On a recent visit to Edinburgh I took the time to go into St Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile. The church has been the focal point of worship in Scotland for 900 years since moving on from a small affair and being formally founded, and is formally known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh.
It is one of the most important and historic medieval buildings in Scotland. I was interested in learning more about this important place so inside I went.
St Giles’ Cathedral is known by 2 names, St Giles’ Cathedral and High Kirk.
St Giles, the patron saint of lepers and was a hermit and abbott that lived in France. You will find his name in France at the great Abbey of St Gilles in southern France. His country and Scotland had great ties in the 7th Century and this was the probable reason his name means so much in Edinburgh.
After his death many hospitals and houses were built for the poor, diseased and disabled throughout England and Scotland.
Plus the St Giles’ church building, founded in 1124, was in the Scottish King David I time. David’s sister was Matilda who married Henry I of England and she founded the church of St Giles in the Fields, London. So there is a strong connection between the family and St Giles.
After the reformation it went through a lot of changes, not least becoming a Presbyterian church in the Church of Scotland. There are of course no bishops in the church and therefore the cathedral should technically not exist. But it has kept the Cathedral in its name like other churches in Scotland like Glasgow or Dunblane.
The time of James VI was responsible for the other name ‘High Kirk’. in 1625 there are records that St Giles was the congregation place of the High Kirk.
A Brief History
There is record of a parish church in Edinburgh since the year 854, but the origins of St Giles probably starts at around the year 1124. In the time of David I.
The oldest parts of the building that have survived to now are four massive central pillars, said to date from 1124. At the time it was likely started small and built over time bit by bit.
Richard II in 1385 came with troops and set for to the building. However with great will the repairs were done quickly and the piece meal building was made good once again.
Then, on 29 June 1559, a certain John Knox gave a sermon at St Giles. A sermon that would ignite the Reformation and change the Church of Scotland forever. John Knox himself became a Minister under the new religious regime. You will find his statue in the nave.
St Giles also had a bigger part to play in the English Civil War than some people think. The start of the war was complex of course but the Bishops’ Wars had a huge part in igniting it. On 23 July 1637, Jenny Geddes, a local market seller, threw a stool at the Dean.
The Dean was using the Book of Common Prayer that Charles I had been forcing the Deans to use. This simple act of defiance by Jenny started huge consequences for wars and British history.
Returning To Former Architectural Style
The stained glass was only put in during the latter 19th century in the Victorian era. Before that the windows had been largely clear or plain since the Reformation.
Putting in the colourful stained glass was a radical move in a Presbyterian church where such decorations were regarded with great suspicion.
They were finally allowed on the basis that they illustrated bible stories and if they were an aid to teaching, and not flippant decoration, or worse could be perceived idolatry.
Only a small number of windows were completed as part of the 19th-century restoration, but this began a process that resulted in the vast majority of windows containing stained glass by the middle of the 20th century.
The windows were planned to form a continuous narrative starting in the north-east corner and finishing on the north-west side. Personally I’m glad they added the stained glass as the light threw abstract patterns on the walls was awesome – my pictures got a bit abstract as a result.
The thing I found most striking was the beautiful colours – the flags, walls, porch panels and painted ceilings, all lit by the beautiful sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows.
It was a fascinating visit and a place I want to go back to and learn more about. I find it fascinating how one building and the events within it, has had such a lasting effect on British History.