In the heart of Midlothian, Scotland, on a hill overlooking what is claimed to be one of the largest remaining areas of ancient woodland known as Roslin Glen, is a lovely little collegiate church referred to as Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel has suffered the effects of the Reformation and been the inspiration of many writers and painters. It played a prominent part in the best-selling book by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code and went on to be featured in the movie inspired by said book. Filled with a delicious assortment of mysterious stonework and surrounded by a plethora of (sometimes inaccurate) history, the chapel houses over 500 years of inspiration and enlightenment.
A Worthy Endeavor
Construction on Rosslyn began in 1446. It was commissioned by William St. Clair, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, with the intentions that it would be used to offer prayers for his ancestors and descendants and provide a place of worship for generations to come. It was also to aid in the spread of intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Referring to Sir William’s idea for Rosslyn, Father Richard Hay, author of A Genealogie of the Saintclaires of Rosslyn said, “It came into his mind to build a house for God’s service, of most curious work, the which that it might be done with greater glory and splendor…”
When St. Clair died in 1484 construction on the chapel was halted. Sir William was buried under the unfinished choir section and the chapel was left as it was. Sir William’s son, Oliver, either didn’t want to spend the money, or lost interest in the chapel construction, for he simply put a roof over the choir section and that became what we now know as Rosslyn Chapel. The larger portion of the building that was planned was never finished.
A hundred years later the winds of Reformation would blow through Scotland wreaking havoc on Catholic chapels such as Rosslyn. Another Oliver St. Clair would be commanded to tear down the altars within the chapel as it was reputed as a “house and monument of idolatry.” After the altars were destroyed the chapel was left to ruin.
The Mystery and Symbolism of the Stonework
According to Father Hay, when Sir William St. Clair began the building of the Rosslyn, “he caused artificers to be brought from other regions and foreign kingdoms and caused daily to be abundance of all kinds of workmen present as masons, carpenters, smiths, barrowmen and quarriers…”
Rosslyn is filled with symbols cut into the stonework of the interior. The result of many artisans, most are of a Biblical nature (it is a church after all). However, not all the Biblical carvings are saintly, as there are several symbols of the devil, fallen angels, sin and death. There are other symbols that have no apparent Biblical reference, and some appear to refer to objects that were not even known to Scotland at the time of the construction. Some stonework and etchings refer to the St. Clair family, and others appear to be practically pagan in nature.
The Knights Templar Connection
Although Rosslyn Chapel plays a role in Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code, some historians claim that there really are no connections with the Knights Templar to Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel was not built by the Knights Templar and although many of the men in the St. Clair family were known to be knights, they were not Templar Knights. According to Rosslyn historian, Michael Turnbull, Templar Knights took a vow of poverty, chastity, and loyalty to their order. The St. Clair family knights were men of wealth, married and had children and were loyal to their king.
The St. Clair family had roots that grew deep in religious and royal loyalty. Several of Sir William’s ancestors were friends of Robert the Bruce. Two of his ancestors, brothers by the names of William and John were chosen to accompany Sir Robert Douglas to carry the heart of Bruce to Jerusalem. All three of these men were killed in one final service to their dead king. (You can read more about that story here.) Robert the Bruce was said to have been aided by the Knights Templar during the Battle of Bannockburn. Since the St. Clair family were closely associated with Bruce, some historians believe there has been some confusion pertaining to the St. Clair family and the Knights Templar.
