Explore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

19 September 2014
Accessibility help
BBC - History

BBC Homepage

Scottish History
Dark Ages
Early Church
Wars of Independence
Renaissance/ Reformation
Scotland in Europe
The Union
Victorian Scotland
Modern Scotland
History Trails
Media Museum
Web Guide

Contact Us

by topic by time by people

Melrose Abbey - Factsheet
timeline button
tourist guide button
  • Melrose was the first Cistercian abbey in Scotland, founded in 1136 by King David I. Three miles away from the present abbey, Old Melrose had been a monastic settlement since the 7th centuary, founded by St Aedan of Iona, the man who also fouded Lindisfarne. So the foundation of the new abbey reflected continuity within Scotland’s monastic traditions rather than a radical break.

    Melrose Abbey

  • The Melrose monks, being Cistercians or white monks, were one of the new wave of reformed monastic orders, and were founded in 1098 AD at Cîteaux, near Dijon in Burgundy, by a group of Benedictine monks. They were observers of St Benedict’s Rule, and believed that it was being followed in too lax a manner. The Cistercians, who took their name from the Latin for Cîteaux - 'Cistercium' - opted to follow St Benedict’s rule strictly, refusing feudal revenues and reintroducing manual labour for their monks.

  • Effectively this gave the Order an unpaid work force, free of feudal customs. In medieval Europe this was a distinct competitive advantage and allowed them to develop their large estates without obstacles.

  • In the 12th century, around Melrose, they forged ahead implementing new farming techniques and marketing Melrose wool throughout the great trading ports across northern Europe. Their economic success and the attraction of their austere spirituality helped to spread the Cistercian Order throughout Christendom.

  • The Cistercian’s were very popular in Scotland. David I founded four of their houses in Scotland and eleven were established in all before their worldly success led to inevitable decline.

  • One of the most famous Cistercians was St Bernard of Clairvaux, who championed the growing cult of the Virgin and denounced monastic ‘liberals’ who undermined the mysteries of God. The church at Melrose was dedicated to the Virgin Mary on its completion in 1146.

  • In times of famine the Cistercians agricultural success was especially useful. According to the Scotichronicon, the Abbot of Melrose, Waltheof, step son of David I, miraculously fed 4,000 peasants who were camped around the abbey for three months during the famine of 1148, sparing nothing to aid the starving. For such acts Waltheof was revered as a saint and when he died was buried at Melrose. A fragment of his tomb can still be seen at the site.

    ‘ On one occasion when the calamity of famine threatened, a vast crowd of destitute people reckoned to number four thousand gathered at Melrose, and erected huts and tents for themselves in the fields and woods around the monastery to a distance of two miles.’
    Walter Bower's Scotichronicon - quoting from Jocelin’s 'Life of St Waltheof'

    Eildon Hills

  • According to legend, Melrose has a stranger more demonic connection. The 13th century wizard Michael Scott is said to be buried there with his books magic. Through the power of prophecy he is said to have predicted his own death - by a small stone falling on his head. But his greatest work towers over Melrose: the Eildon Hills (pictured right), which he is said to have split into the three peaks we see today.

  • Due to its proximity to the border, Melrose frequently suffered at the hands of invading English armies. In 1322 Edward II desecrated and burnt the abbey. It was rebuilt and endowed by King Robert the Bruce in 1326 only to be destroyed again in 1385 when Richard II of England once more set the abbey ablaze.

  • On Robert the Bruce’s death, his heart was sent on crusade to the Holyland, accompanied by ‘Good Sir James Douglas'. Sir James, confronted by a huge army Moors whilst travelling through Spain with his crusaders, gallantly charged into battle, throwing the Bruce’s heart before him and shouting: 'Lead on brave heart, I'll follow thee.' The heart was disovered the next day amongst the slain bodies by another Scottish Knight, who brought it back to Abbey Melrose, where it was buried.

    Caskets - Old/New

  • Recently, a lead vessel, thought to contain Bruce’s heart, was excavated and examined by archaeologists at Melrose, before it was reinterred (the picture, right, shows the old casket found at Melrose and the new one designed to hold the Bruce's heart). A marker in the Abbey shows where it was re-interred. Its inscription comes from John Barbour’s epic poem ‘The Bruce’ - 'A noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye.'

  • Twenty years before the Reformation there were 130 monks at Melrose, but when Henry VIII had the abbey torched and destroyed once again in 1544 it seems Melrose never recovered. By the Reformation in 1560 only 13 monks were pensioned off, with no doubt a few others taking up posts in the new Protestant church. The abbey ceased to function, and its carvings were smashed by a Protestant mob during the Scottish Civil War which followed the deposition of Mary Queen of Scots. Finally, much of the abbey was carted away by the local people looking for good quality building material.

    more Dryburgh Abbey Factsheet
    more Jedburgh Abbey and Kelso Abbey

  copyright scran
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Web sites.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy