In my previous blogs about Edinburgh I’ve mentioned Holyroodhouse in passing, but it’s well worth a blog of its own, so here goes!
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is situated at the bottom of the Royal Mile, with Edinburgh Castle at the top. It’s had a long and chequered history, but nowadays is the official residence and offices of the Queen in Scotland. She spends about a week here every year, performing royal engagements. When she is not in residence the palace is open to visitors. It’s really well worth a visit!
The story begins in the twelfth-century. When King David I was out hunting one day, he had a vision of a stag which had a cross between its antlers, and in 1128 he decided to found an abbey at the place where he’d had the vision. Rood is another word for cross and so the abbey was named Holyrood. Because it had royal patronage it flourished, and in later years, when Edinburgh became the capital city of Scotland, the monarchs established their private quarters there, partly because there was a handy hunting park next door, and partly because it was more comfortable than the castle, which was exposed on all sides to Scottish weather!
In time the palace buildings eclipsed the abbey. James IV’s additions no longer survive, but his successor James V built a huge tower between 1528 and 1532 and later built a new west front for the palace. The tower survives today. See photo at the start of the blog.
When James died, Mary Queen of Scots took his place, and many of the events of her very dramatic and tragic life took place in the palace, including the brutal murder of her secretary David Rizzio and her intensely unpopular marriage to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell in May 1567. This marriage split the country, and soon after Mary was forced to abdicate and was succeeded by her son, James VI.
In 1603, when the crowns of England and Scotland were united, James moved to England, which left the palace without a royal resident. The palace fell into disrepair, furthered by the damage caused by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the Commonwealth period, which ended in 1660 when King Charles II returned to claim his crown.
Charles II never returned to Scotland after the Restoration, but nevertheless commissioned a building project there, which included a new royal apartment and repairs to the existing damaged parts of the palace. The Abbey Church now became the Chapel Royal.
Although Charles never used it, his brother (later James VII/II) made it his private residence in 1679, converting the chapel to a Catholic church and establishing a Jesuit college there. When his daughter and son-in-law invaded in 1688 and took the throne, an anti-Catholic mob destroyed all traces of Catholicism at the palace, which was then given over to apartments for Scottish state officers, until the political union of 1707 ended that.
The palace did not see any more royalty until 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie made it his headquarters for six weeks, after taking the city without a blow being struck. (Readers of my novels will already know about this). Later the Duke of Cumberland resided there very briefly, but after that the palace once again fell into neglect.
In 1768 the Abbey Church roof collapsed, and the seventeenth-century portraits in the Royal gallery of the Stuart monarchs, slashed by English swords, remained hanging as they were. This continued until the Romantic period, when an interest in Scottish history and Mary Queen of Scots in particular, made the palace a great tourist attraction. Seizing the opportunity, local tourist guides led gullible visitors around the dusty neglected rooms, spinning highly romantic invented tales about the past, including pointing out the bloodstains of David Rizzio’s murder, which had miraculously remained intact on the floors through renovation and multiple occupations of the room!
The famous state visit of King George IV in 1822, an event which firmly established Scotland as the romantic tourist destination it still is, resulted in the palace being restored in order for the king to hold ceremonies, although George commanded that Mary Queen of Scots apartments remain unaltered.
In 1850 Queen Victoria, who loved Scotland and also did a good deal to further popularise the romantic image of the country, paid the palace a visit, and made it a stopping-off spot on her way to her Balmoral estate. This led to it being reinstated as a royal official residence, albeit a temporary one, and it is now kept in excellent repair.
It’s a fascinating place to tour, as it encapsulates aspects of a huge part of the history of Scotland, and I’d recommend any visitor to Edinburgh to take the time to see both the palace and the remains of the abbey.