Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Abbey of Melrose

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Located in in Roxburghshire, founded in 1136 by King David I, was the earliest Cistercian monastery established in Scotland. Its first community came from Rielvaux, the Yorkshire house colonized from Cîteaux. In less than ten years St. Mary's Abbey, Melrose, had been completely built. It stood in a broad glen south of the Tweed, two miles distant from the Celtic monastery of Old Melrose, where St. Cuthbert had lived five centuries before. Melrose Abbey suffered greatly from hostile incursions of more than one English monarch; the soldiers of Edward II desecrated, pillaged, and burned the church; Richard II in 1385 laid waste the surrounding country and set fire to the abbey. Mainly through the generosity of Robert the Bruce, a more stately church was begun in 1326, and scarcely completed by the sixteenth century. Cruciform in shape, built in English Perpendicular, Decorated, and Flamboyant styles, two hundred and fifty feet in length, Melrose was distinguished for the fairy-like lightness of its carvings and window-tracery, finished with exquisite care. Not only the royal founder, but succeeding sovereigns, and countless benefactors, nobles and commoners, so richly endowed Melrose with lands and possessions that its annual revenue is computed at one hundred thousand pounds of present money value. One example of the application of such revenues is told in twelfth century records. During a time of famine four thousand starving people were fed by the monastery for three months. Many of the abbots were men of distinction: Abbot Waltheof (1148), stepson of David I, and honoured as a saint; Abbot Joscelin, afterwards Bishop of Glasgow (1175), took a prominent part in the erection of the fine cathedral of that city, as a shrine for the body of St. Mungo; Abbot Robert (1268) had been formerly Chancellor of Scotland; Abbot Andrew (1449) became Lord High Treasurer; many others were raised to the episcopate. The English troops of Henry VIII burned Melrose in 1544. Although the monks once numbered two hundred, and there were one hundred and thirty as late as twenty years before the Reformation, eleven only received pensions at the dissolution, so quickly must they have been dispersed. After many vicissitudes, the possessions of the abbey came finally to the Buccleuch family. The ruins were further devastated by a fanatical mob in 1569, when statues and carvings were ruthlessly destroyed; but more wanton still was the subsequent carting away of the sacred stones in great numbers to serve as building materials. The result is seen in the carved religious emblems still appearing upon surrounding houses. The ruins of the once noble abbey form a strikingly beautiful picture from the North British Railway, about thirty-seven miles south of Edinburgh.

Liber de Melros, ed. INNES (2 vols., Bannatyne Club, 1837); MORTON, Monastic Annals of Teviotdale (1832); Scottish Cistercian Houses in Dublin Review (April, 1902).

Michael Barrett.