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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter V -
The Story of Holyrood


Holyrood Palace and Arthur's Seat

THIS is the miraculous legend that accounts for the foundation of Holyrood. The 14th September 1128 was Holy Rood Day. David I., spite his own piety and the memory of his mother, would a-hunting go. Like William the Conquerer, as bitterly described by the Saxon Chronicle, he loved the tall deer as if he had been their father. His confessor remonstrated with him, but down he went from the Castle, through the glades of the thick forest of Drumsheugh, whose memory is still preserved in the name of Edinburgh’s most aristocratic street. He lost his companions and was confronted by a fierce hart. He was in near danger of his life, and as he prayed in his distress, a miraculous cross was thrust into his hand, at sight whereof the beast turned tail and fled, or was slain according to another version, and David returned to the fortress. That night a celestial vision appeared in his dreams, and bade him lay the foundalion of the Abbey on the place of his extremity, and hence the beginning of a long story. James VI., centuries after, as he stood by his grave, petulantly girded at him for ‘ane sair sanct for the Crown." He was prodigal in precious gifts to the Church. The British Solomon had the trick of words with a tang and point and force of their own that fixed them in men’s minds and keeps them in ours to-day. But David in sport and faith followed the ideal of his own time, and what can even a King do more?

It seems scarce worth while to break this butterfly of a fairy tale on the wheel of historical criticism. The learned have pointed out that many years pass before the legend emerges, though early in the fifteenth century the arms of the Abbey show a stag’s head with a cross between the antlers. The Holy Rood in the new Abbey was in truth the Black Rood of Scotland, which we hear of at St Margaret’s death-bed. It had its own adventures but was finally lost to Scotland in 1346 at Neville’s Cross, where along with King David II. it fell to the English by the fortune of war. They kept it in Durham Cathedral till the Reformation. Then, as things are apt to do in time of trouble, it disappeared and was never beard of again. It were not difficult to rationalize this story. King David was fond of hunting, the wolf and the wild boar were familiar on that savage soil; even the stag had a hard life and was a ferocious brute, and the weapons of chase were far from perfect. David must have been not once or twice only in no small peril. It was an age of miracles, and he may well have put down his safety to the direct agency of Heaven. At all times men have dreamed strange dreams; and there was a confessor at his elbow to improve the occasion. Honestly enough he found all miraculous and yet obvious. The sacred Rood of the pious mother had worked for the life of her dear son. There you have the whole story.

A community of Augustinian canons regular first had its house on the Castle Rock and they were established and endowed in the Abbey. Power was given to those same canons to found a borough between Holyrood and Edinburgh, and so the Canongate rose into being. You must remember that "gate" is really "gait," Scots for a way, just as the Lang Gate—or Gait—was once a road where Princes Street now stands. Still here and there in this same Canongate, and now and again, as trade-mark or sign, you see the cross between the antlers of the stag. Those are the Canongate heraldic bearing, because they were the arms of the foundation whence it had its being. For motto it had Sic itur ad astra. Carlyle spied this motto above the shop of a breeches maker, and because he would not understand, or chose to ignore the obvious explanation, made it the occasion of pungent, caustic and scornful remarks.

Almost as matter of course Holyrood had right of sanctuary. But here one must note a distinction clearly explained by Sir Herbert Maxwell in his admirable little book on the Abbey. The right still exists. If it be useless it is because you don’t, since 1880, imprison for debt in Scotland. If you did—and many Scots traders urge a restoration in modified form of the old law—the immunity would revive unless specially excluded. The first right of sanctuary belonged to the place as a Holy house; the doctrine was rooted fast in the faith and practice of mediaval times. In Scotland it came to an end with the Reformation. In England, eminently the land of lawyers, it was defined with curious precision. There are hundreds of cases thereon in the old law books. It lasted down into quite modern times. All the privileges of Alsatia, whereof you read so much in the Fortunes of Nigel, were founded on it, and under the first George law-makers were still striking at its remnants. But there was another kind of sanctuary; because the place was a Royal Palace and you could not be arrested for debt there. The bounds of the two sanctuaries, to call them so, were not co-extensive; the debtors’ refuge did not include the Canongate, which was within the Monastery precincts; it did the whole of the King’s Park, because this same Park was very plainly part of the Royal demesne attached to the Palace. Scots literature of the last two centuries is full of reference to this debtors’ sanctuary. Sir Walter, in his Introduction to the Chronicles of the Canongate, toys almost lovingly with the congenial topic. These Lairds of the Abbey, as they were humorously called, were under the jurisdiction of an Abbey Bailie (a part once filled by Lord Jeffrey’s father. The Bailie is only now in evidence on the election of Scots representative peers), who held a special court to settle their little differences. These fortunate unfortunates had a privilege within a privilege; o’ Sundays they could not be arrested anywhere, but an they were not in bounds by midnight they were fair game for the catchpoll. You grasp at once a hint of exciting adventures and tricks by one or the other side, a whole library of quaint romance. Just before and after ‘80 entertaining anecdotes on the subject were rife in Edinburgh.

