Monday, 22 July 2013

A Sentimental Visit to Rosslyn Chapel

A visitor at the south doorway of Rosslyn Chapel.
Note the empty niches which once held "images of idolatry".
A photograph by George Washington Wilson, pre 1888  

My paternal family have a strong connection with the village of Roslin, located just south of Edinburgh in Scotland, being our ancestral "home" until the 19th century. The family home stood in the centre of the village, now being the site of the Roslin Glen Hotel. Many generations of my immediate family "sleep" in the old graveyard in the shadow of the historic Rosslyn Chapel. I myself have made three sentimental 'pilgrimages' to Roslin but the highlight has undoubtedly always been a visit to Rosslyn Chapel.

But to fully appreciate this ancient and fascinating place of worship we need to learn something of its often turbulent history, notably a powerful family line of feudal Barons, changing fortunes which chart the rise of Scottish Protestantism; wanton destruction, neglect, then rehabilitation; a romantic Victorian re-interpretation expressed in poetry and prose; and lastly, enduring mysteries now shrouded in the mists of time. A wonderful BBC documentary on Rosslyn Chapel is available on UTube and can be accessed Here.

Roslin [sic Roflyin] shown below at left of centre on a
map by Timothy Pont, pre 1614. Edinburgh [Edenburgh]
 is shown at top left of centre. Published 1630.
[Source : National Library of Scotland] 

Legend has it that a settlement in the Roslin area had originally been founded by "Asterius" in AD 199 but evidence of Roman occupation also exists. The French born Nobleman William de Sancto Claro [William St. Clair] arrived in Roslin from England after 1066, lured thither by the grants of land which [the Scottish King] Malcolm Canmore was wont to bestow upon those who fled to him from William's [the English William the Conqueror] tyranny.” Roslin would thereafter always primarily be associated with the St Clair family who built the now semi-ruinous Rosslyn Castle around 1070 and then the afore-mentioned Rosslyn Chapel from 1446.  

A useful history compiled in 1700 by a learned member of the St Clair family (and a Roman Catholic Priest), Father Richard Augustine Hay, being finally published in 1835 as “A Geneologie of the Sainte Claires of Rosslyn”, is now the only record of the actual construction and early history of Rosslyn Chapel as the original historic documents and charters have subsequently disappeared [according to the St Clair family they were lost in a fire]. As we shall read, the generous philanthropy of Sir William St Claire is to be applauded in these feudal times.

Rosslyn [Rosslin] Chapel as it appeared prior to the removal
of the "idolatrous" figurines in 1592. From an engraving
published in "Theatrum Scotiae" by John Slezer, 1693 

“[The Founder, Sir William Saint Claire] … his age creeping on him, made him consider how he had spent his time past, and how to spend that which was to come. Therefor, to the end, that he might not seem altogither unthankfull to God for the benefices he received from him, it came in his minde to build a house for God's service, of most curious worke, the which that it might be done with greater glory and splendour he caused artificers to be brought from other regions and forraigne kingdomes and caused dayly to be abundance of all kinde of workemen present, as massons [stone masons], carpenters, smiths, barrowmen, and quarriers... The foundation of this worke he caused to be laid in the year of our Lord 1446,... and because he thought the massons had not a convenient place to lodge in near the place where he builded this curious colledge, for the towne then stood half a mile from the place where it now stands, towitt, at Bilsdone burne therefor he made them build the towne of Rosline, that now is extant, and gave every one of them a house, and lands answerable thereunto;.... He rewarded the massons according to their degree, as to the master masson he gave nearly 40 pounds yearly, and to every one of the rest 10 pounds, and accordingly did he reward the others, as the smiths and the carpenters with others...”.

Interior view of Rosslyn Chapel by David Roberts, 1828

The Chapel had in fact originally been intended to be built in the form of a cross with a lofty tower in the centre but this was never completed due to the death of its founder in 1484. Only the choir and east wall of the transept had been built, while the remaining parts had scarcely been commenced. Sir William's son and successor to the Barony of Rosslyn, Sir Oliver St Clair, roofed the choir with its stone vault but did no more to fulfill his Father's original design. The foundations of the nave were in fact excavated in the nineteenth century and were found to extend ninety-one feet beyond the Chapel's original west door and under the existing Baptistry and Churchyard.

Visitors inspecting the "Prentice Pillar" in Rosslyn
Chapel. The entrance to the crypt is located under
the window. A painting by David Roberts, 1843

The Chapel, as built, is in itself a curious architectural work :  

"That part of the building which has been finished, is in the style of architecture which is called florid Gothic. Elegance and variety are its distinguishing characteristics. While every separate department is executed with almost inimitable beauty, all the parts are different; every window, every pillar, and every arch being distinguished from all the rest by ornamental workmanship of the most profuse and exquisite description….

