Sunday, 19 September 2004
Putting legends to the test in Scotland By Michael S. Rose

The search for the Holy Grail continues as a proposal for a “non-invasive” excavation at Scotland's 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel meets with opposition.

A recent proposal to conduct a “non-invasive” survey of an historic 15th century Gothic chapel in Scotland has created a wealth of excitement and media publicity throughout the British Isles this year. In Scotland, however, renewed calls for excavation by a group of Knights Templar has created a tumult, pitting the impetuous Knights against romantic devotees of the chapel who say in no uncertain terms: Leave it alone!

Rosslyn Chapel, located a few miles outside of Edinburgh in the town of Roslin, has for centuries been the subject of fantastic legends and mysteries that still puzzle observers today. Several books published in recent years purport to show how hidden secrets lurk throughout this venerated shrine, touted as one of the most mysterious places in Great Britain.

A labyrinth of underground vaults, sealed more than 350 years ago, are reputed to hold some of the most coveted religious and historical treasures in Christendom: first class relics of ancient saints, the original scrolls of the four Gospels, a fragment of the Holy Cross, the Ark of the Covenant, and the legendary Holy Grail, the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper.

Over the past decade archeologists have been clamoring to undertake an excavation of the vaults in order to put the legends to a test. The Rosslyn Trust, charged with the upkeep of the church, has to date not been favorably disposed toward any such expedition. Now, say the Knights Templar, who have embarked on a different tack from archeologists, the latest thermal imaging technology will enable them to conduct excavations without compromising the ongoing preservation efforts at Rosslyn Chapel.

In January, The Independent in London reported on the project as if the work was set to get under way. John Ritchie, spokesman for a group of Knights Templar in Scotland, explained to The Independent that the new technology they’re using “is the most sophisticated anywhere and is capable of taking readings from the ground up to a mile deep without disturbing any of the land.”

Not so fast, says Stuart Beattie, Project Director for the Rosslyn Chapel Trust. “Reports of scanning are more than a little premature,” he told CWR. Beattie dismisses the Knights Templar as “a tiny special interest group” without any particular expertise in these matters. “They have an agenda,” he explained, and their agenda, he said, can only move forward by exciting the public through the media. Considering that major British newspapers such as The Independent have reported on the proposal as if it were an active project, they seem to have succeeded at least in exciting the media.

Karen Ralls, author of The Templars and the Grail, is an International Consultant to the Board and Museum Exhibition at Rosslyn Chapel. She explained that due to a Scottish law called the Right of Sepulchre, “a lengthy legal procedure would have to be followed in order to secure the necessary permission to dig on the church grounds.”

That includes any “non-invasive” survey of the land and building as well, clarified Beattie. “The ground around and under the chapel is protected by various laws, and should the Trustees [of Rosslyn Chapel] ever decide that this is a course they wish to follow, then it would be after discussion and permission from the authorities and carried out by a proper academic group,” he explained.

Beattie is also skeptical of the technological claims made by the Knights Templar. “Their equipment,” he said, “did not do so well in its tests last year, and indeed any scan would only show anomalies that would need to be proved by excavations.”

Recent calls for excavation have met with a groundswell of public opposition by those who see Rosslyn Chapel as the center of many mysterious legends that tend to fuel the imaginations of many. Letters to the editor of various newspapers around Britain have poured in, voicing strong objections even to the idea of sweeping the site with computerized scanners. One reader wrote to The Independent comparing the proposed survey of Rosslyn to the endless scientific experiments to which the Holy Shroud of Turin has been subjected over the past two decades. (These experiments have actually provided strong evidence of the Shroud’s authenticity.) The implication is that those proposing to engineer the Rosslyn excavation may be motivated out a desire to disprove the legends about treasures and sacred relics supposedly hidden in or beneath the chapel.

Brian Jeffreys of England, who operates a website about Rosslyn Chapel, is unequivocal about his position: “Leave it alone!” he said “Soon there will be nothing left for our imagination to run riot with.”

Jeffreys and others of like mind seem to operate on the supposition that the legends are nothing more than archeological folklore, having little confidence that high-tech surveys, scans, or excavations will provide any corroboration for the existence of the extraordinary sacred relics.

Ironically, the Knights Templar appear to want to prove, not disprove, the existence of the hidden treasures. The legends, in fact, are tied closely to the Knights and their tumultuous history, which includes Rosslyn Chapel.

