The Stone Puzzle of Rosslyn Chapel 

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Caught between Templars and Freemasons: the enigma of Rosslyn Chapel

Philip Coppens

 

Recently, Rosslyn Chapel, just to the South of Edinburgh, has been described as Britain's answer to Rennes-le-Château. That small village is the focus of a decades-long treasure chase, after the local priest, Berenger Sauniere, was believed to have known a secret, possibly the location of an important treasure. Two chapels, but there the connection seems to end; Rosslyn does not have an enigmatic priest, and fortunately it is much more accessible than Rennes-le-Chateau, situated just outside Edinburgh's City Bypass. But since a decade, a series of authors have claimed that Rosslyn Chapel contains a secret. What secret? Some have grandiously claimed it is the Grail, others the Head of Jesus, others secret scrolls detailing the life of Jesus. If we take all these theories as a group, it seems that Rosslyn Chapel acts as a magnet for all important treasures; perhaps there is even a bus service between Rennes-le-Chateau and Rosslyn Chapel operated by the Illuminati shuttling the various treasures back and forth. All kidding aside, Rosslyn Chapel was thrown into the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau in the 1980s, by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln. The connection was based on how the last grandmaster of the Priory of Sion, who claim to guard the secret of Rennes-le-Chateau, was named Pierre Plantard. But he added "de St Clair" to that name, and hence made the connections with the "Sinclairs", the modern spelling from the medieval "St Clair" of Rosslyn Chapel. The lid was opened: as the Templars had their Scottish headquarters near to Rosslyn Chapel, at Ballantrodoch (now renamed Temple), the trio of authors wondered whether the Templars, upon their dissolution went to Scotland - some Masonic legends from the 19th Century claimed as much - and hid their secrets in Rosslyn Chapel. In the 15th Century, William St Clair built Rosslyn Chapel and by the early 18th Century, copying the example of the English freemasonry, Scottish freemasonry was "made public", with William St Clair, namesake and descendent from the chapel builder, the first Grandmaster. However, the Scots had to outdo the English, and hence claimed that even though they had not gone public first, their Masonic institution had been going for several centuries, and that the Sinclair were the "hereditary grandmasters". So were the St Clairs the missing link between the Templars and the Masons? The answer seemed to be a straightforward "yes".

Too good to be true? It normally is. First of all, Plantard taking the name St Clair is nice for him, but there is no evidence at all - and many have looked - that he is connected with Rosslyn. There is no connection between the Priory of Sion and Rosslyn - none of the Priory documents claim such a connection; they only people claiming such a connection are British-based authors who speculate on whether such a connection might exist or not. And so far, none have found any evidence. Though it is possible Templars hid in Scotland, Ballontrodoch and Rosslyn Chapel were not a safehaven for the Templars. Falling under English rule at the time, the knights of Ballontrodoch were arrested. In the ensuing trials, the Sinclairs actually testified against these Templars. In 1736, when Scottish masonry went public, William St Clair, the so-called hereditary grandmaster, was not even a mason; the Scottish masons needed a figurehead, and William St Clair accepted the role. In less than six months, he went from no-Mason to grandmaster, and then resigned his title of "hereditary grandmaster", which had been created for one purpose only: get one over the English.

