The Magdalen Chapel in Edinburgh’s Old Town was the last Roman Catholic chapel to be built (1541-44) in the city before the Scottish Reformation. It has the only stained-glass – four impressive shields in the centre window – that survived the Reformation in its original position.
Often considered one of the less well-known Edinburgh attractions, it has a façade that could hardly be called magnificent. But step inside and you’ll discover something much more exciting – an introduction to the Chapel’s utterly captivating history.
The Magdalen Chapel is located on the Cowgate, part of the lower level of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Although a little dark and gloomy (some of it runs under George IV Bridge) the Cowgate today is peppered with bars, clubs and student hostels and is a popular spot during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And like the Chapel, it’s a street with a fascinating history.
Once the site of a market selling horsemeat, hay and stray it was considered by one 16th century chronicler to be a, “fashionable and aristocratic” area which housed some of Edinburgh’s most important residents. It had royal connections – Dr John Naysmith physician to James VI lived on Cowgate as did his son-in-law John Livingston who was the Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Charles I.
The Chapel was founded by Michael MacQueen (Maqueen), who left money for the continuation of the work when he died in 1537. It was completed by his wife Janet Rynd. If confirmation of Michael MacQueen’s ill health was needed, the Chapel’s Foundation Charter said, “…he was troubled with a Heavy Disease…”
Although only the Chapel now remains, the original construction included adjoining accommodation for a chaplain and an almshouse for seven beadsmen (pensioners or poor men), “who should continually pour forth prayers to Almighty God.” And pray for the soul of Mary Queen of Scots and her mother the Queen Regent Mary of Guise.
Incorporation of Hammermen
Magdalen Chapel was designed as a meeting place for the Incorporation of Hammermen, which took ownership of the buildings. The Incorporation, a member of the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh, was a craftsman’s guild which included those associated with metalworking. They were, “men who wielded the hammer.” Both organisations still exist today.
The impressively restored Deacon’s Chair, originally created by local craftsman Thomas Heron in 1708, takes pride of place within the Chapel. Its existence is a testament to the authority and stature of the Hammermen during the early years of the 18th century.
Before the upheavals of the Scottish Reformation (1560) the building was used to hold academic lectures organised by Mary Queen of Scots and Mary of Guise who were both Catholics.
The Magdalen Chapel, like many Catholic places of worship, saw huge changes during the violent upheavals of the Reformation and the chaplain was replaced by a minister. The building was the venue for the first assembly of the newly formed Church of Scotland on 20 December 1560. It’s possible that John Knox preached here, certainly his colleague John Craig did on a number of occasions.
During some of the most volatile times in Scotland’s history, Magdalen Chapel was often used as a place of tranquillity were the bodies of the men killed in one of the many conflicts were taken.
In 1661, while his head remained spiked on the Edinburgh Tolbooth the remains of the Marquis of Argyle were brought to the Chapel to await transportation to the Campbell clan burial site in Kilmun, Argyll
When over 100 Covenanter prisoners were executed at the nearby Grassmarket, some of them were brought to Magdalen Chapel to be dressed in their grave clothes. The table on which their bodies were placed still exists.
In Arnot’s The History of Edinburgh (1779) the writer spoke of the derelict state of the Chapel. He said, “that in early times there existed in the Cowgate a Maison Dieu which had fallen into decay.” In 1857 the building was sold to the Protestant Institute for Scotland.
Scottish Reformation Society
Today the Magdalen Chapel, completely refurbished in1992/93, is owned by the Scottish Reformation Society a body designed to, “Defend and promote the work of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
Grassmarket and Cowgate
This article on Truly Edinburgh will tell you more about the history of the Grassmarket and the Cowgate.