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  • Writer's pictureDonna Hechler Porter

Medieval Masterpiece: Dunfermline Abbey

This article was first published on my previous blog in February of 2019.

An Ancient Church and a New Abbey

In 1066, after the Norman conquest of England, English Princess Margaret of Wessex, now known as St. Margaret of Scotland, and then about twenty years of age and the sister of Edgar AEtheling, fled her beleaguered country with her mother. Their ship was blown off course and they landed in Scotland where some sources say they sought the protection of King Malcolm III. Having been born in exile in Hungary, Margaret was now to take to it yet again.

She soon earned King Malcom’s favor, and in 1070 they were married probably in an early but forgotten church were Dunfermline Abbey now stands. Margaret was said to have been enchanted by the place, founded a piory on the site, and brought a small community of Benedictine monks from Canterbury.

King Malcolm III meeting Margaret as she arrives in Scotland

Reign and Battle

King Malcolm III and Margaret ruled from 1058 until 1093 when the king and their eldest son, Edgar, were killed in the Battle of Alnwick against the English. Margaret died three days later supposedly of a broken heart, and she and Malcolm were buried before the high altar in Dunfermline Abbey. It is because of Margaret and Malcolm that we have an interest in Dunfermline Abbey, for it is said that Dugal McQueen’s mother, Anne Mackintosh-McQueen, was a descendant of King Malcolm III and St. Margaret through their son, King David.

Dunfermline Abbey as it stands today

The Most Important Abbey in Scotland

King David transformed Dunfermline Abbey into what was supposed to become the most important abbey in all of Scotland. In 1128 he started work on the church, founded as The Benedictine Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity and St. Margaret. The nave, which was built from that era still survives as the western half of the building. Romanesque in manner, the church and abbey were built over the foundations of the earlier church. In the decades after its foundation, considerable endowments were gifted to the abbey, including the dedication of 26 altars donated by individual benefactors and guilds. At the height of the abbey’s power, it controlled four burghs, three courts of regality, and a large portfolio of lands from Moray.

The nave built under King David

In 1250 Margaret was canonized by Pope Innocent IV as St. Margaret of Scotland in recognition of her personal holiness, fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church, work for ecclesiastical reform, and charity. Later in June of that year, Margaret’s remains and those of her husband were exhumed and placed in a reliquary on the high altar. They may later still have been moved to a side chapel.

In the winter of 1303 and during the First Scottish War for Independence, Edward I of England held court in the abbey. On his departure the following year, most of the buildings were burned, and King Robert the Bruce undertook to rebuild the church. It was he who was said to have added the royal palace next door.

Noteables in Life and Death

Throughout these years, a number of noteables were buried within the abbey walls - including Duncan II of Scotland (1094), Edgar of Scotland (1107), Alexander I of Scotland (1124) and his queen Sybilla de Normandy (1122), our ancestors David I of Scotland (1153) and his queen, Maud, Countess of Huntingdon (113), Alexander III of Scotland (1286) and his first wife Margaret of England (1275), Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Robert I of Scotland (1327), and Malcom IV of Scotland (1165).

In 1329 Robert the Bruce’s bones were buried in the choir which is now the site of the present church. (His heart rests in Melrose.) In 1818 his skeleton was discovered and the bones reinterred with great ceremony below the new church’s pulpit. Seventy years later, the pulpit was moved back and a brass inserted in the floor to above the royal vault.

Also buried here were Matilda of Scotland, the daughter of Robert I of Scotland (1353), our ancestress Annabella Drummond, wife of Robert III and the mother of James I (1401), and Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany (1420).

Destruction and Disintegration

And then, in a further terrible turn of events, the Scottish Reformation swept across Scotland and in March of 1560 the abbey church, like so many others, was sacked. The structure was spared, including the refectory and rooms over the gatehouse that were part of the former city wall, as was the nave. Everything inside, however, including the graves, were ransacked and pillaged, and since that time, various parts have fallen into disuse and disintegrated. King Malcolm and Margaret’s graves were vandalized as well, and it is currently not known where their bones lie.

Site of the ruined shrine of St. Margaret & King Malcolm

The Abbey Today

Very little of the original structure as built by King David is left. The Church of Scotland holds services in the current church which occupies the site of the ancient chancel and transept.

The parish church today

Part of an existing wall


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