by Philip Coppens
Rosslyn Chapel is unique. But its uniqueness is that there is no other chapel like it. Still, each individual element of that chapel, even the spiralling decoration of the Apprentice Pillar, has been found elsewhere, even though some elements are only found in places such as Spain or France.
Rosslyn Chapel was neither a unique venture: it was constructed as part of the collegiate church “trend” that swept through Scotland in the 1400s. Collegiate churches housed a college of priests, whose role was to pray each day for the souls of the Lord and his family, whereby, it was hoped, their path to salvation would be eased.
One such “college collegiate church” is Crichton Collegiate Church, dedicated to St Mary & St Kentigern, which lies, quite literally, at the end of the road – and not far from Rosslyn. A few hundred yards of single track road separate it from Crichton Castle, already another parallel with Rosslyn, where castle and chapel were set apart from each other too, in the same sequence, and with the same intervisibility between the two structures.
As in Rosslyn, the castle came before the church, and Crichton came before Rosslyn. Unlike Rosslyn, which is not named after the Sinclairs, Crichton is named after its lords, even though the “Lords” of Crichton were members of the ranks of the lesser mobility, until 1424, when William was knighted at the coronation of James I. His family fortunes were raised by his son, William, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, who became, during the minority of James II, the most powerful person in the kingdom. Crichton Castle had been built in ca. 1400, but was attacked and damaged by the Douglas family in the early 1440s. William Crichton spent much of his life quarrelling with the powerful Black Douglases. Crichton was responsible for the famous “Black Dinner” in Edinburgh Castle at which the Sixth Earl of Douglas and his brother were murdered.
As a consequence of the damage to the castle, William, who became Lord Chancellor in 1447, had to effect repairs. While he was at it, he decided to build Crichton Collegiate Church.
Confirmation of the status of a collegiate church was given by James Kennedy, Bishop of St. Andrews, and the church was finished in time to hold its first service on December 26, 1449 – at a time when according to the most likely scenario, Rosslyn was not even started.
At its inauguration, provisions had been made for a provost, eight prebendaries, two boys or clerks and a sacrist. The money to sustain this religious community was coming from the revenue of neighbouring churches, and elsewhere. Though the church opened in 1449, it was never totally completed – a further parallel with Rosslyn. In 1452, when he was keeper of Stirling Castle, the eight Earl Douglas was killed in Crichton castle – this time by King James II himself! But 35 years later, the Crichtons fell out of favour with James III.
In 1479, William’s son, also named William Crichton, had an affair with the sister of James III, the result of which was a child. The king was further displeased when allegations were made in 1484 that Crichton was plotting against him: the family’s titles and possessions were forfeited. As quickly as the family had risen in the ranks of nobility, even faster they had fallen. In 1488, Crichton Castle was among a number of properties bestowed by James IV on the Earl of Bothwell. After the rise and demise of the Crichton family, the Reformation of 1560 swept away the system of collegiate churches in Scotland. By the time the new owners embarked on a major programme to rebuild Crichton Castle in the 1580s, the chapel was already in a state of disrepair.
Still, in 1641, the church formerly known as collegiate became Crichton’s parish church. Its near neighbour Rosslyn, meanwhile, remained largely neglected, until a series of visitors descended on the chapel, eventually leading to its reopening in the late 19th century.
In the 19th century, the future of Crichton looked equally bleak. In 1822, it was decided that repairs had to be carried out imminently, or, it was suggested, perhaps it was better to abandon the chapel altogether – underlining the desperate state in which the building was found to be in. It was nevertheless decided that repairs should be carried out, which occurred in 1825.
The church, now without its original nave, saw a pulpit placed high on the south wall (a ring in the wall is today the only remnant of it), and with the extensive use of galleries around three walls, as many as 600 people could be seated in what must have been a very cramped space when full.
Despite these renovations, in the late 19th century, further repairs and renovations had to be carried out. In 1898, when all “innovations” were cleared out, only leaving the bare and solid walls. The church reopened on May 11, 1899. The latest series of restoration work was carried out in 1999, to coincide with the church’s 450th anniversary. Apart from sharing a largely similar history, Crichton and Rosslyn also have several structural similarities, though in execution, Rosslyn was far more eccentric; the Sinclairs were definitely trying to outdo their Crichton neighbours. But though less elaborate, it was elaborate enough, and in size, there is little difference between the two buildings.
Like at Rosslyn, where some structures of what could have been further foundations have been found, some kind of structure extends forty feet out from the existing building. Rosslyn’s unfinished western wall has drawn extra-ordinary comparisons with the Temple of Solomon, yet Crichton’s equally unfinished parts of its walls have hardly been noted – or perhaps properly identified or what they were: unfinished.
But the most important similarity are the series of heads that in Crichton adorn the outside the church – whereas in Rosslyn, they are displayed largely inside – though much more elaborate. But in essence, all of the enigmatic faces that have made Rosslyn such a magnet are present in Crichton too. Like Rosslyn, none of the glass in Crichton is original; all original glass was destroyed during the Reformation. By 1706, not a pane of glass remained.
Nevertheless, Crichton has some aspects that are not as easily identifiable in Rosslyn. On the south side of the chapel are the “sedilia”, three elegant arches where the clergy would have sat during the various stages of the Mass. The seats were later chipped away. On the north wall, there is a niche or aumbry, where the sacraments would be housed. Traces of such structures are today absent from Rosslyn’s interior.
Today, visitors to Rosslyn Chapel enter via the north door, but at the time of its construction, people would have been encouraged to enter via the south door – which now remains largely closed. The same arrangement would have applied to Crichton, but here, all original doors have been altered. The north door was largely there to be used by “evil spirits”. As such, in Rosslyn, the north door has far more “demonic” illustrations than the south door.
Like Rosslyn, Crichton church and castle have attracted painters, including JMW Turner, who sketched the church in 1818 while he was painting the castle. As at Rosslyn, there are rumours of a secret passage between church and castle, which at Crichton was called the Velvet Way. A search for it was made in 1867 – without success – and thus as in Rosslyn, its existence remains shrouded in mystery. Unlike Rosslyn, no-one seems to suggest it might contain a treasure.
Endless speculation also exists why Rosslyn was built where it is. Some have argued that it was for the presence of a Temple of Mithras or a megalithic structure that existed there. In Crichton, evidence of Pictish and Roman settlements have been found very close by and everyone agrees that Christians probably worshipped on the site of the present church even before the first building was constructed – perhaps as much as a millennium before the Collegiate Church was erected. And thus, we know that formally, Crichton Collegiate Church is older than Rosslyn, but whereas there is no trace of whether there was anything at Rosslyn Chapel before ca. 1440, there is more consensus as to what there was at Crichton.
Today, Crichton Collegiate Church might seem dwarfed by the decorative extravaganza that is on display at Rosslyn. One is the older brother, the other the more extravagant one; but both chapels were part of the same family, with several more brothers and sisters located throughout southern Scotland.
Crichton Collegiate Church is open to visitors between 2.00pm and 5.00pm on Sunday afternoons from May to September, though the exterior can be viewed at any reasonable time.
Crichton Castle is operated by Historic Scotland.