If you’re fascinated by scandalous tales of murder, centuries of history, and a somewhat mythical origin story, then the story of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey is for you.
During Tiqets’ Awakening Week we got to rub shoulders with royalty – okay, there were a few degrees of separation, but we were close! Deborah Clarke, Senior Curator, and Sutherland Forsyth, Learning Curator, of the Palace of Holyroodhouse guided us through the history of Scotland’s royal residence during Tiqets Awakening Week. Intrigued by the Palace of Holyroodhouse’s epic 900-year history, we had to find out more and Deborah was happy to give us her insider’s guide to this royal residence.
After the interview, you’ll find some must know tips for your own visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey, the home of Scottish royal history.
Meet your insider: Deborah Clarke
1. What do you love most about your role at the Palace of Holyroodhouse?
I love being able to handle original works of art and get that sense that someone from history has also handled that particular object. For example, the Darnley Jewel is one of the most important jewels in the Royal Collection and it is very special to handle it and think about who might have worn it. I also love researching the history of the palace. I have been in my role for 18 years but there is always something new to find out – this is what makes it so fascinating.
I also really enjoy having the opportunity to redisplay different artefacts (we did this with some of the artefacts in Mary, Queen of Scots’ antechamber). Taking that time to reconsider how to display something is a real opportunity to think about what you want to put on display and how best to display it. It also offers the opportunity to handle some of the more delicate pieces, and that’s really interesting.
2. What are some of the more interesting stories you’ve come across lately at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey?
We had some things on display in Mary, Queen of Scots’ antechamber that we put away for a while to make sure they’re well conserved, the embroidery of a cat being one such item. When we decided to redisplay it, we had the opportunity to show it from a new angle to give visitors more of it to see. One of the things I like about this piece is that it shows what a skilled embroiderer Mary was! We did this with the Darnley jewel as well, we now showcase it in a way that allows visitors to see both the back and the front.
3. You probably don’t have everything on display, how do you decide what to include in the collection?
Holyroodhouse isn’t a museum, we don’t have rows and rows of display cases, so we have to think “What tells the Holyrood Story?” We’re not just displaying a collection of objects, we really have to think about how things are presented. If a certain artefact doesn’t form part of the story we’re telling, we have to think carefully about if and how we can display it.
Another consideration to take into account is condition: there are some things we can have on display for say six months, and then that object or artwork might need some conserving, or a break from the light – the cat embroidery for example needs some time to rest in the dark now and again. Low light levels are really important to maintaining various artworks and objects, even if it means visitors needing to adjust to slightly darker rooms.
4. Which palace resident would you most like to meet, and why?
That’s a tough one, it’s really hard to choose… I think I’d have to say Mary, Queen of Scots. She led such a dramatic life, and beyond wanting to meet her I would love to see the palace as it was all those centuries ago.
5. When you’re telling the story of the Palace and its list of famous residents, how do you decide who you want to focus on?
It’s tricky… it’s something we’re always asking ourselves! With centuries of history behind it, there are so many stories to tell, and you want to tell them all, but you can’t.
What we do is we look at each room and try to decide what the best story would be for that room. Charles II was a very important figure when the Palace of Holyroodhouse was redesigned in the 17th century so we wanted to include him in its story.
The other element to consider is showing the rooms as they were at different stages in time. One way to show this is to respect the way the rooms looked in the past and show how they looked at different times in history with the help of a multimedia guide.
We try to tell the main story of a room by, for example, including portraits of Charles II and his family and keeping it decorated in the style it would have been decorated in when the palace was redesigned for Charles II in the 17th century. And then through the multimedia guide, we can show images of what the room looked like when Queen Victoria lived there. In this way we can share the layers of the story of Holyrood. And of course, not everything survives in the palace but you have to find a way to tell the stories anyway.
6. What does Holyrood mean?
Holyrood actually means ‘holy cross’. The name came about because David I, King of Scotland, founded an abbey on the site in 1128 – when he was out hunting he was confronted by a stag and he thought he was going to die. Instead, a cross appeared between the stag’s antlers and King David founded an abbey on this site. He named it the Abbey of the Holy Rood because the old Scots’ word for cross is ‘rood’. The palace became known as the Palace of Holyroodhouse to distinguish it from the Abbey.
7. The Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey are nearly 900 years old, can you tell us who first built the palace and the abbey and whom it was meant to house?
Holyrood Abbey is nearly 900 years old and was built by David I, King of Scotland, in 1128. It became larger and contained royal lodgings for the kings and queens of Scotland. Eventually, James IV of Scotland decided he was going to build a palace next to the Abbey and began building in 1501, shortly before his marriage to Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. This was to be the main royal residence in Scotland, to house the court and royal household. James V then added to this to create a larger palace. In the 17th century much of the palace was rebuilt for Charles II.
