Edinburgh Canongate Parish Church / Holyrood Abbey

Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave north flank

Summary description

The parishioners were housed in the nave of the Augustinian abbey church of Holyrood after its foundation in 1128, which survives as a partial shell. A new church was built on a different site in 1689-90 when James VII and II refitted the nave for Catholic worship and as the chapel of the Order of the Thistle.

Historical outline

Dedication: Our Lady

Parochial rights over the lands that came to form the parish of Canongate had probably been attached to the abbey of Holyrood since its foundation in 1128.  All parish income from these lands was certainly in the abbey’s hands from 1240, when Bishop David de Bernham confirmed the canons’ possession of all their churches, teinds, rents and possessions, including in the church of Holyrood itself.(1)

Specific reference to the parochial altar of St Mary in the abbey church first occurs in a surviving source dated 1 December 1423, when John of Inverkeithing, canon of Holyrood and secretary of King James I, endowed a chaplainry there with an annual rent from properties in the Canongate.(2)  The altar, which would have been located probably in the north aisle of the nave where it could be accessed most easily through the north-west porch by the parishioners, was presumably served by one of the canons of the convent and remained the revenues remained annexed in full to the abbey at the Reformation.


1. Liber Cartarum Sancte Crucis (Bannatyne Club, 1840), no.76.

2. Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, ii, 1424-1513, ed J Balfour Paul (Edinburgh, 1883), no.60 [confirmed under the Great Seal, 1 September 1426].

Architectural description

The parishioners of the burgh of Canongate were accommodated within the nave of the Augustinian abbey of Holyrood from the beginning.(1) It was eventually removed from the nave in 1687, when James VII and II adapted the nave as a chapel royal for Catholic worship and as the spiritual home of the newly energised chivalric Order of the Thistle. The new building was built in 1689-90 by James Smith.(2)

Located not far from one of the most important of the Scottish kingdom’s royal residences, Edinburgh Castle, the first church at Holyrood was one of the earliest of the new ecclesiastical buildings to be started David I, being founded in or about 1128, with the first colony of canons drawn from Merton Priory in Surrey.(3) David had personal connections with Merton, whose first canons in 1114 had gone from Huntingdon, of which David was earl by virtue of his wife, and the first abbot of Holyrood, Alwin, had earlier been the king’s chaplain.

Excavations at Holyrood in 1911 indicated that the church laid out around 1128 was little more than half the length of its successor, and had an aisle-less cruciform plan, probably with a single chapel on the east side of each transept.(4) Excavation of the church at Merton in 1921–22 and 1986–88(5) revealed a very similar plan for the first church there, suggesting that Holyrood followed the arrangements of its mother house.

Very little is known about the architecture associated with that plan at Merton, but at Holyrood the processional doorway from the nave into the cloister was retained in the later church. The two orders of the arch are decorated with simple chevron, and are framed by a hood-moulding with billet decoration; the outer order was supported by nook shafts with scalloped capitals. This is a variant on what was to be a fairly standard theme, and another permutation on its constituent parts is to be seen in the chancel arch of Edinburgh Castle Chapel, which was presumably also built under David’s patronage.(6) In that case there are two orders of nook shafts, and the hood-moulding is of a lozenge pattern.

In the late twelfth century the decision was taken to replace the small aisle-less cruciform church of David I’s foundation by a building on an altogether more royal scale.(7) Reconstruction to this end must have been started around the 1190s, but of this new church, only parts of the nave still stand to any height, the eastern arm and transepts having been demolished in 1570, and the nave vault collapsing in 1758.

The first phase of work evidently started outside the area of the existing church, on the side away from the cloister, and involved construction of the lower walling of the north nave aisle. Internally this is decorated with intersecting arcading, the nail-head-interspersed mouldings of which are set out on a single plane, apart from the hood-mouldings, creating a two-dimensional appearance that gives the intersections something of the appearance of railway points. At the west end of the aisle, however, the last arch is single and pointed, in a foretaste of later phases of work.

The arcading is carried on six cylindrical en délit shafts in each bay, and the capitals are predominantly of water-leaf and crocket forms, but they also incorporate some simple stiff-leaf sprigs. The westernmost capital to the single pointed arch has more fully expressed stiff-leaf, confirming that it does indeed belong to the latest part of this first phase. The bay divisions are marked by responds in the form of triplet wall shafts, the central shaft being keeled, with the cylindrical side shafts en délit.