No sooner does a visitor enter the chapel than he is struck with the immense profusion and the wonderful variety of the ornaments; and above all, with the grandeur and magnificence of the lofty roof, which is composed of a vast Gothic arch, divided into five compartments, each of them remarkable for the beauty and the diversity of its decorations. 

“The floor of the east chapel is elevated one step; and... Here stood four altars, viz. one which is elevated two steps from the floor of the east chapel, and which seems to be improperly called the high altar, having more probably been dedicated to the Virgin Mary; and other three altars on the floor of this chapel, which were dedicated respectively to St. Matthew, St Peter, and St Andrew. The top stones of these four altars have been removed, but the bodies of them remain, in great measure, entire...." 

The same view today as pictured above,
taken looking along the Chancel.

In his “Theatrum Scotiae” of 1693, John Slezer states that the "chief pillar" in Rosslyn Chapel was originally called the “Prince's Pillar” named for its founder Sir William St. Clair, Prince of Orkney.

This same pillar is now known as the celebrated "Prentice Pillar" and appears to take its current name from an 18th century legend involving the Master Mason in charge of the stonework in the Chapel and his young apprentice, being the only son of a widow. According to the legend, the Master Mason was required to carve an elaborate column for the Chapel but desired to travel to Rome to seek further guidance before undertaking such a detailed and challenging work. Upon his return he was enraged to find that his apprentice had successfully completed the column, either from memory or by his own invention. In a fit of jealous rage the Mason took up his heavy setting maul [mallet] and struck the apprentice on the forehead, killing him. The column thus remained unique. 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 then he paid the ultimate penalty for his crime, death by hanging. Similar legends are however attributed to various European Churches and buildings.

The Entrance to the Crypt in Rosslyn Chapel
with the "Prentice Pillar" at left of centre,
a painting by David Roberts, 1844

Annie Wilson, the eccentric Landlady of the nearby Roslin Inn on College Hill, recited exactly the same tale to countless visitors until her death in the 1820’s. This undoubtedly perpetuated the ‘legend’ to a wider audience, especially as it was told to such learned individuals as Dr Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Alexander Nasmyth and Robert Burns. 

Virtually the same view as above and showing the "Prentice Pillar".
A photograph by William Donaldson Clark, circa 1860
[Source : National Galleries of Scotland]

Although a private chapel, the local community, including those who worked for the St Clair family, worshipped here in the years preceding the Reformation, including no doubt, my own family. But at the Protestant Reformation in 1560 the Scottish Parliament formally abolished the temporal authority of the Pope and forbid the celebration of the Catholic Mass.  Thereafter Rosslyn Chapel closed to public worship, its fortunes now in sharp decline.

Detail of the astonishingly beautiful carved
pillars, arches and ceiling beams. Photograph
taken by George Washington Wilson, 1868

In the 1560’s it is recorded that a mob fuelled by John Knox and hatred of Popish idolatry marched on the Chapel intent on its destruction, but was supposedly saved by a local man - possibly a kinsman - by the name of Thomas Cochrane, who diverted the mob to Rosslyn Castle and its cellars of fine wine. This is a curious story in that a Presbyterian mob ostensibly intent on destroying Popish idolatry would be 'lured' away by "the demon drink". Unfortunately, the source of this anecdote, being published by "The Scotsman" newspaper in 2006, is unknown. 

The "Prentice Pillar" as it appeared in a
 photograph by George Washington Wilson,
 taken pre 1885  

The Chapel had been generously endowed by its founder Sir William St Clair and subsequently by later members of the family. But by 1571 the tide was now turning as the Provost and Prebendaries resigned “…withal complaining that, for many years before, their revenues [endowments] had been violently detained from them.” The local populace were obviously no longer of a mind to support those who followed and promoted Catholicism.

The celebrated "Prentice Pillar", from a
tinted postcard sent to my Uncle in 1908.
[From my own collection]

A descendant (another) William St Clair, had one of his sons baptised in Rosslyn Chapel 1589 which was of course no longer being authorized as a place of public worship. William was unperturbed by the outcry which ensued. The records of the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Dalkeith for 1589 reveal that William Knox, Minister of nearby Cockpen Parish, and a brother of the Protestant leader John Knox no less, was censured “for baptizing 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 ministratioun of ye sacrementis”. William Knox was forced to make a public plea for forgiveness. The Presbytery official had to postpone interviewing St Clair, who had by then been “arrested and charged with threatening the King’s person”.

