St Giles’ Cathedral, also know as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, is situated along the ‘Royal Mile’ and is considered to be the mother church of Presbyterianism. There has been a church on this site for over 900 years however most of what can be seen today dates from the late 13th, early 14th centuries, though it was significantly restored in the 1830s and altered throughout its existence. The church is named after St Giles, the patron saint of Edinburgh, also the patron saint of cripples and depression. Though it is called a cathedral this tends to relate more to the dynamic majesty of the building as it was only ever a cathedral for two short periods in the 17th century, 1635-1638 and 1661-1689, this is why many used High Kirk as its title.
It is said that the central four pillars in St Giles’ date from 1124, but there is little evidence to support this claim. The church that stood on this site was badly burned in 1385 and was rebuilt in the aftermath of which much of the current interior dates. Side chapels were built during this time also, and when Pope Paul II elevated the church to the status of a collegiate in 1466 considerable work and focus was lavished upon the cathedral. The ceilings were raised, vaulted and a clerestory installed, and in 1490 the lantern tower was also added.
The Kirk continued to grow in prominence during the Scottish Reformation, and the infamous preacher and founded of Presbyterianism in Scotland John Knox was chosen as minister to St Giles’ in July 1559. Only a few months earlier on the 1st of January the anonymous ‘Beggars Summons’ was posted on the doors of friaries, threatening the religious orders with eviction, challenging their opulent lifestyle and stating that the property belonged to the poor. The Reformation took hold with ferocious tenacity in Scotland, gold adornments, candlesticks, and even the relic of St Giles himself (his arm and hand, wearing a diamond ring) were sold! This was part of the church of Scotland’s new Presbyterian manner, which also moved away from the organised structured worship of common prayer and instead towards the more zealous preachers like Knox, who instead of preaching from an Altar, orated from a pulpit. John Knox died in 1572 and was buried in the graveyard beside the kirk which is long gone, the final resting place of John Knox is bizarrely marked by a metal plaque under a modern day car parking space.
In 1580 stone partitions were put up throughout the cathedral, breaking it into several small kirks with individual ministers, and life continued in this manner for almost 50 years. In the early part of the 1630s King Charles I came to Edinburgh and visited the then church, an occasion that would carry huge weight. Though Charles had been born in Scotland he had been raised in England, very much in the Church of Enlgand manner. Charles liked uniformity and felt that religious buildings should reflect the majesty of god, this was much in contrast to the church of Scotland who felt the very idea of such things was suspiciously Catholic and reeked of popish plots. He felt the building had been desecrated as some parts were even being used as prison cells and courts of justice. Charles demanded the partitions be taken down and installed his own Bishop in 1635. Charles added fuel to the fire by publishing his ‘Book of Common Prayer and insisting it would be preached in the exact same way at the exact same time throughout both England and Scotland. The first time the book was used in the church in 1637 a mass riot ensued, the clergy only barely escaping. All of Charles’ actions had greatly angered both Puritans in England and Presbyterians in Scotland eventually leading to the National Covenant, the Bishop’s Wars, and the execution of Charles I.
The next period of considerable change happened in the cathedral during the early 1820s when various buildings that had stood for years to the north and south of the cathedral were demolished and fully exposed the Kirk. Huge restoration was carried out on the building but it was not until the 1870s that Sir William Chambers, Lord Provost of Edinburgh financed further work to finally recreate a main single space from the existing subdivided spaces. The building was finally exalted in a manner that one might suppose would have Charles I smiling in his grave and John Knox grumbling under a car parking space in the shadow of the High Kirk.