Melrose Abbey

After Jedburgh Abbey, I drove us to Melrose Abbey. I’ve wanted to visit Melrose Abbey since we first came to Scotland — Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried there, you see. His body is in Dunfermline Abbey (which I’ve seen) amongst other royal dead, and he wanted his heart to go on Crusade on his behalf. But the pilgrims carrying the heart got into some trouble (I think they were mugged in Spain), and were lucky to get back to Scotland, so they interred his heart there.*

Here’s me with Tim and Doreen at Melrose Abbey:

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Melrose is Scotland’s first Cistercian Abbey, founded in 1136 by David I just like Jedburgh (David I founded at least 12 abbeys of which we are aware). It was originally to be on the site of Old Melrose, an abbey founded by St Aidan (saint of the week here) and where St Cuthbert (saint of the week here) was admitted as a monk (thus giving me yet another Cuthbertian connection).

The monks for new Melrose Abbey were brought up from Rievaulx Abbey (founded 1132), and this became the mother house of the Cistercians in Scotland who were to become the most prominent monastic order in this country. Pre-Reformation Scotland had 11 Cistercian Abbeys; many of Scotland’s manuscripts are Cistercian in origin, and thus primarily religious texts (unlike Benedictines who copied out the pagan Classics, Cistercians devoted themselves almost entirely to sacred learning).

Cistercians, as a ‘reformed’ monastic order, sought to devote themselves to a very strict interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. Their interpretation resulted in not really having enough time to devote themselves to the physical labour required to tend the abbey’s large estates or gardens or anything. As a result, the abbot with his 12 monks also had a much larger cohort of ‘lay brothers’ resident at the abbey. They were not required to follow the same rule of prayer as the monks and worshipped in their own choir, while the monks’ choir was separated from them by a screen bisecting the abbey church. You can see the screen just over Tim’s shoulder in the photo above.

The screen features this boss of Jesus right above you as you pass through:

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That boss and all that you see, besides a few foundations, date to after 1385.

Like Jedburgh Abbey, Melrose suffered from repeated attacks by the English. In 1385, the abbey was destroyed by Richard II. The old abbey would have been a fairly simple affair, whereas the new abbey follows the Gothic styles of the time — in the East, where it began, English Perpendicular style is visible. Check out the East window:

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As you move West, things get Frencher. A master mason called John Morow, from Paris, was involved (as his inscription says). The tracery is, perhaps, more flowing. Is this International Gothic? I’m not sure.

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And these men turn up as the bases of niches on the outside, drawing my mind to the similar ones I saw at the chapel of the Chateau de Vincennes in Paris:

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My Historic Scotland Souvenir Guide says that Melrose boasts the best Gothic sculpture in Scotland. Here are some of the stars of the show:

Pig playing bagpipes!
Pig playing bagpipes!
Greenman!
Greenman!
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Coronation of the Virgin
'Gnadenstuhl' image of the Trinity (although it's so worn, I can't spot the Holy Spirit) - boss above East end
‘Gnadenstuhl’ image of the Trinity (although it’s so worn, I can’t spot the Holy Spirit) – boss above East end

The ruined church is  about all that stands. The monks were allowed to stay after the Reformation, allowing for an embracing of the Reformed faith. The last one died in 1590. The church was converted to the parish kirk in 1610, thus ensuring some survival. Here’s a final shot of Gothic splendour for you:

South Aisle
South Aisle

*Fun fact: Sweetheart Abbey (which also I’ve seen) is another Scottish abbey with someone’s heart buried in it (hence the name). In this case, the heart is that of the heart of the husband (John Balliol, but not the puppet king) of the foundress, Devorgilla (gotta love that name!).

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