Heritage and Culture

From Riches to Ruin to National Treasure - The Story of Rosslyn Chapel

By Sophie

This is the story of Rosslyn Chapel. From riches, to ruin, to national treasure, we look at how this mysterious Chapel has survived throughout the last 500 years.

A mysterious and beautiful attraction that has stood for over five centuries, when the release of the Da Vinci Code film came in 2006, Rosslyn Chapel gained worldwide fame. Almost all of the interior scenes, in the film, were shot at the Chapel, so Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou were on site for a few days while filming was taking place. Described by Tom Hanks in these words, "Few locations in film are so delightful and few destinations live up to their billing, but Rosslyn Chapel was all one could imagine or hope for" it's easy to see why Rosslyn Chapel has film and history fans alike flocking to it's grounds.

Based on the 2003 novel, written by Dan Brown, we see the main characters - Robert and Sophie - investigate a murder in the Lourve. In doing so they stumble across a set of clues which lead them, first to London and then, to the Rosslyn Chapel. With an estimated 81 million copies of the book sold, along with the success of the Da Vinci Code Film in 2006, the Chapel saw over 176,000 visitors at it's peak. This major influx of visitors meant that the trust could complete a major conservation project on the chapel, allowing for it to remain as close to it's original state for visitors to admire.

Where Our Story begins...

We're taken back, all the way to 1446, when William St Clair, the 3rd Prince of Orkney, began the building of Rosslyn Chapel. Dedicated as the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, in 1450, St Clair founded the Chapel for his family and staff. Collegiate chapels, like Rosslyn, were intended for prayer for the soul of the founder and to spread intellectual and spiritual knowledge. With extraordinary architecture and carvings, generations following its building have been inspired by, and insured the endured fame of, this beautiful chapel.

In 1484, St Clair Died and was buried in the Chapel. This meant that building work of the Chapel ceased, leaving it in the form we see today. It is suspected that plans for a larger cruciform building may have been set in place, however this never came to action.

In 1571, the reformation meant that the Chapels provost and prebendaries were forced to resign. In 1592 Oliver St Clair was ordered to destroy the altars of Rosslyn, meaning that the Chapel could no longer be used a place of worship. This meant a time of neglect and disrepair for the chapel.

In 1650 Oliver Cromwell's troops sacked Rosslyn Castle, sparing the chapel for use as a stable for the troups horses. In the same year, Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn died at the Battle of Dunbar. As the family custom dictated, he was buried in full armor in the vault below the chapel. It is believed that he is the last knight to be buried there.

In 1736, Rosslyn Chapel received a little TLC when Sir James Sinclair decided to relay the floors and glaze the windows for the first time. In the first known attempts at preserving the chapel, for the first time in 150 years, Rosslyn looked to be improving.

In 1780, artist Alexander Nasmyth and poet Robert Burns took a visit to the Rosslyn area. With their romantic associations with the wild landscape and overgrown ruin of the Chapel, it became a muse for poets, writers and artists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. This included Sir Walter Scott who wrote Lay of the Last Minstrel, a poem about the Chapel appearing as if it were on fire the night the Rosslyn Baron passed away.

In 1842, Queen Victoria payed a visit to the chapel. In seeing it's exquisite beauty and intricately detailed carving, she declared that the chapel be 'preserved for the country'. Within 20 years, restoration work began on the Chapel.

Rededicated by the Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, restoration work began, under the direction of architect David Bryce. This meant that for the first time in centuries, the Chapel was usable again. Sunday services began at the Chapel for the first time in over two centuries.

From then, right through the 1900s. the Chapel remained in use, but under constant repair. From the roof to the floor, love and care were taken to repair every inch. In 1995 the forming of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust meant that care for the Chapel could continue.

In 2003, when Dan Brown's novel, The Davinci Code, sold over 81 million copies, Rosslyn Chapel received worldwide attention. In 2007 the Rosslyn Chapel Trust received almost five million pounds as a grant for restoration to the chapel, meaning major conservation projects could be undertaken.

In 2012 the Chapel received a Royal seal of approval, when the Earl and Countess of Rosslyn welcomed Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Rothesay to the Chapel for a service to commemorate the completed conservation project. It also marked the opening of the new Visitor Centre.

This takes us up to present day, where the chapel is still visited by thousands every year. From riches, to ruin, to national treasure, Rosslyn Chapel has seen its fair share of history. We're glad that this beautiful building has had the chance to flourish once again, while maintaining its original character.

If you haven't payed a visit yet, make sure you make that trip, just south of Edinburgh, to see this mysterious building.