Tapestry in Stone

Rosslyn Chapel is a true work of art, a tapestry in stone!

Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel

A few years ago my parents and I visited Edinburgh, it was my parents wedding anniversary and it seemed fitting to return to the place where they had their honeymoon. Mum insisted that we had to take a detour and go to Rosslyn Chapel after having read several books about it, but at the time I was 15 and not especially interested in the religious history that gripped this nation, to be fair, not overly interested in anything… as most 15 year olds seem to be. However when we arrived the building blew me away. Only a small chapel which was covered from roof to floor in scaffolding whilst we were there, but beautiful nonetheless. I can honestly say it is one of the most spectacular displays of stone masonry that I can recall, even Queen Victoria expressed a desire for the Chapel to be ‘preserved for the country‘ on her visit in 1842.

Rosslyn_ChapelThe history is not overly convoluted, the chapel was founded in the mid 15th century by William Sinclair who was the 1st Earl of Caithness from the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family. The chapel is situated in the village of Roslin, near to Roslin Castle, the home of the Sinclair family which is now a ruin, Rosslyn Chapel was one of three places of worship the Sinclair family established. Construction began in September 1456, it’s primary use was for breviary, mass and prayers for the dead, typically for this time it was a Roman Catholic institute. The Scottish Reformation occurred in 1560, which saw the alters destroyed and the chapel closed to public worship (although the specific date of the closure is unknown). The Sinclair family, as many Scots in Tudor times continued as Roman Catholics until the early 18th century. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s troops ransacked Roslin Castle but the chapel was spared, only because it provided suitable stabling for his troops horses. In 1861 it was opened again as a place of worship hosting Sunday services according to the rites of the Scottish Episcopal Church, between 1840 and the reopening extensive restoration work was carried out by architect David Bryce on behalf of the 3rd Earl of Rosslyn.


Flying buttresses are one of my favourite things in architecture. Elegant and sweeping, they are normally in conjunction with gothic ecclesiastical architecture.

Recently there has been speculation of strong links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, especially in consideration of the publication and film adaptation of Dan Browns Da Vinci Code. Since then there has been many other publications speculating similar such stories most featuring the carving of two riders on one horse. Robert L. D. Cooper, curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library, in 2003, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApublished a 12th edition of the 1892 Illustrated Guide to Rosslyn Chapel with the intention of countering the “nonsense published about Rosslyn Chapel over the last 15 years or so”. Another claim that Rosslyn Chapel echoes Solomon’s Temple was discussed in Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertsons’ book: Rosslyn and the Grail, stating that the chapel bears no more resemblance to Solomon’s Temple than a house brick does to a paperback book.

Floor Plan of Chapel

Floor Plan of Chapel

The original plans for Rosslyn chapel have never been found, or perhaps were never recorded, which leaves the architecture open to much interpretation.  Only the Choir/Lady Chapel was constructed, which was built upon the site of the earlier crypt (thought to be part of an earlier castle on this site). However it is suggested by the foundations excavated in the 19th C. that the original building was to be cruciform in shape, yet it was never completed. The excavations show that the nave and transepts stretched a distance of 90 feet west of today’s boundaries.Yet after the founder’s death, construction of the planned nave and transepts were abandoned, either from lack of funds, lack of interest or a change in liturgical fashion.

Artists impression of what the chapel would have looked like if finished.

Artists impression of what the chapel would have looked like if finished.

The crypt acted as a burial place for several generations of the Sinclairs, it was once accessible from a descending stair at the rear of the chapel but was sealed shut on an unknown date. In 1837 when the 2nd Earl of Rosslyn died, his wish was to be buried in the original vault; exhaustive searches over the period of a week were made, but no entrances to the vault were found and he was buried beside his wife in the Lady Chapel. The foundations, building and carvings took approximately 40 years to complete, possibly even longer, and the village of Roslin grew to house the workers.

Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel

Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel

If you visit the Chapel today, you can see a series of shields high up along the north wall of the Chapel displaying the letters: W L S F Y C Y Z O G M C C C C L which stand for: ‘William Lord Sinclair Fundit Yis College Ye Zeir Of God MCCCCL’ (marking the founder and date, 1450). Other carvings include a Green Man who happens to be one of the best preserved Green Men in Europe, they are a common pagan figure, often with vines spouting from the mouth to represent fertility and natures growth. Also the fallen angel Lucifer hanging upside down surrounded by rope, plus other angles playing musical instruments, including a set of bagpipes.


