft and between the arches there is a circle containing a boldly carved Norman head. The feature is unique and its effect is fine. The upper arcade consists of three larger arches, each containing two smaller arches, and all resting on shafts with carved and rounded caps. The shields in the larger arches are pierced with bold quatrefoils. Two circles occur in the spandrils over the arches, but they do not now contain heads."[319] The same design is continued round the S. side of the tower, and along the W. wall of the nave as far as the main doorway, but the N. and E. sides of the tower are plain. Above the two arcades the tower contains a large two-light window on the N.E. and W. sides. Each window is divided into two openings by a single central shaft, having a carved cap and broad square abacus, on which rest the two plain pointed arches of the inner openings. The shield above is pierced with a bold quatre-foil. The two western piers of the crossing are still standing, and within the arch there has been erected in modern times a large traceried window. The spaces below the window and across the side aisles have been built up with fragments of the demolished structure, and a window is thus formed at the east end of each aisle.

The church has evidently undergone a thorough repair during the fifteenth century, probably during the period when Crawford was abbot (1460-1483). "The work executed at this time consisted of the addition of seven buttresses on the north side and several buttresses on the south side of the aisles. Those on the north side are large, and may either enclose the old buttresses or have been substituted for them. They have a set-off near the centre, above which each contains an elaborately ornamented and canopied niche. Beneath and above the niche there are carved panels, which have contained angels and shields, with coats of arms. The arms of Abbot Crawford are said to have been carved on the panels, but they are now too much decayed to be distinguishable. Above the upper panels the buttresses are continued with several set-offs, and finished with a small square pinnacle. The pinnacles have been crocheted and terminated with a carved finial, but they are now greatly wasted away. There were, doubtless, flying arches from the above buttresses to the clerestory, but they must have fallen with the roof. A somewhat elaborate north doorway has been introduced, in a style similar to that of the buttresses, in the second bay from the west tower. The arch is semicircular, and has an ogee canopy. There are small niches above the arch on each side which contained statues, now demolished. This doorway was probably constructed by Abbot Crawford at the same date as the buttresses."[320]

"A series of buttresses was also erected about the same time on the south side of the fabric. It is believed, however, that these buttresses are partly old or are on old foundations. In order not to interfere with the cloister walk, which ran along next the south wall, and where it would have been inconvenient to have any projections, the buttresses were carried in the form of flying arches over the top of the cloister roof. At the clerestory level flying arches, similar to those on the north side, rested against the upper portions of buttresses and pinnacles introduced between the windows. On the outside of the cloister walk the flying arch abutted upon oblong masses of masonry, which probably at one time were finished with pinnacles, but these no longer exist."[321]

Robert Bellenden, the twenty-fifth abbot of Holyrood, and successor to Abbot Crawford,[322] presented the abbey with bells, a great brass font, and a chalice of gold. He was also beneficent to the poor, and completed the restoration of the fabric by covering the roof with lead. This happened about 1528, and in 1539 the office of commendator was given to Robert, natural son of James V, while still an infant. The brass font was carried off by Sir Richard Lee, an officer in Hertford's army, in 1544, and was removed to St. Alban's Abbey. It was afterwards sold for old metal. The brass lectern of the abbey was also taken by Sir Richard Lee, and presented to the Parish Church of St. Stephen's at St. Alban's, where it still is. It is in the form of an eagle with outstretched wing, and contains a shield with a lion rampant and a crozier, with the inscription, "Georgius Crichton, Episcopus Dunkeldensis."[323] Before becoming bishop, Crichton was abbot of Holyrood, 1515-22.

[318] Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 54 et seq. to p. 72.
[319] Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 68.
[320] Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 71.
[321] Ibid. pp. 71, 72.
[322] Gordon's Monasticon, p. 156.
[323] Gordon's Monasticon, p. 158.


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