Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel
Rosslyn Chapel.jpg
Rosslyn Chapel is located in Midlothian
Rosslyn Chapel
Rosslyn Chapel
Shown within Midlothian
55°51′19″N 3°09′37″W / 55°51′19″N 3°09′37″W / 55.85528; -3.16028
OS grid reference NT275630
Location Roslin, Midlothian
Country Scotland
Denomination Scottish Episcopal Church
Previous denomination Roman Catholic
Dedication Saint Matthew
Status Chapel
Functional status Active
Heritage designation Category A
Groundbreaking 20 September 1456
Diocese Edinburgh
Priest in charge The Revd Dr Joe Roulston
Director of music John Cranston
Listed Building – Category A
Official name: Rosslyn Chapel (Episcopal), formerly Collegiate Church of St Matthew,
including vaults, burial ground and boundary hills
Designated 22 January 1971
Reference no. 13028 [1]

Rosslyn Chapel, formally known as the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, is a 15th-century chapel located in the village of Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland.

Rosslyn Chapel was founded on a small hill above Roslin Glen as a Catholic collegiate church (with between four and six ordained canons and two boy choristers) in the mid-15th century. The chapel was founded by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness of the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family. Rosslyn Chapel is the third Sinclair place of worship at Roslin, the first being in Roslin Castle and the second (whose crumbling buttresses can still be seen today) in what is now Roslin Cemetery. [2]

Sinclair founded the college to celebrate the Divine Office throughout the day and night, and also to celebrate Masses for all the faithful departed, including the deceased members of the Sinclair family. During this period, the rich heritage of plainsong (a single melodic line) or polyphony (vocal harmony) were used to enrich the singing of the liturgy. Sinclair provided an endowment to pay for the support of the priests and choristers in perpetuity. The priests also had parochial responsibilities.

After the Scottish Reformation (1560), Roman Catholic worship in the chapel was brought to an end. The Sinclair family continued to be Roman Catholics until the early 18th century. From that time, the chapel was closed to public worship until 1861. It was re-opened as a place of worship according to the rites of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a member church of the Anglican Communion.

It was reported in The Argus of Melbourne, Australia that Rosslyn Chapel was the site of an alleged bombing attempt by a suffragette. [3]

Since the late 1980s, the chapel has been the subject of speculative theories concerning a connection with the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, and Freemasonry. It was prominently featured in this role in Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) and its 2006 film adaptation. Medieval historians say these accounts have no basis in fact.

Rosslyn Chapel remains privately owned. The current owner is Peter St Clair-Erskine, 7th Earl of Rosslyn. [4]

Interior of the chapel.


Pendant keystone in the roof

The original plans for Rosslyn have never been found or recorded, so it is open to speculation whether or not the chapel was intended to be built in its current layout. Its architecture is considered to be among the finest in Scotland. [5]

Construction of the chapel began on 20 September 1456, although it has often been recorded as 1446. The confusion over the building date comes from the chapel's receiving its founding charter to build a collegiate chapel in 1446 from Rome. Sinclair did not start to build the chapel until he had built houses for his craftsmen.

Although the original building was to be cruciform in shape, it was never completed. Only the choir was constructed, with the retro-chapel, otherwise called the Lady chapel, built on the much earlier crypt (Lower Chapel) believed to form part of an earlier castle. The foundations of the unbuilt nave and transepts stretching to a distance of 90 feet were recorded in the 19th century. The decorative carving was executed over a forty-year period. After the founder's death, construction of the planned nave and transepts was abandoned - either from lack of funds, lack of interest or a change in liturgical fashion.

The Lower Chapel (also known as the crypt or sacristy) should not be confused with the burial vaults that lie underneath Rosslyn Chapel. [2]

The chapel stands on fourteen pillars, which form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave. At the east end, a fourteenth pillar between the penultimate pair form a three-pillared division between the nave and the Lady chapel. [6] The three pillars at the east end of the chapel are named, from north to south: the Master Pillar, the Journeyman Pillar and, most famously, the Apprentice Pillar. These names for the pillars date from the late Georgian period — prior to this period they were called the Earl's Pillar, the Shekinah and the Prince's Pillar.