In the second phase of work, which probably took place around the turn of the century, the outer north aisle wall was raised to full height, and the lower parts of the west front and the two west towers were probably also built. Of the capitals to the wall shafts, many have fleshy ribbed leaf forms, the edges of the leaves being emphasised by a roll-like rib, and they terminate in water-leaf upward curves or stiff-leaf sprigs, with smaller sprigs between.

Other capitals have purely stiff-leaf sprays, which in one case cling tightly to the bell of the capital in two parallel bands. The abaci of the capitals are deeply moulded and closely follow the curves and keels of the shafts below. The en délit nook shafts that frame the single lancet window of each bay have capitals that show a similar repertory of forms as the wall shaft capitals, but that spread sideways to interconnect the broadly splayed rear-arch and the wall face.

Related capitals are to be found on the lower storey of the north-west tower, the only survivor of the two towers that originally framed the west front; its southern counterpart was first subsumed within the adjacent palace, but was later destroyed. The surviving tower, which is unbuttressed and was probably never intended to rise to a great height, connects with the north nave aisle only at its south-east corner; it extends both laterally and westwards from the west front.

When seen together with that front, the two towers would have created simultaneously a widely spreading front and a deeply inset entrance area.(8) Although parallels might be sought in the screen front of such as Wells Cathedral in Somerset, where the towers are set beyond the aisles on each side, the impression intended there was very much more two-dimensional, with the emphasis on the unified breadth of the front as a screen for a display of statuary.

There is a diminutive parallel for the more three-dimensional projection of the Holyrood towers in the positioning of the stair turrets at Lindisfarne Priory in Northumberland, though the difference of scale there creates an altogether different impact. Essentially, what is seen at Holyrood is unique within the British Isles, and the closest parallels are to be found in a small number of entrance fronts across Continental Europe. Amongst examples of the churches that show some similarity of arrangement are the cathedrals of Santiago de Compostella in Spain, Poitiers in France and Cefalù in Sicily; but it is difficult to imagine that any of these could have had any direct impact on Holyrood.

Externally, the lowest storey of the tower and of the wall flanking the doorway at Holyrood are decorated with a band of cusped blind arches carried on coursed triplet shafts, which terminate in capitals similar to those of the upper level of the north nave aisle. Decorating the spandrels of the arches are heads within roundels, which have the appearance of sixteenth-century or later insertions. Above this is a second tier of arcading, in which the arches are grouped into pairs within embracing arches, the spandrels of which are decorated with quatrefoils giving an appearance like that of plate tracery.

The principal focus of the front is the great west doorway, which, despite being not quite central to the front, is arguably the most impressive of its kind to have been built in Scotland. The angled jambs were the foil to ten en délit shafts of alternating large and small scale, which step backwards and forwards, while the capitals are decorated with stiff-leaf foliage and paired birds.

It is likely that there was originally a trumeau at the centre of the opening, as there was later to be at Elgin and Glasgow Cathedrals, and that this was lost in the alterations made in advance of Charles I’s Scottish coronation in 1633. A reference to those changes survives in the timber lintel carved with Charles’s cipher that is supported by lion corbels. If the band of winged angel heads above it is a re-set portion of the medieval doorway – and that is by no means certain – the way in which it is so clearly designed in two parts could suggest that they had served as a pair of lintels on each side of the trumeau.

The main field of the tympanum has an echelon grouping of five blind arches carried on triplet shafts with deeply undercut stiff-leaf capitals, an essentially architectural rather than sculptural treatment that foreshadows the mid-century work on the west doorway at Glasgow Cathedral. The voussoirs of the orders framing the tympanum were even more deeply undercut, and this has unfortunately led to the loss of much of the detailing of the outer orders; only two of the innermost orders still have the lavishly carved pyramids or roundels of interlocking foliage that once decorated all of the orders. 

Once work had been completed on the north aisle wall and lower parts of the west front, the nave of the early church – apart from the retained doorway into the cloister – would have had to be demolished before work could be taken further. Construction then moved on to the outer wall of the south aisle, which ran alongside the cloister, followed soon after by the arcade piers. This phase can probably be dated to the second decade of the thirteenth century.