Although the Knights Templar were disbanded over 100 years earlier, other researchers tend to believe that the four altars on the east wall of the Lady Chapel are a symbolic reference to the four final Templars who had been tried after the dissolution of the Knights Templar. They would be Jacques de Molay (Grand Master of the Order), Geoffrey de Charney (Grand Commander of Normandy), Geoffrey of Goneville (Grand Commander of Aquitaine, & Poitou), and Hugh Peraud (Grand Commander of the Isle de France). Just as one of the altars is elevated higher than the other three, could these altars represent the four Tempars, one (the Grand Master) ranked higher than the other three (Grand Commanders)? The details behind this connection are too in depth to go into here, therefore I will leave that to the reader to take on further research on the subject. (http://www.masonicsourcebook.com/rosslyn_chapel_freemasonry.htm)
The Freemason Connection
It is a common belief that with the abolishment of the Knights Templar came the birth of the Freemasons. In keeping with the Templar/Freemason connection there is one very intriguing story about the Rosslyn stonework which pertains to two intricately carved columns within the chapel. These are known as the Mason’s Pillar and the Apprentice Pillar. Legend says that while the master mason was away researching the design that had been requested for the pillar, his apprentice had a dream in which it was revealed to him what the design of the pillar should be. Upon the master’s return, he found that his apprentice had finished the beautiful carving of the pillar. In a fit of jealousy, the master flew into a rage and struck the apprentice over the head with a hammer, killing him.
Both men are forever commemorated within the walls of the chapel. One head carved into the stone with a gash on its forehead, looking across the way at another, the head of his master and killer.
This story closely resembles the murder of Hiram Abif, the master mason involved in the building of Solomon’s Temple. The Freemasons, who have ties with these ancient stonemasons view this event as symbolic and tie them to the construction of Rosslyn Chapel.
According to Freemason historian and scholar, Dr. Albert Mackie, Sir William St. Clair, the Earl of Orkney and Caithness was appointed the title of Patron and Protector of the Freemasons of Scotland in 1441 by King James II. This became a hereditary title that would be passed down through the St. Clair generations. However, when King James VI failed to exercise his prerogative of nominating office-bearers, the Freemasons found themselves without a Protector. Therefore, the Freemasons themselves appointed William St. Clair of Roslin (too many Williamses! Lol) as their Protector around 1600. Then, in 1630, a second charter was granted, giving William’s son, Sir William St. Clair the same power his father had been given. He was given the title the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. St. Clair assumed the administrative role and the office continued to be passed down for more than 100 years, until the final Saint Clair, recognizing he would have no heir, offered to let the office be appointed by election. (http://www.masonicdictionary.com/sinclair.html)
Some of the imagery carved into Rosslyn is said to have hints of Masonic rites. However, in spite of the Freemasons’ claims on the founder of Rosslyn Chapel, the New World Encyclopedia claims that the earliest records of Freemasonic lodges date back only to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rosslyn_Chapel). Thus, we are left to wonder if the images we see carved in stone were pieces to a Masonic puzzle, or are people only seeing what they want to see?
The Heart of Inspiration
The setting of Rosslyn Chapel next to Roslin Glen, and the mere beauty of the intricate stonework, both inside and out, have cast Rosslyn Chapel into a rather romantic light. Its loveliness has been praised by author and painter alike, and many have found inspiration in its splendor.
Sir Walter Scott not only wrote a poem of Rosslyn called The Lay of the Last Minstrel, but he also drew inspiration for his Chapel of the Hermit Engaddi in The Talisman, from the beautiful stonework of Rosslyn Chapel.
Robert Burns, inspired by the reddish hues of the glowing sunrise hitting Rosslyn Chapel is said to have scratched the following poem, Epigram at Roslin Inn, onto a pewter plate at Roslin Inn afterward:
My blessings on ye, honest wife! I ne’er was here before; Ye’ve wealth o’ gear for spoon and knife- Heart could not wish for more. Heav’n keep you clear o’ sturt and strife, Till far ayont fourscore, And while I toddle on thro’ life, I’ll ne’er gae by your door!
Painter David Roberts sketched and painted several works pertaining to Rosslyn Chapel. His artistry capures the intricacies of the carved stonework that make Rosslyn so special. Below are two of his three oil paintings honoring the Chapel.
Queen Victoria visited Rosslyn Chapel in 1842. When she saw the unkept condition and overgrown state of the chapel she expressed a desire to have the chapel reinstated to its former glory that it might be “preserved for the country.” Within 20 years the chapel had been restored and opened for worshipers, this time as an Episcopalian house of worship.
2 thoughts on “Rosslyn Chapel”
This is wonderful reading. I hope to visit there one day.
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Thank you, Sarah. May your wishes come true! It is a beautiful place and so worth the visit. The pictures just don’t do it justice.