Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney

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Henry Sinclair
Earl of Orkney
Baron of Roslin
Arms of the Earl of Orkney.svg Blason Henri Ier Sinclair.svg
Earl of Orkney and Baron of Roslin Coats of Arms
PredecessorEarldom of Orkney: Vacant
Baron of Roslin: Willliam St Clair
SuccessorHenry II Sinclair, Earl of Orkney
Bornc. 1345
Diedc. 1400
Noble familyClan Sinclair

Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, Lord of Roslin (c. 1345 – c. 1400) was a Scottish and a Norwegian nobleman. Sinclair held the title Earl of Orkney (which refers to Norðreyjar rather than just the islands of Orkney) and was Lord High Admiral of Scotland under the King of Norway. He was sometimes identified by another spelling of his surname, St. Clair. He was the grandfather of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel. He was best known today because of a modern legend that he took part in explorations of Greenland and North America almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus. William Thomson, in his book The New History of Orkney,[1] wrote: "It has been Earl Henry's singular fate to enjoy an ever-expanding posthumous reputation which has very little to do with anything he achieved in his lifetime."[2]

According to Sir Robert Douglas, 6th Baronet, Sinclair had received the honours of the Orders of the Thistle, Saint Michael (Cockle) and the Golden Fleece.[3] However all these orders were created after Sinclair's death.


Rosslyn or Roslin Castle, seat of the Sinclairs who were Barons of Roslin, reconstruction image

Henry Sinclair was the son and heir of William Sinclair, Lord of Roslin, and his wife Isabella (Isobel) of Strathearn.[4] She was a daughter of Maol Ísa, Jarl of Orkney. Henry Sinclair's maternal grandfather had been deprived of much of his lands (the earldom of Strathearn being completely lost to the King of Scots).[5]

Sometime after 13 September 1358, Henry's father died, at which point Henry Sinclair succeeded as Baron of Roslin, Pentland and Cousland, a group of minor properties in Lothian.[6]

Although the Norwegian Jarldom of Orkney was not an inheritable position, successive appointments had operated as if it had been. After a vacancy lasting 18 years, three cousins – Alexander de L'Arde, Lord of Caithness; Malise Sparre, Lord of Skaldale; and Henry Sinclair – were rivals for the succession. Initially trialling de L'Arde as Captain of Orkney, King Haakon VI of Norway was quickly disappointed in de L'Arde's behaviour, and sacked him.[6]

On 2 August 1379, at Marstrand, near Tønsberg, Norway, Haakon chose Sinclair over Sparre, investing Sinclair with the Jarldom or Earldom in the Peerage of Scotland.[4][7][8] In return Henry pledged to pay a fee of 1000 nobles before St. Martin's Day (11 November), and, when called upon, serve the king on Orkney or elsewhere with 100 fully armed men for 3 months. It is unknown if Haakon VI ever attempted to call upon the troops pledged by Henry or if any of the fee was actually paid.[6]

As security for upholding the agreement the new jarl left hostages behind when he departed Norway for Orkney. Shortly before his death in summer 1380, the king permitted the hostages to return home.[9] In 1389, Sinclair attended the hailing of King Eric in Norway, pledging his oath of fealty. Historians have speculated that in 1391 Sinclair and his troops slew Malise Sparre near Scalloway, Tingwall parish, Shetland.[6][10]

It is not known when Henry Sinclair died. The Sinclair Diploma, written or at least commissioned by his grandson states: "...he retirit to the parts of Orchadie and josit them to the latter tyme of his life, and deit Erile of Orchadie, and for the defence of the country was slain there cruellie by his enemiis..." We also know that sometime in 1401: "The English invaded, burnt and spoiled certain islands of Orkney." This was part of an English retaliation for a Scottish attack on an English fleet near Aberdeen. The assumption is that Henry either died opposing this invasion, or was already dead.[5][6]

Henri Santo Claro (Henry St. Clair) signed a charter from King Robert III in January 1404. It is supposed that he died shortly after that although his son did not take the title until 1412. Therefore, he died somewhere between 1404 and 1412, killed in an attack on Orkney, possibly by English seamen.[11][6] Or in an attack from the south.[7]

