Roslin Collegiate Church

Summary description

Roofed, in use

Architectural description

Roslin Collegiate Church, in Midlothian, is the most extraordinary building to have come down to us from medieval Scotland and in recent years has attracted a plethora of sensationalist speculation.

The founder of the college, which was eventually served by six priests, was one of the great magnates of Scotland, William Sinclair. Although his principal Lowland land-holding was initially centred on Roslin, he derived much of his status and wealth from the northern estates his grandfather had inherited. William succeeded to the Norse earldom of Orkney in 1434, and was granted the earldom of Caithness in 1455. For many years he was high in royal favour, leading the party that accompanied the young Princess Margaret to France when she married the heir to the French throne in 1436, for example, and serving as Chancellor between 1454 and 1456. But he was to suffer from the expansionist policies of Scotland’s monarchs, who were determined to absorb the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland into their kingdom. Following James III’s marriage to Margaret of Denmark in 1469, and her father’s failure to pay her dowry, the Northern Isles were eagerly accepted as a surety. James had no intention of returning them, however, and as part of his effort to establish control he coerced Sinclair into resigning his earldom of Orkney. Sinclair was compensated for this in a number of ways, though it may well have been this shift in fortunes that made it difficult for him to complete his new church at Roslin.

Nineteenth-century excavations and a recent resistivity survey have shown that, as first set out, the church was to have had a cruciform plan on an unprecedented scale for a collegiate church, with a chancel and nave of similar length, and transepts at the junction of the two parts. But only the chancel and the east wall of the transepts were completed, together with a large chamber to the south-east of the chancel, which is usually described as a sacristy but which may have been intended as part of the complex occupied by the college of priests.  A rather enigmatic inscription on the north cornice of the chancel suggests construction was started in 1450, when Sinclair was at the height of his prestige, though Father Richard Augustine Hay, who put together a history of the Sinclair family in about 1700, said it had been started four years earlier. Whatever the case, enough had been completed by 1456 for the father of Sinclair’s second wife, Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, to be buried within it. Beyond that, there is evidence to suggest that work was still in progress at the time of Sinclair’s death in about 1480, since the arms of the third wife he married shortly before his death are carved on the north wall. However, it is doubtful that much more was done after that.

Roslin is the most lavishly decorated church in Scotland, and if fewer resources had been applied to its enrichment more of the building may have been completed. The richness of effect may have been because Sinclair wished his building to have something of a French air, especially following his French visit of 1436. Scottish patrons were showing considerable interest in Continental architecture, at a time when one of the consequences of the long wars with England was a growing reluctance to continue the architectural relationship with England that had prevailed for much of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Ideas were increasingly drawn from mainland Europe, and especially from France and the Low Countries. At Melrose Abbey, for example, the inscription left by the Paris-born mason John Morow a number of other buildings he had worked on in Scotland.

One person with patronage links to a number of Morow’s building operations was Archibald, fourth Earl of Douglas and, bearing in mind that he was such an important war leader in France during the Hundred Years War that he was created Duke of Touraine in 1424, it may be that it was Douglas who brought Morow to Scotland. It is also significant that, since Sinclair’s first wife, Elizabeth, was Douglas’s daughter, Sinclair would have been aware of Morow’s work. However, there is nothing at Roslin that reflects the distinctive architectural style that can be traced at several of Morow’s buildings. In those buildings, including the Douglas family’s collegiate church of Lincluden, there is a reflection of the restrained but highly elegant approach to design that prevailed in the royal domains of France before a preference for more complex Flamboyant forms emerged. Sinclair was perhaps more attracted to the greater opulence that he would have seen taking shape at Tours Cathedral, where he escorted Princes Margaret to her wedding in 1436, and where work had re-started on the great west front in 1427.

Perversely, however, behind the lavish decoration some of the approach to design may have its roots in the architecture of the austere order of Cistercian monks. The chancel was set out to a rectangular plan, with aisles flanking the main space and returning along the east end to give access to a row of four eastern chapels, while the main space of the chancel is covered by a high pointed barrel vault, with each bay of the aisles having a similar vault running at ninety degree to the main space. All of these elements were to be found together in some of the twelfth-century churches of the homeland of the Cistercian order in Burgundy.

The overall effect at Roslin could hardly be less Cistercian, however, and in fact much of what we see had more immediate precedents in Scotland. The plan, for example, had possibly been introduced to Scotland at the Cistercian abbey of Newbattle in the late twelfth century, but had then been employed on a much grander scale in the mid-thirteenth-century chancel of Glasgow Cathedral. Pointed barrel vaults were being constructed over increasing numbers of medium-sized churches since the last quarter of the fourteenth century, though there are no known Scottish precedents for the vaults over the aisles, unless there had been something of the kind in the church at Melrose that had been started in 1136.

As we look more closely at the details of Roslin, what seems likely to be the case is that Scottish masons were responsible for the design and construction; but those masons were being asked to take up architectural ideas that Sinclair had admired elsewhere, possibly while in France, and with which they were not altogether at ease. Thus, while the complex detailing Sinclair would have seen at Tours emerged almost organically from the architectural forms, at Roslin much of the enrichment took the form of a surface application – almost an encrustation – of carving. It is the sheer quantity of decoration that is so astonishing, and this is nowhere more the case than on the high vaulting, where the curved faces are entirely covered by stylised flowers or stars. The spiralling bands around the so-called Apprentice Pillar and the dropped cusping that decorates much of the vaulting may well have taken a lead from French models, but they are all enriched with rather chunky foliage that has its closest parallels at other Scottish churches.

It almost seems as if the designing mason simply did not know when to stop in his drive to satisfy his patron’s quest for richness of effect. The vaults over the eastern chapels, for example, have pendants hanging from the central intersections of the ribs, which is perhaps reasonable enough; but the pendants that project improbably from above the vault springers on the east side are less easy to justify. Similarly, while he was probably wise to provide flying buttresses to support the high vault, it is difficult to understand why he should have felt it necessary to have two ranks of pinnacles and flyers when there is only one aisle. Yet the lack of structural logic demonstrated by the flying buttresses is more than compensated for by the care with which he constructed the aisle vaults. On first sight those vaults rest rather dangerously on transverse lintels, though in fact they rise from shallow segmental arches which transfer the weight to the arcade piers and outer walls, and the ‘lintels’ are no more than flat arches which were inserted to mask those segmental arches.

The aisle vaults remind us that, although it is the overwhelming richness of effect that dominates what we see at Roslin, behind its design was a creative artist who had to have a clear vision of the end result before building could begin, and who was able to ensure that his church was sufficiently stable to be still standing five and a half centuries later. At Roslin we are particularly fortunate that we can obtain a glimpse into that creative process, because some of the master mason’s working drawings survive, incised into the walls of the chamber to the east of the church. In these we can see how he worked out the details of a pinnacle, an arch, and one of the bands of dropped cusping. Supplementing this, we are told by Father Richard Augustine Hay, who probably had access to family papers that have since been lost, how the master mason had his designs copied onto boards, which were then cut to provide the profiles required by the masons working the stone. As in so much else, Roslin is unique in Scotland in providing us with this level of technical information.