The aisle wall was evidently started before the arcade piers, since its wall shafts have a slightly earlier water-holding base type, in which the lower roll is less fully rounded. Despite such minor differences, similarities between some of the capitals of the south aisle wall and those of the arcade piers make clear that there can have been no great gap of time separating their construction.

The lower part of the south wall has blind arcading of five pointed arches carried on en-délit shafts both internally and externally to each bay. The external arcading, which faced into the north cloister walk, is embraced in each bay by the wall rib of the vaulting that was planned for the cloister walks, but that may have been removed at a later stage.

The capitals of the arcading, which have rounded abaci, show a range of forms, suggesting that several masons were involved. These vary from rather formulaic heart-shaped groupings of leaves, through tight clusters of stiff-leaf which barely leave the safety of the underlying bell, to deeply undercut wind-swept growths of stiff-leaf that have, inevitably, suffered the greatest damage. The wall shafts that define the bays are substantial, and show a continuing loyalty to the type of respond with a leading shaft on a pilaster which is flanked by three-quarter shafts. But in this case the visual weight of the underlying pilaster is mitigated by having rounded corners, albeit at capital level those corners are treated rather illogically as if they were shafts, and have their own foliage, which grows into that of the adjacent capitals.

When work started on the arcade piers, they were given a compound form, having a stepped core with engaged shafts in the re-entrant angles and on the leading faces. The initial appearance this presents is rather like that of one type of Romanesque pier, as employed around the second quarter of the twelfth century beneath the towers of Dunfermline and Kelso Abbeys, for example, and that had been widely used in the arcades of English Romanesque churches. But at Holyrood the cross section of the piers is regularised across both axes, and there is a slenderness to the shafts that is clearly not Romanesque in spirit.(9) Beyond that, there is nothing of the way in which, in many Romanesque compound piers, the stepped core appears to express the residue of the wall at arcade level, with the shafts being related to the various supported elements.

Here it should perhaps be remembered that compound piers were to be given a renewed lease of life in the arcades of Rayonnant France, possibly starting with the new works at the abbey of Saint-Denis that were to be initiated in 1231, where the choice of pier type was presumably at least partly because of the potential it offered for integration with the design as a whole through the extension of the leading shafts into the upper storeys.(10)

However, there appears to have been no intention of using these piers to interlink the storeys at Holyrood. Although wall shafts do rise through the upper storeys, the piers are entirely self-contained, with the capitals running unbroken above them in a way that permitted no upward continuity of the piers’ leading shafts. Variants on piers of this kind were to be employed at a number of major Scottish buildings in the course of the thirteenth century, at a time when many of the leading English masons – and perhaps most notably those at Lincoln Cathedral – were instead choosing to explore daring ways of reducing the apparent mass of piers.

This could be another of the indications that patrons and masons north of the border were increasingly willing to work out their own solutions, while still taking those ideas they wanted from buildings they admired. Here, it is therefore particularly noteworthy that, when work on the upper storeys of Holyrood was started, possibly by a new master mason, he was to follow the lead of one English building quite closely, and, despite the fact that the arcade piers there were so very different, that model was Lincoln Cathedral.

Holyrood’s upper storeys, which were probably under construction in the years around 1220, represent one of the most accomplished designs to be executed in thirteenth-century Scotland. The bay divisions are clearly marked by triplets of shafts resting on bases on the arcade pier abaci, and these rise to capitals a little below the clearstorey string course. Although the clearstorey itself was almost completely lost in the collapse of 1768, it can be seen from the provision of intermediate fluted shafts at the bay centres, and from the form of the wall ribs against the west wall, that the central vessel of the nave was covered by sexpartite vaulting, the intermediate springers rising from a higher point than the principal springers at the bay divisions.

High vaulting was costly, and was seldom attempted in Scottish churches of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the chief known exceptions being the choirs of St Andrews Cathedral and Dundrennan Abbey; it was also planned at the north transept at the latter, though the idea was soon abandoned. To vault the liturgically less important space of the nave at Holrood was thus particularly unusual in thirteenth century Scotland. It might be added that vaulting was soon also to be inserted over both the choir and nave of Kirkwall Cathedral, though the Northern Isles were not at this time a part of the Scottish kingdom.

At triforium level at Holyrood there are two pairs of arches to each bay, each pair being embraced within a single arch. The pairs of arches have alternating pointed and trifoliate heads and, most unusually, they are contained within super-arches that reflect the curves of the embracing arches; the tympana within the embracing arches are pierced by trefoils or quatrefoils.

