The headline was tantalizing—claiming that a historian found a shocking medieval carving that would rewrite the history of the New World. The article in the Sun was sensational—a Viking map of Vinland found under Rosslyn Chapel. The claim was supported by two experts—TV historian Ashley Cowie and a university professor. And yet everything in the story seems to be wishful thinking by Sinclair family super-fans—and recycled wishful thinking to boot!
The claim comes to us from Cowie, who started off as a photographer and antiquarian before becoming a Knights Templar and Sinclair (a.k.a. St. Clair or De Santo Claro) conspiracy theorist in the mid-2000s. On the strength of his Templar conspiracy theories and his appearance in the History Channel special Holy Grail in America with Scott Wolter, the Syfy Channel tapped him to helm Legend Quest, their attempt to mirror the success of Ancient Aliens, in 2011. Cowie presents himself as a historian on the strength of Legend Quest and his previous gig as the staff historian for a Scottish TV channel, STV.
Cowie claims that he has found a Viking sea chart leading to Norse settlements in North America on a wall in the crypt beneath Rosslyn Chapel, the unusually decorated chapel constructed by William St. Clair in the 1400s. The crypt is older than the chapel and served as a workroom for stonemasons working on the chapel.
The claim is not new. Cowie claims to have learned of the carving in 1996, and he has used it in previous works as supporting evidence for his belief that Scotland was at the forefront of world history. In 2006’s Rosslyn Matrix, for example, he declared the carving to represent a completely lost Scottish mapping system. What is new is that he has rewritten the Rosslyn Matrix as a new book called Secret Viking Sea Chart (yes, there is no “the” prefixing the title) by adding the new claim that the same chart is now the oldest known map of America that he hopes will help raise his profile, perhaps to restore him to TV stardom. According to his website, Cowie is currently working on new potential TV series. The Sea Chart book is attributed to Alchemy International Publishing, a Delaware-based corporation (or one that shares its name) with no website, no catalog, and apparently no other titles besides those of Cowie himself.
The carving itself isn’t much to look at. A roughly triangular grid, it was hidden behind a coating of lime for 500 years until the lime coating flaked off in the 1940s. Historians believe that the carving was a stonemason’s plans for the chapel’s turrets, drawn when the crypt served as a workshop during construction of the chapel. For the most part, this interpretation is so uncontroversial that even the late Philip Coppens dismissed the drawings as mere “mason’s marks” in his 2004 book on The Stone Puzzle of Rosslyn Chapel, and Templar-Sinclair conspiracy theorist Andrew Sinclair agreed they were “architectural designs to aid the masons” who built the chapel in his 2012 book The Secret Scroll.
Cowie dismisses this because the three-dimensional turrets do not share precisely the same angles as the two-dimensional chart, though they share the same shape and decorative cap. Instead, he claims that the chart represents a 15° longitudinal slice of a world map in the projection laid out by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. The horizontal parallel lines, he said, must be the lines of latitude recognized “used” by the Vikings: every 15 degrees of latitude from the equator up to 75°. Further, he concludes that the central line represents a previously unknown “Viking prime meridian” that, not coincidentally for a Scottish author like the proud Scot Cowie, would center the Viking “power base” on Scotland rather than, say, Norway.
I’m sure many of you are already skeptical, and I’m sure it won’t help matters to learn that the chart does not depict any landforms or coastlines and includes no writing to identify it. Beyond that, the latitude lines are not equally spaced despite allegedly representing 15° segments. The grid could, in theory, sit atop any 15-degree slice of the world if it were indeed a world map, but Cowie says that he’s convinced it belongs to North America because Rosslyn Chapel was built by Sinclairs, who descend from the Viking Rollo and therefore were privy to the secrets of Vinland. The chapel, he said, was built on the Viking Meridian and is, for his imaginary Viking-Scottish heroes, the Center of the World.
As best I understand it, Cowie’s argument runs like this: The Vikings didn’t have the ability to calculate longitude, so we can dispense with accuracy in terms of east-west distances. Therefore, the upper right diagonal lines can be seen as sailing directions from Norway to Scotland to France, while the upper left diagonal lines represent sailing directions to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. (The lower diagonals represent Spain in this reading.)
To prove his claim, Cowie took copies of the carving to Richard Lomas of the University of Bradford, and asked for a scientific analysis. Lomas said that “careful study of their angles and their arrangement appear to suggest that Ashley is right.”
The article in the Sun presents Richard Lomas as a qualified expert who confirmed the claims Cowie made about the map. Indeed, Cowie calls him a “qualified” scientist in his book and the Sun calls him a “leading light” of ancient symbolism. Lomas is a lecturer in information systems at the University of Bradford’s business school who writes conspiracy books about the hidden power of Freemasonry in world history. He is the sometime writing partner of Christopher Knight, and his books amply demonstrate that he has no special expertise in historiography.
Cowie dissents from most Sinclair conspiracy theorists in that he denies that the Sinclair family were members of the Knights Templar, either during the period when the order was active or clandestinely when conspiracy theorists allege it operated in secrecy. He seems to take issue with The Curse of Oak Island and other History Channel programs that promote Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney’s alleged 1398 voyage to America, but he also appears to be ignorant of the underlying fraud behind so much of the supporting “evidence,” from dispossessed Scottish noble Johann Reinhold Forster’s efforts to cast Henry as a hero to stick it to England, to Frederick Pohl’s complete misunderstanding of a nineteenth century anthology of unrelated Mi’kmaq myths to rewrite them as a single story of Henry Sinclair.
It’s interesting to look at why exactly Rosslyn Chapel became the nexus for so many rumors and conspiracy theories, even before Dan Brown popularized it in his 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code. The likely answer is that Rosslyn Chapel was associated with the family of the first Grand Master of the Freemasons and so was long considered among the Scots to be the nexus of Freemasonry and all the attendant conspiracies that attracted themselves to Masonic lore. But the fanciful decoration of the chapel must also have played a role, since the people in the area around Rosslyn Chapel had long considered it to be a site of supernatural power. Sir Walter Scott referred to the tradition in his poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” and the legend holds that before the death of any member of the Sinclair family, the turrets of Rosslyn Chapel erupt in supernatural flame. The story goes back at least to the 1600s and was reported in John Selzer’s Theatrum Scotiae of 1693, perhaps, as Scott thought, of Norwegian origin.
All of this is merely a local legend, but one that Scott’s poem, fear of Freemasons, and Scottish self-aggrandizement raised to the level of international conspiracy. Rosslyn Chapel received precious little notice in literature until the nineteenth century, when Freemasons started to take note of it and reprinted in their journals an 1827 description of the chapel that referred to the supernatural legend and to its alleged connection to Freemasonry. Because the Grand Mastership of Scottish Freemasonry was hereditary in the family of St. Clair until 1736, the relatively great power and influence of Scottish Masonry became warrant for promoting local legends of Scottish parochial interest to world-historical stature.
The long and short of it is that Freemason conspiracy theories stand behind the allegations of secret knowledge at Rosslyn Chapel and are the only reason that the Sinclair family features so prominently in fringe history’s ongoing efforts to seek out evidence of extensive, substantive, and lasting European colonization of North America.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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