Abbey - Factsheet
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
Scotlands monastic traditions rather than a radical break.
- 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 Benedicts 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 Benedicts rule strictly, refusing feudal revenues
and reintroducing manual labour for their monks.
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 Cistercians
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.
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
‘ 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
Walter Bower's Scotichronicon - quoting from Jocelin’s
'Life of St Waltheof'
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
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.
the Bruces 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 Bruces 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.
a lead vessel, thought to contain Bruces 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 Barbours epic poem The Bruce - 'A
noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye.'
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.
Jedburgh Abbey and Kelso Abbey
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