Penman M, Utsi EC & Turpie T (2020) In Search Of The Royal Mausoleum At The Benedictine Abbey Of Dunfermline Fife: Medieval Liturgy, Antiquarianism, and a Ground-Penetrating Radar Pilot Survey, 2016-19 (2020). Dunfermline Abbey Church and Kirk Session; Historic Environment Scotland; Fife Council; Dunfermline Heritage Partnership; GWS BArrow Award; Strathmartine Trust; Royal Society of Edinburgh; Hunter Archaeological Trust; Faculty of Arts & Humanities, University of Stirling. https://dunfgpr.stir.ac.uk/; University of Stirling Research respository; Historic Environment Scotland CANMORE database; Dunfermline Abbey Church website; dunfermline.com.
Today, visitors to the Benedictine Abbey of Dunfermline, Fife, find a church of two halves. To the west the surviving medieval Catholic abbey nave which also served as the original parish church of Dunfermline; to the east the modern Protestant Abbey Church of Dunfermline, built in 1818-21 atop the ruins of the abbey’s medieval choir. The lost east-end of this great church had been the focus of the cult shrine of Queen/St Margaret (d.1093) and the site of multiple royal and aristocratic burials down to 1420 before it was sacked at the Reformation of 1560. Thereafter it fell into successive generations of neglect and reuse as a town stone-source and then burial ground, the ‘Psalter churchyard’.
As a result, little to no evidence survives – either written or material – to enable us to recreate the overall evolving layout and spiritual life of the lost abbey choir, not least the position and form of the many royal burials within this mausoleum and cult church. What discussion there has been of these important features has been dominated by a focus on the tomb and remains of King Robert Bruce/I (1306-29) whose grave was believed to have been found in 1818 when the choir ruins were cleared to make way for the new Abbey Church build. Medieval Scottish chroniclers had briefly reported Bruce as being buried at the abbey ‘in the middle of the choir.’ However, such evidence that this grave and skeleton did indeed belong to Bruce remains, in several important ways, quite ambivalent and open to differing interpretation. Nor does a focus on the 1818 grave tell us anything of the larger living medieval church.
It was in this context that the project outlined in the following report sought to apply Ground-Penetrating Radar [GPR] to the lost choir site. We planned to scan down both through the modern interior floor of the Abbey Church to the medieval depths, and in search of similar archaeology beneath accessible exterior ground atop the choir ruins. We hoped this would provide some fresh evidence which could in turn be used to reassess the surviving medieval written and material evidence, in combination with the many antiquarian finds and observations about the abbey, its choir and tombs reported in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Once brought together, this evidence might allow us to paint a fuller picture of the architectural and liturgical nature of the choir with a focus on the period from c.1250-1, when St Margaret was moved to her new east-end shrine and the choir expanded, down to c.1560.
Our pilot stage GPR scans of 2016, 2017 and 2019 can be said, cautiously, to have been successful thanks to the application of a tailored method of scanning for buried and overbuilt medieval ecclesiastical remains. This report (and its three accompanying technical field reports by GPR expert Erica Utsi) will summarise those scans’ key findings of:
- Multiple potential elite burials at the likely medieval depths in the northern Transept/Lady aisle area of the choir, perhaps in pairs down the east-west axis of that aisle adjacent to the fourteenth-century Lady Chapel extension.
- Potential evidence for a large north-south architectural feature running across the overbuilt choir presbytery space, perhaps the medieval sanctuary steps.
- Evidence for multiple potential burials beneath the floor of the Abbey Church’s east-end vestry, thus beneath the sanctuary pavement and ambulatory of the mid-thirteenth-century feretory shrine extension for St Margaret. As these burials lie west of the surviving fossiliferous marble base of Margaret’s shrine they may, however, also belong to the period of ‘Psalter’ churchyard interments of Protestant townsfolk c.1560-c.1818.
- Evidence for potential burials or, more likely, the foundations of architectural or liturgical fittings to the east of the 1818 ‘Bruce grave’ and thus around the likely site of the medieval high altar of the abbey and its chancel/altar screens.
- Evidence for the footings of the walls of the east and west ends of the northern Lady Chapel extension of the choir and, perhaps, of some liturgical fittings or tombs within that Chapel’s interior which can be scanned through the ground outside the Abbey Church’s North Transept.
