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Church of the week

Melrose Abbey, Melrose

Featured on 20th March 2020

Melrose Abbey, Melrose

The first Cistercian monastery to be founded in Scotland in 1136 on the site of the older 7th century monastery where St Cuthbert was prior.

The abbey is a delight. Everywhere you look is marvellous sculpture, elaborate vaulting, beautifully carved statues, gargoyles, grotesques, flowing tracery, and soaring stonework. Try and spot a pig playing the bagpipes, a fat monk, a musician playing the lute, a cook with a soup ladle, and a mason with his mallet!

This was the first Cistercian monastery to be founded in Scotland in 1136 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1146. Sadly many of the abbey buildings were destroyed during Robert Bruce's wars of Scottish independence in the early 14th century.

In 1385 an attack by Richard II necessitated a complete rebuilding of the church, and further attacks by Henry VIII in the 1540s caused still more damage. Yet despite this, large sections are still remarkably intact, including the presbytery, transepts, and choir. 

Some fragments of the 12th-century church remain in the west wall and the foundations of the nave and transepts. And you can still see a remnant of the 12th-century canal, bringing water from the River Tweed to power a corn mill, flush the abbey sewers and provide drinking water. The abbey suffered the fate of most monastic houses in the reformation and was dissolved in 1609, but the abbey church continued in use as the local parish church until 1810.

Born nearby, Cuthbert entered the monastery where his devotion earned him high praise and in 664 became Prior. His reign did not last long and in 676 he retired to take upa simpler austere life on Farne Island. But he was lured back to the church, and became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685 for a short while before his death on March 20, 687. 

His tomb quickly became a magnet for pilgrims and miracles were reported at his grave. Threatened by invasions, the monks fled Lindisfarne taking Cuthbert’s relics with them. His relics were moved several times over the following years due to threatened invasions, but finally, in 1104 they moved to their final resting place in the new cathedral at Durham, where a suitable shrine had been prepared.

The shrine of Cuthbert is still a place of pilgrimage in the North of England and the St Cuthbert's Way is a delightful way to explore his life and inspiration.  County Durham is rich in pilgrimage with over 1,400 years of church history to explore.


Learn more about churches in County Durham