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Publication Account

Date 1981

Event ID 1018069

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


An apocryphal story surrounds the foundation of the Abbey of the Holy Rood. According to the tradition, David I while out hunting under Arthur's Seat was attacked by a stag which had between his antlers a holy cross, which the King took and the stag vanished at the Rood Well. That same night, by a vision in his sleep, the king was ordered to found an Abbey of Canons Regular at the very spot where the stag had surrendered the cross to him. King David obeyed the directions of the vision and the foundations of the Abbey were laid in 1128 ( ESC, 1905, 383)

The site chosen for the Abbey was at the lower east end of the rocky ridge that tails down from the castle. It was fairly level ground, but boggy, infertile and unhealthy until foirly recent times. The original structure that was laid out in 1128 was apparently cruciform in shape and unaisled except for a chapel aisle on the eastern side of each transept.

In the second half of the twelfth century, it was decided to rebuild the abbey church on a much grander scale. That project took two centuries to complete. The new building comprised a nave of eight bays with western towers, north and south transepts, each of two bays with an eastern aisle. In addition, there was a large choir of six bays including a Lady Chapel two bays wide (RCAM, 1951, 130). The site also included the necessary domestic quarters, infirmary, offices, guest house, and abbot's house (Richardson, 1950, 4).

In 1544 the Abbey was burned and looted by the English, and it suffered further damage during an attack in 1547. After 1570 the commendator of the Abbey allowed the ruinous choir and transepts to be pulled down and money arising from the sale of the material to be used to repair and refurbish the nave which contained the parish church. With that, the church was immediately reduced to its present proportions (RCAM, 1951, 131). Further alterations were carried out on the church in preparation for Charles l's coronation there in 1633. His son, James VII, declared the church a chapel royal and fitted it up as a Catholic place of worship. Canongate residents were thus denied the right to worship in their centuries-old parish church. Upon the news of the Glorious Revolution and the fall of James VII, a mob stormed the chapel, destroying every emblem of the Catholic faith as well as desecrating the royal tombs (Bryce, 1914, xliii). In December 1768, the roof, which had been rebuilt ten years earlier, suddenly gave way bringing down also the clerestory, the roof of the northern aisle and most of the flying arches (Bryce, 1914, .xliv).

Information from ‘Historic Edinburgh, Canongate and Leith: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1981).

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