Holyrood Castle

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Located in: Europe Scotland Edinburgh

Romance, Murder, Intrigue!

Holyrood Palace
At the bottom of the Royal Mile lies Holyrood Palace. Unlike Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood has never been a fortress, relying instead on the spiritual power of its abbey to offer sanctuary and safety to its royal patrons and guests. This strategy has had mixed results.

Holyrood was originally founded as an Augustinian monastery in the 12th century by King David I. The monastery quickly grew into a large complex which included a church, cloisters, a refectory and a guesthouse. The church was sacked by the English in 1544, Scottish Protestants in 1559 & 1688 and then finally succumbed to its fate as a picturesque ruin in 1768 after its new roof (added in 1758) collapsed. Today the nave looks like it sprang straight out of the romantic imagination of Catherine Morland from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Holyrood Palace Abbey
Holyrood’s aforementioned guesthouse was used as an administrative center and royal residence until the dawn of the 16th century. In 1501, James IV of Scotland built a gothic palace adjacent to the abbey, which was subsequently renovated by his son James V in the renaissance style. The royal apartments from this era still survive and visitors can still see the notorious rooms that were occupied by Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary Stuart James Darnley

Mary, Queen of Scots with her second husband, Lord Darnley

And when I say notorious, I mean notorious. If Mary were alive today, her life would be TMZ fodder. Thrice married, her second husband (and first cousin…ew) brutally murdered her best friend/possible baby daddy in front of Mary in her chambers at Holyrood (look hard and you can still see the blood stains from the 56 stab wounds). This incident understandably led to breach in the marriage, and husband number two was subsequently (allegedly) murdered by future husband number three and Mary. Mary was then abducted and raped by, then forced to marry, husband number three and/or ran away with him depending on which narrative you want to believe. The Scottish people were divided by the marriage and through an unfortunate series of events, Mary was captured and eventually beheaded by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. However, the final dynastic joke was on Elizabeth, since Mary’s son James VI eventually inherited the thrones of both Scotland and England, making her machinations moot. With James’ ascension to the throne of England, the palace at Holyrood became less important since the focus of the court moved to London along with the King. Just some historical background to ponder while you wander the Historic Apartments at Holyrood.
Holyroodhouse Palace
The palace was rebuilt and expanded during the Restoration with a baroque addition. These rooms are now called the State Apartments, and were used in a variety of capacities from the 17th through 20th centuries. They were not used as a royal residence until the late 20th century, when George V modernized the palace with electricity and central heating. Today, Queen Elizabeth spends a week here each summer, holding court for her Scottish subjects. Prince Charles and other assorted royals also summer at Holyrood, which means that the buildings are off limits to visitors so plan accordingly. These rooms are notable for the Great Gallery; which features 110 portraits of the Kings of Scotland. The paintings, which were completed by Jacob de Witt at the behest of James VII & Charles the II, are amusing when viewed en masse, since de Witt supplied the family resemblance by furnishing the monarchs with the same nose.
Holyrood Abbey & Arthur's Seat
If you fancy a stroll after visiting the palace, the grounds of the palace are lovely. If you are in the mood for a hike, strike out into Holyrood Park, which encompasses Arthur’s Seat, dramatic cliffs, another ruined chapel and three lochs.

Know before you go:

Check the website for hours and admission times. The palace is closed when the Queen and her family are in residence.

Bottom line:

Stunning beautiful with a healthy dose of melancholy and a dollop of history. It’s a must see in Edinburgh.

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Last updated: February 28, 2014