Rosslyn Conundrum

The Rosslyn Conundrum

December 1606

In the winter of 1606, Robert Erskine was using the library at Mortlake to research his Complet Hiftorie of the Orkney Iflands. While paging through the Sinncler Book of Hours, he came across a curious miniature depicting a Knight Templar standing before the Prince’s Pillar in Rosslyn Chapel. Closer examination revealed a staircase in the background and the Roman numeral DCLXXXI cleverly concealed in the marginalia.

Erskine took his finding to John Dee, who was intrigued as he had long suspected a connection between Rosslyn Chapel and the Templars. The church had been commissioned by Willian Sinclair in 1456, just 150 years after the Templars had been persecuted into extinction. The builders, said to be craftsmen and masons brought in from all over the world, had incorporated numerous oddities and curiosities into the chapel’s intricate stone carvings, including several instances of the fluery cross and a stylized carving of two knights riding a single horse.

Rosslyn Chapel had been closed to the public in 1560, in the wake of the Scottish Reformation. Prior to this, Dee had made many trips to Scotland to visit the church, but had failed to make any sense of the riddles concealed within its walls. Back then, there had been provocative rumors amongst the priests and choristers of a vault beneath the church. However, if there really were such a chamber, the entrance to it had long been sealed and forgotten.

Convinced that Erskine’s discovery was a clue to unraveling the secrets of Rosslyn Chapel, Dee dispatched him and Matteo Eusebio to Scotland to investigate.

Erskine and Eusebio arrived in Roslin in December of 1606, on the second day of Advent. They inquired within the village about a private tour of Rosslyn Chapel, and were eventually directed to Graeme MacDonald, who had been hired by the Sinclair family as a caretaker. He reluctantly agreed to show them around the church, and instructed Erskine and Eusebio to meet him at the Black Bull, a nearby tavern, an hour after sundown.

The two men showed up for their appointment, and found MacDonald sitting at a corner table. He invited them to sit, but they were anxious to be about their business and declined his invitation to join him for a drink. Chagrined, MacDonald gave a signal and a dozen patrons within the pub suddenly stood, brandishing clubs. The mob advanced on Erskine and Eusebio and overwhelmed them, beating them into unconsciousness.

They were rudely awakened some time later by tankards of water to the face, and found themselves bound to chairs in a dark, earthen cellar. MacDonald stood before them, holding a torch and dressed in a worn leather apron. Behind him, partially concealed in the shadows, were the men who had attacked them.

MacDonald interrogated the two, threatening them with death and dismemberment if they refused to cooperate. Erskine explained that they were historians and scholars who had come to study the curious blend of Christian, Celtic, and Norse symbolism prevalent in Rosslyn Chapel. At this point, MacDonald handed off the torch and accepted a roundel dagger from the crowd behind him. He claimed that Erskine and Eusebio were either Protestant vandals or treasure-hunters chasing idiotic stories of Templar gold. He touched the blade to Eusebio’s neck and said he was prepared to slit their throats, weight them down, and toss them into the North Esk.

At this point, Erskine blurted out that they had discovered the entrance to the vault beneath Rosslyn Chapel. This caused quite a stir among the men gathered in the cellar, who began to murmur excitedly until MacDonald shushed them. He challenged Erskine, telling him that if he was telling the truth, he and Eusebio might just be allowed to leave Roslin alive. He cut their ropes and ordered his men to escort them up the stairs.

The entourage proceeded from the basement of the Black Bull to the Rosslyn Chapel. MacDonald unlocked the door and admitted them into the darkened nave, which was supported by fourteen pillars. At the east end of the chapel stood the three named pillars—The Earl’s Pillar, the Shekinah, and the Prince’s Pillar.

Eusebio and Erskine quickly made their way to the Prince’s Pillar, assuming it must somehow hold the key. MacDonald and his men watched as the two frantically searched the intricate carvings by the flickering torchlight. Erskine finally found a loose stone bearing the emblem of the fleury cross. With a shout of triumph, he pressed the stone. But nothing happened.

MacDonald’s patience was wearing thin, but Eusebio bade him hold a moment. He questioned Erskine about the Roman numeral in the illustration, which he calculated as 681. Then after considerable thought, he was struck with inspiration. He decided that 681 was the combination to a lock, akin to the one described by Gerolamo Cardano. Starting with the Prince’s Pillar, he numbered all of the pillars from 1 to 14. He located the cross-marked stone on Pillar 6 and called MacDonald over to press it and hold it down. He then proceeded to Pillar 8, where he pressed the appropriate stone himself. And finally, he told Erskine to press his again. With a rumble and grating of stone against stone, a portion of the rear wall slid to the side, revealing an ancient stairway descending down into the darkness.

In the chamber below, they discovered a crypt lined with alcoves, each of which contained skeletal remains draped in rotting cloth. At the far end of the tomb was a stone sarcophagus bearing the name “Sir William de Sinncler,” along with the carved cross and sword emblem typical of Templar gravestones. MacDonald, his animosity forgotten, explained in reverent tone that this was most likely the tomb of Sinclair’s distant relative, who had died in 1330 while trying to carry Robert the Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land.

There was considerable discussion about whether or not to open the sarcophagus, but MacDonald was adamant that Sir William should be left to rest in peace. Ill prepared for another bout with the mob, Erskine and Eubsebio acquiesced to MacDonald’s wishes.

That evening, in the Black Bull, MacDonald finally explained the connection that he and his men had with Rosslyn Chapel and why they were willing to go to such extremes to protect it. He claimed that they were members of the Compernage of Free Masons, a secret fraternity with ties to the Knights Templar. It was MacDonald’s assertion that some of the French Templars had fled to Scotland after the suppression of their order, and had sought refuge with a lodge of Scottish stonemasons. In return for the kindness shown them, these Templars taught the stonemasons the virtues of chivalry and obedience, using the builders’ tools as a metaphor.

Although there were still questions left unanswered, Erskine and Eubsebio departed for London the next day. Upon their return, they conferred with Dee to deliver MacDonald’s tidings and share his offer of a mutually beneficial collaboration.

Case Files

Lanthorn Society

Rosslyn Conundrum

The Uroborus Papers Irbslice