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The road to North Berwick from Edinburgh leaves the A1 near Tranent. Beyond a further roundabout it heads north east, running closely parallel to the East Coast Main Line railway. After a mile it becomes a dual carriageway, and here you find the easily overlooked brown tourist sign indicating the entrance to Seton Collegiate Church on your left.
This sign is well worth looking out for: this is a lovely church, a remarkable oasis of tranquility in an exceptional setting. The church is looked after by Historic Scotland and open to visitors during the summer months. From the car park you follow the woodland path that leads you the couple of hundred metres to the church itself. You catch only brief glimpses of it as you approach through the wood and are led around the wall that surrounds the church to the gateway on the eastern side.
Seton Collegiate Church is one of the finest surviving medieval collegiate churches in Scotland. The term "Collegiate Church" covered a variety of sins, often literally. Collegiate Churches were generally endowed by the the local laird, who paid for the maintenance of community (or "college") of priests. The primary role of the college was to pray for the souls of their benefactor, his wife, and his family.
The origins of Seton Collegiate Church go back to 1242, the year in which a parish church dedicated to St Mary & Holy Cross was consecrated here by the Bishop of St Andrews. This would have been a rectangular building which later became the nave of the church, and whose foundations can still be seen to the west of the surviving building.
In 1434 a chantry chapel was added to the side of what at the time was still the nave of the parish church. This was built by Lady Katherine St Clair to house the tomb of her late husband, Sir John Seton, and a private altar. Part of this side chapel was replaced by the later south transept, other parts can be traced on the ground to the west of the south transept.
It was Lady Katherine's grandson, George, 1st Lord Seton, who in 1470 started to adapt the church to serve as a Collegiate Church, having received provisional approval to do so from Pope Paul II. He demolished the chancel of the existing church, and replaced it with the choir you see today. The 1st Lord Seton also built the sacristy, the side room to its north. The work was still incomplete at the time of his death in 1478 and as a result George was buried in Edinburgh.
George, 2nd Lord Seton, completed the choir in the 1480s and received permission to upgrade the church to full collegiate status from the Pope in 1492. At its height in about 1540 the college of priests comprising a provost, eight canons, two choristers and a clerk, all employed to ensure the souls of the Seton family had the easiest possible passage through the afterlife. The 2nd Lord Seton became the first Seton to be buried in the new choir in 1508. The 3rd Lord Seton, another George, was killed, together with much of the Scottish aristocracy of the day, at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, and further development of the church was carried on by his widow, Lady Janet Seton.
This included the demolition of the 1434 chantry chapel and its partial replacement with the south transept. Lady Janet also built a north transept and the tower, the spire of which was never completed beyond the attractive stump you see today. In 1544 parts of the church were badly damaged by an English army under the Earl of Hertford (see our Historical Timeline). It was Lady Janet who oversaw the repairs.
Lady Janet Seton died in 1558, 45 years after her husband's death at the Battle of Flodden and presumably at a considerable age. Two years later, in 1560, the Reformation swept across Scotland and the religious community here was dissolved. For a while the church returned to its first use in service of the parish, but in 1580 the parish of Seton was joined with that of Tranent and the need of a separate church disappeared.
In the years that followed the church reverted to a private chapel for the Seton family. It was damaged by zealots during the Wars of the Covenant in the mid 1600s, and the Setons' support for the Jacobite cause led to it being desecrated again in 1715, this time by the Lothian Militia. At some point during this period the original nave, the only part of the church without a vaulted stone roof, fell into disuse and was demolished. The church later passed to the Earls of Wemyss who restored the surviving parts to become a family burial vault, and they in turn passed it into state care in 1946.
Seton Collegiate Church is an impressive building with a friendly atmosphere. The transepts, choir and sacristy are in good condition and full of fascinating detail, and amongst the items on display is the cracked Dutch bell that was hung in the tower from 1577. There are a number of grave slabs in the transepts and choir, but the most spectacular burials are marked by two stone effigies, of a knight clad in plate armour and of a lady, in a recess on the north wall of the choir. It is unclear which of the Setons are represented by this couple. Their attire, typical of the 1400s, is thought to suggest that it could be Sir John Seton and Lady Katherine: in which case their tomb and effigies were presumably moved to the new choir when the chantry chapel in which they were originally buried was demolished.
In the south west corner of the grounds are the remains of buildings that formed the domestic quarters in which the members of the college lived, before being converted after the Reformation to become a mill and brewhouse serving the neighbouring Seton Palace. The palace was built as the home of the Setons in the late 1500s, but badly damaged in 1715 and replaced in 1790 by Seton House, which stands to the west of the church. In the north east corner of the churchyard a small shelter built against a wall provides protection from the elements for a number of carved stones that survive from Seton Palace.