Medieval Religion in the Borders

Medieval Religion

Religion was extremely important in medieval Scotland. Unlike today, almost everyone belived in the Christian God and if they led good Christian lives they would go to Heaven. However, if they did not lead good Christian lives they would go to Hell and be tormented by the Devil for eternity. People would attend church services at their local parish church along with their neighbours. However, there were many more religious buildings in the Borders.

Jedburgh Abbey


Abbeys were the buildings which housed communities of people who devoted their lives to the worship of God by vowing to live in chastity, poverty and obedience. These communities were either of groups of men (monks) or nuns (women); they were not allowed to live together. For more on life in the medieval abbeys, including an activity, click HERE.

Four wealthy and influential abbeys were established under the reign of King David I, who reigned from 1124-1153. These were some of the most complex and substantial stone structures at the time in Scotland, with Kelso Abbey being completed by 1128.

David I was also responsible for re-defining and affirming the diocese and parish borders in Scotland. A diocese is a district under the care of a Bishop, normally based in a cathedral, which is in turn made up of smaller districts called parishes, which are under the care of a priest or rector, based in the parish church. In an inquiry into the holdings of the cathedral at Glasgow, David I reaffirmed the borders of the enormous diocese which encompassed land from Glasgow all the way through the border regions to Ancrum, where it met the border of the diocese of St Andrews.

The Bishops

However, the border abbeys were not the only influential religious structure in the borders in the medieval period. The Bishops of Glasgow are known from documentary evidence to have had a palace here, from at least the 13th Century. William de Bondington, Bishop of Glasgow from 1232 until his death in 1258 was known to have a residence at Ancrum, famed for its gardens. Bishop de Bonidngton served as a councilor to King Alexander II, who signed three charters at Ancrum in 1236.

Bishops were wealthy and influential church leaders responsible for the diocese to which they were appointed. Bishops had residences near or adjacent to their cathedrals, which were often grand. However, it was equally important for them to both see and be seen by the people of their wider diocese. For this purpose they built residences throughout their diocese as bases from which they could travel, conduct business, and collect payments due to their cathedrals from the local parishes. These residences were sometimes called ‘palaces’ or ‘castles’ – the Bishops were powerful people who often acted as councillors to the King, and therefore needed to have residences that reflected both their wealth and their position. Bishops residences were often castellated to appear like castles, or decorated with ornate and expensive architectural details to appear like palaces. Although early Bishops residences (much like the early houses in burghs) were likely built from timber, the increasing wealth in the church throughout the medieval period meant that these were then re-built in stone with a ‘no expense spared’ attitude to their construction and decoration.

After the reformation in 1560 (our end to the medieval period), bishops palaces that were not re-used for other purposes were torn down to make way for other buildings, or left to ruin.

A field known as Mantle Walls, to the east of Ancrum, has long been believed to be the location of the residence of the Bishops of Glasgow. For more info on the Mantle Walls click HERE.