Ceiling detail of the Lady Chapel of Rosslyn Chapel.
A photograph by George Washington Wilson
Taken pre 1888

In 1590 the Presbytery also forbade Mr George Ramsay, Minister of Lasswade, from burying the wife of Oliver St. Clair in the Chapel. The same St Clair had been repeatedly warned to destroy the altars having been accused of “keeping images and uther monuments of idolatrie” in Rosslyn Chapel. Presbytery forced St Clair's tenants to attend the Parish Kirk at Lasswade, being in the next village. In 1592 St Clair was summoned to appear before the Church of Scotland General Assembly and threatened with excommunication if the altars remained standing after the 17th August 1592. On the 31st August 1592, the same George Ramsay reported that “the altars of Roslene were haille demolishit”. From that time, although the fabric of the building survived, the Chapel ceased to be used as a house of worship and prayer and soon fell into disrepair. The various niches where the "images of idolatry" were situated are still clearly visible to this day.

A carved ceiling beam in Rosslyn Chapel.
This carving dipicts the seven virtues.

During their attack on nearby Rosslyn Castle in 1650, Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth troops under General Monk stabled their horses in the Chapel but quite inexplicably left it otherwise unharmed. Some have speculated that the Chapel held a special significance within the Order of Freemasonry and that Cromwell himself, being 'Master Mason of England', thus requested that the Chapel be spared any damage. No definite proof to support this interpretation has however ever been uncovered.

But on the 11th December 1688, and shortly after the Protestant Hanoverian King William of Orange had landed in England and displaced the Catholic Stuart Sovereign James II at the so called “Glorious Revolution”, a mob from Edinburgh including some of the villagers from Roslin, entered and defaced the Chapel which they regarded as popish and idolatrous. This same mob also did great damage to Rosslyn Castle.

One of the so called "Green Men" of
Rosslyn Chapel, which are said to
represent renewal and fertility 

After 1736, General St Clair caused the windows to be glazed for the first time, previously there had only been shutters on the outside, the iron hinges still being visible after this date. He also had the roof repaired, placed new flagstones on the floor, and built the boundary stone fence round the cemetery. Further repairs were undertaken at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

A modern view of the ceiling carvings
in Rosslyn Chapel

Dorothy Wordsworth visited the Chapel with her brother, the famous poet William Wordsworth, on the 17th September 1803, noting that it “…is kept locked up, and so preserved from the injuries it might otherwise receive from idle boys; but as nothing is done to keep it together, it must in the end fall. The architecture is quite exquisitely beautiful.” Seeing the derelict stone interior and carvings covered in green foliage while a storm crashed outside inspired the poet to write a sonnet entitled Composed at Roslin Chapel During a Storm”, being published in 1831 :

THE wind is now thy organist;--a clank
(We know not whence) ministers for a bell
To mark some change of service. As the swell
Of music reached its height, and even when sank
The notes, in prelude, ROSLIN! to a blank
Of silence, how it thrilled thy sumptuous roof,
Pillars, and arches,--not in vain time-proof,
Though Christian rites be wanting! From what bank
Came those live herbs? by what hand were they sown
Where dew falls not, where rain-drops seem unknown?
Yet in the Temple they a friendly niche
Share with their sculptured fellows, that, green-grown,
Copy their beauty more and more, and preach,
Though mute, of all things blending into one

The Crypt in Rosslyn Chapel

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) further popularised Rosslyn Chapel as a place of pilgrimage when he wrote the “Dirge of Rosabelle”. His poem perpetuates the superstitious belief from the dark ages that on the night before the death of a Baron of Roslin, the Chapel, by supernatural means, would appear to be in flames :

O'er Rosslyn all that dreary night,
A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam;
'Twas broader than the watch-fire's light,
And redder than the bright moon-beam...

Seem'd all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Rosslyn's chiefs uncofim'd lie,
Each Baron, for a sable shroud
Sheathed in his iron panoply.

Seem'd all on fire within, around,
Deep sacristy and altar's pale;
Shone every pillar foliage-bound,
And glimmer'd all the dead men's mail.

Blazed battlement and pinnet high,
Blazed every rose-carved buttress fair
So still they blaze, when fate is nigh
The lordly line of high St. Clair."

The light and airy interior of Rosslyn Chapel as it appears today.
It is interesting to note that candelabra are obviously still used.
These would impart a beautiful atmosphere to a darkened Chapel.

There is also the quite curious but possibly apocryphal tale published in 1837 in “Tales of Roslin” by Mr James Jackson which relates the story of a visit to Rosslyn Chapel and Castle by the Italian Count Poli in June 1834. Poli claimed to be a descendant of the last Provost of Rosslyn Chapel, who had been forced out at the Reformation, later settling in Italy. Count Poli had with him a book describing the Chapel and Castle as it was when abandoned in the 16th century, which he used when showing Jackson and his companions around the two buildings. In the Chapel, Count Poli lamented the absence in the crypt of the 'splendid tomb' of the early St Clairs. Later, Poli led his companions to a place in the Castle vaults where he knew 'treasure' to be hidden, and which they broke into. The treasure was not gold or material wealth, but books and manuscripts, the larger part of which the Count took away. It is believed that this included a copy of the ‘Rota Temporum’, a history of Scotland from 'the beginning of the world until 1535', which is now supposedly in the Vatican Library.

