There has been a monastery at Melrose, or Mailros, since about 650AD. The first monastery was founded here by St Aidan of Lindisfarne and monks came from St Columba's monastery on Iona. This monastery was located in a loop in the River Tweed two miles to the east of today's Melrose, now known as Old Melrose.
In 1136 King David I asked Cistercian monks from Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire to found an abbey at Melrose. David intended this to be on the site of St Aidan's monastery, which had been destroyed by Kenneth Mac Alpin and the Scots in 839. The Cistercians, however, needed good farming land within which to place their abbey, and negotiated instead for a site two miles away in what we today call Melrose.
Melrose Abbey was first staffed by an abbot and 12 monks from Rievaulx, who set to work constructing the abbey buildings. The east end of the Abbey Church would have been built first, and a service of dedication for it took place on 28 June 1146. Other buildings in the complex were slowly constructed over a period of at least another 50 years. The best known monk at Melrose during this period was Jocelin, who rose to become the the 4th Abbot of Melrose Abbey in 1170. In 1150, only 14 years after its own foundation, Melrose was asked by David I to found a daughter house at Kinloss Abbey in Moray.
In 1322 Melrose Abbey and the town that had grown up around it were attacked by the English army of Edward II. Much of the abbey was destroyed and many monks were killed. The subsequent rebuilding was helped greatly by the generosity of Robert the Bruce. This link was later formally recognised when Robert's embalmed heart, encased in lead, was buried at Melrose Abbey.
In 1385 the Scots invaded northern England (see our Historical Timeline). This was not a wise move. Richard II of England defeated David II of Scotland and pushed the Scots back as far as Edinburgh, burning down Melrose Abbey as his army passed by.
Over a hundred years of reconstruction followed, possibly even started by the English under Richard II and later continued by the Scots. Parts of the work was still unfinished when James IV paid a royal visit in 1504, and it is thought that the west end of the Abbey Church may never have been completed to the original plan.
But what was built was magnificent enough, as you can see for yourself: virtually everything on view today can be dated back to this last round of reconstruction.
English armies returned to southern Scotland in 1544, this time in support of efforts by Henry VIII to persuade the Scots to betroth the infant Mary Queen of Scots to his son. Melrose and its abbey were both badly damaged. By 1556 the remaining monks complained that unless repairs were carried out the abbey would not be able to continue to function over the approaching winter.
After 1560 the monks at Melrose Abbey embraced the Reformation in an effort to ensure their personal security, but they did so within a badly damaged and rapidly deteriorating building. The last resident monk died at Melrose in about 1590.
In 1610 part of the central portion of the nave of the Abbey Church was converted into a parish church for Melrose, with end walls and windows inserted into the existing structure. This continued in use until replaced by a new church elsewhere in Melrose in 1810.
Melrose Abbey today comprises the fairly complete ruins of the truly remarkable Abbey Church with, to their north, the foundations of the extensive ranges of buildings which once comprised the rest of the abbey. At the eastern end of the complex these extend through the Lay Brothers' Range as far as the millstream constructed to divert water from the River Tweed.
At the north end of the site is the Commendator's House. The Commendator was an appointed abbot, in latter years usually someone with powerful friends or relations wanting to benefit from the income attached to the post. The house dates back to the 1400s and 1500s and is today used as a museum to display various finds from the abbey.