The first "sanctuary man" (to adopt the ancient English phrase) was Fergus, Prince of Galloway, a leader of the old Scots party, who plotted unsuccessfully against David I. Abbot Alwyn received him, dressed him up as a monk and stuck him with the others. Enter David, whom Alwyn implores for a kiss of peace to his monks and a general act of indemnity for their transgressions. David graciously acquiesces, the matter of form is duly ended, and, presto! Fergus throws off his monkish dress, and, secure in his pardon proceeds to strut it with the best. David accepted the pious fraud as legitimate and proper: to that strange age the element of trick seemed irrelevant. Fergus, having escaped this time, rose yet again, again failed, and again sought sanctuary, but now he took the cowl in right earnest.

All the Scots Kings were more or less connected with this great religious house, none more so than James II., called James of the Fiery Face, from the red birth-mark on his cheek. He was born, christened, crowned and buried here, and the place still holds such scanty remains of his dust as have escaped neglect, and that desecration which the intemperate zeal of old Scots life was ready in wild excess to inflict even on what its inmost soul cherished, and here now his Queen, Mary of Gueldres, sleeps with him.

Down to the Reformation thirty-one abbots held sway, but the last of them were mere secular lords. The farce of a "tulchan Bishop," whose name is preserved in a bitter jest of the time (the jests that have come down to us from old Scots life are usually bitter), was here acted on a large scale.

Holyrood inevitably drifted from mere Abbey into Palace. These old religious houses were splendid places, positively and still more relatively to anything else in Scotland. Whatever of wealth or refinement or luxury existed in that rude time was to be found in them. Their sacred character protected them, not always successfully indeed, yet to some extent. It was the obvious place for a Scots King to lodge as he travelled. Thus James I. was at a monastery at Perth when he met with his end. And the castles? The monarch was often at Edinburgh or Stirling, but a fortress was a mark for attack; comfortable housing was not the purpose of its grim walls, and a King, like other folk, loved a change. At Edinburgh, once out of the Castle, whither could he go if not to that splendid foundation that lay close at hand in the valley, and was so bound up with the very existence of his race?

But in time the Prince found that the religious house did not altogether suit Scotland, spite of everything, did progress a little in wealth and culture, and so James IV. was minded to entrust a certain Master Leonard Logy with the building of a palace here. He took some five years to do it, but it was finished in 1503, in time to receive his master’s bride, Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII. This marriage made the Scots monarchs exactly a century afterwards Kings of Great Britain. Had the Scots clearly foreseen this they could not have received the Princess more splendidly. The King met her at Dalkeith; he was the pink of courtesy to her and her train, "and he in especial welcomed the Earl of Surrey very heartily." in ten short years they were to meet again at Flodden. The memory of their procession through Edinburgh long lingered; the Grey Friars met them with relics which they devoutly kissed, the chaplain of St Giles’ hugged himself in conscious superiority as he produced the arm bone of that saint The Cross ran with wine whereof all might drink that would, and no doubt the population, their taste as yet unspoiled by usquebaugh, would and did. And then at the Netherbow there was that strange jumble of classic mythology and sacred history in which the age delighted. There was the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and Justice treading Nero underfoot, and Prudence triumphing over Sardanapalus, and what not? And speedily on the 8th August there was a splendid marriage. There were minstrels from Aberdeen—of all places in the world—but James IV. was the central figure, and foreign envoys record his handsome features, his long flowing hair, his sumptuous attire. Something of a scholar too! He even spoke the "language of the savages"—an unkindly reference to the Gaelic! The stranger has something to say of the amiability of the Scots. The people were for once having a good time and everybody was in good humour.

