Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Beginnings of Arbroath Abbey

The greatest religious foundation of King William the Lion (1165-1214) was the Abbey of Aberbrothock or Arbroath, dedicated to his alleged childhood friend, St Thomas Beckett.  William devoted much of his attention trying to extend his kingdom southwards, and he was captured by the English at Alnwick in Northumbria in 1174.  As it happened, at the moment King Henry II of England heard about this, he was doing penance for his part in Beckett's death.  Notwithstanding his guilt, King Henry believed the Scottish king's capture was actually a miracle performed by St Thomas.
   King William may have believed it also, for he founded Arbroath Abbey in 1186, soon after his release.  Alternatively, he may have dedicated his foundation to St Thomas in order to embarrass the English king.  Or perhaps it was merely a genuine remembrance of his old friend.  Despite its English dedication, Arbroath had significant links with the native Church.  One of its treasures was the Brecbennach or Monymusk Reliquary, a house-shaped reliquary which the Scots carried as a talisman at the Battle of Bannockburn.

The Brecbennach
   The question about the site of Arbroath for this major religious house is an interesting one.  William's brother David, Earl of Hunting, was associated with the area, being the benefactor of the burgh of Dundee down the coast.   It is also worth noting that the third Earl of Angus married King William's sister.  Earl Gilchrist unfortunately had a murderous temper and in a fit of jealousy strangled his lady.  The murder turned out to be a good thing for the fledgling abbey, for Gilchrist as a penance gifted Arbroath with te lands of Dunnichen, Kingoldrum  and the territory of Athenglas (near Kinblethmont).

Stone representing Death The Pilgrim found at Arbroath Abbey
   It is tempting to draw an inference from the close proximity of the Pictish settlement at St Vigeans and guess that the site of the abbey was chosen because it had been an important religious settlement for centuries.  Not far away is Monifieth, which was certainly an established Celtic Christian community, home to a settlement of Culdees since Pictish times.  Also nearby is the parish of Panbride, named after the Irish St Bridget, suggesting a link with the religious settlement of Abernethy, some miles upstream on the other side of the Tay.

   King William died of the plague in December 1214, after a reign of forty-nine years.  His body was carried north from Stirling and was laid to rest eight days later before the high altar of the still incomplete Abbey of Arbroath.  One of the coffin bearers was William's brother, Earl David, who insisted on performing this duty though he was very old and feeble.  He broke down in tears as the king's remains were interred.  The royal tomb was virtually forgotten until, in 1814, workmen found a stone coffin containing the bones of a large man.  Above it was the effigy of a nobleman in a long girdled tunic, his feet supported by a crouching lion.  The bones were exhibited to curious sightseers until they were re -interred in 1938.

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