All of these details, together with the use of sexpartite vaulting, leave little doubt that the main stimulus for the design came from St Hugh’s choir at Lincoln Cathedral, which was started in 1192, and in particular from the great transepts there, which would have been nearing completion a little before work reached this stage at Holyrood.(11) Lincoln also offers parallels for the fluted shafts in the middle of the bays.

The upper parts of the west front would have been completed along with those of the nave’s central vessel. There are many unanswered questions relating to its original design, since it has been heavily remodelled on at least one, and possibly on two occasions. It was evidently lit by two tiers of two windows, the rear arches of the upper windows fitting within the vault wall ribs, and there was an outer unglazed screen of mullions and arches, with a passage between it and the windows themselves.

There was, in addition, a second internal passage at a slightly lower level, with an arcaded balustrade towards the nave. Seen in combination with the pair of projecting towers and the deeply recessed doorway, this tracery screen must have been an altogether extraordinary feature, and the fascinating interplay of planes is best understood as the most developed expression of the emerging interest in subtleties of this kind seen a little earlier in the syncopated decorative arcading across the towers at Arbroath Abbey and in the counterpoint between the screen and pulpitum arcades at Inchcolm Priory. It is tempting to wonder if there could be significance in the fact that Abbot Walter of Holyrood (1210-c.18) had earlier been prior of Inchcolm, from an uncertain date in the 1170s until his election to Holyrood.(12)

The relatively poor state of survival of the nave means that works carried out in the second half of the fifteenth century have left only partial traces. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the main requirement behind what was done was to provide additional support for the thirteenth-century sexpartite vaulting over the central vessel of the nave. The heraldic evidence shows that Abbot Archibald Crawford (1450–84) augmented building of the buttresses along the north aisle, while on the south side of the nave he built new buttresses on the outer side of the cloister walk.

From the enlarged northern buttresses a single tier of flyers can be seen to have been constructed to support the clearstorey wall; on the south side two tiers of flyers were needed, one – which still partly survives – rising over the cloister walk, and the other extending up to the clearstorey. The work was completed when, according to John Bellenden’s edition of Hector Boece’s history, Abbot Robert Bellenden (1484–1500) re-leaded the roof.

In the course of Crawford’s work the opportunity was taken to introduce other changes. In the second bay of the north aisle a new doorway was created, framed by a miniature buttress on each side. Its round arch is supported by engaged shafts and the hood moulding is given a high ogee flip, on each side of which are ranks of shallow tabernacles.

Crawford was also responsible for the installation of a new stone screen at the east end of the north nave aisle, a particularly rare survival, and one suspects that this was just one part of a wider liturgical re-ordering of which no other traces now remain. The lintelled doorway at the centre of the screen is flanked by a blind cusped arch, and running above that level is a band of triangular-headed tabernacle work.

The plan of the eastern parts of the abbey church is known through the excavations of 1911, which revealed that the choir was of six bays projecting from transepts with a two-bay chapel aisle on the east side of each. At some stage an outer aisle had been added along at least three bays of the south side of the choir.

The abbey was badly damaged in an attack by the Earl of Hertford in 1544,(13) and also in a later attack of 1547. In about 1570 the commendator, Bishop Adam Bothwell of Orkney was allowed to demolish the eastern parts, which were no longer in use for worship.(14)

As already touched upon, repairs were made for the Scottish coronation of Charles I in 1633, which included the insertion of the great reticulated window in the west crossing arch, and modifications to the west door to allow Charles to be carried into the church in due state. Further changes were necessitated in the course of constructing the adjacent new palace for Charles II in 1672-9, which impinged on the south-west corner of the church.

Great damage was caused by the infuriated Edinburgh mob in 1688, in response to the fitting out of the interior for Catholic worship. But the most devastating damage resulted from an intervention in 1758, when stone slabs were placed over the extrados of the nave vault; as a consequence in 1768 the vault collapsed, leaving the nave in much the state now seen.


1. Ian B. Cowan and David E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, Scotland, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1976, p. 26.

2. Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 4th ed., New Haven and London, 2008, p. 952.

