Melrose Abbey - History and Facts | History Hit

Melrose Abbey

Melrose, Scotland, United Kingdom

Peta Stamper

26 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Melrose Abbey

Founded in 1136 by David I, Melrose Abbey was the first Cistercian abbey in Scotland. Situated along the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders, the abbey was home to 450 years of monastic life until falling into ruin after the 16th century.

Today, only part of the abbey’s church survives and is open to the public. Melrose Abbey is also the starting of the 100km St Cuthbert’s Way to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

Melrose Abbey history

The Cistercian monks, who came from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, were attracted to Melrose’s fertile river land with strong associations with saints Aiden and Cuthbert, to whom earlier monasteries on the site were dedicated. Melrose Abbey was one of many abbeys set up by David I in the Borders to demonstrate his piety and dominance over this contested territory.

Throughout the 12th century, the Cistercians started new farming technologies and sold Melrose wool in northern Europe. As they prospered, a town grew around the abbey, then home to 100 monks. Waltheof of Melrose, King David’s stepson, became abbot of Melrose between 1148 and 1159 and gave the abbey a reputation for sanctity and learning. His tomb later became the focus of pilgrimage.

Melrose Abbey was also on the road north from Edinburgh, leaving it susceptible to attack. In 1322, Edward II attacked the town and damaged the abbey which was later rebuilt by order of King Robert the Bruce. Robert’s heart is said to be buried in the church, brought back from crusade in 1330 or 1331 and discovered in 1996.

Again, the abbey suffered damage under Richard II of England, still unfinished when King James IV visited in 1504. During the 1540s as Henry VIII tried to force the marriage of his son Edward to Mary, Queen of Scots, the abbey was destroyed and ceased to be a working monastery. The last abbot was James Stuart, illegitimate son of James V (Mary’s father).

Oliver Cromwell also bombarded the abbey during the Civil War but did not prevent part of its remains being later used as a parish church until 1810 when a new church was built. Sir Walter Scott oversaw the restoration of the ruins now seen today.

Melrose Abbey today

Today, a large portion of Melrose Abbey’s 14th century church remains, although you will have to use some imagination to see the rest of the abbey, guided by the outlines on the ground. Looking up, visitors can see icons nestled in niches on top of the church roof alongside gargoyles and weather-beaten stone.

Whilst wandering about, look for the marker of Robert the Bruce’s buried heart in the chapter house, discovered and reburied during the 1990s. Standard admission costs £6 and the abbey is open daily between 10am and 4pm.

Getting to Melrose Abbey

Driving to Melrose Abbey from Edinburgh takes around an hour and 10 minutes – take the A68 until Leaderfoot, then turn right onto Main Street. There is parking 75 metres away or on the road. From Edinburgh you can also get the train to Tweedbank and get the Jedburgh bus to the abbey.

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