8. Do we know how long it took to build the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey?
Well, Holyrood Abbey took around 100 years to build and it was updated over the next 100-200 years. As for the palace, the first building took 10-15 years, and the next stage took another 10 years.
The palace as it was built for Charles II took about 15 years, but it wasn’t quite completed. This was not unusual, they didn’t finish many parts of the palace in one go, so some things would only be finished 20 or even 50 years later. The royal apartments, King’s antechamber, closet, and bedroom were more or less finished in the 17th century, but the room’s behind the apartments – the king’s dressing room and wardrobe – didn’t have the panelling finished, so canvas would have been covering the walls.
The Throne Room was altered in the 19th century and in the 20th century as the fashion changed. In the 19th century, it was altered for Queen Victoria’s tastes, the ceiling in particular received a new look, and then in the 20th century when the Victorian fashion was no longer the trend, the room was redecorated to look more like it had in the 17th century.
9. Have there been alterations to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II?
Not major changes, but a significant change was the decision to open up more of the palace for visitors to see. In the 1850s, Mary, Queen of Scots’ chambers were opened to the public, and in the 1920s you could come and see some of the King’s apartments. But only from the 1970s was the palace opened in a formal but more accessible way by Elizabeth II. This was done to make the Royal Collection more accessible to the public. The collection’s not hidden away and everything you see is part of it.
10. Holyroodhouse is most famous for being home to Mary, Queen of Scots, and as the scene of the scandalous murder of David Rizzio – can you tell us more about this incident?
Mary, Queen of Scots came to live at Holyroodhouse in 1561 when she was 19 and the royal palace was her main residence. In 1565 she married the tall and handsome Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley) at the palace but, unfortunately, it was not a happy marriage. Darnley was vain, idle and demanding. He was also very jealous of David Rizzio – Mary’s Italian secretary, who happened to be a musician, a singer and talented polyglot – whom, fair to say, Mary enjoyed the company of.
Many Scottish lords were dissatisfied with Mary’s rule and Darnley enlisted their help to murder Rizzio, who they felt had too much influence over Mary. On the night of 9 March 1566, Darnley and his supporters attacked Rizzio as he was dining with Mary and her ladies in waiting in Mary’s small supper room in the palace. The table and chairs were knocked over, candlesticks fell and Rizzio clung on to Mary’s skirts. Despite this, Rizzio was dragged out of the room and stabbed around 56 times and left to die.
11. Was it usual for a man to have dined with Mary and her ladies in waiting on his own?
The fact that they dined in such a small room together shows that she put a lot of trust in him. It wasn’t very unusual, as they weren’t on their own. But that she would have invited David Rizzio to dine with her in such an intimate setting was probably one of the reasons Darnley was so jealous of him.
12. Was there suspicion of a romance between Mary, Queen of Scots and David Rizzio?
People are always very guarded about the relationship between Mary and David Rizzio, but generally it’s assumed that their relationship wasn’t a romantic one. Also, he was part of her household, so it would have been seen as highly inappropriate in those days.
13. Is there any evidence of the murder? And how do we know so much about this, it feels like a story that would have been covered up?
News of the murder soon spread as there was such a commotion at the palace and it was widely condemned, especially as it had taken place in front of a reigning queen. We know the details of the murder of Rizzio because there are several contemporary accounts. Mary, Queen of Scots dictated a letter to her cousin Queen Elizabeth less than a week after the murder. Lord Ruthven, who was present at the murder, wrote an account in April 1566, and Sir Anthony Standen, Master of the Horse to Lord Darnley, wrote a later account.
There’s also the infamous bloodstain on the floor between Mary’s small supper room and the outer chamber. Now, without claiming too much authenticity when it comes to the stain, we do go along with the story that’s been ascribed to it. What’s interesting about this is what happened to her rooms after she left.
When James VI became James I of England he emptied Mary’s chambers and brought the furniture south. The Dukes of Hamilton were the keepers of the palace in the king’s absence and they kept apartments under Mary’s rooms, while using the former Queen’s rooms as storage. By the mid 18th century, people could make an appointment to see these rooms and the stored furniture was unknowingly passed off as Mary’s own. People would say they saw Mary’s furniture and the blood stain. It’s all part of the history of telling the story of Mary.
14. Were there any repercussions after the murder of David Rizzio?
Well, the repercussions for Mary were that she didn’t feel safe at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey any longer, and she didn’t actually come and live in the palace again. It could be said that Rizzio’s murder and Mary’s subsequent escape to Edinburgh Castle was the inciting incident for the chain of events that led to Darnley’s death, another marriage for Mary, and finally her imprisonment in England.
15. After Mary left the palace, what happened to the staff at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey?
It was a big household so they wouldn’t all have followed, but she would have taken a small number of people with her. Most notably, the four Marys, who were her childhood friends and long-time companions, I imagine they would have joined her at Edinburgh Castle.