Marriage and issue[edit]

Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, married Jean Haliburton, daughter of Sir Walter de Haliburton, 1st Lord Haliburton of Dirleton, and had issue:[12][8]

  1. Henry II Sinclair, Earl of Orkney (c. 1375–1422), m. Egidia Douglas, daughter of Sir William Douglas of Nithsdale and his wife Egidia, daughter of King Robert II
  2. John Sinclair, said to have married Ingeborg, a natural daughter of Waldemar, King of Denmark
  3. William Sinclair
  4. Elizabeth Sinclair (b. 1363), m. Sir John Drummond of Cargill
  5. Margaret Sinclair, m. James of Cragy, Laird of Hupe in Orkney
  6. Marjory Sinclair, m. David Menzies of Menzies, and Weem
  7. Bethoc Sinclair, m. William Borthwick of Borthwick

Fringe theories[edit]

In the 1980s, modern alternative histories of Earl Henry I Sinclair and Rosslyn Chapel began to be published. Popular books (often derided as pseudo-history) such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (1982) and The Temple and the Lodge by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (1989) appeared. Books by Timothy Wallace-Murphy and Andrew Sinclair soon followed from the early 1990s onwards.

The alleged voyage to North America[edit]

Monument to the alleged landing site of the Sinclair Expedition, Guysborough, Nova Scotia

One of the most common theories about Sinclair is that he was one of the first Europeans to visit North America in a voyage pre-dating Columbus. In 1784, he was identified by Johann Reinhold Forster[13] as possibly being the Prince Zichmni described in letters allegedly written around the year 1400 by the Zeno brothers of Venice, in which they describe a voyage throughout the North Atlantic under the command of Zichmni.[14]

The authenticity of the letters (which were allegedly rediscovered and published in the early 16th century) are challenged by historians. Most regard the letters (and the accompanying map) as a hoax by the Zenos or their publishers.[14] Moreover, the identification of Zichmni as Henry Sinclair has not been accepted by most historians, although it is taken for granted by the supporters of the theory.

Some supporters of the theory contend that there are stone carvings of American plants in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.[15][16] The chapel was built by Henry Sinclair's grandson William Sinclair and was completed in 1486. Columbus made his first voyage in 1492. This is seen by writers Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas as being compelling evidence for the theory that Sinclair had sailed to America,[15] although scholars have said the plants are simply stylised depictions of common European plants.[17]

In addition, some writers such as Native American historian Evan Pritchard have claimed that Glooscap, the spiritual hero figure of the Mi'kmaq people, is in fact a depiction of an early European explorer, most likely Henry Sinclair.[18][19]

The claim that Henry Sinclair explored North America has been popularised by several other authors, notably by Frederick J. Pohl,[20] Andrew Sinclair,[21] Michael Bradley,[22] William S. Crooker (who claimed to have discovered Henry Sinclair's castle in Nova Scotia),[23] Steven Sora,[24] and more recently by David Goudsward.[25] The claim is based on several separate propositions:

  1. That the letters and map ascribed to the Zeno brothers and published in 1558 are authentic.
  2. That the voyage described in the letters as taken by Zichmni around the year 1398 to Greenland actually reached North America.
  3. That Zichmni is Henry Sinclair.

The name "Zichmni" is either totally fictitious, or quite possibly a transliteration error when converting from handwritten materials to type. Johann Reinhold Forster[13] tried to relate this to the name "Sinclair", but "Prince Sinclair" is not normal usage, while "Prince of Orkney" seems a better fit. Frederick Pohl claimed that the "Z" could have come from a misreading of the cursive "d'O" in "d'Orkney".[26] In addition, the "k" and "y" do not appear in Italian, so would need to be represented by other letters – "ch" in Italian is a hard "k" sound, so might well have been used to represent the "k".[20]

Alleged Templar connections[edit]

Intertwined with the Sinclair voyage story is the claim that Henry Sinclair was a Knight Templar and that the voyage either was sponsored by or conducted on the behalf of the Templars, though the order was suppressed almost half a century before Henry's lifetime.

