When I arrived at the visitor’s center, I hadn’t booked on line as the website instructed, so I had to produce a credit card to pay (contactless payments only.) The young woman tending the pay point commented on my name: Sinclair. We both had a chuckle about it. I have no idea if I’m related or not. I was curious mainly because of the “DaVinci Code,” just like thousands of other visitors.
I stepped out of the visitors’ center, and looked at the Chapel. It doesn’t seem huge when you look at it from the side. Some people are disappointed by that because in the various paintings and photographs, it looks like it should be bigger, similar to the “Sphinx effect.”
What we know as the Rosslyn Chapel was officially named the “Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew,” and founded by Sir William St. Clair in 1446. The original plans were for a large cruciform (shaped like a cross) building with a tower in the center, much like the abbeys that dot the Scottish countryside.
“Collegiate Chapels” were all the rage in the years between 1406 and 1513, the years ruled by James I through James IV. These were secular foundations, meaning they were not owned by the Church, and their purpose was to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge, and, by the way, provide people to pray for the patrons after their death so they could be assured of a blissful eternal life. How large, how decorated, and how well staffed these collegiate chapels were depended on the wealth of their founder and benefactor.
Sir William was a very rich man. The St Clairs owned lands in the Orkney Islands, Caithness, Fife, Lothian, and Rosslyn, and held the title of Baron of Rosslyn and Prince of Orkney. He endowed the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew with provision for a provost, six prebendaries, and two choristers. Later – 1523 – his grandson Sir William provided land for dwelling houses and gardens for these.
The founder hired “an abundance of all kinds of workmen.” These were masons, carpenters, smiths, barrow men, and quarriers. To provide for them and their families, Sir William built the town of Roslin, and gave everyone a house and land, in addition to the wages he paid, which were generous for their time.
When a person walks toward the Chapel from the visitors’ center, they are approaching the north wall. On the north wall at the edge of the roof, is an inscription: W L S F Y C Y Z O G M iii I L. The letters are carved on shields, alternating with shields bearing the engrailed Cross of the St Clairs. They are very hard to see from the ground, but they are there. It stands for: “William Lord Sinclair Fundit Yis College Ye Zeir Of God MCCCCL.” (The Rosslyn translation says “Sinclair” instead of “St Clair,” which they use nearly everywhere else. I don’t know why.) The date is 1450 rather than 1446, perhaps indicating that the foundations took four years.
I would add that my passing acquaintance with Middle English indicates that “Y” symbolized a diphthong we would now write as “th” rather than a “y” sound – so all those “Ye Olde Shoppes” in tourist-trap villages would have sounded like “The Old Shops” if pronounced accurately. I can’t vouch for the “Z” that must have sounded like what we would now write as a “y,” but the people at Rosslyn probably know and I’ll take their word for it.
The outside is interesting enough, with the flourishes, gargoyles, and carved figures that appear around the windows and roof, but it is the inside that is overwhelming.
When I visited, there were three other people plus the docent, Norheena. In the last half hour of my time slot, I had the whole place to myself and an enjoyable conversation about the Chapel with Norheena. It has not always been so uncrowded. After “The DaVinci Code” became a blockbuster movie, the number of visitors soared, and some days there were a thousand visitors crowding through the Chapel.
The sacristy was not open when I visited the Chapel, due to distancing requirements. Norheena indicated the nineteen Rosslyn barons, from William the Seemly, created Baron in 1070, to Sir William St Clair, who died in 1778, “The Last Rosslyn,” are interred in a crypt beneath the Chapel floor because Sir William the Founder brought the previous barons to the Chapel, and then the following nine were interred there also.
The earlier barons are laid out in their armor, as described in the poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” written in 1805 by Sir Walter Scott. He took some literary license, as the poem claims the barons number twenty, although he may have included one St Clair who was killed before he succeeded to the barony, but left behind a son who became the next baron. Norheena said that at some point, they began using coffins, but she didn’t know exactly when. Sir Walter Scott’s poem was based on a local legend that the Chapel glowed in the night when a Baron of Rosslyn died.