16. What happened to Mary after the murder of David Rizzio?
Mary, who was pregnant at the time, fled Holyroodhouse, fearing for her life. She eventually went to Edinburgh Castle where she gave birth to a son, James, who became James VI of Scotland and later James I of Great Britain. Efforts to repair her relationship with Darnley failed and a few months later, in February 1567, Darnley himself died following an explosion at the collegiate buildings of Kirk o’Field where he was staying.
Mary, rather unwisely, married the chief suspect in his murder: the powerful Scottish lord, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who had gained influence at Mary’s court. The marriage was not happy and was opposed by most Scottish lords. After a confrontation between the queen and the Scottish lords in June 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate. She fled Scotland for England and put herself at the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth I. She was kept in captivity for 19 years before being executed at Fotheringay Castle on 8 February 1587.
17. What other famous incidents occurred at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey?
There has been nothing quite as dramatic as the murder of Rizzio but here are some other famous incidents that occurred: James VI of Scotland, was proclaimed King of England as well as Scotland at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1603. When Elizabeth I, Queen of England died, the courtier Sir Robert Carey raced north to Scotland and broke the news to James at the palace on 26 March 1603.
Charles I had his Scottish Coronation in Holyrood Abbey in 1633. Most kings and queens of Scotland had a coronation at Stirling. As Charles I was the first King of both England and Scotland, it’s noteworthy that he chose to have his Scottish coronation at Holyroodhouse. Other options were discussed but Holyroodhouse was finally chosen. There are no paintings of the coronation, but an ampulla, a flask that held the anointing oil, is now in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland and coins were released to mark the occasion.
Bonnie Prince Charlie held a ball in the Great Gallery in the Palace. He stayed at the Palace with his court for six weeks and dined in public and held various ceremonies.
During his visit to Scotland in 1822, George IV held a reception for Scottish gentlemen in the palace. He wore full Highland Dress!
18. Are there guards stationed in the palace, and do they stand guard in the same way the Queen’s Guard in London do (albeit with kilts instead of bearkins)?
Guards are on duty at the palace when Her Majesty The Queen is in residence. If the Royal Regiment of Scotland is on duty they wear kilts as part of their uniform. It’s not always the Scottish regiment on guard though, it could be another British regiment, in which case they wouldn’t wear kilts.
19. Have any famous weddings taken place at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey?
Many weddings took place in Holyrood Abbey. These included the wedding of James IV and Margaret Tudor (1503) and James V and Madeleine of France (1536). Mary, Queen of Scots married Darnley in the private chapel in the palace (1565) and Bothwell in the palace (1567). More recently in 2011, The Queen’s granddaughter Zara Philips married Mike Tindall at Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh and held her reception at the palace with many members of the Royal Family present. The couple were photographed in Holyrood Abbey.
20. Any idea why Mary would have preferred the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the Holyrood Abbey?
By 1560, just before she returned for Scotland, Holyrood Abbey had become protestant – Scotland underwent the reformation a little later than England. Mary was Catholic and she could only have a Catholic wedding in the palace.
21. During the virtual experience about the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey, you and Sutherland Forsyth gave for Awakening Weeks, some gentlemen with the feathers in their hats appeared (about 8 minutes in). I’ve never seen regalia like that before, can you tell us more?
These gentlemen are members of the Royal Company of Archers, The Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland. They are on duty at the annual garden party at Holyroodhouse and on other occasions in Scotland when The Queen is present. Originally formed as an archery club in 1676, the Archers wear a distinctive uniform of dark green jacket, dark green trews, and a Balmoral bonnet with the badge of the Royal Company and eagle feathers. They still practise archery and during the summer months they shoot in the palace gardens.
22. As The Queen’s bodyguard, are they armed with more than bow and arrow these days?
Well most of them have a military background and there’s always more than one on duty! The bows and arrows are for more than just show – if you visit the palace in the summer, you can see them setting up to practice in the late afternoons.
23. Can you tell us more about the menagerie of James IV?
Many European courts had a collection of exotic beasts and the main royal menagerie was at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. James IV was presented with a lion in 1506 and also received gifts of a civet cat and two bears. The animals were kept within the gardens where a lion yard and stone lion house were built in 1512. James V was given an ape in 1535 and the menagerie later included a lynx and a tiger.
24. Can you tell us more about the Menagerie at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, who fed the animals for example?
Goodness knows what they fed them with. But someone who worked in the garden was given the responsibility for looking after them. Nothing of the menagerie survives today, not even the stone lion house. When you’re thinking about how bizarre this seems, it’s also worth remembering that menageries were a very popular way for a ruler to show off their wealth back then.
25. After the death of James I of Great Britain, was there any Scottish resentment to the Kings that followed when they visited?