Knight and Lomas speculate that the Knights Templar discovered under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem a royal archive dating from King Solomon's times that stated that Phoenicians from Tyre voyaged to a westerly continent following a star called "La Merika". According to Knight and Lomas, the Templars learned that to sail to that continent, they had to follow a star by the same name. Sinclair supposedly followed this route.[27]

The theory also makes use of the supposed Templar connection to explain the name Nova Scotia ("New Scotland" in Latin). It is based on the 18th-century tale that some Templars escaped the suppression of their order by fleeing to Scotland during the reign of Robert the Bruce[28] and fought in the Battle of Bannockburn.[29]

Claims persist that Rosslyn Chapel contains Templar imagery. Andrew Sinclair speculates that the grave slab now in the crypt is that of a Templar knight:[30] According to author Robert Lomas, the chapel also has an engraving depicting a knight templar holding the sword over a head of an initiate, supposedly to protect the secrets of the templars.[31] Rosslyn Chapel was built by Sir William St Clair, last St Clair Earl of Orkney, who was the grandson of Henry. According to Lomas, Sir William, the chapel builder, is also the direct ancestor of the first Grand Master of Masons of Scotland, also named William St Clair (Sinclair).[31]

According to Lomas, the Sinclairs and their French relatives the St. Clairs were instrumental in creating the Knights Templar. He claims that the founder of Templars Hugh de Payns was married to a sister of the Duke of Champaine (Henri de St. Clair),[32] who was a powerful broker of the first Crusade and had the political power to nominate the Pope, and to suggest the idea and empower it to the Pope.

However, a biography of Hugues de Payen by Thierry Leroy identifies his wife and the mother of his children as Elizabeth de Chappes. The book draws its information on the marriage from local church cartularies dealing chiefly with the disposition of the Grand Master's properties, the earliest alluding to Elizabeth as his wife in 1113, and others spanning Payen's lifetime, the period following his death and lastly her own death in 1170.[33]

Criticisms of this theory[edit]

One primary criticism of this theory is that if either a Sinclair or a Templar voyage reached the Americas, they did not, unlike Columbus, return with a historical record of their findings. In fact, there is no known published documentation from that era to support the theory that such a voyage took place. The physical evidence relies on speculative reasoning to support the theory, and all of it can be interpreted in other ways. For example, according to one historian, the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel may not be of American plants at all but are nothing more than stylized carvings of wheat and strawberries.[17]

