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A history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse


The Palace of Holyroodhouse has been an important royal residence for centuries. With previous inhabitants including Mary Queen of Scots, it has been the scene of many turbulent events in the complex relationship between England and Scotland.

Holyrood was founded as an Augustinian abbey in 1128 by David I, son of St Margaret of Scotland, an Anglo Saxon princess who fled to Scotland after the Norman Conquest. According to legend, it was built on the site where the King had a vision of the Cross – the Holy Rood – glowing between the antlers of a stag, while out hunting on Holy Cross Day.

Towers and turmoil

When Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland in 1437, successive monarchs found the royal chambers at the abbey far more comfortable than Edinburgh Castle. Keen to impress his new queen Margaret Tudor, James IV had the abbey guesthouse converted into a palace. He also decided to develop the grounds: in 1507 a loch was drained to make space for gardens and sports such as tennis, hawking and archery.

James V made further improvements, building new lodgings in a huge tower protected by a moat and drawbridge. His fortifications proved a shrewd investment: Holyrood was attacked and burned more than once during conflict with England through the 1540s, but the tower survived.

It was in the tower that in 1566 Mary Queen of Scots witnessed the brutal murder of David Rizzio, her Italian secretary and rumoured lover. Rizzio was stabbed 56 times by a group led by Mary’s husband Lord Darnley, and it is claimed that his bloodstains can still be seen in the Northwest Tower today.

After Mary’s enforced abdication and flight to England in 1567, the palace became home to Mary’s son James VI, Scotland’s first Protestant king. By the time he acceded to the English throne in 1603, the household had swollen to around 600. However, with the court’s move to London, Holyrood faded in importance: Charles I was crowned King of Scotland there in 1633, but from 1646 the palace was entrusted to the care of the Duke of Hamilton whose descendants still hold the post of Keeper.

Changing Times

Occupied by Cromwell during the Civil War, the building went up in flames again in 1650; what remained of the palace was used as a barracks. Holyrood’s fortunes revived after the restoration of the monarch in 1660. Rebuilt in 1679 as an elegant, symmetrical Renaissance palace designed by architect Sir William Bruce, its turbulent history continued unabated. Charles II never stayed in the building he commissioned but his brother James VII (and II) had strong connections.

In 1686-87 James controversially set up a Jesuit College in the grounds and reintroduced Catholic worship to the Abbey – which then became a target for a mob in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In 1745, Holyroodhouse was again linked to the Jacobite cause when James’s grandson Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) held court there after seizing Edinburgh in an attempt to restore the Catholic line to the British throne.

Modern traditions

Despite its long associations with the Royal Family, it was only in the 1920s that Holyroodhouse formally became its official residence in Scotland. The tradition of Holyrood Week – a summer celebration of Scottish history and culture – is a highlight of the royal year. With the Royal Company of Archers in attendance, the Queen entertains thousands of guests from all walks of Scottish life at garden parties and an investiture ceremony. The palace is open to visitors all year round.

For more on the Palace of Holyroodhouse, visit the website.

MORE: Mary Queen of Scots magazine celebrating the upcoming movie

Extract taken from Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family published by Dorling Kindersley.


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