3. Chronicle of Holyrood, ed. M.O. Anderson (Scottish History Society), 1938, pp. 116, 128; Chronicle of  Melrose, ed. A.O. Anderson et al, London, 1936, p. 32.

4. W.T. Oldrieve, ‘Recent excavations and researches at Holyrood’, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, vol. 4, 1911, pp. 191–94.

5. D. Saxby and P. Miller, (eds), The Augustinian Priory of St Mary Merton, Surrey. Excavations 1976–1990, (Museum of London Archaeological Services, monograph no 34), London, 2007.

6. David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross, The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1896–7, vol. 1, pp. 224–30; Eric Fernie, ‘Early Church Architecture in Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 116, 1986; Iain MacIvor, Edinburgh Castle, London, 1993, pp. 28–31.

7. Accounts of the abbey church include: MacGibbon and Ross 1896–7, vol. 2, pp. 53–73; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1951, pp. 129–44; Christopher Wilson in John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker, The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, Harmondsworth, 1984, pp. 130–41. The present account is based on that by Richard Fawcett in the Architecture of the Scottish Medieval Church, New Haven and London, 2011.

8. J. Philip McAleer, ‘A Unique Façade in Great Britain, the West Front of Holyrood Abbey’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 115, 1985, pp. 263-75.

9. Lawrence Hoey, ‘Pier design in Early Gothic Architecture in East-Central Scotland’, in John Higgitt, ed, medieval Art and Architecture in the Diocese of St Andrews (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions for the year 1986), Leeds,1994, 84-98.

10. Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, Die gotische Architectktur in Frankreich 1130–1270, Munich, rev. ed. 1995, pp. 384–93.

11. Peter Kidson, ‘St Hugh’s Choir’, in T.A.  Heslop and V.A. Sekules (eds), Medieval art and architecture at Lincoln Cathedral (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions VIII), Leeds, 1986, pp. 29–42.

12. D.E.R. Watt and N.F. Shead, eds, The Heads of Religious Houses in Scotland from Twelfth to Sixteenth Centuries (Scottish Record Society), 2001, pp. 92 and 105

13. Letters and papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. J.S. Brewer et al, London, 1864-1932, vol 19 pt. 1, nos533 and 534.

14. Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland from the Year MDLX, ed. Alexander Peterkin, Edinburgh, 1839,pp. 163 and 167.



Click on any thumbnail to open the image gallery and slideshow.

  • 1. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave north flank

  • 2. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave from north

  • 3. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave, from north east

  • 4. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave, from south east

  • 5. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave, from south

  • 6. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, south flank (Maitland, 1753)

  • 7. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave west door, arch

  • 8. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave west door, south caps

  • 9. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave west door, tympanum and lintel

  • 10. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave, south-east door

  • 11. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, north door arch

  • 12. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, north door cap

  • 13. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, west front

  • 14. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, west front arcading

  • 15. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, nave north flank, junction of base courses

  • 16. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, west front, arcading cap 2

  • 17. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, west front, arcading cap, 1

  • 18. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, exterior, west front, centre

  • 19. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle arcading, cap 1

  • 20. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle arcading, cap 4

  • 21. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle arcading, cap 5

  • 22. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle arcading, cap 6

  • 23. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle screen from east

  • 24. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle screen from west

  • 25. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle arcading, cap 2

  • 26. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle wall

  • 27. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle wall shaft, cap 1

  • 28. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle wall shaft, cap 2

  • 29. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle wall shaft, cap 3

  • 30. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle wall shaft, cap 4

  • 31. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, south nave aisle arcading cap, 1

  • 32. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, south nave aisle arcading cap, 3

  • 33. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, south nave aisle arcading cap, 4

  • 34. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, south nave aisle arcading cap, west cap

  • 35. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle arcading, cap 3

  • 36. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, west front

  • 37. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, west respond north nave arcade

  • 38. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior,nave north aisle, window rear arch cap

  • 39. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, nave south arcade wall

  • 40. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood Abbey, interior, nave north aisle bay

  • 41. Edinburgh Canongate, Holyrood, plan

  • 42. Edinburgh Canongate Church, exterior, from north west

  • 43. Edinburgh Canongate Church, exterior, from south east

  • 44. Edinburgh Canongate Church, interior, 1

  • 45. Edinburgh Canongate Church, interior, 2

  • 46. Edinburgh Canongate Church, interior, 3