The St. Clairs of Rosslyn

The St Clairs (modern Sinclairs) take their name from Saint-Claire-sur-Epte in northern France. However, they are really of Norse descent, Vikings who settled in Normandy around the year 800. Several members of the family were with William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066, being rewarded with lands throughout England.

The Scottish St. Clairs

The St Clair family were granted the lands around Rosslyn by Malcolm III of Scotland (Malcolm Canmore) in 1068, The carving said to be of Bruce's death maskwhen William de St Clair accompanied the Saxon Princess Margaret to marry the Scottish king. Margaret took with her the Holy Rood - believed to be a part of the True Cross. William's grandson, Sir Henry St Clair, was granted the title of Baron of Rosslyn.

From then on the St Clairs held a special and prominent place in the history of Scotland.

The St Clairs were strong supporters of Robert Bruce. The 3rd Baron, another Sir William, fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, along with two of his sons. Sir Henry St Clair, the 6th Baron, was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, which declared Scotland's independence from England. On Robert Bruce's death, Henry's son Sir William St Clair was one of three Scottish knights who set out to take his heart to the Holy Land to be laid to rest in the Holy Sepulchre there. Sir William and his companions were, however, killed by the Moors in Spain in 1330.

One of the heads carved in Rosslyn Chapel is said to be taken from the death mask of Robert Bruce.

Another important step in the St Clair's rise to power was the marriage of the 8th Baron (yet another Sir William) to Prince Henry St Clair, Earl of OrkneyElizabeth of Stratherne, heiress to the Norse Earldom of Orkney. This marked the reuniting of the St Clairs with their original Norse heritage (Orkney was then part of the Kingdom of Norway), as well as the extension of the family into northern Scotland and the Islands. Caithness, in the far north, is still a major centre of the St Clair/Sinclair family.

From the marriage of Sir William and Elizabeth, their son inherited the title of Earl of Orkney, elevated to Prince of Orkney in 1379. He was Prince Henry, known as 'the Navigator', also as the 'Holy Sinclair'. He was an extremely important and influential figure of the time, as well as being a famed navigator and seaman. There is strong evidence that Prince Henry led an expedition - which some believed was financed with Templar money - to north America in 1389-90. Prince Henry was murdered in 1400, and his body later reinterred beneath Rosslyn Chapel.

Sir William St Clair, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel, was Prince Henry's grandson, 3rd (and last) St Clair Prince of Orkney. He married twice, his second wife being the daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath Castle (who left money towards the upkeep of the chapel in his will). Sir William was made first Earl of Caithness by James III of Scotland in 1455. Sir William's sister was married to James's brother.

After Sir William, the title of Earl of Orkney was taken by James III and became part of the Scottish Crown. Realising that his titles would be taken away, Sir William spent a great deal of money in buying the lands in Caithness, to ensure that they would be retained by his family. He passed the title of Earl of Caithness to his third-born son (the second son of his second marriage). The current Sinclairs of Caithness are his direct descendants.

Apart from his mastery of architecture and stonemasonry, Sir William was a great lover of all kinds of knowledge, and collected many rare manuscripts. An archetypal early Renaissance Prince, he was a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and was in contact with another member of the Order and patron of the arts and learning, René d'Anjou, whose enlightened character led to his epithet of 'Good King René'.

            Rosslyn sailors

Sir William had an immense and important library. One of the most important and earliest known prose writings in Scotland - a translation of a book on chivalry written by René d'Anjou - originated in Rosslyn during Sir William's lifetime. Known as the Rosslyn-Hay Manuscript (after its translator, Sir Gilbert Hay), it is now one of the treasures of the National Library of Scotland, and the inscription states that it was produced on the instruction of Sir William. It has been dated to the mid-1450s. (The book survived the fire and various lootings that despoiled Rosslyn Castle because it was stolen in the 17th century - the thief has even inscribed his name in the book!)

What became of Sir William's library? Was it destroyed in the various misfortunes that befell Rosslyn Castle - the fires and plunderings by English troops and Puritan mobs? Or was it moved to safety somewhere by his descendants - perhaps into the vaults beneath Rosslyn Chapel itself? Then there is the curious tale of the Italian Count Poli, who in the 19th century retrieved manuscripts that had been sealed up in the castle vaults and took them back to Rome.

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 Cupbearer, and Lord Fleming, his Carver.' Of his wife, Lady Elizabeth, 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 chiefest town in all Lothian, except Edinburgh and Haddington, and became very populous by the great concourse of all ranks and degrees 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.

Sir William's kindness and humanity was commented upon. For example, it is recorded that he disapproved of the use of torture, such as the rack, on prisoners - a rare thing in those days.


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