- Likely evidence for a southern choir chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist and of a shape and scale matching that of the northern Lady Chapel. This possible finding will require testing and verification in drier weather better suited to GPR work but, if confirmed, allows us to envisage a full symmetrical form for the late medieval choir at Dunfermline and its pilgrimage cult ambulatory and evolving royal mausoleum.
The report then combines these initial GPR findings with previously unnoticed or overlooked medieval and antiquarian evidence to make the case for:
- A focus for royal and aristocratic burials in the Lady aisle as well as in the northern Lady Chapel in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with a likely concentration of couples, perhaps as double tombs; earlier royal burials would have been focussed in the central monks’ choir/presbytery area.
- A second possible location for the tomb of Robert Bruce. This was reported by an antiquarian investigator as lying a ‘few yards to the south west’ of the site of six slabs within the Lady Chapel long believed by locals to cover royal burials, and thus within the northern edge of the medieval presbytery or along its boundary with the Lady aisle (perhaps between columns).
- A reassessment of our understanding of the cruciform axes of this great church as running both east-west and north-south, not simply east-west with a focus on the high altar. This should mean that a wider and larger central ‘presbytery’ space in the choir could be the site of royal burials like that of Bruce and his queen, Elizabeth de Burgh, alongside the shrine of Margaret’s son, David I (1124-53), who had elevated the house to a full abbey and, like both his parents, was believed by the monks to be a saint.
- A possible double tomb for Robert Bruce and Elizabeth, like such royal couples’ marble monuments to be found in the French royal mausoleum in the contemporary Benedictine abbey of St Denis, outside medieval Paris.
- Recreating the position and basic physical form of the medieval high altar and eastern sanctuary/chancel of the choir, and thus to question both the dating of the 1818 ‘Bruce grave’ as pre-Reformation and that it did actually belong to that king. Recreating the high altar and sanctuary space also provides possible evidence for the nature of the access points into the post-1250 shrine chapel of St Margaret.
- A growing interest after the Reformation among local families in securing ‘Psalter churchyard’ burial close to the shrine of St Margaret, particularly in the retro-choir/vestry area.
- The potential existence of a matching south-side transept aisled chapel, dedicated to St John the Baptist, thus confirming both the accuracy of the ground-plan of the surviving medieval walls recorded by the Abbey Church’s architect-builder in 1818, William Burn (but one which modern heritage plans of the abbey have ignored since then), and the fully symmetrical cruciform shape of the late medieval choir thus with an extensive circuitous pilgrimage ambulatory.
- The possibility that for liturgical reasons Alexander III (1249-86) was buried in this St John aisle or chapel.
- The possibility that the previously overlooked evidence of both the anthropomorphic (body-shaped) lead coffin and the crude, shallow stone crypt of the 1818 ‘Bruce grave’ actually point to this being a late sixteenth/seventeenth century burial and thus perhaps a post-Reformation rescue burial of a medieval body or a later ‘Psalter’ intrusion.
- The lost late medieval choir with all its key chapels, altars, tombs and inter-related liturgical spaces can be cautiously reimagined in all its evolving complexity as very much a Scottish mirror-image of the English and French royal mausoleums at Westminster and St Denis (both also Benedictine houses dedicated to the Trinity and royal saints) and with its own unique liturgical setting and meanings.
The report closes with some proposals for further GPR and allied research which could make an important contribution to the fresh (re-)interpretation of Dunfermline Abbey planned for the immediate future. Not least, this closes with the possibility of locating evidence for further potential royal graves and liturgical settings within the central (and western) choir/presbytery and aisles/chapels of the Abbey’s lost east end.
Medieval, Scotland, GPR, liturgy, Dunfermline, heritage, tombs, Benedictine
This is the end pilot stage interpretive report of an interdisciplinary project undertaken c.2016-20 to combine historical research and ground-penetrating radar in search of greater understanding of the form, liturgy and overall significance of the lost, overbuilt choir of the Benedictine abbey of Dunfermline, Fife, home to the cult shrine of St Margaret and the burials of at least seven kings of Scots, many of their women-folk and great noble subjects.