The Palace of Seton

History Today Visiting  
Historic view of the Palace of Seton
The Palace from Blaeu's Atlas c.1654.
© National Library of Scotland


Seton Palace, 1635.
Seton Palace and Forth Estuary by Alexander Keirincx, 1635.
© The National Gallery of Scotland


Queen Mary Stuart at a Game of Archery at Seton.
Mary, Queen of Scots at a game of archery at the Palace of Seton, 1560's.
The Seton Collection © 2005


The Seton Collegiate Church.
The remains of Seton Collegiate Church founded by George, 3rd Lord Seton.
The Seton Collection © 2005

The history of the Palace of Seton, reaching back over eight centuries.

According to legend, Seier de Seton I founded the name of the lands of Seton sometime around 1069, giving his name to the area. It was Seier's son and grandson who enlarged the first tower to become a more commodious defensive castle, to which Philip de Seton secured a Royal Charter re-confirming the lands to him and his posterity, dated 1169.

With the lands of St. Germains, Edmonstone, St. Johnstoun, Winton, Falside and others encompassing the immediate lands of Seton, it is of no wonder that those famillies are of Seton descent; having been sons of the early family who's surname was adopted from their estate; with the Seton's of Winton called "de Winton" marrying the Seton heiress, Margaret de Seton, and carrying on the House and Family at Seton.

While the small Church of Seton which stood beside the Castle served both the early family and that of it's constant noble visitor's, it also served the growing village of Seton which lay less than 1 kilometer to the west of the Estate, and likewise which also was enlarged over successive generations of the Seton Lords.  And while the Palace is largely gone, the Church still survives, though somewhat defaced and missing the front entrance-portion of the chapel.

As the centerpiece of the Seton Family, the Palace of Seton stood on the exact same spot on the Seton baronial lands for upwards of eight hundred years.  The original fortified castle was a square tower built during the time of Seier de Seton sometime after 1066.  It was continually rebuilt and expanded by the successive heads of the family, becoming a large castle-complex after the time of William Seton, 1st Lord Seton, c1348, which style became the hall-mark of the Seton's; noting some of the other similar styled castle-courtyard complex's of St. Germains, Winton, Niddry, the Seton-Townhouse in Edinburgh (near to the Palace of Holyrood), Garleton, Barnes (incomplete), as well as those of Parbroath, Touch, Meldrum and later, Fyvie.

With every successive generation from William 1st Lord Seton onwards, the family acquired lands in the area around their principle seat, and that of Tranent and Cockenzie; as far south as Pencaitland; as far east as Barnes; and as far west as Windygoul.  The revenues from the estate, and from the Templar and former church lands within the boundary of the Barony of Seton, such as the old Templar "Hospital of St. Germains", and from those of St. Andrews, and the various Priory's such as Pluscarden and Dunfermline, which paid handsomely to allow for continual expanding of the family's residence, later to be known as the Palace of Seton.

With the initial Tower of Seton, called St. Bennet's Tower (after St. Benedict, the family's patron Saint) came part of the main hall of Sampson, or Samson's Hall, as well as the later Wallace Tower, all of which were severely damaged later in 1544, during the "Rough Wooing" of England's King Henry VIII.  Irregardless, until such time the Seton Castle or "Seton House", was one of the most highly regarded residences in Scotland throughout the Seton's tenure.

It's razing during Hertford's Invasion was noted by the Lord Russel:
" frende with the Kynges Hyhnys' armye gives a most pithy description of these proceedings ' in the yere of our Lorde God 1544,' recounting the exploytes
performed under the blessing of God, and as God wolde who doth all things for the best, and after longe soiornynge at Newcastle for lacke of commodeous wundes gave that south and south-south-weste wind, so apte and propice for cure iorney." He tells how they " brente thabbey called Holy Rode Hous, and the pallice adioynynge to the same ; " how " the fyrste man that fledde [out of Liyth] was the holy cardy- Fragments of nail lyke a valyaunt champyon;" and after relating "that Scott ^^' after they dislodged their camp out of Lith, having wan a late Ex- fortress on a strong island called Ynchgarue. and set fyre in petition in euery house and brente it to the grounde, and brente and reased Seton, the cheife castell of the Lorde Seton, which was ryght fayre, and destroyed his orchardes and gardens, whiche were the fayrest and beste in ordre that we saw in al that cuntry, and dyd hym the more despyte, because he was the chiefe laborer to helpe theyr cardy nail out of pryson, the onely auctour of theyr calamytie,"

Added to the grounds were walls, terraced walks and gardens, similar to those at Winton House only on a grander scale, commenced by George, 3rd Lord Seton and first to be called "George", and completed by his son, George 4th Lord Seton and second "to be called of the name George".  Also incorporated was near the west side of the house, part of the old castle consisting of a ruinous apartment dimensions of which is about 9 feet by 7 the walls are about 4.5 feet thick. This was the prison of the Castle used on many occasions for only the most noble of detainees, such as the notable Archbishop Sharpe.

