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Holyrood Palace – The Great Tower of James V


King James V erected the great tower at Holyrood between 1529-32 as a freestanding residence, fortified and protected by drawbridge and moat. For 5 years it stood alone and detached from the other palace buildings. Then, in 1535 he began a new palace range abutting onto the tower. This account considers the earlier work.

His father, James IV, had frequently resided at Holyrood Abbey utilising the monastic buildings. The shortcomings of such an 'ad hoc' arrangement became evident when he married Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII – something more grand and fitting was required so James embarked upon building a dedicated palace.

This was known as 'The Palace beside the Abbey' and the building accounts record a 'new hall, chapel, forework and tower'. Some early historians have confused the latter with the tower of 1529. The accounts state that £2,500 was spent on the palace including the 'Tower of Holrude' in 1505. This tower stood to the south of the present tower and, in fact, James V was sleeping there in 1530 having first ensured that a new lock had been fitted to the door of his chamber. Security was of importance to James as will be seen.

James IV Forework

Fragment of the James IV Forework

None of these buildings stand today except for part of the 'forework', the vaulted gatehouse, which was taken down in the 18th century but fortunately known from drawings.

In 1528, James then aged 16, escaped from virtual captivity by the Earl of Angus and began his personal reign – he had no intention of ever again being the cat's-paw of an ambitious nobleman. In the spring of 1529  he began his work at Holyrood and ensured that it would be a place where he would be safe. What James had in mind was a tower house but on the grand scale.

West Face

Western face with gunport and the arms of  Mary of Guise and James V 

By August 1529 when the ground vaults were in position work began on the first floor and by May 1530 the ceiling was under construction. Work proceeded apace and by August 1530 the 2 lower floors were complete and work began on the upper levels. The roof was pre-fabricated and was raised into position in 1531. Work now began on the walls above the 'allure' and on the 4 'rounds'. It may come as a surprise that Holyrood had 4 rounds and not just the 3 that one sees today. The building accounts are quite specific and he missing SE round contained the main staircase. These  'angle rounds' were raised one storey above the allure and finished with conical roofs with finals of lions and miniature turrets all brightly painted and gilded.

Palatial work, of course, took place in the interior.

NW shows massive character of tower to the west

View from NW emphasises the  massive character of James' tower

As stated, James designed Holyrood from the start as a secure, freestanding residence, a tower house of massive scale. The entrance was at first floor level on the east side and was approached by a drawbridge over a moat and a gate protected by a yett. The building account records: 'ane gret irne yeit for the principall entres and draw brig of the new tour with twa gret bottis for the closing of the sloit of the said irne yeit and the greit bar of the samyn'. The defences did not end there. All the windows were protected by 'irne barris' painted with 'reid leid'. Internally the king's chambers were secured by an additional 2 iron yetts – James had no intention of being abducted! The tower was also supplied with a liberal supply of wide mouth gun loops.

Taken from drawing of 1560 showing 4 rounds and entrance with abbey to left

'Holy roode howse' from the east  in 1560 showing the 4 rounds and entrance with the Abbey Kirk to the left

The shortcomings of living in a detached tower amidst the older palace buildings much have quickly become evident. Perhaps his forthcoming wedding to Madeleine de Valois of France in 1537 focussed his mind, for after only 5 years he began the construction of a completely new palace block joined to the south wall of his tower, which, of course, obviated the entrance, which was probably built up at this point. It is uncertain when the south east round was removed though there are indications that it was extant at the time of Mary Queen of Scots and even later.

Armorial of JV on SW round

Armorial of James V on SW round

The palace was to be burnt by the forces of Henry VIII in 1544 and 1547 and again in the 1650s by those of Cromwell. It was repaired, patched up, but by the Restoration was no longer fit to house the king.

In 1671 King Charles II ordered a complete rebuild. All of the palace was demolished except for  the old tower of James V, which Charles would have known from his stay in 1650. However, its vaulting was skimmed and the stone flooring which covered it removed. The ground level was raised, floor levels repositioned, windows enlarged, string courses revised, staircases changed and the roof altered.

The great 'Tower of Holrude' stands to this day though badly mauled and pockmarked with bullet holes  as a tribute to its builder King James V of Scots.

North Face with gunloops and window bars

North face with gunloops and 'irne barris'  (forework in background)



Article by SCA member Brian McGarrigle


Date posted: 22 Dec 2012Last updated: 04 Dec 2014

(1) Related article: war damaged strongholds part 1

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