Surrounding one of the windows is Maize or possibly Indian Corn, this is fascinating because not only is it an exotic plant but Maize originates from North America, a country discovered 50 years after Rosslyn Chapel was built…..

The Apprentice Pillar

The Apprentice Pillar. On the architrave joining the pillar there is the inscription Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas: “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all”.

The apprentice pillar, is one of the most elaborately decorated pieces in the whole chapel, and named so due to a legend. The master mason did not believe that his apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing that which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason had traveled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column anyway. In a fit of jealous anger the mason took up his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. It is unknown if this is true or pure myth but it is said that  the Bishop of St Andrew may have obtained the popes permission to delay the consecration of the buildings because a violent deed had taken place.

When walking around this chapel, it was the exquisite carvings that I fell in love with, and not so much the history. It is incredible that such stone-masonry survives. The architecture is considered some of the finest in Scotland, perhaps in Europe. From 1995 a trust was established for the conservation and in 1997 a steel canopy was erected over the chapel to allow for the stone work to dry out, thus helping the conservation, but it also allowed you to climb to the height of the roof, allowing for inspection of the carvings over the elevation (the canopy was removed last year). The pinnacles on the rooftop have been subject to much interest during renovation work in 2010. Nesting birds had made the pinnacles unstable and as such had to be dismantled brick by brick revealing the existence of a chamber specifically made by the stonemasons to harbour bees. The hive, now abandoned, has been sent to local bee keepers to identify. Other conservation work carried out by the trust occurred on the roof, the carvings, the stained glass windows and the organ, the restoration work in total cost £13 million.

The dance of death

This carving is a string of figures in the dance of death, each character is different and each character is accompanied by a skeleton. The dance comes from the skeletons, or death pushing and pulling the reluctant people off to their fate. Symbolising deaths triumph over life.

Musical Cubes

These cubes are carved into the arches of the Lady Chapel, and each one is unique made up of lines and dots, it is thought perhaps they are musical notes. Some theories suggest they are a secret code, perhaps linked to the Knights Templar.


Chatsworth House!

I am sure you are familiar with Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice, a film adaptation was made staring Keira Knightly and Mathew Macfadyen in 2005, but are you familiar with the locations it was filmed? One was Chatsworth House, which happens to be one of my favourite all time houses, full of the charm and character one would expect from a house for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. You cannot say you know England until you have visited!

Chatsworth House

1592 Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury by Rowland Lockley

1592 Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury by Rowland Lockley


Artist unknown, c.1680-1700. West front of the Elizabethan Chatsworth.

The story of Chatsworth begins in the 16th Century with Elizabeth Talbot more commonly know as Bess of Hardwick, or the Countess of Shrewsbury and the most powerful woman in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth I, although some people believe she was more powerful than the queen, she even wears a crown on her tomb, I guess you could say it was a love-hate relationship. It was in her second marriage (out of four) that the Cavandish lineage continues today. Her second husband Sir William Cavandish, was one of King Henry VIII’s advisers and prospered greatly during the dissolution of the monasteries. He bought the land that Chatsworth stands on today for £600 in 1549 and building started in 1552, yet he died in 1557 never seeing it’s completion, Bess of Hardwick finished the building. The Hunting Tower built in 1580 still stands on the hill, and the house retains a few of the original Elizabethan interior walls. It was her son who inherited Chatsworth, Henry Cavandish and sold it to his brother William Cavandish for £10,000.

The South Front of Chatsworth from Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus

The south front of Chatsworth from Colen Campbell’s  Vitruvius Britannicus

The 4th Earl of Devonshire, William Cavandish, who later became the 1st Duke of Devonshire in 1694, rebuilt the house as he was forced to retire during the reign of James II as their political ideas clashed dramatically. Originally he wanted to only rebuild the south wing, thus keeping the inside Elizabethan courtyard, despite it becoming unfashionable. The changes he made are key to the development of English Baroque architecture, it was incredibly classical and very opulent. Sir John Summerson (a famous architectural historian of the 20th century) said “It inaugurates an artistic revolution which is the counterpart of the political revolution in which the Earl was soAreial Chatsworth prominent a leader.”, a statement of power therefore, propaganda almost. The south elevation is quite unusual for its time, with no attic visible, it features a basement of single square elevation and then the  two “main” stories of double elevation. The facade is striking with 4 ionic plasters either side of the 6 bay center. Symmetry is crucial, yet it is unusual that the focus on this facade is on the outer bays, with very little decoration on the centerpiece. Above the plasters we see heavy entablature and a further balustrade to give it height and importance, decorated with these carved urns. The south and east fronts follow this pattern, the work of William Talman which were finished in 1696.

