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Famous Palaces of Europe. Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland

Updated on November 23, 2022
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I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde, a former Edinburgh Tour Guide and resident of the city.


Commonly referred to as Holyrood Palace the official title for the British Queen's residence in Scotland is actually The Palace of Holyroodhouse.

It has lain at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh for over 500 years and is one of the lesser know palaces of the British Monarchy.

Although still used occasionally by the Royal Family as a residence the more frequent visitors are the tourists who come to the capital of Scotland all year round.

But the story of the palace contradicts the calm serenity of its majestic demeanour. Through the centuries it has been neglected, abused and been the scene of grisly deeds. Here is a short history of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The palace has been through turbulent times over the centuries particularly during war and civil strife. Consequently it has been constructed piecemeal on different occasions as well as being damaged and partially destroyed. Therefore the building has a patchwork-like quality although this does not detract from it's impressive appearance. In fact this perhaps adds to the attraction as it provides a visual time-line and reminder of the events that it has undergone.

King David and the angry stag

The word 'Holyrood' was coined from a legendary event said to have taken place in 1128 in the area. When out hunting one day King David I of Scotland encountered an angry stag. He feared for his life. But then a bright shining cross appeared in the air. This frightened the stag and King David was spared.

The name 'Holyrood' therefore means the 'Holy Cross' in tribute to the event. The story however is likely to have been an adaptation of similar events ascribed to the patron saints of hunters, Saint Hupertus and St Eustace. Whatever the truth of the matter King David had an abbey built in the area and by 1133 Holyrood Abbey was completed.

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey
The ruins of Holyrood Abbey | Source

King James IV

Almost four centuries later work began on the palace in 1501 under the auspices of King James IV of Scotland. It was built in anticipation of his marriage to Margaret Tudor and he chose a spectacular setting with the backdrop of the hills and crags nearby.

Included in the building was the 'Lion House' created in 1512 to hold all sorts of exotic creatures from foreign lands.

Tragically James died in 1513 at the disastrous Battle of Flodden along with around 10,000 of his troops fighting the English forces. It was a national trauma for Scotland and led to the building of the Flodden Wall in Edinburgh.

The present North-West Tower of Holyroodhouse was built later for King James V and was completed in 1532. It still stands today looking up towards the Canongate section of the famous Royal Mile.

However not long after completion the fabric of the building was badly damaged in a raid by English forces in 1544 led by the Earl of Hertford. This happened during the 9 Years War which Sir Walter Scott later called 'The War of the Rough Wooing' when King Henry VIII was trying to force a marriage between his son Edward and the young Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots

When she grew older Mary Queen of Scots became, in the 16th century, one of the palaces most famous residents .

She had returned to Scotland in 1561 after living her younger years in France to escape danger.

Her story is a remarkable mixture of Holyrood and Hollywood given the incredible events of that decade.

Uppermost was the brutal killing in 1566 of her personal secretary David Rizzio in the Outer Chamber of the North-West Tower.

His friendship with Mary provoked the murderous ire of her husband Lord Darnley an "aristocratic thug" as described by historian Michael Fry. That night the jealous Darnley with several accomplices attacked Rizzio in front of Mary. The victim was stabbed over 50 times and it was said that his screams resounded around the halls, corridors and towers of the palace. Mary herself was eventually executed in 1587 on the orders of her cousin Queen Elizabeth the First of England.

The North-West Tower
The North-West Tower | Source

The Union of the Crowns

The palace fell out of favour after 1603 due to the Union of the Crowns between Scotland and England.

Mary's son King James VI had lived in Holyrood since 1579.

But then in England Queen Elizabeth died without issue and James was invited to take the throne in London.

He therefore also assumed the title James the First of England and consequently moved his royal court south.

Warfare brought more damage to the palace in 1651 when troops of Oliver Cromwell were billeted there after their victory over the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar the previous year.

However on this occasion the damage was not inflicted through scourge of battle although it was indeed the result of enemy action. The careless soldiers caused an accidental fire which destroyed much of the building.

King Charles and the Master Builders

A major rebuilding took place in the 1670's at the behest of King Charles II after he ascended to the throne. It was undertaken from a plan by William Bruce the Surveyor of Kings Buildings and John Mylne the Kings Master Mason.

The Dutch carpenters Alexander Eizat and Jan Van Santroot were also employed on the renovations. The total cost was £57,000 but despite the expense Charles the 'Merry Monarch' never actually travelled north to view the alterations.

However it bears his hallmark and evidence of the effect that exile in France had on his architectural sensibilities. A South-West Tower was added to balance the frontage. It is similar in design but also noticeably different in texture from the North-West Tower.

Stately and elegant the Palace exudes a strong flavour of the French Renaissance style. Not for nothing is it compared to a sumptuous château of the Loire Valley region.

In 1684 the family of the Duke of Hamilton were granted apartments in the palace as they had become the official keepers of the household in 1646. The Duke was the first to introduce the palace as a visitor attraction when the North-West Tower was opened to paying guests.

Royal guests

Bonnie Prince Charlie enjoyed the hospitality of the palace and stayed for 5 weeks in the autumn of 1745. He held grand balls as evening entertainment and slept in the famous 'Angel Bed' which is on display today. In the 18th century he was leading the Jacobite Rebellion and subsequently marched south as far as Derby in England before his forces retreated north. They were eventually defeated by troops loyal to the Crown at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Foreign royalty stayed at the palace from 1796 to 1803 when the Comte d'Artois was a guest. He had fled the French Revolution as well as his creditors since Holyrood had provided for many years a sanctuary for those in debt. There was also a Royal French presence again from 1830-32 during troubles in the old country.