It was to Holyrood also that James V. brought Magdalene, the May-day bride, the fair Princess of France. When she landed she bent down and kissed the soil of her new country. And you remember how another Scoto-French Princess kissed the sleeping poet, Alain Chartier because his lips had uttered so many beautiful things. By such trifles they still hold our thoughts— a faint, sweet memory! The poor child withered in the cold northern air, and within eight weeks of her arrival she was lying dead and buried in the Abbey Church. James had to seek another bride, and in Mary of Guise found one not unworthy to cope with the iron wills and iron wits of reforming and protestant lords.

In the next reign came those desperate English attempts to possess the little Scots Queen, that "rough wooing" which fared so ill. At Hereford’s invasion, in 1554, the Abbey and Palace were destroyed. It is thought a part of the spoil is still at St Albans. And then again after Pinkie, in 1547, Hertford, now Somerset, picked the bones so to speak, stripped off the leaden roof and took away the church bells. Yet when Mary landed at Leith, on 19th August 1551, in that evil mist which seemed to Knox a sign from Heaven of the plagues that were to blight a distracted land, the damage was already repaired; Holyrood was rebuilt; the church had been pieced together from the fragments of its ruins, and served as parish church of Holyrood parish, with John Craig, the colleague of Knox, as the regular and properly-placed parish minister. To welcome Mary’s arrival there was that strange serenade of Psalm tunes "made by a company of the most honest," says Knox, more concerned with the matter than the manner. Whilst Brantôme, who probably believed with the modem critic that art and morals were two different things, avers her teeth were set on edge at "the vilest fiddles and little rebecs" as bad as they could be, and the psalms chanted "so unholily out of tune." Ah, indeed, "what a lullaby for the night!" Mary’s diplomacy rose to the occasion. "It liked her well," at least so "she alledged," records Knox, a little dubiously; not unnaturally he had his suspicion. But even the critical Brantöme had praise for Holyrood. "It was a fine building, like nothing else in the country." After this little comic interlude, on the very first Sunday, the Mass was interrupted by a tumult. The Master of Lindsay vowed the idolatrous priest should die the death, and the Presence chamber was the scene of interview after interview with John Knox; and she found a man she could not charm, and he found a woman he could not quell, and you see that no issue but tragedy was possible in this clash of contending passions, and creeds, and interests, and ideals.

And then came the fateful year 1565. In February the Queen first saw Darnley, and conceived a sudden passion for the handsome, foolish lad, and when they danced a galliard together a choice couple they must have made. Presently, like birds of ill-omen, Rizzio and Bothwell appear on the scene. On the 29th July of that year she was married to Darnley, and soon the sky grows dark and the storm threatens. But you like to think that Mary had pleasant days during those four years, spite of the harangues of Knox, spite of the moth-like folly of Chastelard, of the execution of young Gordon at Aberdeen, for those folk scarce touched her life.

According to Knox himself there was dancing and flinging of the Queen and her "French fillocks." She had the pleasant company of the famous Queen’s Maries—those four high-bred, handsome and spirited girls, whose history Mrs Maccunn so carefully traces for us in her book on Mary Stuart. As Mrs Maccunn points out, these same "fillocks" occupy an inordinate amount of Knox’s surely limited time. His second wife, by the way, was a "fillock," of the Royal blood too! Martin Luther had never called him a fool, for he also could take his glass of wine. Was there just a suspicion of truth, one wonders, in the scandalous gossip of the priests anent their great adversary? Yet we need not suppose with Swinburne that Knox was consumed by a hopeless passion for the Queen; it was not an age of decadent or complex emotions.

