Melrose Abbey

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Melrose Abbey
Monastery information
Order Cistercian
Established 1136
Disestablished 1609
Mother house Rievaulx Abbey
Diocese Diocese of Glasgow
Controlled churches Cavers Magna; Dunscore; Ettrick; Hassendean; Mauchline; Melrose; Ochiltree; Tarbolton; Westerkirk; Wilton
Founder(s) David I of Scotland
Important associated figures Waltheof, Jocelin
Location Melrose, Scottish Borders

St Mary's Abbey, Melrose is a part ruined monastery of the Cistercian order in Melrose, Roxburghshire, in the Scottish Borders.

It was founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks on the request of King David I of Scotland, and was the chief house of that order in the country, until the Reformation. It was headed by the Abbot or Commendator of Melrose. Today the abbey is maintained by Historic Scotland.

The east end of the abbey was completed in 1146. Other buildings in the complex were added over the next 50 years. The abbey was built in the Gothic manner, and in the form of a St. John's cross. A considerable portion of the abbey is now in ruins, though a structure dating from 1590 is maintained as a museum open to the public.

Alexander II and other Scottish kings and nobles are buried at the abbey. The embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce is also said to rest on the abbey's grounds, while the rest of his body is buried in Dunfermline Abbey. In 1812, a stone coffin that some speculated was that of Michael Scot, the philosopher and "wizard", was found in an aisle in the abbey's south chancel.

The abbey is known for its many carved decorative details, including likenesses of saints, dragons, gargoyles and plants. On one of the abbey's stairways is an inscription by John Morow, a master mason, which says Be halde to ye hende ("Keep in mind, the end, your salvation"). This has become the motto of the town of Melrose.


An earlier monastery was founded by, then later dedicated to, Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne shortly before his death in 651 at Old Melrose, then in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria on a site about two miles (3 km) east of Melrose Abbey. Set in a bend of the river Tweed, a graveyard marks the site. St. Cuthbert, who grew up nearby, trained there and later was prior from 662 before he was moved to Lindisfarne (Holy Island). It was raided by Kenneth I of Scotland in 839.

Modern marker for the site of the burial of the heart of Robert the Bruce at Melrose Abbey

King David I wanted the new abbey to be built on the same site, but the Cistercians insisted that the land was not good enough for farming and instead selected the current site. It is supposed to have been built in ten years. The church of the convent was dedicated to St. Mary (like all Cistercian houses) on 28 July 1146. The abbey became the mother church of the order in Scotland. A town slowly grew up around the abbey. In 1322 the town was attacked by the army of Edward II and much of the abbey was destroyed. It was rebuilt by order of King Robert the Bruce, with Sir James Douglas being principal auditor of finance for the project.[1] The King's embalmed heart, encased in lead, was later buried in the church following its return from crusade with the dead Lord Douglas in either 1330 or 1331.

In 1385 the abbey was burned by the army of Richard II of England as he forced the army of Robert II of Scotland back to Edinburgh. It was rebuilt over a period of about 100 years—construction was still unfinished when James IV visited in 1504.

In 1544, as English armies raged across Scotland in an effort to force the Scots to allow the infant Mary, Queen of Scots to marry the son of Henry VIII, the abbey was again badly damaged and was never fully repaired. This led to its decline as a working monastery. The last abbot was James Stuart (the illegitimate son of James V), who died in 1559. In 1590, Melrose's last monk died.

The abbey withstood one final assault—some of its walls still show the marks of cannon fire after having been bombarded by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War.

In 1610, a portion of the abbey's church was converted into a parish church for the surrounding town. This involved the insertion of a plain vault into the crossing, which obscured the original ribbed vaulting. It was used until 1810 when a new church was erected in the town.

In 1996 an archaeological excavation on the site unearthed a conical lead container and an engraved copper plaque that read "The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty's Office of Works"; the lead container was not opened, but it is assumed that since there are no records of anyone else's heart being buried at Melrose that it was indeed the heart of Robert I. The container was reburied at Melrose Abbey on 22 June 1998. A plinth was unveiled on 22 June which covers the burial site of the container.


The abbey is built in the form of St. John's cross, of the Gothic style of architecture, and is 258 feet (79 m) in length; the breadth 137-1/2 feet; and 943 feet (287 m) in circumference. A considerable part of the principal tower is now in ruins; its present height is 84 feet (26 m). There are many very superb windows; the principal one at the east end (which is the top nave of the cross,) appears to have been more recently built than the others, and is 57 feet (17 m) in extreme height, and 28 feet (8.5 m) wide. It has been ornamented with statues, &c. The beauty of the carved work, with which the abbey is profusely decorated, is seldom equalled.

There are in the external view of the building 50 windows, 4 doors, 54 niches, and above, 50 buttresses. The abbey was much injured by the English in 1322 and 1384. Richard II made it a grant in 1389, as some compensation for the injuries it had sustained in the retreat of his army. It was also greatly defaced by Protestants during the Reformation.

There were 100 monks, without including the abbot and dignitaries. The last abbot was James Stewart, natural son of James V, who died in 1559. The privileges and possessions of the abbey were very extensive, and it was endowed by its founder, David, with the lands of Melrose, Eildon, and other places; the right of fishery on the Tweed; and succeeding monarchs increased its property. In 1542, the revenue of the abbey was, "£1758 in money, 14 chalders nine bolls of wheat, 56 chal. 5 bolls of barley, 78 chal. 13 bolls of meal, 44 chal. 10 bolls of oats, 84 capons, 620 poultry, 105 stone of butter, 8 chal. of salt, 340 loads of peats, and 500 carriages;" besides 60 bolls of corn, 300 barrels (48 m3) of ale, and 18 hogsheads of wine, for the service of the mass: a large quantity for the entertainment of strangers; £4,000 for the care of the sick; and £400 to the barber. These were given up at the commencement of the reformation in 1561. The lands were either seized by the crown, or divided amongst the nobles. A large portion fell into the hands of the Scotts of Buccleuch.



J. M. W. Turner's Melrose Abbey


Sir Walter Scott described Melrose Abbey in one of his poems,[3] The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto Second.[4]

A Presbyterian congregation in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA has built what may be the last Gothic cathedral in the U.S. and patterned it after Melrose Abbey.[clarification needed] The church, Kirk in the Hills, completed in 1958, is located on a 40-acre (160,000 m2) lakeside setting 20 miles (32 km) north of Detroit.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 26 March 1325-The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 ([]), K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2011).
  2. ^ Stoddart, John (1801), Remarks on Scenery and Manners in Scotland. Pub. William Miller, London. Facing P. 277.
  3. ^ Dunton, Larkin (1896). The World and Its People. Silver, Burdett. p. 66. 
  4. ^ Scott, Sir Walter. "The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto Second". 
  5. ^

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 55°35′56″N 2°43′4″W / 55.59889°N 2.71778°W / 55.59889; -2.71778