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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds James the VII and II became King of Great Britain in 1685. And controversially, he was a Catholic king. And he came to the throne after the death of his brother, Charles II. So his accession to the throne wasn’t quite expected. Britain, at the time, was very Protestant. And so it was very difficult for James to be Catholic in such a hostile environment. However, despite this, he went ahead and redeveloped chapels in Westminster and in Holyrood that were Catholic chapels for him to use. As part of this, he commissioned altar pieces, like the set that we have here.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds And the set for Holyrood is comprised of two chalices, two patens, a ciborium, which was used for holding the bread or the host, a mass bell, which was used for ringing during the ceremony whenever the mass was elevated. And also a monstrance, which is used for displaying the host, and some pieces of vessels for carrying incense. What’s interesting about this set is the inscription of “JR” on the base of the chalice and on the ciborium, along with the number “VII” in Roman numerals for James’ Scottish title, James VII. These pieces were made probably in London, we’re not sure who made them exactly. However, the bell was made in Edinburgh.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds And, it was probably, the bell got lost in transit that originally came with the set from London. However, this has been replaced by what was probably just a normal bell made by an Edinburgh goldsmith called Zacharias Mellinus. And you can see that the difference between the inscription here, it has the “JR” and the crown, but it is much less delicate than what’s on the chalice and the ciborium. The paten doesn’t have the “JR.” It has religious symbolism, and it’s got the letters “IHS,” which are taken from the Greek words for Jesus Christ, and a heart pierced with needles, which is typical symbolism associated with communion.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 seconds These objects are synonymous with James’ personal faith, but also the rule of Catholicism in his reign and in his downfall and exile from his kingdom. When the chapel at Holyrood was completed, which was in November 1688, it coincided with the landing of William of Orange, and James going into exile. So these pieces were never used by James. They represent the fact that he had to go into exile as rioters sacked Holyrood palace, meaning that the chaplain who resided there had to escape, taking all of these pieces with him.

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 seconds The chaplain, who was called David Burnett, flee across the Firth of Forth and up to the north of Scotland, to Banffshire, where he had the protection of the Catholic Duke of Riordan. Once he was there, these pieces went into hiding with him. And he became what was known as a heather priest, someone who’d gone into hiding and operating in secrecy. The chalices and ciborium and bell and paten all went eventually to a Catholic seminary called Scalan. And eventually, they were passed on to the care of Blair’s Museum in Aberdeen. The rest of the pieces were transferred through priors’ chapels to a convent in Edinburgh. And now, they’ve all been loaned to the National Museums Scotland.

Skip to 4 minutes and 0 seconds James VII’s adherence to Catholicism had a lasting impact on the Stuart dynasty. His son, James VIII, was also a staunch Catholic, and had a close relationship with the papacy. The Act of Settlement that was agreed in 1701 meant that a Catholic monarch cannot come back to Great Britain. And this is an ongoing issue. James VIII was keen on tolerance for faith, but he struggled to keep this in balance with the pressures of the papacy and other Catholic monarchs across Europe. It’s important to note as well that not all Jacobites were Catholic. James VIII had a significant amount of Protestant Jacobite supporters. And so this is only one aspect of the Jacobite movement.

Objects of Worship: The Holyrood Altar Plate

What is it?

This group of ecclesiastical objects once formed part of James VII and II’s ‘make-over’ of an historic royal chapel.

Who owned it?

James refurbished all of the chapels in Whitehall (London), Windsor, Dublin and Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh for use as Catholic chapels.

The Earl of Perth was responsible for overseeing the changes at Holyroodhouse and commissioned a full suite of silver altar plate from London.

Who made it?

The altar plate was made in 1686 and was probably used in the temporary chapel at Holyroodhouse while work was being carried out on the new chapel.

Once in situ, a sanctus bell (a bell to announce the commencement of Mass) and an incense spoon by the Scottish goldsmiths Zacharius Mellinus and Walter Scott were added to the set.

The chapel was completed in 1688 but never used; later that year, James VII and II fled from Britain and was replaced by his daughter, Mary and her husband William of Orange.

Why is it important?

Think about the significance of the Holyrood altar plate. It was made in 1686 for the Catholic King James VII and II, who was facing opposition in the country on account of his religion.

In this short accompanying film, Assistant Curator Adrienne Hynes looks in more detail at the pieces that make up the Holyrood Altar Plate, on loan to National Museums Scotland.

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This video is from the free online course:

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

The University of Edinburgh