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 Gælic ross meaning a rocky promontory and lynn meaning a waterfall.
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. 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.
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 the church with ornamentation. The only remnant of planning design is on the wall
of the crypt, probably the first section built.
A lack of documentation is certainly a disaster for historians, but is great fodder for
novelists. The highly wrought carvings at Rosslyn have inspired a number of legends. Before attacking the legends, let’s look at what we know about William Sinclair to see if there are any clues to why he built the church 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 were also 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.
1. At this time, it was unusual for the nobility of Scotland to die a national death, or to keep hold of their lands for more than a generation. The first Steward king of Scotland, James, had been murdered in 1437, leaving his 6 year old son James II, at the mercy of various factions vying for power.
2. 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.
3. It was about this time that he began work on the church.
It seems to have been a status symbol among 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.
4. Neither was as elaborate as Rosslyn.
For a while, William’s alliance with King James II appeared to bring him more wealth and power. He became chancellor of Scotland from 1454 to 1456 and wsa able to regain the earldom of Caithness, lost to his family 100 years before.
However, the King of Scotland had his eye on the profitable earl of Orkney. James II entered into negotiations with King Christian of Denmark to gain Orkney for himself. This would have left William Sinclair out of 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 learned of the young king’s demise at Roxburgh while the negotiations were under way”
5. 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 Chapel was never finished. Not only was William’s income reduced but his 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.
6. This is what we know about William Sinclair, fourth and last earl of Orkney. The original charters for the church were lost; the plans were 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 200 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.
7. The connection between the Sinclair family to the guild of masons then to the order of Freemasons began in the early 17th 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 1585 the title went to William Schaw from the family of the larids of Sauchie. The Schaw family was Catholic in a land of Protestant Scotland, but that didn’t keep 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.
8. When he became master, Schaw set about organizing the guild of masons, setting up statutes for them. 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 Catholic; perhaps of Sinclair’s attempt to preserve the “images and uther monuments of idolatrie” in the chapel.
9. Sinclair was not an obvious choice. He had been hauled up 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.
10. 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.”
11. It is from about this time that the legends surrounding Rosslyn began to grow. The story of the two pillars, the “master” and the “apprentice” is one that can be found in other churches of Scotland. There is a like pair of pillars at the 12th century Dunfermline Abbey, although the more elaborate of the two is considered the work of the master.
12. The story of the pillars is that the master mason finished the first pillar then went on a journey. When he returned, the 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 apprentice are supposed to be among the heads carved into the corners of the ceiling of the chapel. However, there are 6 heads, not 2. One is female and the other a demon of some sort. This story of the homicidal master is first recorded in 1677 by an English tourist, Thomas Kirk.
13. The association with the Templars with Rosslyn may have started with Sir Walter Scott, who mentions the lords of Rosslyn in the The Lay of the Last Minstral.
14. Scott is best known for his novel Ivanhoe which features a Templar as the villain.
The stories about the 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 Chapel. Over the years, the Templars in Scotland are said to have fought with Robert the Bruce, gone to America with the Vikings, and kept 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. No Templar or Grail references have been found in connection to Rosslyn that are earlier than the 19th century.
Barbara E. Crawford, Lord William Sinclair and the Building of Rosslyn Collegiate Church, in John Higgett, Medieval Art and Architecture in the Diocese of St. Andrew (British Archeological Association, 1994( p 200.)
Stewart Ross, Monarchs of Scotland (New York: Facts on File, 1990) pp 85-91.
Richard Fawcett, Scottish Medieval Churches (Gloucestershire Tempus, 2002) p 89.
Crawford, p 104.
Ibid, p 106.
The Earl of Rosslyn, Rosslyn Chapel (Rosslyn Chapel Trust, 1997) p239.
David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry in Scotland’s Century 1590-1710
(Cambridge University Press, 1988) pp. 16-32.
Ibid. p. 55.
10. Ibid. p. 56.
11. Ibid. p. 60.
12. Fawcett. p. 165.
13. Karen Ralls. The Templars and the Grail. (Wheaton IL, Quest Books, 2003), p. 184. 14. Ibid. p. 193.