The Knights Templar connection

The Knights Templar, named after the Temple of Solomon, was founded as a monastic military order in the 12th century under the personal protection of the Holy Father. Their original mission was to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Some historians claim that their true mission was to excavate the foundations of the Temple of Solomon in search of certain valuable relics and religious treasures. So the theory goes, their search was a success. Thereafter, the Templars demonstrated considerable wealth and embarked upon many building projects, one of which was Rosslyn Chapel.

In fact, the overall plan of Rosslyn Chapel was laid out as a full-scale replica of Solomon’s Temple. Excavations carried out in the late 19th century support this historical claim, revealing that the foundations of the building extend 91 feet beyond the chapel’s original west door, under the existing baptistery and cemetery. Many, including contemporary Knights Templar groups, have surmised that the Scottish chapel is the hiding place for at least some of the religious treasures discovered in Jerusalem. The vault, unopened since the time of Cromwell, is one of the suggested repositories for these items. The labyrinth of vaults beneath Rosslyn Chapel were built as tombs for the St. Clair ancestors, who were interred in full armor as was the customary practice at the time up until the 16th century when the vault was permanently sealed.

In the early 12th century the Templars fell into grave disfavor with King Philip IV of France. Pope Clement V, himself a Frenchman, disbanded the order in 1312 after the order was accused of sexual perversion, heresy, and idolatry. Before the Pope could publish his exoneration of the Knights, which was made after a secret pontifical trial, King Philip had more than 2000 Knights Templar put to death by execution in an attempt to exterminate the entire order. One group of Knights, however, escaped to Scotland where they found refuge with the excommunicated Robert the Bruce, whom they served as his army. The St. Clairs appear to have been part of the surviving Knights Templar.

The mysteries of Rosslyn

Perched on a gorge at the edge of the Esk valley, the building appears as a miniature cathedral, its dimensions being only 40 feet in height, 34 feet wide, and 68 feet in length. Actually, the edifice which bristles with flying buttresses and gargoyles is only part of the choir of what was intended to be a much larger cruciform building with an imposing tower at the crossing.

Prince William St. Clair of Orkney founded Rosslyn Chapel in 1446 as the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, which was intended to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Thirty-seven such chapels were built in Scotland during the 15th century under Catholic kings. Father Richard Augustine Hay, a canon of St. Genevieve in Paris, completed a three volume study of the St. Clair family around 1700. Of Prince William he commented:

“…it came into his mind to build a house for God’s service, of most curious work, the which that it might be done with greater glory and splendour he caused artificers to be brought from other regions and foreign kingdoms and caused daily to be abundance of all kinds of workmen present as masons, carpenters, smiths, barrowmen and quarries.”

The resulting edifice became home to a fantastic melange of architectural delight. For example, there are 32 different forms of arches throughout the chapel, and almost as many different styles of pillars. The most famous of these is known as the “Apprentice Pillar,” which is at the center of an evocative legend.

The legend concerns the master mason and his apprentice. When the patron presented the master with a model of an intricate pillar he wished to be carved, the master went off to Rome seeking inspiration before embarking on the stone carving. When he returned, he found the pillar already completed as an intricate masterpiece. When he discovered that it was his own apprentice who had executed the work, the master mason struck him with his mallet in a fit a jealous rage. The apprentice was killed on the spot in the chapel. The murder of the apprentice at Rosslyn bears much resemblance to the murder of Hiram Abif, a master mason at the time of the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. One of the carvings in the chapel depicts a young man with a gash in his forehead, said to represent the murdered apprentice, though it may just as well represent the murder of Hiram Abif.

On some of the other pillars are a series of carvings showing Isaac on the altar, Samson destroying the Philistine lords, David killing the lion, the Prodigal Son returning to his father, and a sequence of the Crucifixion.

Rosslyn Chapel has been described as Britain’s greatest example of medieval architecture precisely because of its rich and sometimes mysterious symbolism drawing upon Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Celtic, and Arabic motifs. The Apprentice Pillar, designed to represent one of the pillars of Boaz and Joachim, which stood at the inner porchway of Solomon’s Temple, for example, figuratively symbolizes the Christian Tree of Life, but also employs some symbolism from Norse mythology. At the column’s base a winding snakelike vine emerges from the mouths of eight winged serpents, said to represent the eight dragons of Neilfelheim which lay at the base of the mythological Norse ash tree which binds together earth, heaven, and hell. The coiling spirals which wrap themselves around the pillar’s Tree of Life form a perfect double helix, the fundamental DNA building block of life, a discovery which did not occur for another 500 years.

