Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (1)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (2)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (3)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (4)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (5)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (6)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (7)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (8)
Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland (9)
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Harrowing history and impressive design of Scotland’s British Royal residence

Queen Elizabeth II’s last grand Scottish procession

On 8 September, the death of Queen Elizabeth II marked the end of the modern Elizabethan age. A monolith of living memory, Elizabeth’s 70-year reign marks her as the longest-ruling British monarch. Alongside countless successful tours to various countries, Elizabeth’s rule spanned 14 American presidents, 15 prime ministers, 30 corgis and dorgis, and the first televised coronation of a British royal. Passing away in her private Scottish estate Balmoral Castle, protocol dictated that as she had died in Scotland, one last grand procession would take place in Edinburgh’s royal residence – the Palace of Holyroodhouse – before final rites were conducted in London. More than a marvellous example of British architecture, Holyroodhouse’s over 500 years of history is entrenched with tales of marriages, treacheries, rebellions, and murder.

The name began with a 10th-century royal hunting trip

The story begins in 1128 on a royal hunting trip. Riding beneath the ancient volcano known as Arthur’s Seat, King David I of Scotland received a vision of a stag with a glowing cross set between its antlers. Interpreting this as a message from God, he had an Augustinian abbey built where he saw the apparition. The site was dedicated to the Holy Rood (hence its name).

From Abbey to Palace

Many generations later, David’s descendent, James IV of Scotland, commissioned a new Gothic palace adjacent to the abbey. During its construction, James married Margaret Tudor, daughter of the English king Henry VII, in 1503. Referred to as “the union of the thistle and the rose”, their marriage united Scotland and England. Nothing survives of James IV’s palace, which had been laid out in a style that echoed the abbey buildings. However, his son James V added a fortified tower that stands to this day.

Catholic Queen ruling a Protestant Scotland

Decades later in 1542, James V’s daughter, Mary, inherited the Scottish throne at only six days old. Initially engaged to her cousin, the English Prince Edward, their arrangement fell through due to Scottish uproar at Henry VIII’s cessation of English ties to the Roman church. And so, Mary went to France, married King Francis II and briefly served as the Queen of France until her husband died in 1560. The following year, the Catholic Mary returned to Scotland. Religious reforms led by John Knox meant Scotland had transformed into a Protestant country. While Mary saw initial success with the help of her advisers, her disastrous second marriage to her cousin, Lord Henry Darnley, resulted in misfortune.

2 Murders and the fall of Queen Mary

Besides being intensely ambitious and unpleasant, Darnley was easily manipulated by Mary’s enemies. It did not help that he was bitterly jealous of his wife’s relationship with her Italian secretary David Rizzio. On 9 March 1566 Darnley led a group of co-conspirators and assassinated Rizzio. Mary and Darnley’s relationship never recovered from this brutal act.

Though she produced their son James that summer, Darnley was murdered the following February; many believed Mary had a hand in the act. Adding fuel to the fire, only 3 months after her first husband’s death, the Scottish queen remarried the Earl of Bothwell, who was generally believed to be Darnley’s murderer. This sealed her fate. Her advisers turned on her, and Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her son, who became James VI, Scotland’s first Protestant king.

Holyroodhouse was Oliver Cromwell’s troop base

During the civil war led by Oliver Cromwell, Holyroodhouse was occupied by the commander’s troops. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, James VI’s grandson, Charles II, was keen to assert Edinburgh’s place as a centre of royal government. The Scottish privy council ordered the renovation of Holyroodhouse in the style of seventeenth-century courts. Designed by Scottish architect Sir William Bruce, the new palace incorporated a processional route through the king’s apartments. The now King Charles appointed his brother James, Duke of York, to the role of Scottish high commissioner. As a Roman Catholic, many in England were suspicious of James. In 1679 and 1680, James resided at Holyroodhouse with his second wife, Mary of Modena. He succeeded his brother in 1685, becoming James VII of Scotland and James II of England.

Holyroodhouse in the 20th Century

Two centuries later, King George VI and his niece, the future Queen Victoria, came to Edinburgh and prompted new interest in Scotland. Victoria fell in love with the northern region, purchasing Balmoral Castle as a private family estate. Holyroodhouse’s location made it a convenient resting point for the royal family between trips to Balmoral. As such, the palace was restored to its position as Scotland’s foremost royal residence. In 1850, Holyroodhouse was completely renovated; plasterwork ceilings were cleaned and repainted in rich colours to complement the panelling and tapestries. Additional furnishings were sent from Buckingham Palace. Sixty-one years later, central heating and electric lighting were installed for King George V’s first visit to Holyroodhouse with his wife, Queen Mary. Several renovations after World War II included new bedrooms, a lift and modern kitchens. Thereafter, Holyroodhouse started being regularly used for garden parties and ceremonies. In 2002, the Queen’s Gallery in Holyroodhouse opened to the public to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee.

When not hosting engagements, state visits or events for Scottish organisations associated with the royal family, Holyroodhouse Palace is open to the public. Having played its part in the end of the modern Elizabethan age, time will tell what will come of Holyroodhouse’s fate — whether there are more dramatic affairs ahead, or if it is to stand as a reminder of the history between two countries that have since come together to form the United Kingdom.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn