Rosslyn Chapel, more properly called Rosslyn Collegiate Church, lies in Lothian by the river Esk, eight miles south of Edinburgh on the edge of the village of Roslin.
The name “Rosslyn” is from the Gaelic ross, meaning a rocky promontory, and lynn, meaning a waterfall.1 The church is built on such a point, with a good view of Rosslyn Glen below.
The church was begun about 1450 by William Sinclair, earl of Orkney. It was apparently intended to be much larger but only what would have been the choir was finished. While the church is similar to other collegiate churches being built at the time, the degree of ornamentation is extremely unusual. My first impression on entering was that it was based on Spanish churches I had been in, but apparently art historians don’t think this is the case.2 The nature of the designs has not been commented on by art historians so much as the abundance of them. The effect of the myriad carvings is stunning and whimsical, rather like meeting someone who has decided to wear all her jewelry at once. “The arcade arches, capitals, string courses and window rear-arches are all decorated with foliage carving, and there are corbels and canopies for images between the windows.”3Elsewhere, the same author comments, “as so often at Roslin, [sic] the desire for richness of
Pi lar at Roslin, showing ornamentation and Green Man.
(Sharan Newman, with thanks to the Rosslyn Church Trust)
effect has perhaps been taken further than might have been expected.” 4
The plans for Rosslyn, written on wooden boards, were lost during the Reformation. There are no documents at all to explain why Earl William decided to cover almost every inch of his church with ornamentation. The only remnant of a planning design is on the wall of the crypt, probably the first section built. One can still see scratchings on the wall of an arch, a pentacle, a part of the vaulting for the ceiling, and two circles.5 It’s likely that these survived because they were plastered over shortly after the church was built.
Now, a lack of documentation is a disaster for historians, but great for novelists, who are then free to make up whatever they like. I suppose that’s one reason I’m both. I can speculate in fiction in a way that would be inappropriate in academic work. The highly wrought carvings at Rosslyn have inspired a number of legends. Before I discuss them, let’s look first at what is known about William Sinclair, to see if it gives any clues as to why he ordered the church built and why it was never completed.
William was the fourth Sinclair to be earl of Orkney. At the time these islands, north of Britain, belonged to the kings of Denmark. As the Orkney earls also were lords of Roslin and owned other lands in Scotland, this divided allegiance made politics difficult for the Sinclairs. However, the revenues from Orkney were substantial and made it worth the trouble.6
At this time it was unusual for the nobility of Scotland to die a natural death, or to keep hold of their lands for more than a generation. The first Stewart king of Scotland, James, had been murdered in 1437, leaving his six-year-old son, James II, at the mercy of the various factions vying for power.7 The Douglas family was the most formidable enemy of the king and William Sinclair had married Elizabeth Douglas. However, Elizabeth died just before James II came of age in 1451 and William decided to cast his lot with the king.8 It was about this time that he began work on the church.
It seems to have been a status symbol among the Scottish earls to have one’s own collegiate church—a church that was administered by priests, called canons, whose sole job was to say masses, presumably for the souls of the nobles and their families. Collegiate churches were built by Lord Dunbar in 1444 and Lord Crichton in 1449.9 Neither is as elaborate as Rosslyn.
For a while William’s alliance with King James II appeared to bring him even more wealth and power. He became chancellor of Scotland from 1454 to 1456 and was able to regain the earldom of Caithness, lost to his family a hundred years before.
However, the king of Scotland had his eye on the profitable earldom of Orkney. James entered into negotiations with King Christian of Denmark to gain Orkney for himself. This would have left William Sinclair out an important source of income and there were rumors that he tried to sabotage the meeting. Certainly, he fell out of favor with the king. “William . . . must have heaved a sigh of relief when he heard of the sudden demise of the young king at Roxburgh while these negotiations were under way.”10
But the next king, James III, continued his father’s quest for Orkney and in 1470, William was forced to give up his rights in favor of the Scottish crown.
This may be the reason why Rosslyn Church was never completed. Not only was William’s income reduced but his eldest son, William “the Waster,” was so irresponsible that the earl disinherited him, leaving Rosslyn to his second son, Oliver. It was Oliver who seems to have brought the building to a close.11
This is what we know about William Sinclair, fourth and last earl of Orkney. The original charters for the church were lost; the plans destroyed. Only the fantastic building remains, the choir with a truncated wall of the proposed nave jutting out on either side.