Nevertheless in later years King George IV was one monarch who was not enamoured by the Palace of Holyroodhouse. On his historic visit to Edinburgh in 1822 he declared the palace uninhabitable. He therefore resided at Dalkeith House although he did hold 'levees' or receptions at Holyrood.

Mary's Bath House
Mary's Bath House | Source

Victoria and Albert

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that in 1850 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert felt compelled to regenerate the palace.

Albert was responsible for the landscaping of the gardens of which there are 10 acres.

The old 16th century Privy Gardens to the north-west side were removed when a new carriageway was created to avoid the nearby slums.

This explains why the charming little building called 'Mary's Bath House' sits alone outwith the walls of the palace. There is no evidence that Mary Queen of Scots ever used it as a bath house and it may have been simply a garden pavilion.

The fountain was installed in the grounds in 1859 at the front of the main entrance. This is a copy of the famous fountain at Linlithgow Palace. It was not to the taste of everyone at the time as 'The Builder' publication in 1860 described it as a "confused and miserable mixture, ugly in outline and puerile in detail'. Seemingly the neo-Gothic extravagance and Renaissance style carvings were deemed too much

Also for aesthetic pleasure the old brewery across the road was enveloped in a pastiche castellated wall. Albert ordered this so that his Queen would gaze out from the windows of the palace at a more regal and fitting vista than an industrial beer factory. The wall still stands today although the brewery has long gone.


The 20th Century

The palace moved into the 20th century under the auspices of George V who ushered in more practical improvements.

Prior to his visit in 1911 central heating and electric lighting was installed to bring it up to date.

Then in the 1920s the palace was finally considered suitable to be given the official designation of the Royal Residence in Scotland.

Ironwork gates and screens were added around the perimeter during this decade as well as a statue of Edward VII in the grounds.

Also outside the palace above the southern gate are statues of a lion and a unicorn. These heraldic symbols represent England and Scotland respectively and have small metal versions of the national flags of each nation above them. The unicorn is a long-standing emblem of Scotland as it was said to possess the virtues of chastity, nobility and freedom.

Queen Elizabeth II

One quirk of the Royal title that dates from the 1603 Union of the Crowns is the double naming of the present monarch. Since her Tudor namesake from the 16th century was never ruler of Scotland the Queen is actually Elizabeth the First of Scotland and the second of England.

She will reside in the palace for at least one week each year usually in June. During that week she will hold investitures in the Great Gallery where Scottish residents will receive their honours. She will also hold audiences with notables including the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. Outside in the grounds a Royal Garden Party is held each year in defiance of the summer weather in Scotland.

The Royal Company of Archers form her ceremonial guard when she visits. This was a duty conferred from 1822 when they provided the guard for King George IV on his historic visit to the city. Passers by to the palace on occasion will see them practising their marksmanship with bows and arrows in the grounds.

The palace is still used today for meetings of the 'Knights of the Order of the Thistle' which was founded in 1687 by King James VII. A chivalric organisation of people recognised for their public office or their contributions to Scottish society. The membership comprises lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses as well as members of the Royal Family

The grand interior

The lavish decoration naturally extends to the interior of the palace. It is a treasure trove of designs and artefacts. There are 14 State apartments in which you will find impressive Baroque friezes with intricate carvings on the ceilings.

In particular the Great Stair where angels are depicted holding the Honours of Scotland. The ornate plasterwork was created by John Houlbert, Thomas Alborn and George Dunsterfield who were craftsmen from England. You will also discover a superb collection of grand tapestries on the walls of the apartments.

The Kings Antechamber
The Kings Antechamber

Holyroodhouse contains one of the finest collection of tapestries anywhere in the UK although they have become faded over time.

They were manufactured in Paris, Brussels and Flanders and date from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Sadly the vegetable dye used to produce their original vivid colours could not withstand the centuries. However Conservationists in the palace diligently maintain the fabrics.

Aside from the collection of grand wall tapestries there is also a small piece of embroidery by the tragic Mary Queen of Scots herself. This intricate needlework was a normal pastime for ladies in the higher classes of nobility and royalty.

You will also find a perfume pomander which belonged to her and the Darnley jewel. The connection with her infamous husband was through his mother as it belonged to her in the 16th century. It was subsequently purchased by Queen Victoria in 1842.

These items are housed within the Outer Chambers where you will also find an oak-panelled oratory. This is where Mary prayed and the the ceiling is decorated with a St Andrews Cross in homage to the patron saint of Scotland. The Supper Room contains embroidered panels also created by Mary Queen of Scots.

Dutch artist Jacob de Wit was commissioned to paint a series of portraits of every monarch that had sat on the throne of Scotland. Some of the old Kings are actually legends from folklore. Whether real or mythic each of the royal figures are depicted in 110 paintings hanging in the Great Gallery.

The Great Gallery with the portraits of Scottish Kings by Jacob de Wett
The Great Gallery with the portraits of Scottish Kings by Jacob de Wett | Source

With the building a new Scottish Parliament in 2005 just across the road the Palace of Holyroodhouse has enjoyed the benefits of a regeneration of the area. Long gone is the industrial grime of the breweries and gasworks that dominated the area.

The slums of the Victorian era have gradually disappeared and the housing in the Holyrood area is much improved. New build has taken place, new businesses established and the status of the Holyrood area of Edinburgh is probably at the highest it has ever been.

For visitors the Palace is open 7 days a week although it will close when it is being used for official duties and ceremonies. There is a fee for entry into the grounds which provides visitors with a recorded audio tour of the building. Guided tours can also be available. Next to the palace there is also The Queens Gallery, a museum which houses art exhibits from the Royal Collection.


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