So is Rosslyn Chapel built on thin air? No. Rosslyn Chapel is not a piece of a puzzle that people need to try and fit into its proper place. That approach has occurred over the past several years, and has been largely unsuccessful. Rosslyn Chapel has been described as "unique", and hence it needs to be looked as a mature, stand-alone piece of architecture. In this approach, over the past several years, I was able to point out why Rosslyn intrigues and why it did become a central piece in Scottish masonry. The reason why it was built where it was built, incorporates design features of a ritual landscape that go back to prehistoric times - they are very intriguing, but too complex to detail here. But all of this has nothing to do with the Sinclairs, but with the location of and the imagery used in the chapel. The chapel has been described as a "stone garden"; the chapel is dedicated with lush vegetation, is full of Green men; there is no obvious Christian imagery, except that inserted into it in recent decades by the churchgoers. Remove that modern layer and you end up with some Christians who wanted to attend mass, but in the end decided against it, saying this was not a Christian place. William St Clair, in the middle of the 15th Century, was a tremendously wealthy person. He had his castle, but all his peers in Scottish matters of states, most of them much poorer than him, were erecting chapels in the style of a collegiate church: a church where certain priests lived, said masses and looked after the church. The Setons of Prestonpans, a family which has possible connections with the famous alchemist Alexander Seton, built their collegiate church: it is largely without any decorations. St Clair had much more money and brought in experts from France and elsewhere. To some extent, labour resource was scarce in Scotland, but at the same time, the French builders had a different legacy and knowledge. Furthermore, St Clair had been brought up as one of the most learned men in the country - by one of the most learned men in the country. St Clair become personally involved in the building of the chapel and when he died before the completion of the church, his son was either unable or unwilling to continue; instead, he decided to close it off and leave it in its present state. The chapel's groundplan was based on Glasgow Cathedral, the largest religious building in Scotland. The interior was then decorated with more than a hundred Green Men, according to some a pagan symbol. If so, many Scottish churches have pagan connections, for even Glasgow Cathedral has its share of Green Men. Other decorations, such as bag-pipe playing angels or death masks, have all been found in prominent churches in France; though odd for Scotland, it was not odd for the French workforce erecting the chapel. What is unique, however, is the decoration of the three front pillars, particularly the so-called Apprentice Pillar. Vines circling to the top, dragons on its feet, one woman a few decades ago chained herself to it, saying she would not leave before the pillar was cut down, so that the Holy Grail, which she believed was inside, could be revealed. She left shortly after making her point, but on one other occasion, apparently one person entered the chapel with a pick axe and was caught just in time before the pillar was demolished. As the pillar is weight-bearing… What is the mystery of the Apprentice Pillar? There is a centuries-old legend that argues that during the building of the chapel, the Apprentice Pillar was built by an apprentice, who disobeyed the orders of his master when he had gone to Rome. On his return, he found that the apprentice had finished the pillar, and as a result was killed: the Murdered Apprentice, a well-known theme in masonry. Though many books were written on Rosslyn Chapel, none had been able to explain why this story was told and what the importance of it was. The reason is to be found in the fact that masonry has three degrees: Apprentice, Journeyman and Master Mason. Each has its initiation ritual and early on, Rosslyn Chapel was chosen by the masons as a place for their services and initiations. The three degrees are linked with the three pillars at the front. The three rituals are distinguished in where the initiate stands. And in Rosslyn, there is a small problem: to make the rituals work, you would expect that the most lushly decorated pillar marks the Master degree. But in Rosslyn, that is marked by the Apprentice. And thus we have the story, I believe, of why the Apprentice was allegedly killed: to explain the anomaly. But that is what the masons made of the pillars. What did the builder try to convey when he ordered the Apprentice Pillar to be erected in that way? The dragons encircle a vine that has been compared with a pillar, or a tree; the symbol is well-known in mythology and is pagan in origin: the world tree connected heaven and Earth, and the Underworld (the dragons at its base) and was used by angels ascending to and descending from heaven. One such angel, the fallen angel, Shemhazai, is depicted on the wall not too far from the Apprentice Pillar. He was expelled from heaven and as punishment had to hang upside down, tied, from heaven. Is there an overall theme to the chapel? There is only one inscription in the entire church, and it is a quote from the bible - unremarkable, were it not for the fact that the quote is directly related with Zerubabbel, the builder of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Zerubabbel is a major figure in freemasonry: he set the Jews free from captivity and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon, the central focus of masonry. There is one depiction of a Masonic ritual, from the 19th Century, where the Apprentice Pillar has been used in a "boardgame" that marks the various steps of the initiation of a Scottish mason in his degree; the initiate is identified with Zerubabbel. Two authors with a more than casual interest in Rosslyn Chapel, Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight, have been claiming for several years that the chapel itself is based on the Temple of Solomon. Their main focus is on the west wall of the building. This, they claim, resembles the wall of the Temple of Solomon; rather than unfinished, they believe St Clair wanted it to look like that, to mimic the temple wall. They claim it could never have been part of a larger church - even though there are drawings of much larger church for the site - as the wall itself is non-weight-bearing and hence could never have supported the larger structure. So is there no hidden mystery?

From the mid 1990s onwards, the steady stream of books resulted in continued attempts to gain approval for various explorations of the chapel. Of course, proposals to "smash open the Apprentice Pillar" are never granted, but modern technology has brought about a new arsenal of non-destructive, often remote survey methods that can identify the presence of caverns, presence of metals, etc. The first potentially successful proposal came from two authors, Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight, whose first book, The Hiram Key, was launched inside the chapel in 1996. As a consequence, a proposal for non-destructive scans was created, which received the support of Historic Scotland. The Rosslyn Chapel Trust, however, first approved, then withdrew the permission. To quote Knight and Lomas: "They suggested that we might be able to work with them on future, commercially based scanning, but we would be required to agree to keep the results secret and even deny that the scans had happened if so required by the Trust." They declined, but a befriended scholar, James Charlesworth of Princeton University, filed one their behalf. The Trust has not acknowledged this proposal. Rumour goes that the Trust have used the services of an Edinburgh firm to do non-destructive scans, and that the results of this scan have been kept a secret.

