Rosslyn Chapel and Freemasonry


The origins of Freemasonry in its modern form - as distinct from the practical art of the stonemasons - is a vexed question. Precisely how 'speculative' Freemasonry (the philosophical and ceremonial form familiar today) evolved from 'operative' Masonry (the craft of the stonemason) is still the subject of much debate. However, the evidence is William de Sinclair stonethat the transition happened in Scotland some time in the 15th or 16th centuries.

It also seems logical that the link between the operative and speculative sides of the Craft is sacred geometry. The use of such geometric principles plays an obvious part of the design and construction of the architecture (operative masonry), and study of the spiritual and esoteric meaning Rosslyn masonic hieroglyphsof the geometry leads to the realm of philosophy (speculative masonry). Therefore, there would have been a time when the stonemasons' craft embodied both operative and speculative aspects, with those who designed the buildings being aware of both the practical and spiritual/symbolic side of design and construction. It is from the latter that Freemasonry in its modern form would have evolved.

Many Masons' marks can be found in the fabric of the building, which is not surprising given the number of stonemasons employed on the project. But the obvious symbolic design of the building, and of the carvings, attests to a more speculative bias. Other parts of the building also point to a speculative masonic - i.e. Freemasonic - intent. Rosslyn masonic artefactsThere is, for example, the legend attached to the Apprentice Pillar, which echoes the Masonic legend of the murder of Hiram Abiff during the building of the Temple of Solomon.

As Rosslyn was the personal project of Sir William St Clair, from conception and design to construction - all the carvings having to be personally approved by him - his own knowledge and regard for the art of sacred geometry is abundantly clear.

This conjecture is supported by the close link that Sir William's descendants had with Freemasonry. The St Clairs were hereditary Grand Masters of Freemasonry in Scotland from at least the early 1600s. It is claimed that this privilege was granted much further back - indeed, that it was given to Sir William, the chapel builder, by James II of Scotland. This is not certain, as the original charters were said to have been destroyed in a fire in Rosslyn Castle. However, the famous Schaw Statutes of 1602 - important documents in Masonic history drawn up by James VI's Master of Works, William Schaw - also acknowledged and reinstated the hereditary position of the St Clairs, noting that:

“…from age to age it has been observed among us that the Lairds of Rosslyn have been patrons and protectors of us and our privileges, like as our predecessors have obeyed and acknowledged them as protectors and patrons.”

After noting that acknowledgement of this right has been neglected in recent years, Schaw goes on to renew the Masons' recognition of 'the said Sir William Sinclair now of Rosslyn and his heirs male our only patrons, protectors and overseers'.

The Masons were also sufficiently convinced of the St Clair claim to issue new charters in 1630 confirming the hereditary right.

The St Clairs of Rosslyn held this position until the last male of the line, another Sir William, voluntarily gave it up in 1736. Sir William's renouncing of his family's right led to the creation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland - which promptly elected him as its first Grand Master, even though he was not a Freemason. Sir William had to be initiated at Kilwinning, the Mother Lodge of Scottish Freemasonry, before he could take up the position. He was buried in Rosslyn Chapel with full Masonic honours in 1778.

Later, Rosslyn Chapel passed to the St Clair Erskine family, the Earls of Rosslyn and its current owners. In the 19th century, two Earls of Rosslyn, James St Clair Erskine (d.1837) and his grandson Francis St Clair Erskine (d.1890), were elected Grand Master Masons of Scotland, demonstrating the continued ties between the St Clair family, Rosslyn Chapel and Freemasonry. A 'Grand Masonic Fette' (fête), attended by over a thousand people, was held at Rosslyn in 1870.

Francis St Clair Erskine, 4th Earl of Rosslyn, was elected in 1871, and the following year announced that he did not wish to stand for re-election. In response, the Freemasons of Scotland drew up a petition, a scroll bearing over 6,000 signatures, successfully pleading with him to reconsider. This shows the esteem that Scottish Freemasonry holds for the St Clair family and Rosslyn Chapel. Francis St Clair Erskine was buried, at his own request, in the grounds of Rosslyn Chapel.

The Johannite Tradition - Part 1 of 2
by Clive Prince
Click here for The Johannite Tradition Part 2 of 2

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