Churches, abbeys and chapels,  History

Dunfermline Abbey (part 2): pride of kings

Concluding my two-part feature about Dunfermline Abbey and Palace

Dunfermline Palace 2

“The King sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blude-red wine…”

Sir Patrick Spens’, Anon (17th Century)

I can remember reading these lines when I was just a kid, and wondering where on earth Dunfermline was.   The ‘blude-red’ wine sounded ominous, even then.   It’s strange how these few words can conjure so much in your imagination… a candlelit hall, a lavish banquet spread on long tables, guests in splendid velvets and furs, strong voices joined in laughter, servants bending to pour wine into silver goblets.

It would be interesting to know just how much wine was consumed at Dunfermline, because it must have been flowing pretty freely for the best part of 500 years.   Even in the early days of this Benedictine monastery there would have been royal apartments here, as there were in many religious houses.   This was the royal capital of Scotland, beloved of Malcolm III and his saintly queen, Margaret;   the Abbey church, raised by their son, David, was a powerful symbol of the House of Canmore.

Dunfermline Abbey and west window (1)The Abbey church and the great west window of the monastery, seen from the refectory

Dunfermline Gatehouse (4)

In 1303 Edward I paid a visit to Dunfermline.  The English king’s appearance at a Scottish monastery usually coincided with a house-warming party of the worst kind, and Dunfermline was no exception.   Edward whiled away the winter months by planning an attack on Stirling Castle, and on his departure he razed most of the monastery buildings;  mercifully, he chose to spare the church.

The repairs were financed by Robert the Bruce, and the new structures that rose at Dunfermline carried an unmistakable message of strength and confidence.  This was a golden era for Scotland’s monasteries:  in 1318 the king had attended the consecration of St Andrews Cathedral, one of the most impressive religious buildings in Europe.  Monarchs were eager to bestow their wealth and patronage on religious orders;  cynically, you might argue that they were paying for prayers, but by now the Roman Catholic faith was deep-rooted and it would take a hurricane to shake its branches.

Dunfermline 14th Century windowThe tracery of the great west window is still intact after 700 years

In 1560, however, that’s exactly what happened.  Sparked on the Continent, the Reformation swept through Scotland like wildfire, destroying everything in its path that was even vaguely reminiscent of the old faith.  Icons, statues, stained glass, holy relics… nothing was exempt, and nothing was spared.   The monks of Dunfermline, like their brethren up and down the country, were turned out of their home as their beloved church was ransacked and left to ruin.

Dunfermline refectory (5)The south wall of the refectory still stands to a height of three storeys.  The dining area would have been on the top floor.

Dunfermline RefectoryThe back of the refectory wall

Dunfermline refectory (2)Dunfermline - refectoryRefectory with the gatehouse to the left

That wasn’t the end of the story for Dunfermline, however.   Part of it, at least, was about to be given a new breath of life in the unlikely hands of James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots.

James VI and I:   a study in paranoia

James VI and I by John de Critz the Elder
James VI and I by John de Critz the Elder

It was certainly not James’ fault that he grew up suspecting everyone of being a murderer.   From an early age, he had seen enough bloodshed at first hand to know that you could trust no one, least of all your friends.   Vengeance was one of his strong points.

In 1589 James was married by proxy to the 14-year-old Anne of Denmark, daughter of Frederick II;  and when a storm prevented her ship from reaching Scotland, he sailed from Leith to go and get her.   Somewhat ominously, another storm blew up to make their return journey less than romantic.

“First of all consider, that Mariage is the greatest earthly felicitie or miserie, that can come to a man…”  King James VI and I:  Political Writings

For some reason, an idea took hold in James’ head that the weather spoiling his bridal progress was the work of witchcraft.  This was the cue for a long and vitriolic campaign against sorcery throughout Scotland, and his satisfaction at sending so many women to the stake cannot have made him a very endearing husband to live with.  By all accounts, he and his bride started to drift apart, and it didn’t help that James took their first son, Henry, away from Anne to be brought up elsewhere.  James gifted the buildings of Dunfermline Abbey to his wife so that she could convert them into her own royal residence, and she might well have leapt at the chance to build a happier and more independent life.

Dunfermline Palace (12)Dunfermline Palace (4)Detail of Palace wall, showing modifications to older arches on the ground floor and large windows above

Anne of Denmark, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Anne of Denmark, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

A palace for a Queen

Under Anne’s direction, the Abbey’s royal guest house came to be expanded and enhanced to create a splendid palace capable of accommodating a large court in luxurious surroundings.   Big oriel windows overlooked the wooded ravine of the Tower Burn, far below.  Perhaps to console herself – and you can hardly blame her – Anne had developed a taste for finery and entertainment, and the chambers must have been vibrant with music and conversation and laughter.

On 19th November 1600 Anne gave birth to a second son, Charles I, at Dunfermline Palace.  Charles was the last king to be born in Scotland, but it wasn’t expected that he would inherit the throne at all:  his older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, was widely expected to fill that role.  Handsome, talented and popular, Henry broke the heart of a nation, and in particular his mother, when he died of typhoid at the age of 18.