Mary played and sang and even studied—is it not told that after dinner she read Livy with George Buchanan? And she hunted and hawked, and loved to go forth in splendid dress, and liked to hear the people’s "God save you, sweet face," and recked not the bitter remarks of Knox as to the "stinkin’ pryde of women"; nay, it was whispered the Queen wandered in all manner of disguise, sometimes even that of a man, through the streets of her capital at night, and this made "men’s tongues to chatter faste." These were daring frolics. Possibly she longed to get at close quarters with her people, to know at first-hand the life of that little crowded capital of hers. If some skilled observer had but set down for us a faithful record of those wanderings! Alas! that none of the masters of romance has used so profitable a theme. But we know the King and Queen agreed ill from the first Rizzio was thought to have too much influence, and the lords, in their violent, remorseless Scots way, determined to end him, and on the 9th March 1566 the tragedy, horrible in itself, the prelude to still greater horrors, was enacted.

Rizzio was her secretary, her confessor some thought, "an old, crabbed and deformed fellow," but a man of artistic taste, pliant and useful, and Mary was kind to him, as she was to all her servants. The conspirators meant to get him away to try him with the quite certain result of death sentence, but a number of causes—the cowardice of Rizzio, the courage of Mary, the passion of the time—made up a horrible yet intensely dramatic situation. As we stand in that little supper-room, off Mary’s bedchamber, and opening on the secret staircase that leads up from Darnley’s apartments below, we picture it, with its half-dozen inmates, the music, and the song, and the wine, and the laughter and pleasant talk. Who listened then to the drear March wind that wailed and raved on the near hill, or the unsteady step shuffling on the stair? and then Darnley enters, half-tipsy, and a little fearful, with all his bravado, as he kisses the Queen, and behind him is Ruthven, ghastly pale from his sick-bed, but in full armour and with drawn sword. There is no harm to anyone but David, they say, though presently, when Mary tries to call for help, Lindsay threatens to "cut her into collops," and then the room is filled by wild men, with daggers and torches, and the craven Italian crouches behind the Queen and seizes her skirts, and the table is upset, and had not the Countess of Argyll seized the candle as it fell all were darkness. Rizzio was dragged away near the door of the Presence-chamber, and there his captors lost control over themselves. They cut one another in their haste to be at him; fifty-six wounds were counted in the body, and there was the King’s dagger driven up to the hilt, though not by the King himself, that all might know Darnley for an accomplice.

"Rizzio is dead! I have seen his body," so a lady took the news to the Queen. "I will study revenge," said Mary, and then her husband staggered in and asked for a cup of wine, and there were bitter words between the pair.

Rizzio’s body was not allowed to rest; it was thrown downstairs, laid on a chest, and stripped by the porter, who, after the true manner of the baser Scot, was malignantly interested in the ruin of his betters. "This was his destiny," thus he sourly moralized, "for upon this chest was his first bed when he came to this place, and now he lieth a very niggard and unknown knave." Mary almost immediately talked the silly Darnley over. They fled together from the Palace. Fate led them right over Rizzio’s freshly-turned grave, and Darnley was startled into a chance reference. The Queen foretold "that a fatter than he should lie as low ere the year was out."

Damley was presently his companion and neighbour in the grave, for on the 10th February next he lay murdered at Kirk o’ Field.

By May there was another marriage in Holyrood, and that was the Queen and Bothwell. Of what share Mary had in the Kirk o’ Field business I do not here discuss. Of late years the critical battle has gone against her. Mr Andrew Lang scarcely holds up a wavering banner, the most at least think her a passive accomplice. They find so much to say in palliation that her sin might seem almost venial. The Edinburgh folk had no doubts and no excuses. In the deadest of the night wild voices rang round Holyrood and pierced their way to Mary’s ears; the strongest words in that bitter old Scots speech—words that struck worse than stones—were hurled at her. And then someone with a trick of classical quotation — perhaps her old tutor, George Buchanan himself— fixed a particularly cruel line from Ovid on her gate one night, so that when she fled from Holyrood on the 6th June 1567 she was, you fancy, glad to be away. That same month, on the last night she spent in Edinburgh, she was there for an hour or two, and never saw her capital or her palace again.