Generally most monarchs were received with great enthusiasm. Charles I made a spectacular state entry through crowded streets in 1633 before his Scottish coronation. George IV also had an enthusiastic welcome when he paid a visit to Scotland in 1822 and came to the palace.
26. Why should people visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey, what differentiates this residence from other UK royal residences?
I think there is a real sense of history at Holyroodhouse – from Mary, Queen of Scots right up to the present day and Queen Elizabeth II. The focus on royal Scottish history through a series of magnificent rooms decorated with paintings, furniture and tapestries that tell the stories of the palace and its inhabitants makes it a fascinating place to visit. As Edinburgh’s royal palace is used by The Queen and other members of the royal family visitors can see where events and ceremonies take place and gain a sense of how the palace is used today.
27. What do you consider the hidden gems at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey? Which parts or pieces do you wish people would stop and appreciate more?
I think some of the hidden gems of the palace are the many beautiful tapestries that hang in most of the rooms. Tapestries were a very important decorative feature in 16th and 17th century palaces – they kept rooms warm, they were very decorative and they could be taken down, rolled up and transported to another residence if the king or queen moved on. Around 40 tapestries hang in the palace and several have been hanging since the 17th century. They all tell interesting stories, many derived from classical history. The colours have faded over the centuries but I like to think of how colourful they would have looked when they were first hung.
28. Do you have a particular favourite tapestry and what does it depict?
Maybe not favourite, but certainly the most interesting are a series of five tapestries that are almost a graphic novel of the history of Diana, Roman god of hunting. They’ve been hanging in the palace since 1685 and have gone through a programme of conservation – the most recent of which was the Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which took two years to complete.
It tells the tale of Niobe and Latona. Niobe was a fertile woman who had 7 sons and 7 daughters while Latona only had two, Diana and Apollo. The tapestry shows vengeance wrought down upon Niobe by Diana and Apollo as she sits distraught holding her murdered children.
29. Wow. Why would they have hung this story?
Tapestries of Greek and Roman gods and legends were very popular at the time. These works would not have been commissioned, but rather chosen. And as mentioned, not only were they decorative, but tapestries served a purpose in keeping out drafts and keeping the interior warm – they could also be moved between residences.
30. Two years seems like a long time to conserve something?
The tapestries are fragile – usually made of wool or silk – and they also suffer if they’re exposed to light. The colour fades, and there’s little you can do about that, but you can reinforce the threads where they’ve worn through. It’s a question of going over the entire tapestry inch by inch and repairing any degradation.
31. What is your favourite room in the palace and why?
I think my favourite room is Mary, Queen of Scots’ outer chamber. It is very atmospheric – with panelled walls hung with tapestries and a spectacular oak ceiling. This is the room where Mary would have received visitors and I like to think of her meeting lots of different people here, such as the stern Protestant cleric, John Knox. She also said her prayers in this room – in the small niche called an oratory. The room is also filled with objects associated with Mary, Queen of Scots, such as a lock of her hair, her pomander and her crucifix. Finally there is also the mark of the floor where David Rizzio’s body was left – supposedly stained with his blood.
32. Do you ever sneak up in quiet moments to have the room to yourself?
Yes, of course! It’s lovely doing that. It’s one of the most popular areas of the palace for visitors, so it’s not often empty. It’s particularly atmospheric in December during the late afternoon, you get a real sense of history.
A visit to Holyrood Palace is the feather in your cap during any visit to Edinburgh. So don’t miss one of the most memorable historic buildings in Edinburgh.
How to get to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey
Located at one end of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile – Edinburgh Castle being at the other end – it isn’t difficult to visit Holyrood Palace. Public transport will get you close to the residence, and so will the Edinburgh Hop-on Hop-off Bus, if you want to do some sightseeing on the way.
When is the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey open?
As one of the key historic buildings in Edinburgh, Holyroodhouse is open for the majority of the year but as it is a working royal palace, it can close on short notice. It is also closed on December 25 and 26, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
What time does the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey close?
1 November-31 March:
Opens at 09:30
Last entry at 15:15
Closes at 16:30
1 April – 31 October:
Opens at 09:30
Last entry at 16:30
Closes at 18:00
How much do the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey tickets cost?
* Combined ticket including admission to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and our current exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery.
|Palace of Holyrood House||Combined Ticket|
|Family (2 adults and 3 under 17s)||£42.50||£55.80|
Can I get free tickets?
Children under five can get in free! You can also get free readmission for a year if you ask a warden to stamp your ticket before you leave. Find full details here.
You can also pick up a free multimedia guide in ten languages as well as English sign language and English audio description.
What should I wear?
Unless you’re visiting for the garden party, don’t worry about putting on your glad rags, casual clothing will be just fine.