The history of St. Giles Cathedral/Kirk with illustrations from the Stained Glassware - Part 1

St. Giles Cathedral is one of the most important and visited historical monuments of the Old Town of Edinburgh and Scotland with almost 900 years of history. Located at the heart of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, the cathedral stands out because of its superb and imposing architecture. Its history is long, at times turbulent and overall fascinating.

A short History

The Cathedral was founded around the year 1124, most likely by King David I who had succeeded his brother King Alexander I who passed away in the same year. The Cathedral itself was named after Saint Giles, a 7th century Greek Hermit, who lived near Nîmes, in Southern France. Legend has it that he had a deer as a companion which would become the target of the King of the Visigoths. Giles protected the deer at the cost of getting himself injured, which greatly impressed the King who ended up building a monastery for him. Ultimately he was canonised and in present times there are numerous religious establishments in the UK which bear his name, including one in Elgin.

In 1322 after the Scots signed the Declaration of Arbroath and sent it to the papacy declaring Scotland’s independence from England, the small church of St. Giles was heavily damaged by the troops of English King Edward II. In 1385, once more the religious establishment was raided by another English army.

Statue of John Knox, one of the most important figures of 16th century Scottish History

With the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, the cathedral’s catholic past was soon to be over. In 1559, John Knox, leading figure of the Presbyterian/Scottish Protestant Movement, became minister at St. Giles. In 1560 despite Mary Queen of Scots was a Catholic, Scotland became a protestant country with St. Giles Kirk becoming one of the most important centres.

By the 19th century the cathedral was in severe disrepair. However, in 1872 it underwent substantial restoration efforts led by The Lord Provost of Edinburgh William Chambers (more details available here).

Re-opening ceremony after the Chambers restoration on 23 May 1883
PHOTOGRAPH BY wikimedia: Commons

Later on a fascinating part of the Cathedral was completed in 1911. That was Thistle Chappell, designed by Robert Lorimer designed to commemorate The Order of the Thistle, established in the 1680’s by King James VII of Scotland. This is an extraordinary part of the Cathedral and will be an integral segment in the second part of this article.

Today the Cathedral/Kirk is a remarkable bit of Scottish heraldic history. A more detailed history is available here and great sources on the cathedral’s past include A Church History of Scotland (1960) by Rev. J. H. S. Burleigh (Oxford University Press), The Kirks of Edinburgh: 1560–1984 by Ian Dunlop (1988) among many others.

The stained glass windows of St. Giles Cathedral are impressive and remarkable masterpieces and cover different historical, cultural and religious themes. These include John Knox preaching the funeral sermon of the Regent Moray, the Robert Burns window created in 1985 by Icelandic artist Leifur Breidfjörd, the north transept window showing Jesus stilling the Sea of Galilee by Scottish stained glass designer Douglas Strachan (finished in 1922 and shown below 1).

Jesus stilling the Sea of Galilee
Upper scene depicts the assassination of James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray (1531-1570) by by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh which took place on January 23rd near Edinburgh. Below we see imagery of John Knox preaching the funeral sermon of the Regent Moray within St. Giles Kirk. This combination is a good illustration of the turbulent times Edinburgh and Scotland faced in the early 1570’s.
Jesus ascends into heaven in the east window by Ballantine & Son (1877)
PHOTOGRAPH BY wikimedia: Commons

The second part of the article will look at other equally impressive historical and cultural parts of the cathedral. These will include the Thistle Chapel, the ancient and more modern memorials within the cathedral, the rather unusual final resting place plaque of John Knox, the impressive pipe organ and much more.

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Vlad Zamfira

Vlad Zamfira (Masters of Arts in Archaeology & History and Certificate of Postgraduate research in History at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland) is a historian and podcaster interested mainly in the History of the 16th century Mediterranean with particular focus to Venetian, Ottoman and Spanish relations during the period between 1559-1581 and the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War of Cyprus. Also with a keen interest in the history of the Eighty & Thirty Years' Wars; Scottish and European History as whole.