Melrose Abbey is a Gothic-style abbey in Melrose, Scotland. It was founded in 1136 by Cistercian monks, on the request of King David I of Scotland. It was headed by the Abbot or Commendator of Melrose. Today the abbey is maintained by Historic Scotland (open all year; entrance charge). The ruins of Melrose are widely considered among the most beautiful of religious houses in the United Kingdom, being especially notable for a wealth of well-preserved figure-sculpture.
The east end of the abbey was completed in 1146. Other buildings in the complex were added over the next 50 years. The abbey was built in the form of a St. John's cross. A considerable portion of the abbey is now in ruins, though a structure dating from 1590 is maintained as a museum open to the public.
Alexander II and other Scottish kings and nobles are buried at the abbey. The embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce is also said to rest on the abbey's grounds, while the rest of his body is buried in Dunfermline Abbey. In 1812, a stone coffin that some speculated was that of Michael Scot the philosopher and "wizard", was found in an aisle in the abbey's south chancel.
It is known for its many carved decorative details, including likenesses of saints, dragons, gargoyles and plants. On one of the abbey's stairways is an inscription by John Morow, a master mason, that says: "Be halde to ye hende" (Keep in mind, the end, your salvation), which has become the motto of the town of Melrose.
King David I wanted the new abbey to be built on the same site, but the Cistercians insisted that the land was not good enough for farming and instead selected the current site. It is supposed to have been built in ten years. The church of the convent was dedicated to St. Mary (like all Cistercian houses) on July 28, 1146. The Abbey became the mother church of the order in Scotland.
A town slowly grew up around the Abbey. In 1322 the town was attacked by the army of Edward II, and much of the Abbey destroyed. It was rebuilt with the help of King Robert the Bruce, whose embalmed heart, encased in lead, was buried in the church.
In 1385 the Abbey was burned by the army of Richard II of England as he forced the army of David II of Scotland back to Edinburgh. It was rebuilt over a period of about 100 years—construction was still unfinished when James IV visited in 1504.
In 1544, as English armies raged across Scotland in an effort to force the Scots to allow the infant Mary, Queen of Scots to be marry the son of Henry VIII, the Abbey was again badly damaged and was never fully repaired. This led to its decline as a working monastery. The last abbot was James Stuart (illegitimate son of James V), who died in 1559. In 1590, Melrose's last monk died.
In 1610, a portion of the Abbey's church was converted into a parish church for the surrounding town. This involved the insertion of a plain vault into the crossing, which obscured the original ribbed vaulting. It was used until 1810 when a new church was erected in the town.
In 1996 an archaeological excavation on the site unearthed a conical lead container and an engraved copper plaque that read "The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty's Office of Works"; the lead container was not opened, but it is assumed that since there are no records of anyone else's heart being buried at Melrose that it was indeed the heart of Robert I. The container was reburied at Melrose Abbey on June 22, 1998. A plinth was unveiled on June 24 that covers the burial site of the container.
The abbey is built in the form of St. John's cross, of the Gothic style of architecture, and is in length; the breadth 137-1/2 feet; and in circumference. A considerable part of the principal tower is now in ruins; its present height is . There are many very superb windows; the principal one at the east end (which is the top nave of the cross,) appears to have been more recently built than the others, and is in extreme height, and wide. It has been ornamented with statues, &c. The beauty of the carved work, with which the abbey is profusely decorated, is seldom equalled.
There are in the external view of the building 50 windows, 4 doors, 54 niches, and above 50 buttresses. The abbey was much injured by the English in 1322 and 1384. Richard II made it a grant in 1389, as some compensation for the injuries it had sustained in the retreat of his army. It was also greatly defaced during the reformation.
There were one hundred monks, without including the abbot and dignitaries. The last abbot was James Stuart, natural son of James V, who died in 1559. The privileges and possessions of the abbey were very extensive, and it was endowed by its founder, David, with the lands of Melrose, Eildon, and other places; the right of fishery on the Tweed; and succeeding monarchs increased its property. Sixty of the monks, it is said, renounced poperty at the reformation. In 1542, the revenue of the abbey was, "£1758 in money, 14 chalders nine bolls of wheat, 56 chal. 5 bolls of barley, 78 chal. 13 bolls of meal, 44 chal. 10 bolls of oats, 84 capons, 620 poultry, 105 stone of butter, 8 chal. of salt, 340 loads of peats, and 500 carriages;" besides 60 bolls of corn, of ale, and 18 hogsheads of wine, for the service of the mass: a large quantity for the entertainment of strangers; £4,000 for the care of the sick; and £400 to the barber. These were given up at the commencement of the reformation in 1561. The lands were either seized by the crown, or divided amongst the nobles. A large portion fell into the hands of the Buccleugh family.