The chapel was founded by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness (also spelled "Sainteclaire/Saintclair/Sinclair/St. Clair") of the Sinclair family, a noble family descended from Norman knights, using the standard designs the medieval architects made available to him. Rosslyn Chapel is the third Sinclair place of worship at Roslin - the first being in Roslin Castle and the second (whose crumbling buttresses can still be seen today) in what is now Roslin Cemetery.
The purpose of the college was to celebrate the Divine Office throughout the day and night and also to celebrate Holy Mass for all the faithful departed, including the deceased members of the Sinclair family. During this period the rich heritage of plainsong (a single melodic line) or polyphony (vocal harmony) would be used to enrich the singing of the liturgy. An endowment was made that would pay for the upkeep of the priests and choristers in perpetuity and they also had parochial responsibilities.
After the Scottish Reformation (1560) Roman Catholic worship in the Chapel was brought to an end, although the Sinclair family continued to be Roman Catholics until the early 18th century. From that time the Chapel was closed to public worship until 1861 when it was opened again as a place of worship according to the rites of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
The original plans for Rosslyn have never been found or recorded, so it is open to speculation whether or not the chapel was intended to be built in its current layout.
Construction of the chapel began on 20 September 1456, although it is often been recorded as 1446. The confusion over the building date comes from the chapel's receiving its founding charter to build a collegiate chapel in 1446 from Rome. Sinclair did not start to build the chapel until he had built houses for his craftsmen. Although the original building was to be cruciform in shape, it was never completed; only the choir was constructed, with the retro-chapel, otherwise called the Lady Chapel, built on the much earlier crypt (Lower Chapel) believed to form part of an earlier castle. The foundations of the unbuilt nave and transepts stretching to a distance of 90 feet were recorded in the 19th century. The decorative carving was executed over a forty-year period. After the founder's death, construction of the planned nave and transepts was abandoned - either from lack of funds, disinterest, or a change in liturgical fashion. The Lower Chapel (also known as the crypt or sacristy) should not be confused with the burial vaults that lie underneath Rosslyn Chapel.
The chapel stands on fourteen pillars, which form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave. The three pillars at the east end of the chapel are named, from north to south, the Master Pillar, the Journeyman Pillar, and most famously, the Apprentice Pillar. These names only exist from the late Georgian period. Prior to this period they were called The Earl's Pillar, The Shekinah and the Prince's pillar or Matthew's Staff. At the west end, another three pillars divide the nave and the Lady Chapel.
The "Apprentice Pillar", or "Prentice Pillar", gets its name from an 18th century legend involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice. According to the legend, the master mason did not believe that the apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column, without seeing the original which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason travelled 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.
As punishment for his crime the master mason's face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice's pillar.
It is also referred to as the "Princes Pillar" in An Account of the Chapel of Roslin (1778). 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" (1 Esdras, chapters 3 & 4)
One recent attempt to make sense of the boxes has been to interpret them as a musical score. The motifs on the boxes somewhat resemble geometric patterns seen in the study of cymatics. The patterns are formed by placing powder upon a flat surface and vibrating the surface at different frequencies. By matching these Chladni patterns with musical notes corresponding to the same frequencies, the father-and-son team of Thomas and Stuart Mitchell produced a tune which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.
Another notable feature of Rosslyn's architecture is the presence of 'Green Men'. These are carvings of human faces with greenery all around them, often growing out of their mouths. They are commonly thought to be a symbol of rebirth or fertility, pre-Christian in origin. In Rosslyn they are found in all areas of the chapel, with one excellent example in the Lady Chapel, between the two middle altars of the east wall. The green men in Rosslyn symbolise the months of the year in progression from East to West in the Chapel. Young faces are seen in the East symbolising Spring and as we progress towards the setting sun in the West the carvings age as in Autumn of man's years. There are in excess of 110 carvings of Green men in and around the Chapel.
In addition to the boxes, there are carvings of what the authors Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight believe could be ears of new world corn or maize in the chapel. This crop was unknown in Europe at the time of the chapel's construction, and was not cultivated there until several hundred years later. Knight and Lomas view these carvings as evidence supporting the idea that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, travelled to the Americas well before Columbus. Mediaeval scholars interpret these carvings as stylised depictions of wheat, strawberries or lilies.
The claim that the layout of Rosslyn Chapel echoes that of Solomon's Temple has been analysed by Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertson in their book, Rosslyn and the Grail:
Rosslyn Chapel bears no more resemblance to Solomon's or Herod's Temple than a house brick does to a paperback book. If you superimpose the floor plans of Rosslyn Chapel and either Solomon's or Herod's Temple, you will find actually find that they are not even remotely similar. Writers admit that the chapel is far smaller than either of the temples. They freely scale the plans up or down in an attempt to fit them together. What they actually find are no significant similarities at all. [...] If you superimpose the floor plans of Rosslyn Chapel and the East Quire of Glasgow Cathedral you will find a startling match: the four walls of both buildings fit precisely. The East Quire of Glasgow is larger than Rosslyn, but the designs of these two medieval Scottish buildings are virtually identical. They both have the same number of windows and the same number of pillars in the same configuration. [...] The similarity between Rosslyn Chapel and Glasgow's East Quire is well established. Andrew Kemp noted that 'the entire plan of this Chapel corresponds to a large extent with the choir of Glasgow Cathedral' as far back as 1877 in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries. Many alternative history writers are well aware of this but fail to mention it in their books.
With regards to a possible connection between the St. Clairs and the Knights Templar, the family testified against the Templars when that Order was put on trial in Edinburgh in 1309. Historian Dr. Louise Yeoman, along with other mediaeval scholars, says the Knights Templar connection is false, and points out that Rosslyn Chapel was built by William Sinclair so that Mass could be said for the souls of his family.
It is also claimed that other carvings in the chapel reflect Masonic imagery, such as the way that hands are placed in various figures. One carving may show a blindfolded man being led forward with a noose around his neck -- similar to the way a candidate is prepared for initiation into Freemasonry. The carving has been eroded by time and pollution and is difficult to make out clearly. The chapel was built in the 15th century, and the earliest records of Freemasonic lodges date back only to the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
William Sinclair 3rd Earl of Orkney, Baron of Roslin and 1st Earl of Caithness, claimed by novelists to be a hereditary Grand Master of the Scottish stone masons, built Rosslyn Chapel. A later William Sinclair of Roslin became the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and, subsequently, several other members of the Sinclair family have held this position.
These connections, to both the Templars and the Freemasons, means that Rosslyn features prominently in romantic conjectures that the Freemasons are direct descendants of the Knights Templar, though, as scholars point out, there is absolutely no historical connection between the two.