West front  as shown in Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus

West front as shown in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus

The north and west fronts are different again, the north is definitely the work of Thomas Archer who also designed the Cascade House, but the west front architect remains somewhat of a mystery, although it is exceptionally similar to the north front. It is quite possibly a design from the Duke himself, or he had a large input, he fancied himself as an amateur architect. 9 bays wide instead of 12 like the south facade, with a center pediment supported by 4 columns, with 4 plasters to the outer bays. The windows on the west bay are highlighted with

The golden windows

The golden windows

gold leaf, something that the current Duke and Duchess have had recently restored, so that it may catch the setting sun, although personally I think it looks awful. The only surviving baroque facade is on the eastern side, where 5 of the original 7 bays remain. The north facade was the last to be built, presenting a challenge, since the north end of the west front projected 3m further than the north end of the eastern front, to get around this issue a slightly curved facade was built to deceive the eye, however the 19th c. extensions to the north front meant this was no longer an issue.

The Great Conservatory, destroyed in the 19th C.

The Great Conservatory, destroyed in the 19th C.

Interesting fact while on the topic of windows, in the 19th century for certain but most likely it was common place before that… Chatsworth employed two full time window cleaners, along with the other 40 plus staff… I can imagine they would need it, as just on the main North, South, East and West facades there are approx. 126 windows… let alone the ones on the extension, the conservatory or the other buildings on the estate.

Penrhos girls on the canal pond.

Penrhos girls on the canal pond.

I shall not provide the whole history of Chatsworth House and its occupants… you would be here for days reading about the additions and changes many of the Dukes made. But jumping ahead to world war two instead, most of the grand houses were put to use during the war, many were hospitals or barracks, but the 10th Duke decided that soldiers may cause the house too much damage so opened the house to a Penrhos College, a girls public school from Colwyn Bay, N. Wales. The contents of the house were packed up and put into storage and 300 girls plus teachers descended on the house for a 6 year stay, all the rooms were occupied and even the state rooms were turned into dormitories. However the condensation from the school girls breath caused fungus to grow on the back of many paintings, as we have found out with recent restoration. The girls grew vegetables to help with the war effort, but the house was not very comfortable for so many people and had a shortage of hot water, but there were some perks, such as skating on the canal pond in winter. Relations of the Cavandish family and estate workers fought on the front line in the war.

Refugees in the dorm reconstruction. There is currently an exhibition on at Chatsworth about its wartime efforts, including returning one of the state rooms into a dormitory and featuring the original wardrobe that has been stored at Chatsworth since 1946. Some of the refugees returned now  70 years later stating it was ‘an emotional reunion‘ and that ‘Chatsworth has always had a special place in their hearts’.

If you visit there are 5 treasures I adore and you should not miss!!

Violin Painting

Violin at Chatsworth

Jan van der Vaardt (1653 – 1727) Oil on panel c. 1674 – 1724

The State Music room features a surprise Trompe l’oeil (French for ‘deceive the eye’, an art technique that uses very realistic imagery to create an optical illusion). Behind one door a violin and bow is depicted hanging off a metal peg, it really does seem real. Set into a functional door, the painting is thought to have been at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, it was rescued from the fire that destroyed the house in 1733, then brought to Chatsworth.

The Cascade


Kip and Knyff’s illustration show’s the original design of the Cascade.

The original Cascade was built in 1696, designed by Monsieur Grillet, a French hydraulics engineer, he had experience in decorative waterworks for Louis XIV of France. It took two years to build and then faced a vigorous re-modelling in 1708, ten years after the original was built which makes you wonder who approved the original plans.

Chatsworth Cascade

Chatsworth Cascade… if you notice in the background (top center of the picture) there is a row of tree’s cut away, that was the old driveway that lead from Chatsworth to Bess’s other house, Hardwick Hall.

The new Cascade was nearly twice the length, and substantially wider, adding the Cascade House, built at its summit, designed by Thomas Archer. This Cascade House was used as a form of entertainment in the summer, in 1725 one of the visitors reported how jets threw up streams of water and got people all wet, the spouts are still in the floor. The cascade, along with the stunning gardens, are absolutely beautiful in the summer to explore and have a picnic by. You can even roll up your trousers and paddle across the steps, but don’t soak your family… they don’t appreciate it.