THE LEGENDS BEGIN
The fate of the chapel of Rosslyn was tied to the Sinclair family and they had a bad spell of close to two hundred years. The Sinclairs chose the losing side in the power struggles in Scotland and then remained Catholic when the country became Protestant. The chapel was first neglected and then, after long resistance from the lord, another William Sinclair, the altars were demolished.12
The connection of the Sinclair family to the guild of masons and then to the order of Freemasons began in the early seventeenth century. The guild of masons was under the direction of a “master of works,” who was usually from a good family rather than a working mason. In 1583 the title went to William Schaw, from the family of the lairds of Sauchie. The Schaw family was Catholic in Protestant Scotland but that didn’t stop William from making a good career for himself at court. He was a diplomat and served the crown overseas, despite being listed as “a possible Jesuit” by the Scottish equivalent of the secret police.13
When he became master, Schaw set about organizing the guild of masons, setting up statutes for them.14 In about 1600, he decided that the masons needed a lord-protector. It is not known why the current William Sinclair, lord of Rosslyn, was chosen. Perhaps because he was also Catholic; perhaps because of Sinclair’s attempt to preserve the “images and uther monuments of idolatrie” of the chapel.15 As a patron, Sinclair was not an obvious choice. He had been hauled up before the local magistrates on charges of fornication and eventually moved to Ireland with his mistress, a miller’s daughter, leaving the lordship to his son, also named William Sinclair.16
The next William was a model citizen and, although Schaw had died in the interim, a charter was drawn up making Sinclair an official patron of the masons. A copy of this is on display in the museum above the gift shop at Rosslyn.
This had nothing to do with what would later become Freemasonry. It was an agreement between the lord of Rosslyn and the guild of masons.
Nevertheless, the lords of Rosslyn were among the first of the Scottish Freemasons and in 1697 were “obliged to receive the Mason Word.”17
It is from about this time that the legends surrounding Rosslyn began to grow.
The story of the two pillars, the “master” and “apprentice,” is one that can be found in other churches in Scotland. There is a like pair of
Apprentice pi lar (Sharan Newman, with thanks to the Rosslyn Church Trust)
Master pi lar (Sharan Newman, with thanks to the Rosslyn Church Trust)
pillars at twelfth-century Dunfermline Abbey, although the more elaborate of the two is considered the work of the master.18
The story of the pillars is that the master mason finished the first pillar and then went on a journey. When he returned, he discovered that his apprentice had carved a second pillar that far surpassed his. In a rage, the master killed the apprentice. At Rosslyn, the faces of the master and the apprentice are supposed to be among the heads carved into the corners of the ceiling in the chapel. However, there are six heads, not two. One is female and another a demon of some sort.19 This story of the homicidal master mason is first recorded in 1677, by an English tourist, Thomas Kirk.20
The association of the Templars with Rosslyn may have started with Sir Walter Scott, who mentions the lords of Rosslyn in The Lay of the Last Minstral.21Scott is best known for his novel Ivanhoe, which features a Templar as the villain.
The stories about Templars in Scotland, and specifically at Rosslyn, seem to have started at the same time as the society of Freemasons did. The story in its most recent form is that a group of Templars fleeing the Inquisition arrived in Scotland and were given refuge by the Sinclair family at Rosslyn Castle. Over the years the Templars in Scotland are said to have fought for Robert the Bruce, gone to America with the Vikings, and kept a guard on their treasure and/or the Holy Grail.
At the time of the suppression of the order, some Templars may have found refuge in Scotland, but again, there is no record of this and certainly no reference to Rosslyn. I have found no Templar or Grail references in connection to Rosslyn that are earlier than the nineteenth century. None of these stories ever bothers to say how the Templars kept their numbers up over the centuries. Did they marry and raise little Templars? Did they recruit subversively in the neighborhood? Enquiring minds want to know. And that, I suppose, is why we have to invent answers.
How do legends begin? With a chance meeting, a visit to a remarkable chapel, the notice of an odd carving that reminds the viewer of another that is connected to yet another by the imagination. The art of Rosslyn Chapel is an enigma. Why the first William Sinclair had it built and what the designs meant to him will probably never be known. They are fantastic, opulent, and evocative. It’s no wonder that the chapel was brought in to share in the preeminent myths of Western civilization.
The Earl of Rosslyn, Rosslyn Chapel (Roslyn Chapel Trust, 1997) p. 34.
Barbara E. Crawford, “Lord William Sinclair and the Building of Roslin Collegiate Church,” in John Higgitt, Medieval Art and Architecture in the Diocese of St Andrews (British Archaeological Association, 1994) p. 99.
Richard Fawcett, Scottish Medieval Churches (Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2002) p. 163.
Ibid., p. 140.
R. Anderson, “Notice of working drawings scratched on the walls of the crypt at Roslin Chapel,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland Vol. 10, 1872-74, pp. 63-64.
Crawford, p. 100.
Stewart Ross, Monarchs of Scotland (New York: Facts on File, 1990) pp. 85-91.
Crawford, p. 101.
Fawcett, p. 89.
Crawford, p. 104.
Ibid., p. 106.
Rosslyn, p. 239
David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590-1710 (Cambridge University Press, 1988) pp. 26-32.
See chapter 48, The Freemasons.
Stevenson, p. 55.
Ibid., p. 56.
Ibid., p. 60.
Fawcett, p. 165.
I checked this out carefully when I visited Rosslyn.
Karen Ralls, The Templars and the Grail (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2003) p. 184.
Ibid., p. 193.