An exterior gargoyle carving, Rosslyn Chapel

Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Albert, famously visited the Chapel on the 14th September 1842 during her first ever visit to Scotland. The Queen’s personal journal records the story of the Barons of Rosslyn being buried in their armour but also that “the architecture is most beautiful and rich.” The Queen is reliably said to have been “so impressed with the beauty of the building, that she expressed a desire that so unique a gem should be preserved to the country.”

The Chancel of Rosslyn Chapel, 1878.
The famous "Prentice Pillar" is at right rear.
Photo by George Washington Wilson

In 1861 it was agreed by James Alexander, 3rd Earl of Rosslyn, that Sunday services should begin again under the jurisdiction of the Scottish Episcopal Church [the Scottish version of the English Anglican Church]. Alexander instructed the Edinburgh architect David Bryce to carry out restoration work. The carvings in the Lady Chapel were attended to, stones were re-laid in the crypt and an altar established. After an interval of 300 years Rosslyn Chapel was re-dedicated on Tuesday the 22nd April 1862 by the Bishop of Edinburgh and the Bishop of Brechin who preached from the text, “Our Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth”. (Psalm xxvi, v8).

Exterior view of Roslyn Chapel, looking south-west.
The unfinished west wall is clearly visible.

According to Hay, the actual burial vault of the St Clair family lies under the Chapel :

"Within the chapel is a vault, the burying place of the family of Roslin, the soil which is so dry that bodies have been found entire 80 years after their interment. They were formerly buried in armour, and without a coffin. The late Roslin... was the first that was buried in a coffin, contrary to the sentiments of James VII, who was then in Scotland..."

The actual vault of "...the lordly owners of the Castle, the proud St. Clairs [is] at the foot of the third and fourth pillars, and between them and the north wall,… a large flagstone covering the mouth of a vault, in which ten baron of Rosslyn were buried before 1690”. This flagstone “...supposedly gives a hollow sound when tapped. Built of polished ashlar, the Vaults are in two compartments, separated by a wall down the centre.”

Sir Walter Scott writes poetically of these interred St Clairs in the "Lay of the Last Minstrel" :

There are twenty of Rosslyn's Barons bold
Lie buried within that proud Chapelle.
And each St. Clair was buried there,
With candle, with book, and with knell.”

Oddly, and despite Hay's clear description of 1700, a week long search in 1837 failed to locate the burial vault. A number of post 1980 non-invasive investigations, one being carried out under the aegis of the Mechanical Engineering Department of Edinburgh University, also proved inconclusive. The stairs descending into the vaults were apparently found under a large ashlar slab (noted by Hay) but further progress was barred by a solid stone wall. This is alleged to have been built immediately after the interment of Sir William St Clair, who died fighting for the Royalist cause at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, and before the arrival of Cromwell's Commonwealth troops sometime thereafter. The location of a 19th century vault is also known. The emphasis in recent years has primarily and simply been on funding the restoration of the fabric of the Chapel and that only non-invasive means be employed on any further investigations.

Curiously, it has long been believed that subterranean tunnels run from under the Chapel, most likely to the Castle. The most conclusive evidence has been provided by US Navy personnel in the 1980's (being then based at "The Holy Loch") using sonar equipment. The sonar "indicated" tunnels running from under the Chapel. In 2010 cutting edge 3D imagery unfortunately proved inconclusive. 

A modern aerial view of Rosslyn Chapel. The roof of the crypt,
which is situated at the lower level, is visible. The entrance beside
the unfinished west wall had only been built in the 19th century. 

Various links to the ancient order of "The Knights Templar" and the meaning of carved imagery within the Chapel have also been conjectured. The Chapel received wide publicity through Dan Brown's 2003 mystery-detective novel, "The Da Vinci Code" and the subsequent feature film, which is of course fictional.
Rosslyn Chapel is certainly a unique and much visited historic place of worship and should be on all tourists "to do" list. But many of its curious architectural features as well as aspects of the Chapel's construction remain shrouded in the mists of time and will remain the subject of conjecture for many years to come. I rather think this all adds to its all pervasive air of mystery.

Bibliography :

- “Caledonia: or, An account, Historical and Topographic, of North Britain from the Most Ancient Times to the Present Times” by George Chalmers, 1810
- "The Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland"
- “A Geneologie of the Sainte Claires of Rosslyn”, by Father Richard August Augustin Hay, 1835
- Parish of Roslin Statistical Account June 1843
- “An Account of the Chapel of Rosslyn”, Dr Forbes, Bishop of Caithness, 1774.
- "The Scotsman" Newspaper
- “Annals of Scotland” by Sir David Dalrymple of Hailes, 1776
- Various Internet resources

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