Rosslyn Chapel and The Secret of the Templars

Grail legend featuring a cupMost other theories invoke the legendary connections with the mysterious Knights Templar.

Various researchers have suggested that Rosslyn Chapel is the final resting place of either of two great objects of power The Ark of the Covenant (if indeed they are not one and the same): the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant.

The Grail is an object long associated with the Templars, who are described as its keepers in Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th-century epic Parzifal. Although conventionally believed to be the cup that received Christ's blood as he hung on the Cross, the early Grail stories leave the exact nature of the object unclear. An interpretation of the Ark of the CovenantWhatever it was, the link between the Templars and the St Clairs raise the possibility that it was hidden in Rosslyn Chapel - an idea explored most recently by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins in Rosslyn: Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail (1999). It appears to have been this line of reasoning that led Rudolf Hess, Hitler's Deputy Führer, to show an interest in Rosslyn in the 1930s.

Rosslyn Chapel mysterious crossThe idea that the Ark of the Covenant, the most holy object of the Israelites that somehow disappeared from history, is hidden is Rosslyn Chapel is based on claims that the founders of the Templar Order went to Jerusalem with a specific objective in mind, looking for something, and that they carried out excavations beneath the Temple Mount. What they were looking for, and whether they found it, is unknown, but, as many believe that the Ark was hidden beneath the Temple Mount, the argument goes that if they found it, then it might have been Rosslyn dig imagebrought to Scotland by the fugitive Templars in 1307, and might therefore have been hidden by the St Clairs in Rosslyn Chapel.

A similar line of reasoning was used by researchers and Freemasons Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, in their bestselling book The Hiram Key (1996), although they suggest that it was not an artefact but information that the Templars found in Jerusalem. Specifically, they argue that they found scrolls, similar to the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents no doubt will, Knight and Lomas say, contain information about Jesus and the origins of Christianity - in effect a 'lost gospel' - that will challenge, if not undermine, the accepted teaching of the Church.

Rosslyn Chapel dig The most recent suggestion of this genre was that of anthropologist Keith Laidler, in The Head of God (1998) - but Laidler believes that Rosslyn Chapel contains nothing less than the embalmed head of Jesus. Laidler's argument is based on the many associations between the Templars and disembodied heads. When the Order was suppressed, one of the main charges levelled against them was that they had worshipped a demonic idol, called Baphomet, in the form of a severed, bearded head. Severed head imagery is found throughout the Grail stories. Indeed, the Grail legends are modelled on the earlier Celtic tale of Peredur, in which the object of the knight's quest - the proto-Grail, in effect - is a severed head borne on a silver platter. There are many surviving Templar relics, such as the famous Templecombe head, that show what appears to be the head of Christ.

Rosslyn digLaidler argues that, as the secret of the Templars seems to be connected with a severed head - and one of the possible derivations of 'Baphomet' is 'Father of Wisdom', which he takes as a reference to Christ - then this can only have been the head of Jesus himself, and that it is this that is hidden within or beneath Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel does contain a carving of the Veronica - a cloth that was miraculously imprinted with the image of Jesus's face, which many associate with the Turin Shroud - which Laidler believes is a reference to the head of Christ. (Others, however, argue that if the secret of the Templars was connected with a severed head at all, a more obvious candidate is that of John the Baptist. Unlike Jesus, John is known to have been beheaded, and he was a figure towards whom the Templars showed special reverence, as does Freemasonry.

Critics of all these theories complain point out that they are based purely on speculation and conjecture. All are based on the following premises:

  • The evidence that the nine founding knights of the Order excavated beneath the Temple Mount.
  • The Templars appear to have been the keepers of some great secret, one that would challenge the Church's teaching, and to have held unorthodox views about the religion.
  • The St Clair family had close connections with the Templars - the founder himself, Hugues de Payens, married into the French branch of the family. The chapel itself shows signs of the continuation of the Order in Scotland.
  • Given this connection, the Chapel is the logical place for any secrets of the Templars to be hidden.

While each of these points is plausible, if arguable, there is no firm evidence that points to scrolls, the head of Jesus, the Ark of the Covenant or any other specific object in connection with Rosslyn Chapel.

Excavations

Niven SinclairThe problem in deciding which, if any, of these theories are correct, is that it the owners of Rosslyn Chapel will not permit the necessary excavations, although occasional explorations are allowed. The Chapel is the property of the Earl of Rosslyn, and is administered by a private trust which is bound by restrictions imposed by Historic Scotland, the government body responsible for historic monuments and buildings.

However, the opening of one of the tombs inside the chapel was recently allowed by a team led by historian and author Andrew Sinclair - an event soon to be featured in a documentary for the History Channel. However, it has recently been revealed that the ground beneath Rosslyn Chapel was excavated in 1995, although this work was undertaken is secret and the results have yet to be released. Those behind the project, however, claim to have found nothing beneath the chapel - not even the burial vaults of the St Clairs.

Michael BentineGiven that the existence of the vaults is attested to by many historical documents - indeed, the last burial in them was as recently as 1778 - this appears strange. However, it is supported by recent echo-sounding work, which indicates that a large chamber lies beneath the ground to the north of the chapel, outside the walls of the building. Is this the vault of the St Clairs, only its entrance lying within the chapel?

Others, such as Niven Sinclair, a descendant of the St Clairs of Caithness and Chairman of the Friends of Rosslyn, believe that the secret of Rosslyn Chapel is not buried beneath it, but 'hidden in plain sight' - in the carvings that adorn the interior. It is these that embody Sir William St Clair's message to posterity, and if they could be decoded, they would reveal the true meaning and purpose of Rosslyn Chapel. Another Friend of Rosslyn, the comic Michael Bentine, often remarked that it was 'a book in stone'.

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