In 1997, Niven Sinclair and a few friends did what could be described as "ad hoc" exploratory excavations in the vicinity of the Chapel. Soon, they discovered the existence of a tunnel that lead from the chapel to the castle. Equally soon, Historic Scotland became aware of this work going on and stopped the exploration, which involved a camera on a 32-foot pole. Niven Sinclair described the tunnel as "huge and very deep underground" at the point where it enters under the foundations of Rosslyn Castle. Beneath the floor of the crypt is a flight of steep steps, leading in the direction of the main building, to a vault directly underneath the engrailed cross in the chapel roof. A tunnel connects this vault with the castle; its location is directly below the south door, at which it is three feet wide and five feet high. Its roof is eight and a half feet below ground level. After a straight run of approximately twenty five feet, the passage turns ninety degrees towards the east and then drops down the hillside, its roof twelve and a half feet below ground level. The tunnel then continues under Gardener's Brae towards the castle. Anyone can try and trace the tunnel in the landscape; what comes immediately to mind is that the tunnel would extremely steep in places. Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight have highlighted that the design mimics the design of a similar tunnel connecting the Palace of Solomon with the Temple of Solomon, as mentioned in the mythology of freemasonry.

All remained relatively calm until 2003. Then, the newspaper Scotland on Sunday (the Sunday edition of The Scotsman) complained about the "absent landlord" Peter Lougborough, the Earl of Rosslyn. Loughborough had been at the heart of a national controversy: in charge of police protection of the royal family. Loughborough's credibility was officially challenged when a stand-up comedian evaded the security measures during Prince William's 21st birthday party at Windsor Palace, gaining access and possible control of the royal family. Bringing the national news story down to the local drizzle, the article reported that Loughborough had received large amounts of funding for the preservation of Rosslyn Castle, a house next to the Chapel (College Hill House) and the Chapel itself; yet the public had received no benefits from this public money; in fact, certain people had complained that access to the Castle had been refused, even though under the terms of the agreement, this should not be possible. In fact, Loughborough seemed to receive financial benefits from all, including, it seems, money paid from the Trust to the Earl for the monstrous construction hovering over the chapel.

Apart from the owner, the Trust also became the centre of controversy. I myself experienced this first-hand: preparation for the first edition of my book, The Stone Puzzle of Rosslyn Chapel, was underway in 2001. It is local knowledge - underlined in the newspaper article - that the chapel and everything connected with it is seen as a money-making, if not myth-making machine by those operating it. When I approached the Project Director of the Trust about the creation of the book, and later of the existence of the book, I twice received extremely negative, but insightful comments. On the first occasion, he phoned, stating the book was seen as direct competition with their own guide, and as such would not be sold on the premises - despite the fact that this book is one of handful of books - and the first by a non-Sinclair or Sinclair-sponsored - solely dedicated to the chapel. Though the various often outlandish theories about the chapel are published, like the Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln book, various mysteries get discussed and Rosslyn Chapel only gets a few pages or chapters dedicated solely to it. The book also goes against various unfounded allegations made in other books on sale in the bookshop, books which promote the fame of the chapel, but not the "understanding" of the chapel. On the second occasion, the Director had either forgotten the first correspondence, or chose to neglect it, and informed me of his outrage that such a book had come about without his approval!

At the same time, John Ritchie, a native of Roslin and press secretary for a group of modern Scottish Knights Templar, had created an international stir by stating that a ground scan of Rosslyn Chapel would soon take place. This scan would occur from Gardener's Brae and as such would be able to scan for anything underneath the chapel, by directing its beam horizontally. This greatly upset the Project Director again, but there was nothing that he could do about the situation, as the area is not in the ownership of the Trust. The Trust, and particularly the Director, then embarked on a rather desperate campaign, which resulted in public mud slinging against Ritchie and various others, whereby - as always - far too willing and far too simple minds (as usual operating on the Internet) sided with the loudest, rather than the wisest. One important stake was, of course, the known existence by Ritchie, as well as the Trust, of the subterranean tunnel, a major discovery which they knew would become public knowledge once the scans occurred. The fact that Ritchie had the eyes and ears of the international media meant the Trust could do nothing but wait, and blasphemy "the opposition". The Trust was furious as this tremendous revelation would occur without their control - and reading from the evidence, one could argue the Trust actually tried to suppress awareness of the existence of this tunnel. In 2001-3, somewhat enigmatic modifications were made to one part of the crypt: they could be interpreted as a one-time attempt to foil plans relating to the tunnel - but plans, it seems, never carried out, hence resulting in a useless building. Knight and Lomas describe parts of this work as follows: "the wide trenches dug across Gardener's Brae, to lay fairly modest drain pipes." Though it is doubtful the tunnel will reveal great secrets, the tunnel itself is a major discovery and as such, Lomas and Knight decided to incorporate it in their book, The Book of Hiram, published in 2003. This meant that the existence of the tunnel stopped being a local story, and entered the public arena. Where will it end and when will it be opened? That mystery will continue to linger for some time more…