Another spectacular aspect of the chapel is the detailing of the vaulted ceilings which feature hundreds of small cubes intricately carved with mysterious symbols, which still to this day remain unidentified. Some historians assert that these symbols form encoded messages or musical notations. If cracked, the masons’ secret code is said to lead to the treasures which lay hidden within or beneath the chapel. Thus far no one has even come near breaking the symbolic code, and a £5,000 reward is offered for anyone able to do so.

Another mystery of Rosslyn Chapel are the engravings depicting North American sweet corn and the American cactus, often used as evidence that Prince William’s grandfather Henry had visited the New World, Nova Scotia in particular, nearly 100 years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus.

When Prince William died in 1484, he was buried in the unfinished chapel. From that time onward, little new construction proceeded despite the large endowment provided by its founder. Nearly a hundred years later the Provost of the chapel was forced to resign and the endowments were taken by force and violence into secular hands as the English Reformation began to take hold.

At that time, the St. Clairs were one of the few families that remained Catholics with allegiance to Rome. The family was repeatedly instructed to destroy the altars in the chapel, and in 1592 the altars were demolished by force. Yet even a century later Rosslyn Chapel was still seen as blatantly Roman Catholic. In 1688, during the reign of William of Orange, a mob from Edinburgh attacked the chapel, destroying the furniture, sacred vessels and vestments, all of which were seen to be “Popish” and idolatrous. The chapel lay in disrepair until 1862 when it was appropriated by the Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh who reconsecrated the church.

Nevertheless, another of the mysteries of Rosslyn Chapel is why the entire building was not destroyed by Oliver Cromwell and his men. Though the Roundheads destroyed the nearby Rosslyn Castle, on Cromwell’s orders they did not touch the chapel itself.

Search for the Holy Grail

Perhaps the most appealing legend is that of the Holy Grail, the chalice said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. Innumerable tales have been spun over the centuries about this sacred relic. According to literary historians the sacred chalice was the inspiration for the epic poems of Frenchman Chretien de Troyes (Percival) and German Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzifal). Many other prose and poetic versions of the legends were written throughout the Middle Ages, mainly between 1180 and 1240. In the 15th century Sir Thomas Mallory embodied the legendary quest of the sacred chalice in his famous Morte d’Arthur.

The claim of the Holy Grail’s existence at Rosslyn Chapel is of much more recent vintage. In 1962, an Edinburgh schoolmaster claimed that the Holy Grail was hidden in the Apprentice Pillar. He believed it contained a lead casket, containing the Cup. The Hiram Key, a book published in 1996, reiterated the schoolmaster’s claim, suggesting that the famous pillar also conceals holy manuscripts as well. Its authors argue that Rosslyn was built primarily as a shrine for the Holy Grail and the accompanying holy scrolls.

These accounts, however, contradict the existence of a sacred chalice thought to be the Holy Grail at the cathedral in Valencia, Spain, where historical documentation is said to prove that the cup has been kept there since 1437. In 1992, Pope John Paul lent some credence to Valencia’s claim when he celebrated Mass at the cathedral using the reputed sacred chalice. Historians, however, have been unable to agree upon its authenticity, though it seems much more likely, given the evidence, that the Holy Grail would be found in Valencia rather than at Rosslyn Chapel.

Stuart Beattie emphasizes that it’s easy to be lured into pondering all the different legends of Rosslyn Chapel, especially one of such longstanding international interest as the Holy Grail. “Rosslyn offers claims to many special interest groups,” he lamented, “including Sinclairs, Masons, historians, Medievalists, artists and more. If we got excited by all these special interest groups we’d never be able to concentrate on the building’s future.”

And that is Rosslyn Trust’s main thrust: to conserve the chapel for future generations. No doubt, however, Rosslyn Chapel will continue to capture the imaginations of many in the years to come, whether the proposed excavations are undertaken or not.

More Arts & Culture articles
A labyrinth of underground vaults, sealed more than 350 years ago, are reputed to hold some of the most coveted religious and historical treasures in Christendom, including the legendary Holy Grail.

Archeologists are clamoring to undertake an excavation of the vaults in order to put the legends to a test.
“Rosslyn offers claims to many special interest groups,” Rosslyn Trust's Stuart Beattie lamented, “including Sinclairs, Masons, historians, Medievalists, artists and more. If we got excited by all these special interest groups we’d never be able to concentrate on the building’s future.”
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