The grandest of the rebuilding-work was undertaken by George, 6th Lord Seton, although it was his son George, 7th Lord Seton and "5th of the name of George", who was the famed supporter of Queen Mary during her troubled reign, who completed the work of his father and established the residence as a completed Palace.  George, 7th Lord, roofed the old Hall and rebuilt the ranges which comprised of the apartments of State, where Queen Mary held court, as well as her son, King James VI and I.  The work of this grand re-construction left the estate heavily encumbered in debt, which cleared by his son, Robert 8th Lord Seton and later 1st Earl of Winton.

Used for the rebuilding were architects of great skill, some foreign and some of home origin, noting: William Schaw and William Wallace as two who also continued works on other Seton estate also such as Pinkie and Winton.  In accompanying the external work, were the internal works also of note.  Various galleries of painting were included, housing portraits of great family members and notable kin, and sometimes of a more general artistic nature.

The Armorial de Gelres as well as that of Nisbet's writing illuminates how George 7th Lord (called 5th of that name, referring to that of 'George'); "repaired the forepart of the house of Seton, and especially that room called Samson's Hall (40 feet in height), which he adorned with a roof of curious structure, whereupon are twenty-eight large achievements, being those of Scotland, France, Lorraine, and the noble families that were allied to his family, curiously embossed and illuminated — the most exact pieces of armories that are to be met with...".  Included were Arms of the various branches of the House of Seton such as those of John Seton of Cariston, the younger brother of George, 7th Lord, and who's Arms were there displayed as: "Three crescents within the Royal tressure gules ; in the centre an otter's head sable for Balfour and charged one of the crescents with a bezant, as on his seal.".

After the battle of Langside, Lord Seton was obliged to retire abroad for safety, and was an exile for two years, during which he was reduced to the necessity of driving a wagon in Flanders for his sub-sistence.  He rose to favour in James the Sixth's reign and, resuming his paternal property, had himself painted in his wagoner's dress in the act of driving a wain with four horses, on the north end of the stately gallery.  Maitland notes on the portrait were: He "was there in exile two years, and drove a wagon with four horses for his subsistence. His picture in that condition,” adds the quaint, kindred biographer of the noble family of Seton, “I have seen drawn, and lively painted, at the north end of the long gallery in Seton, now overlaid with timber."

The front to the south-east which appeared to have been built early in the reign of Queen Mary (indicated by the ceiling which featured the Coats-of-Arms of Scotland, France, Queen Mary, the Dauphin and Hamilton etc., all of which were surrounded by the French Order of St. Michael), contained, beside other apartments, a long hallway, a noble hall and drawing-room, a parlour, a great bedchamber, dressing-room and closet The earlier front to the north housed the apartments of State, necessary because Seton Palace was frequently visited by Royalty which included James V and Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, Charles I and Charles II, and housed three great rooms with 40 foot high ceilings.  The rooms were finely furnished after Mary Queen of Scots kept Court there on her return from France, and to accommodate the many staff, the third front was full of good lodging rooms and the outer Courts included numerous offices and a Church or Chapel.

To defend this impressive building, towers stood at every angle and on each side of the gate, and the Palace of Seton, in it’s final phase, had elements added similar in style to the family’s later house at Winton, showing the influence of Elizabethan architecture in Scottish architecture.  It was indeed an imposing building; set around a large triangular/quadrangular court stood three large general fronts of freestone at least seven stories tall with various castellated towers, some of which were of elaborate French styling and varying heights, and a larger octagonal Italianate watch-tower protruding upwards into the sky

According to tradition, it was customary for the Earls of Winton once a year to ‘ride the marches’ of their estates, which were so extensive that a whole day, from sunrise to sunset, was required to ride in state round the boundaries of their lands. On these occasions the head of the house was always accompanied by a large retinue of friends and retainers, mounted on gaily caparisoned horses, the charger of the chief being arrayed in cloth of silk adorned with gold tassels. The festivities which followed this ceremonial lasted several days.

