History of Rosslyn Chapel

The mastermind behind the project was Sir William St Clair, known as 'Prodigus', 3rd Prince of Orkney. Sir William was Rosslyn Knights Templarsthe grandson of Prince Henry St. Clair of Orkney, known as 'the Navigator', who many believe led an expedition to America a hundred years before Columbus's 'discovery' of the New World.

Sir William St Clair was one of - if not the - wealthiest and most powerful lords of Scotland. It is recorded that 'in his house he was royally served in gold and silver vessels, in most princely manner, for the Lord Dirltone [Dirleton] was Master of the Household, Lord Borthwick, his An Old View of Rosslyn ChapelCupbearer, and Lord Fleming, his Carver.' Of his wife, Lady Elizabeth of Dunbeath, it is said that 'none matched her in all the country, save the Queen's Majesty.' At this time, because of Sir William's wealth and power, Roslin was a thriving place: 'the chiefesttown in all Lothian, except Edinburgh and Haddington, and became very populous by the great concourse of all ranks and An Old Interior View of Rosslyn Chapeldegrees that resorted to the Prince at his Palace or Castle, for he kept a great Court.' There is something of a mystery about the source of Sir William's vast wealth.

Work on Rosslyn Chapel began in 1446, and it took nearly 40 years to complete the chapel we see today. It was intended to be just one part of a much larger, cross-shaped building with a central tower, the foundations of which were actually laid. It is not known for certain why the original concept was not carried through to completion, but it was probably due to Sir William's death in 1484 - his son, Sir Oliver St Clair, oversaw the work to complete the chapel, which was finished a few years after his father's death.

Rosslyn SideviewThe finished building was to be a collegiate church, dedicated to St Matthew. A collegiate church is a secular building that is a centre of education, both spiritual and intellectual.

Sir William also intended it to be the resting place for 'The Lordly Line of High St Clair'. He brought the bodies of his illustrious ancestors, including Prince Henry the An engraving of Rosslyn ChapelNavigator, to be interred beneath it, and others including Sir Henry St Clair, Baron of Rosslyn, who fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Sir William himself was buried in it, as were all his descendants until the last male heir of the line, another Sir William, in the late 18th century.

The building project entailed creating a village - the site of the present Roslin - to house the labourers. He also paid well; Father Richard Augustine Hay, who wrote the first work on Rosslyn Chapel around 1700, says that Sir William 'rewarded the masons according to their degree, as to the master masons he gave forty pounds yearly, and to everyone of the rest ten pounds'. These were vast sums in the 15th century. (Father Hay was the stepson of Sir William St Clair, the owner of Rosslyn Chapel in the 17th century, and Canon of St Genevieve's Church in Paris. It was fortunate that Father Hay carried out this work, as it was drawn from the archives and records of the St Clair family that were destroyed in a fire shortly after he completed his three-volume manuscript.)

The Prince of Wales during his visit to Rosslyn ChapelSir William retained complete control of the design and construction of each and every part of the building work, down to the individual carvings. It is clear that this was a deeply personal project, one that was very close to his heart, and that he had a definite objective and intention in building it.

Even in its incomplete state, the chapel is a remarkable and unique construction. However, it was not to flourish long. Within a hundred years of its completion it suffered during the Reformation. In 1571 the Provost and other clerics were forced to leave and give up their various endowments. The chapel's many statues were smashed, and the original altar destroyed, as such things were regarded as popish idolatory. After this it was rarely used as a place of worship.

In 1650 the chapel was used as a stable by Cromwell's troops. In 1688, in the wake of the 'Glorious Revolution' that ousted the Catholic James II and replaced him with the Protestant William and Mary of Orange, it was again pillaged by a mob.

In 1736 the chapel passed into the hands of General James Sinclair, who set about restoring it. In September 1803 it was visited by the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, who wrote of its beauty but precarious state of repair.

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However, it was another 20 years before the chapel began to be used again for services. It was rededicated as an Episcopalian chapel by the Bishop of Edinburgh at Easter 1862. The chapel was much restored and added to in Victorian times - the stained glass windows, baptistery and organ loft date from this time.

Castings of the Apprentice Pillar and parts of the Lady Chapel were made for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where they can be see in the Plaster Room. (Indeed, they can be seen more clearly now than the original, as they were made before the 'protective' whitewash was added to the chapel's interior by the Ministry of Works in the 20th century.)

The chapel was nearly closed down for a second time in 1942 because of the low attendance - the congregation sometimes consisting of just two people - and the resources and fuel required in keeping it open during those desperate days. However, the Minister for Fuel, Gwliym Lloyd George, turned down the proposal, saying 'I doubt whether I would be justified in securing a small economy of fuel in this world at the possible cost of a disproportionate expenditure of it on myself in the next.'

The most recent royal visitor to Rosslyn Chapel was the Prince of Wales in April 1998 - a visit he had long wanted to make, his interest having been stirred by the infectious enthusiasm of his friend, the comic and man of many parts, Michael Bentine.

Architect James Simpson, who showed Prince Charles around the chapel, said that the Prince was knowledgeable about the carvings and that, 'He loved the Apprentice Pillar and we discussed how the church could be read in a variety of different ways, as a straightforward late medieval collegiate church, or as a building resonant of mystery.

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 Rosslyn Chapel Mystery Part II

Rosslyn Chapel Carvings

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