Historians Mark Oxbrow, Ian Robertson,[34] Karen Ralls and Louise Yeoman[35] have each made it clear that the Sinclair family had no connection with the mediaeval Knights Templar. Karen Ralls has shown that among those testifying against the Templars at their 1309 trial were Henry and William Sinclair – an act inconsistent with any alleged support or membership.[36][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William P.L. Thomson,The New History of Orkney (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008).
  2. ^ "Orkneyjar – Earl Henry Sinclair". Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  3. ^ Douglas, Sir Robert (1764). The Peerage of Scotland. Edinburgh: R. Fleming. p. 531. Retrieved 7 February 2021.
  4. ^ a b Crawford, Barbara E. "William Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, and His Family: A Study in the Politics of Survival" in Stringer, K. J. Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1904607454. p. 234.
  5. ^ a b "Orkneyjar – Earl Henry Sinclair – The Documented History". Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Saint-Clair, Roland William (1898). The Saint-Clairs of the Isles; being a history of the sea-kings of Orkney and their Scottish successors of the sirname of Sinclair. Shortland Street, Auckland, New Zealand: H. Brett. pp. 96–102. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  7. ^ a b Paul, James Balfour (1909). The Scots Peerage. VI. Edinburgh: David Douglas. pp. 568–69. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  8. ^ a b Burke, Bernard (1869). Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire. 59 Pall Mall, London: Harrison. p. 1016. Retrieved 14 June 2021.CS1 maint: location (link)
  9. ^ Authén Blom, Grethe (1992). Norge I Union på 1300-tallet Del II. Tapir Forlag. pp. 480, 533. ISBN 8251911176.
  10. ^ Paul, James Balfour (1909). The Scots Peerage : Founded on Wood's ed. of Sir Robert Douglas's Peerage of Scotland; containing an historical and genealogical account of the nobility of that kingdom. VI. Edinburgh: David Douglas. p. 568–70. Retrieved 12 June 2021.
  11. ^ Charter of King Robert III January 1404.
  12. ^ Paul, James Balfour (1904–1919). The Scots Peerage: Founded on Wood's ed. of Sir Robert Douglas's Peerage of Scotland. Edinburgh: Douglas. pp. 569–70. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  13. ^ a b Johann Reinhold Forster, History of the Voyages and Discoveries Made in the North, Printed for G.G.J. and J. Robinson, London, 1786
  14. ^ a b T. J. Oleson, "ZENO, NICOLÒ," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 1 October 2014
  15. ^ a b Knight & Lomas, The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasonry, and The Discovery of The Secret Scrolls of Jesus (London: Century, 1996 ISBN 0712685790).
  16. ^ Timothy Wallace-Murphy, Marilyn Hopkins, Templars in America: From The Crusades to the New World (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2004 ISBN 1578633176).
  17. ^ a b Historian Mark Oxbrow, quoted in "The ship of dreams" by Diane MaClean, Scotsman.com, 13 May 2005
  18. ^ Holy Grail in America[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ History Channel press release for Holy Grail in America
  20. ^ a b Frederick J. Pohl, Prince Henry Sinclair: His Expedition to the New World in 1398 (London: Davis-Poynter, 1974; and published in America by Clarkson Potter, 1974).
  21. ^ Andrew Sinclair, The Sword and the Grail – The Story of the Grail, the Templars and the True Discovery of America (New York: Crown Publishers, 1992).
  22. ^ Michael Bradley Grail Knights of North America: On The Trail of the Grail Legacy in Canada and the United States (Hounslow Press: Toronto, 1998) and his earlier Holy Grail Across the Atlantic: The Secret History of Canadian Discovery and Exploration (Hounslow: 1988)
  23. ^ William S. Crooker Tracking Treasure – In Search of East Coast Bounty (Halifax, N.S., Nimbus, 1998).
  24. ^ Steven Sora, The Lost Colony of The Templars: Verrazano's Secret Mission To America (Destiny Books, 2004).
  25. ^ David Goudsward, The Westford Knight and Henry Sinclair: Evidence of a 14th Century Scottish Voyage To North America (McFarland & Company, 2010).
  26. ^ Adriano Cappelli, Lexicon Abbreviaturarum. Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, usate nelle arte e codici specialmente del medio-evo, riprodotto con oltre 14,000 segni incisi... Milano, 1949
  27. ^ Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, Friday 20 January 2006
  28. ^ Christopher Knight & Robert Lomas, The Second Messiah: Templars, the Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry, Fair Winds Press, 2001. ISBN 1931412766
  29. ^ Scotsman.com Heritage & Culture – Myths & Mysteries, 10 November 2005.
  30. ^ "Rosslyn, Templars, Gypsies and the Battle of Bannockburn". Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  31. ^ a b "Origins of Freemasonry". Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  32. ^ The claim that Hugues de Payens married Catherine St. Clair was made in Les Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau (1967), "Tableau Généalogique de Gisors, Guitry, Mareuil et Saint-Clair par Henri Lobineau" in Pierre Jarnac, Les Mystères de Rennes-le-Château, Mélanges Sulfureux (CERT, 1995).
  33. ^ Thierry Leroy, Hugues de Payns, chevalier champenois, fondateur de l'ordre des templiers (Troyes: edition de la Maison Boulanger, 1997).
  34. ^ "The Da Vinci Connection", Sunday Herald, 14 November 2004 Archived 6 April 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ "Historian attacks Rosslyn Chapel for". Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  36. ^ Karen Ralls, The Templars and the Grail, Quest Books; 1st Quest edition (2003), p. 110. ISBN 0835608077; The Knights Templar in England, pp. 200f.
  37. ^ Processus factus contra Templarios in Scotia Archived 17 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine, 1309, being the testimony against the Templars by Henry and William St Clair, translation available in Mark Oxbrow, Ian Robertson, Rosslyn and the Grail, p. 245–256.

Further reading[edit]

Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
Jarl of Orkney
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Barony of Roslin
Succeeded by
Military offices
Preceded by
Lord High Admiral of Scotland
Succeeded by