Deep within the Scottish Borders, Melrose Abbey is believed to be the burial site of Robert the Bruce’s heart. Many years ago during some renovations, a lead casket was unearthed. With some ceremony, this precious relic of the King of Scot’s heart was later interred in the grounds.
Legend has it that Robert requested his heart be taken to Jerusalem so that he might fulfill his cherished desire to go on Crusade as a matter of honour. To complete this pilgrimage, Sir James Douglas was entrusted with the precious relic which he wore, encased within a silver casket, around his neck. Along with a number of Robert’s closest supporters, he set out by sea. Eventually they found their way across Spain but, at Teba, a violent clash occurred with a Moorish force. Mortally wounded, Douglas tossed Robert’s heart to his compatriots in a final heroic gesture. To carry the heart of the man was to carry his soul and spirit!
Why would anyone want to have their heart or other organs removed from their body and buried separately? It’s not our custom but in medieval times it was a commonly revered practice. The heart in particular was associated with courage and the conscience of man, central to human affections and Robert must have been compelled by these beliefs. Sometimes, places held particular significance and so various body parts were consigned to them. In this case, Robert must have held a deep attachment for Melrose Abbey.
Another king whose heart was buried separately was Richard I whose ‘lion’ heart was buried in Rouen Cathedral, an indication of his strong Norman ties.
Owing to the frequent ravaging of the Borders by invading armies, Melrose Abbey is a now a gracious ruin but there is much to encourage visitors, not-withstanding the awe-inspiring words written in old Scots on the small tomb of the King of Scot’s heart.
‘A noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye’.
We head north now to the Royal Kingdom of Fife to another abbey where the bodies of many kings and queens of Scotland rest. Robert was preceded by his wife, Elizabeth, who died several years earlier en route to the chapel of St Duthac (see previous post)
At Dunfermline Abbey, further tribute is paid to Robert with his name inscribed in large letters around the church’s tower. Once again, it appears his body was uncovered during renovations; remnants of its cloth of gold shroud suggested noble origins. Later, King Robert’s body was interred beneath a fine marble stone tomb, carved by Thomas of Chartres and transported to Scotland via Bruges. Whenever I’m in Scotland, no visit feels complete without my own pilgrimages to the abbeys at Melrose and Dunfermline. Perhaps you might like to join me?