Sir William St Clair: the founder of Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel. Picture: Ian GeorgesonRosslyn Chapel. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Rosslyn Chapel. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Sir William St Clair, a Scottish nobleman born in 1410, is best known for founding Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian.

Myths and legends have grown up around the Chapel, encouraging visitors to speculate about its possible links to the Knights Templar, the Freemasons and the Temple of Solomon.

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Sir William St Clair was the 11th Baron of Rosslyn and 3rd St Clair Prince of Orkney, making him a powerful and influential figure in Scotland at the time.

According to Ian Gardner, the Director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, “Not much is known about [Sir William] but he is described as ‘a very fair man of great stature, broad bodied, yellow haired, humble and courteous’.”

Because of his vast territories and influence, King James II of Scotland was threatened by his power. In 1445, James II gave William the earldom of Caithness in exchange for Nithsdale, and in 1471 he gave William Ravenscraig for the earldom of Orkney. Before he died, William divided his estate among three of his sons, giving Rosslyn to the second son, Oliver, rather than the eldest, William, known as “William the Waster”.

The history of the St Clair family, and the founding of the Chapel, is documented in A Genealogie of the Saintclaires of Rosslyn, compiled by Father Hay. The Genealogie states that William decided to construct a church “that he might not seem altogether unthankful to God for the benefices he received from Him”.

“To make his church more elaborate than others,” Ian Gardner explains, “Sir William brought in workmen ‘from other regions and foreign kingdoms.’” However, Sir William's elaborate plans were not fully realised, as Ian Gardner reveals: “The Chapel as it stands today is only part of what was intended be a larger cruciform building. After Sir William’s death in 1484, his son, Sir Oliver, did not complete his father’s original design.”

Rosslyn Chapel. Picture: Wikimedia

Even so, the carvings which dominate the interior of the chapel are magnificent. “Although a relatively small building,” says Gardner, “practically every surface, inside and outside the Chapel, is carved in an outstanding display of craftsmanship, with many carvings depicting Biblical scenes or giving moral messages; among the carvings are a host of angels, including one playing bagpipes, over 100 ‘Green Men’ faces and the famous Apprentice Pillar.”

Over the years, all sorts of stories have sprung up about the Chapel, including possible links to the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, and the Temple of Solomon. These stories were brought to a wider audience by Dan Brown's 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, which was adapted into a film in 2006. Gardner says, “This global awareness had a profound impact on the Chapel, leading to an increase in visitors from around 30,000 per year to 176,000 at the peak.”

Some people believe that the Chapel's link to the Freemasons – a spiritual society which dates back to the 18th century – can be inferred from a series of carvings. These carvings of angels supposedly depict poses and objects used in Freemason rituals. However, these carvings do not date back to the founding of the chapel, as they were added in the 19th century by a member of the St Clair family, who was himself a Mason.

Rosslyn Chapel. Picture: Wikimedia

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The Knights Templar, who were an order sworn to protect pilgrims, are also said to have some kind of link with the Chapel. Some stories claim that they were welcomed in Scotland by Robert the Bruce. As the St Clair family were loyal to Robert, some believe that they encountered the Knights. However, there is no evidence to support these stories. Also, an unsubstantiated legend that one of the Knights married a St Clair lady provides further fuel for the myth.

Another legend about the Chapel is that its layout was based on the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, with successive temples being built on the site after that event. In their book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh claim that Rosslyn Chapel is a reproduction of Solomon's Temple. This theory was supposedly debunked by Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertson in their book, Rosslyn and the Grail. However, the Rosslyn Chapel Trust does not have the resources to check all the competing theories.

Ian Gardner says that many of the theories, myths and legends about the Chapel are “impossible to prove or disprove conclusively”, which leaves the Chapel open to interpretation. Whatever one may believe about the Chapel, we do know that Sir William St Clair is the man who created this amazing building, which will continue to delight and perplex its many visitors.

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