Rosslyn Chapel ‘built for skull of Saint Matthew’

The chapel played a central role in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Picture: Greg Macvean
The chapel played a central role in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Picture: Greg Macvean
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IT IS a small Scottish chapel that has been immortalised by Hollywood and a best-selling novel as the last resting place of the Holy Grail.

But a new book on world-famous Rosslyn Chapel claims to have found the real purpose of the 15th-century building which played a central part in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Following years of research, authors Alan Butler and John Ritchie insist the chapel was built as a giant reliquary – or shrine – for the skull of St Matthew, which they say was smuggled from France for safekeeping. At the time, the relics of saints, particularly those with a direct link to Jesus Christ, were regarded as great treasures.

The authors also claim that some of the elaborate interiors also point to the chapel being the safehouse for St Matthew’s skull. The beautifully ornate pillar known as the Apprentice Pillar is, they say, a representation of a miraculous honey-laden tree associated with the saint, and the building was 
designed so that honey from beehives hidden in the buttress roof dripped down onto the altar.

The authors said it was not uncommon for buildings to be designed around a relic – for example, St Chapelle in Paris, which was built around the relic of the Crown of Thorns – and that they found many references to the life of Matthew in the carvings around Rosslyn Chapel.

“There has been so much written about Rosslyn Chapel and what the carvings mean,” said Butler. “But it does not stretch credibility that the chapel represents this story about St Matthew. Every single detail fits.

“What we are saying is what is the most likely explanation. The chapel was built as a giant reliquary for the skull of St Matthew.”

The chapel was founded in 1466 by Sir William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness and a member of a noble family descended in part from Norman knights.

The legend of a “treasure” hidden at Rosslyn has endured for hundreds of years – thanks partly to the survival of a letter from Mary de Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the builder of the chapel.

Butler and Ritchie believe St Matthew’s skull was the secret treasure shown to Mary and that it was brought to Scotland under the orders of Enea Piccolomini, a Catholic envoy who was a friend of Sinclair and who later became Pope Pius II. Ritchie said: “At that time they believed it was a direct link with Christ and therefore to God. That’s what relics were all about.”

After visiting the chapel. Marie de Guise, the wife of King James V, said: “We bind us and oblige us to the said Sir William and shall be a loyal and true mistress to him. His counsel and secret shown to us we shall keep secret.”

According to some theories, however, the secret of Rosslyn was the Holy Grail itself. This theory formed the basis of Brown’s book – which suggested the Holy Grail was the bloodline of Christ and that his descendants were living in Scotland – which has brought thousands of visitors a year to the tiny Midlothian Chapel.

The official story of the Apprentice Pillar, which is still told by chapel guides, is that the pillar was created by an apprentice who was then murdered by his master. However, the story is not widely believed by many scholars, who say the carvings said to represent the apprentice and the master have been altered and that the story itself is older than the chapel.

The authors say the tree that the pillar represents was said to have sprung up during St Matthew’s teaching in Myrna in Turkey. This relates to accounts in the collection of early Bible stories known as the Apocrypha, which describe the saint’s staff transforming into a fruit-bearing tree laden with honey. “It shall become a tree great and lofty and flourishing and its fruit beautiful to the view and good to the sight and the fragrance of perfumes shall come forth from it and there shall be a vine twining round it full of clusters and from the top of it honey coming down,” the accounts said.

The authors say the remains of centuries-old beehives were found under the roof of Rosslyn during recent restorations. They believe the roof may have been specially constructed to attract bees and that a hole directly above the altar would have allowed honey to drip onto the altar. Butler said: “Even within living memory, people remember honey dripping down from the roof onto the altar.”

In their book, Rosslyn Chapel Decoded, Butler and Ritchie say the sacred skull was kept secret and hidden in the network of tunnels between Rosslyn Castle and the chapel to keep it safe from rampaging English armies and to protect it from the increasingly Calvinist nature of the Church in Scotland. Ritchie says: “If it had been known it was there, the chapel would have been destroyed on several occasions.”

The chapel, which is now run by a trust, has been a tourism destination for decades and numbers were given a massive boost by the 2003 book and 2006 film starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou.

Ian Gardner, the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, said: “What I like is that lots of people have different ways of interpreting Rosslyn Chapel, its history and its carvings and the legends around it. It is very hard to prove or disprove any of them but it all adds to the mystery of the place.”