Serving the large and active estate were the many sub-branches and the generations of the family, which would not be left to chance of failure or lack of security by person's of non-sanguine relation.  The lands of Monkmylne, Milton, Greendykes, Tranent, Cockenzie, Seton Mains, Seton Miln, St. Germains and etc... all examples of Seton family branches which maintained those lands which were part of the Seton barony, and held them hereditarily and served the main family's estate.  From these branch also were recruited and served the guards of the Lords Seton: his 200-strong mounted calvalry noted in various historical accounts, such as the rescue of Queen Mary from Lochleven castle.

Details to be noted about the grounds surrounding the Palace are the curious dial affixed to the wall of the bastion tower about 10 feet high, which forms part of the boundary of the large old garden, where the top of the stone forms a horizontal dial; the old bridge crossing the stream between Palace and Church; the old main bridge at the rear of the grounds that led into the Palace; and the walled and tailored grounds used frequently by the Royal family for private golf excursions, such as that famed by Queen Mary. 

The Great Garden of Seton was itself a substantial place of beauty and tranquility, long known for first and finest fruits of the season.  Adjoining the garden and within the estate grounds was also a brew-house for ale's, spirit's and wine's.  The old Mill of Seton or "Seton Miln", still in existence provided ground grains as required from the farming surrounding the estate, and the old water's of Seton, the stream which flowed through the lands and estate out of the coal-pits nourished the land and the people.  The Seton's coal pits provided and endless supply of fuel for heating and lighting, and likewise from the sale of which, added to the revenue's of the family estate which was known for it's self-sufficient nature.

The revenues of the Estate were such as to allow for the son's of the house to be adequately provided for with their own estate and studies abroad, and dowry's for the daughters, as well as to expand the residence and serve the Royal House in whatever capacity they were called for.  And it was this particular function that  the Seton family was focused and known for and held hereditary office for; in the service and defense of the Royal Household and Court and the defense of the country.  Their reputation being such, as well as the family's foreign Royal connections, it is of no surprise that they are found to have served at the Royal Courts in France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, etc... And likewise with the Templar-connections and the banking systems, the principal family estate hosted a variety functions and maintained influence throughout European circles, and was known for elaborate masks and balls.

For more dire circumstances for the Royal House, the estate could provide protection for the monarch, and as noted in history, to provide funds to assist in supplying whatever was needed for their support while in exile.; where the last instance of this support was from the 4th Earl of Winton for King James VII and his son while in exile in France and Italy.

Serving the estate were clergy and trade's of various styles: Priests were trained at the Collegiate Church and ordained into offices; and the trades of wrights, mason's, farmer's, weavers, merchants and the like, many of which were hereditarily maintained under strict rules, were instructed and well practiced by the endless workings of the Seton family.  Any "foreigner" wishing to join into one of the Guilds had to petition not only the Guild and the local towns people, but to court of Lord Seton as well for admittance; a practice not uncommon in Scotland especially during those times, but somewhat particular given the bloodline family-nature of the Guilds and local population.  The most prominent of the family lines and several persons serving the local community, often rose to significant positions serving the estate and the court of Lord Seton, and could rise further to serve that of the Royal court, where the Lords Seton were hereditary Masters of the Royal Household.

Serving the Seton household was of course a question not only of privilege, but also one of honour, with the standards maintained at the highest level.  However, marrying into the household was a far greater rich-prize indeed for any family wishing to increase their status and fortune or influence with the Royal court; practice that is long noted in Scottish history and also which produced a civilized, productive and harmonious society that thrived, and, which industrious society the Seton Estate was long known for.

The Seton's had been much involved in the affairs of Scotland's Royal Family, having the privilege of their presence on many occasions over successive generations, with the family's munificent tastes being much sought after by the Scotland's Monarch's as a place of relaxation and refuge, was the pride of the Family.

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   Seton Palace History
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        The Palace front
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        Renderings Gallery
        Queen Mary 1
        Queen Mary 2
    Estate Photo Gallery

    Painting of Seton Palace and Forth Estuary

    Last Rendering
    Battle of Prestonpans
    Tranent Church
    Douglas Seaton's Notes

Andrew Spratt's Rendering