James VI.’s connection with Holyrood was intimate and familiar: when he grew up he became on close and friendly terms with townsfolk and preachers. He hugely delighted both by describing the service of the English Church as "an ill-mumbled Mass," a phrase the stout Presbyterians of Edinburgh ne’er forgot, though James, whose thoughts under the soothing influence of Episcopal flattery was soon to be far other, had given much to be able to recall it. Like his grandson of the famous epigram, he said wise things though he never did them, save that he and grandson alike had the art of keeping their seats on the throne and their heads on their shoulders; an art in which the Stuarts were now and again singularly lacking. The thorn in King James’s flesh at Holyrood was Francis, Earl of Bothwell, for the title had been re-created. He was supposed to be high in favour with the Queen; he made the maddest raids on Holyrood, to get either at the King or his ministers; alarming enough, though nothing very particular ever came of them, and Bothwell at length fled the country and died in exile. At one on a July morning, in 1593, the King rose in terror from his bed "with his breeks in his hand," so Birrel dryly reports. He adjured Bothwell to do him no harm. "No, my good bairn," was the insolent reply. James was not reassured; he rushed to the Queen’s chamber and found the door locked. Then he remembered he was King, turned on his intruders, and told them to strike if they durst. And of course they durst not, and help comes, and peace is patched up, not before the citizens were pouring in to James’s rescue, for spite occasional quarrels they had a particular though not respectful fondness for Solomon, and King and Queen appear at the window all smiles and bows, and the curtain falls on this roaring comedy—or sorry farce shall we call it, when we think of James "with his breeks in his hand"?

Solomon’s predecessor and successor, his mother and his son, had their fill of sorrow and evil. They knew well every turn of Fortune’s wheel, and they were "sad, bad, glad, mad," and anything else you like, only they were never ridiculous. Time brings on the night of Saturday, 26th March 1603. James was roused and told he was King of England, and in due course and in due state he proceeded south. Once he came back ("like the saumon," as he quaintly phrased it) in May 1617 and was well received, and on the 28th June he departed not to return. His son was not crowned till 1633. He craved the Scots to send the Honours to London that he might be invested there, but they would not hear of it, and Mahomet had to go to the mountain. There were the usual feastings and splendour; Charles touched a hundred people for the King’s evil. He made Edinburgh into a see, and endowed it with the old Abbey lands; he appointed Hamilton, Hereditaiy Keeper of the Palace, and the appointment is still in the family. And then Cromwell and his soldiers came, and on 13th November 1650, by accident or design, the Palace was fired, though by great good fortune James V.’s tower stood fast. Cromwell rebuilt it, but his rebuilding was pulled down, and between 1671 and 1679 the Holyrood we know was constructed. Sir William Bruce of Balcaskie was architect and Robert Mylne the builder, and the Abbey church was decorated as the Chapel Royal, and spiritual provision was made elsewhere for the good folk of the Canongate. On James II.’s succession, nowhere did he set to work to Romanize more thoroughly than at Holyrood. He adapted the chapel for the Catholic ritual; he revived the order of the Knights of the Thistle, and allotted them stalls therein. When Dutch William invaded the Edinburgh mob rose and sacked Holyrood, and in a few minutes spoiled the chapel.

In 1707, the fated year of union, for the last time there was a Riding of the Parliament in Edinburgh, and then Holyrood became twice a place of shadows. The Commissioner comes no longer to the Parliament but to the General Assembly, while that Parliament is shrunk into a meeting of peers, held in the Gallery of Kings to elect representative members. An attempt was made to re-roof the church in 1758, but it was done stupidly; ten years after the whole thing came crashing down. The mob rushed in to view the ruin, the royal tombs were again rifled, and Holyrood entered on its very worst period.

I pass over Prince Charlie for the moment.

The next King was George IV., with Sir Walter Scott as Master of the Ceremonies. It was a wonderful success, and it first brought the Highlands and Highland dress decidedly into fashion. The abode of French exiled Royalties in this house of shadows has a mournful interest. Queen Victoria showed a certain generous courage when she pitched her tent even for a day or two among those possibly hostile ghosts, but the kindly care which she and Prince Albert gave to Holyrood is not the least of the many claims she has to the gratitude of the north.


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