Falling from glory

In 1603, James and Anne were crowned King and Queen of England in Windsor Castle. Their growing commitments south of the border, combined with Anne’s love of London society, meant that Dunfermline and its glorious palace gradually lapsed into disuse.  The Civil War sealed its fate, and by the early 1700s it was an abandoned ruin.   The windows cast bold shadows in the setting sun, but this is an empty place, open to the elements, as brittle and lifeless as a broken eggshell.

Dunfermline Palace (1)Yew tree by Dunfermline PalaceDunfermline Palace view

A walk around the ruins

The Historic Scotland visitor centre occupies the top part of the gatehouse;  in two small vaulted chambers there’s a display of old stonework and carvings salvaged from the abbey.

Dunfermline refectory (4)Walkway around top floor of refectoryDunfermline Palace (11)You wouldn’t think it, but there’s a spiral stair inside that opening!    It’s incredibly tight, and you have to place your feet sideways.  It leads down to the kitchens and undercroft of the Palace.

Dunfermline undercroftUndercroft

Dunfermline undercroft entranceUndercroft entrance

Dunfermline Gatehouse and Abbey churchThe Abbey church and west window of refectory

Dunfermline gatehouseWest entrance and gatehouse

Visiting Dunfermline Abbey and Palace

Dunfermline - holly treeDunfermline Abbey, including the old nave of its church, is in the care of Historic Scotland and is open all year (winter opening is limited to certain days of the week).    The Abbey’s parish church welcomes worshippers every Sunday and Wednesday, and is open to visitors between April and October.


Photos copyright © Jo & Colin Woolf

Dunfermline Abbey (6)

Further reading…

If you missed Part One of my feature about Dunfermline, you can read it here.

Looking further afield, take a walk around Stirling Castle, or the wonderful cathedral of St Andrews.


    • Jo Woolf

      That’s good to know! I’d never been to Dunfermline before this – it was my first visit – and there’s more to see so I really must go back.

  • Regan Walker

    Thanks for the great post and wonderful pictures. I think that phrase you quoted was said of King Malcolm Canmore. At least I recall that from my research. I would have liked to see the chapel that was there when Margaret was queen. Did they speak of it when you were there?

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you very much, Regan, very glad you enjoyed it. I would have loved to see the chapel of St Margaret too. There are brass strips inserted into the floor of the old nave, marking out the original dimensions. However, these are hard to spot because the church is quite dark! There is nothing left of it above ground. You can see a drawing of it here, if you scroll down to page 13. From this, you can see its location in terms of the later layout. On this website: it is stated that the tower and a long rectangular cell came first, and were extended by King Edgar, Margaret and Malcolm’s 4th son. If I go back (and I’m sure to do so at some stage!) I will see if I can find out more.

      • Regan Walker

        Thanks, Jo, for the information and the links. From my own research, I was pretty sure Malcolm had some kind of a chapel there before he married Margaret and that she caused it to be expanded as she invited the Benedictines to Dunfermline whose practices were more consistent with Rome’s dictates. We authors are so visual, it’s nice to be able to picture it.

      • Jo Woolf

        You’re welcome, Regan! Trying to picture these places as they were, and the people who lived or worshipped in them, is one of the things I love most! 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re very kind, Andy, thank you! 🙂 I enjoyed putting this together. It’s actually a year since we were there, so it is quite nice to look back. Strangely, I noticed that the day I published the first post (13 Nov) was the date on which Malcolm III and his son died.

  • tearoomdelights

    I very much enjoyed both parts of this post, you’ve made Dunfermline Abbey come alive for me with your well chosen words and magnificent photographs. I feel sorry for Anne, getting married at 14 to a man like James. It must have been very difficult in those days when women had virtually no say in anything. It’s a good reminder to us to appreciate the freedom we have today, at least in the west.

    • Jo Woolf

      That is so true, Lorna, and I often feel sorry for these women who, like Anne, were given in marriage so young, and used as pawns in a real-life game of thrones. They were just brought up to expect it, which is so sad. I liked the story of Margaret for this reason, even if it is just a legend that she fell in love with Malcolm, and he with her! Thank you so much for your kind words – much appreciated! 🙂

  • Scott Marshall

    I haven’t been but will manage at some point – as I scrolled through I thought I wanted an overview but you have apart 1 which has those type of shots. – I have to thank you for all the research you do it is so helpful 🙂 I have added loads of locations to my list as a result of visiting your blog – Merry Christmas.

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re most welcome, Scott, and thank you for your lovely comments. Dunfermline is a dream to photograph, and I’m sure you would love the inside of the abbey church. Wishing you a Merry Christmas as well! 🙂

  • Abhilasha Trivedi

    Looking at these photos, I really feel that I have missed on a beautiful location to explore. Thank you for sharing your amazing journey with so much detailing. Dunfermline is a perfect one for my bucket list.

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re most welcome, and I’ve very glad you enjoyed it! I hope that you manage to visit Dunfermline soon and see this for yourself. Thanks for your kind comment.

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