Melrose, a tale of two abbeys

Scottish Gaelic: Maol Ros

Melrose Abbey (Wikimedia.com)

Melrose Abbey is one of those beautiful medieval monastic ruins that bring to mind images of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Or perhaps it is this Scottish abbey’s long association with Robert the Bruce and Sir Walter Scott (who is largely to thank for its protection and restoration in 1822) that comes to mind. What many people do not realise though is that the original Melrose Abbey was first established in the 7th century and that for nearly 500 years afterwards it was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

The Northumbrian predecessor of the later Melrose Abbey (which i will call Old Melrose) was located 4 miles downriver of the present ruins in a bend of the Tweed River. The earliest recording of the name is Mailros, an old Welsh or Brythonic word meaning ‘the bare peninsula’. Another source, the Anglo-saxon Chronicle, refers to this early monastery by the name Magilros.

Oswald crowned as a king from a 13th-century manuscript (Wikipedia)

In 631AD King Oswald of Northumbria invited Saint Aidan of Iona to set up a monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast and a daughter house at old Melrose. The first prior of this new community was Saint Boisil who was charged in the task of spreading Christianity to the people of those parts. This date marks the first time that Old Melrose is mentioned in history however it is almost certain that there were people living nearby prior to this time. Unlike many later medieval monasteries (such as the Cistercians) which prided themselves on being isolated to everyday life and self sufficient, the early Christian communities would have had to have been established near to a fairly established community and easily accessible to those further afield. By the time that King Oswald had instructed for Lindisfarne and Old Melrose to be founded, Christianity had only been made the official religion of Northumbria for 4 years. The vast majority of people were still pagans and the only way that the religion could spread quickly into the communities was through strategically positioned monasteries which could reach the largest concentrations of people. Old Melrose then must have been one such place. One of the most famous (historically and archaeologically) Roman forts called Newsteads (Trimontium) was also nearby which suggests that the region had been home to a substantial population that needed to be controlled by the Romans as well as the later Christians.

St Boisil’s successor was to become the patron saint of this newly christianised nation, St Cuthbert. Cuthbert started as a novice under St Boisil at Melrose and rose through the ranks to become its prior in 662. After three years he left Melrose to become the prior at Lindisfarne.

Almost 100 years later in August of 761 a great battle was fought near Melrose and Newsteads fort at a place called Eldunum (Eildon Hill). In the mid 8th century a dynastic feud had arisen amongst the royal family of Northumbria. King Oswulf had inherited the throne from his father who had abdicated in favour of a quiet monastic life at York. Within a year Oswulf had been murdered by members of his own court. Aethelwald Moll, a man of unknown lineage, seized the throne of Northumbria and for the next 2 years he had to fight for the throne against Oswine, a relative and possibly a brother of Oswulf and claimant to the kingdom. It was at Eldunum near Melrose where Oswine met his death against Aethelwald Moll that reportedly lasted three days.

Ironically it was the Scottish King Kenneth MacAlpin who destroyed Old Melrose in 839 and from here on it seems to have fallen into obscurity until the present abbey was founded in the early 12th century. By this point Melrose had become part of Scotland.

In the early 1100s Saint Bernard established a Cistercian monastery called Clairvaux abbey in France. Sixteen years later St Bernard sent some of his Cistercian monks to King David the 1st, King of Scots, so that they might be settled within his kingdom. He welcomed the group of monks in 1131 and let them settle near Old Melrose. Another Cistercian abbey at Rievaulx in Yorkshire was founded at the same time, sent also by St Bernard. Melrose was officially dedicated on Sunday 28 july 1146. Throughout history this later abbey became a place of pilgrimage and well known for its hospitality.

In 1322 Edward the 2nd sacked the abbey which was then rebuilt by Robert the Bruce. After dying whilst on crusade, de Bruce’s knights decided to bring his heart back to Scotland where it is supposedly still buried under the abbey. Sixty three years after Edward’s attack however, Melrose found itself again under attack by the English, this time by King Richard the 2nd in retaliation to a raid by the Scots on England. It was burned almost to the ground in 1385 along with the nearby Dryburgh and Newbattle monasteries. All three are reported to have been soon after rebuilt by the people of Scotland.

By the 16th century the Abbey was starting to decline. In the 1540s Henry the 8th ordered the abbey be destroyed when he was trying to force the infant Mary, future Queen of Scots into marrying his young son Edward. There seems to have been little impetus to restore the building after this latest attack and by 1560 and the time of the Reformation there were only a handful of monks in attendance. The abbey lands were eventually sold off and entered into a general state of abandonment until Sir Walter Scott came to its rescue in 1822.

Melrose Abbey (Wikimapia.org)

Melrose Abbey (Wikimapia.org)

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