The guide book, however, indicates “three princes of Orkney and nine barons of Rosslyn are buried here,” according to a 17th century engineer. In the context of the engineer’s commentary, it’s not clear whether “here” means the sacristy specifically, or the Chapel as a whole. Further, it speculates with some confidence that the sacristy building may be older than the Chapel itself, i.e. existed prior to 1446. It is connected physically to the Chapel now, but is built into the slope on the eastern side of the Chapel, and could easily have been an earlier structure incorporated into the construction of the Chapel.
It is perfectly plausible that early interments took place there, and either remain there or were moved to join the other barons in the crypt. Frankly, I prefer the rather romantic notion that they all lie together underneath the Chapel in the crypt.
Sir William the Founder did not live to see the Chapel finished, even this section, which was to be the choir section of a much bigger building. What we see today took forty years, 1446 – 1486. After he died, his son, Oliver St Clair, saw a roof built onto the Chapel, but there was no more work done toward finishing the building that Sir William had planned. Perhaps Sir Oliver saw the future.
The Reformation, which is usually dated from 1517, when Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, arrived in Scotland by 1560, led by John Knox. The Church of Scotland grew quickly and dominated Protestant theology in Scotland. Calvinism was the Reformation theology taught by John Knox. It was an austere approach to worship that frowned on anything hinting at idolatry, such as flowery decorations or human images, especially if the images were not the Apostles or other saints. In other words, anything like the Rosslyn Chapel.
The Chapel’s survival was not a sure thing. When the founder Sir William died in 1484, he left endowments for the Chapel, as mentioned earlier. In 1571, the provost and prebendaries resigned. Local records show that the endowments were taken “by force and violence” away from the Chapel and placed in secular governance.
Even being John Knox’s brother was not much protection. “The Presbytery records of Dalkeith reveal that in 1589 William Knox, brother of John Knox and minister of Cockpen, was censured ‘for baptising the Laird of Rosling’s bairne’ in Rosslyn Chapel, which was described as a ‘house and monument of idolatrie, and not ane place appointit for teiching the word and ministration of ye sacramentis’” (From the Rosslyn Chapel Guidebook, written by the Earl of Rosslyn.)
In 1592, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland required Oliver St Clair (a later one) to remove the altars of the Chapel or face excommunication. The altars were removed, the Chapel ceased to be a place of worship, and began to deteriorate. There were further indignities during the English Civil War, when the building was used to stable horses, and again after James II was deposed by William of Orange, when a local mob broke into the Chapel, destroying furniture and vestments now considered “Popish,” and damaging the building some more.
The Chapel survived principally because it was privately owned, thereby escaping the destruction that consumed many Catholic Church properties, and because of its relatively remote location, away from large cities. It remained unused and unattended until 1736, when General James St Clair commissioned some repairs, which included glazing the windows and fixing the roof.
The Chapel’s fortunes improved from there. It was repaired enough that it was rededicated by the Bishop of Edinburgh in 1862. Not all repairs turned out to be helpful, but finally, in the twentieth century, comprehensive conservation plans were made, funds were raised, and the Chapel has been brought back to its former condition, aged somewhat.
According to the guide, at one time these sections were all painted, the flowers with their green leaves, red or white flowers, and silver stars against a deep blue background, representing the sky. I have heard this while visiting other medieval buildings that are now grey, brownish, or pink, depending on the stone used, that at one time they were painted bright and glorious colors. Castles gleamed in white with bright trim. It seems amazing to think about now, with the drab, unpainted exteriors that survive.
The pillars, along with the roof, were covered with flora in frequently lush representations, such as the photo above. There were “Green Man” images in many places. Chapel historians say that this was because the 4th Baron of Rosslyn was sympathetic to the plight of gypsies who traveled through the area, although the Green Man is well-known and popular throughout Scotland, even without the gypsy association.
Some of the flora has equal interest by reason of its uniqueness. There is an archway that is decorated with ears of maize, a plant originating in the Americas, not in Europe, and the image below, the top plant with three leaves that has been identified as trillium, again a plant originating in the Americas and not in Europe, pictured below. Some believe these plants represented a nod to ancestor Henry St Clair, the 1st Prince of Orkney, who was said to have sailed to North America around 1398.
As I mentioned, there is an active congregation, although they are not meeting currently. Someday, I hope I would be able to come back and see the Chapel as an active venue, learn more about the history, and explore more of the Chapel.