Veiled Statue

Veiled Virgin

Raffaelle Monti, Marble – 1846 – 1847

veiledladyWhilst in Milan, on his way to Naples, the 6th Duke of Devonshire visited the sculptor’s studio on 12th October 1846, he ordered the marble sculpture on 18th October, placing a £60 deposit. The sculpture was ready to be dispatched to England in April 1847, and the Duke appears to have displayed it in Chiswick House, west of London. It first came to Chatsworth in 1999 and was shown in the Sculpture Gallery where it appeared in Pride and Prejudice. It is incredible when you are face to face with it, the marble is so delicate it actually looks like a veil over an intricate face.

423px-Georgiana_Cavendish,_Duchess_of_Devonshire_as_DianaGeorgiana Cavandish as Diana

One of the most famous Duchesses to live at Chatsworth is Lady Georgiana Spencer, who married William Cavandish the 5th Duke of Devonshire, her sad story is told by Kiera Knightly and Ralph Finnes in the Academy Award winning film The Duchess. This painting residing at Chatsworth is of the Duchess of Devonshire, known across England as one of the most famous women, an empress of fashion, she had a keen interest in politics and was a well accomplished woman even when she was young. She was top of the elite, often the muse of artists, a true icon. However she loved to gamble, by the time of her death she had raked up a debt worth £3,720,000, and her husband upon finding out is thought to have remarked ‘is that all?…’, after all both her husband and her father the 1st Earl Spencer were very wealthy. Her marriage, made by her parents, was another reason she was famous, beloved of society yet not of her husband, it saw Georgiana hurt and humiliated when William took her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster as a mistress and moved her into their home. However there is a school of thought that suspects Georgiana to have had physical relations with Elizabeth too. Gee, as she was often called as a child, gave William three children, Georgiana, Harriet and William George, but also several miscarriages. She also had an affair of her own, with Charles Grey, and gave birth to an illegitimate daughter Eliza, the duke forced her to give Eliza up and she was raised by the Grey family. However Gee secretly visited Eliza a few times throughout her life, and Eliza then names her daughter Georgiana. Gee died in 1806, aged 48, she forgave her husband and Lady Elizabeth, giving them her blessing to marry after her death.

The fascinating thing about this painting however is that she has 6 toes, Georgiana was thought to be so beautiful she was close to the gods. Here Georgiana is supposed to portray Diana, the goddess of nature, fertility and childbirth. However the only thing that is allowed to be 100% perfect were the gods themselves, hence why she has 6 toes, one small bit of imperfection.

The Carved Cravat 

Carved Cravat, Late 17th early 18th C.

Carved Cravat. Late 17th to early 18th C.

This Lime-wood Carved Cravat is attributed to Ginling Gibbons, as are many other of the fantastic wooden carvingsdownload at Chatsworth. Although we are uncertain if Gibbons worked on Chatsworth House at all, it is certainly in his style. Possibly the work of Derbyshire born Samuel Watson, he worked in Gibbons style and is reported to work at Chatsworth between 1691-1711. However Samuel could have acquired an actual Gibbons piece or it could have been gifted to the 1st or 2nd Duke. This Venetian lace style was very fashionable in the late 17th century, there is a similar piece now held in the V&A museum.

Chatsworth Library

Chatsworth Library

26 rooms are open for public viewing, including the library, which was originally the 1st Duke’s gallery but changed by the 6th Duke. The painted hall, which was the 1st Duke’s ceremonial entrance hall and is simply a stunning opulence of grandeur. The great dining room, which at one point severed (at the time) Princess (later Queen) Victoria. The chapel remains unaltered from its design in 1688. And finally the Scots Rooms, a set of rooms that

The grand hall

The Painted Hall

held Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment, placed under the custody of the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwicks’ 4th husband, although they have altered slightly in decoration. There is another scandal here, as it is suspected that the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury loved Mary Queen of Scots and had physical relations whilst she was under his care. Further to the rooms, the art collection inhabited at Chatsworth is gigantic, built up over 450 years, it includes paintings by Rembrandt and Lanseer, as well as sculptures by Canova and Frink. The Garden extends to 105 acres, including many features such as the giant rockeries and the gravity-fed emperor fountain  which can emit a jet of water 90 meters into the air. They boast rare trees, shrubs, rose Gardens, temples, streams and much more, you could spend days getting lost.

Personally I love Chatsworth, the building is stunning, the art work incredible whilst the history and characters simply speak for themselves.