Apprentice pillar

The Apprentice Pillar

One of the more notable architectural features of the Chapel is the "Apprentice Pillar, or "Prentice Pillar". Originally called the "Prince's Pillar" (in the 1778 document An Account of the Chapel of Roslin) [7] the name morphed over time due to a legend dating from the 18th century, involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice mason. According to the legend, the master mason did not believe that the apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing the original which formed the inspiration for the design.

The master mason travelled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column by himself. In a fit of jealous anger, the master mason took his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. The legend concludes that as punishment for his crime, the master mason's face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice's pillar. [8]

On the architrave joining the pillar there is an inscription, Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas: "Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all" ( 1 Esdras, chapters 3 & 4).

The author Henning Klovekorn has proposed that the pillar is representative of one of the roots of the Nordic Yggdrasil tree, prominent in Germanic and Norse mythology. He compares the dragons at the base of the pillar to the dragons found eating away at the base of the Yggdrasil root and, pointing out that at the top of the pillar is carved tree foliage, argues that the Nordic/Viking association is plausible considering the many auxiliary references in the chapel to Celtic and Norse mythology. [9][ undue weight? ] The general form of the pillar has been related to a type described by the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as a "bunch of sausages." [10]

A full-size cast of the Apprentice Pillar and the adjacent bay of the chapel was made in 1871, and is in the cast room of the Vitoria and Albert Museum in London [11]


Among Rosslyn's many intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes or "boxes" protruding from pillars and arches with a selection of patterns on them. It is unknown if these patterns have any particular meaning attached to them. Many people have attempted to find information coded into them, but no interpretation has yet proven conclusive. Unfortunately, many of these 'boxes' are not original, having been replaced in the 19th century after erosion damage.

One recent attempt to make sense of the boxes has been to interpret them as a musical score. The motifs on the boxes somewhat resemble geometric patterns seen in the study of cymatics. The patterns are formed by placing powder upon a flat surface and vibrating the surface at different frequencies. By matching these Chladni patterns with musical notes corresponding to the same frequencies, the father-and-son team of Thomas and Stuart Mitchell produced a tune which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet. [12] [13]

Green Man of the chapel

There are more than 110 carvings of " Green Men" in and around the chapel. Green Men are carvings of human faces with greenery all around them, often growing out of their mouths. They are found in all areas of the chapel, with one example in the Lady chapel, between the two middle altars of the east wall.

Carvings, which some believe depict Indian corn (maize)

Other carvings represent plants, including depictions of wheat, strawberries or lilies. [14] The authors Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight have hypothesized that some carvings in the chapel represent ears of new world corn or maize, a plant which was unknown in Europe at the time of the chapel's construction. Knight and Lomas view these carvings as evidence supporting the idea that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, travelled to the Americas well before Columbus. [15][ undue weight? ] In their book they discuss meeting with the wife of botanist Adrian. Dyer, and that Dyer's wife told him that Dyer agreed that the image thought to be maize was accurate. [15] In fact Dyer found only one identifiable plant among the botanical carvings and suggested that the "maize" and "aloe" were stylized wooden patterns, only coincidentally looking like real plants. [16]


The chapel has been a burial place for several generations of the Sinclairs; a crypt was once accessible from a descending stair at the rear of the chapel. This crypt has been sealed shut for many years, which may explain the recurrent legends that it is merely a front to a more extensive subterranean vault containing (variously) the mummified head of Jesus Christ, [17] the Holy Grail, [18] the treasure of the Templars, [19] or the original crown jewels of Scotland. [20]

In 1837, when the 2nd Earl of Rosslyn died, his wish was to be buried in the original vault. Exhaustive searches over the period of a week were made, but no entrance to the original vault was found and he was buried beside his wife in the Lady Chapel. [21]

Rooftop pinnacle

The pinnacles on the rooftop have been subject to interest during renovation work in 2010. Nesting jackdaws had made the pinnacles unstable and as such had to be dismantled brick by brick revealing the existence of a chamber specifically made by the stonemasons to harbour bees. The hive, now abandoned, has been sent to local bee keepers to identify. [22]

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