Knights in Shining Armor in the 1300s… in Massachusetts?

File this under “History” or perhaps under “Pre-Columbian History.” This story sounds like it came from a novel by Dan Brown. It mixes Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, Masonic rituals, and pre-Columbian history – in Massachusetts. Scottish Templar Knights in Massachusetts in the 1300s? Read on.

First, let’s examine a few “facts.”

So-called fact: The Pilgrims were the first Europeans to settle in America in 1620.

The truth: Jamestown, Virginia was settled in 1607. The Acadian French settled at Port-Royal (in what is now Nova Scotia) in 1607 and probably had even earlier settlements. The Spanish settled in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. In reality, the Pilgrims of Plimoth Colony were the “Johnny-come-latelies” of the New World.

So called fact: Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the New World in 1492.

The truth: there were numerous explorers all up and down the East Coast prior to 1492. Besides, Columbus never made it to North America, although he did see the mainland in Central America and the northern tip of South America.

Rumors of earlier voyages exist, but the earliest proven voyages to North America were by the Norse, led by Leif Ericson, in the year 1002 or 1003 to follow Bjarni Herjólfsson’s sagas telling of exploration made years earlier, probably in the summer of 985 or 986 AD. However, Herjólfsson never made any settlements. Leif Ericson, built a temporary settlement at present-day L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Numerous other claims of European voyages have been made, but all are difficult to prove. Many of the stories were legends handed down verbally for generations before being written. Irishman Saint Brendan the Navigator supposedly sailed to what may have been North America after the year 512 AD but before the year 530. In his writings, Saint Brendan described reaching The Isle of the Blessed, which many people have speculated was the continent of North America or perhaps one of the larger islands near the continent, possibly Newfoundland. If true, Saint Brendan apparently never realized he had reached the New World.

Another voyage seems to be mysterious, not well documented, and with many questions. However, possible proof of such a voyage is found in present-day Westford, Massachusetts, about 35 miles from the ocean.

Sir Henry Sinclair was born around 1345 AD in Scotland. He later became the Earl of Rosslyn and the surrounding lands as well as Prince of Orkney, Duke of Oldenburg (Denmark), and Premier Earl of Norway. In 1398 he led an expedition westward to explore what is now Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Keep in mind that this was 94 years before Columbus’s first voyage.

Henry Sinclair was of noble birth; his grandfather was a friend of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. The grandfather died fighting the Saracens in Spain in 1330. His father, Sir William Sinclair, also died in battle while fighting the Lithuanians from a base in Prussia in 1358. Henry was 13 at the time. As a child, Henry Sinclair was trained in martial exercises with sword, spear, and bow and arrow. He spoke Latin and French and became a Templar Knight at the age of 21 years.

Sinclair became the Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland when he was only 24, holding his appointment at the pleasure of King Hakon VI of Norway. As “jarl”, he was next to royalty. He had authority to stamp coins, make laws, remit crimes, wear a crown, and have a sword carried before him. He had already been rewarded by King David of Scotland for a successful raid into England, gaining the title of Lord Sinclair and the position of Lord Chief Justice of Scotland.

Sinclair was both a soldier and an accomplished sailor, and he commanded a fleet of many ships. Some of his ships were known to visit Iceland and Greenland. He helped conquer the Faeroe Islands and took into his service the Venetian travelers, Niccolo and Antonio Zeno. Niccolo Zeno would later write narratives of his travels, including detailed accounts of Henry Sinclair’s adventures. Zeno’s narratives are questionable, however. He may have written truth or possibly fables, nobody can be sure. There is no doubt that the Zeno brothers were well-traveled, but some of Niccolo Zeno’s tales are questionable.

Unproven stories claim that in 1371 AD four Scottish fishing boats were blown so far out to sea that they eventually came ashore on land that was probably Newfoundland. They spent more than twenty years on the island and apparently on the lands to the south, and then one of them made contact with some European fishermen and managed to return to the Faeroes. Sinclair soon heard of their stories and decided to investigate.

The following is a mix of old legends and facts as recorded by the Zeno brothers. I cannot always separate the facts from the legends.

Henry Sinclair set sail around April 1, 1398, with Niccolo Zeno as navigator. The fleet consisted of 13 little vessels, two of them driven by oars. Later documents suggest he tried to land at Newfoundland but was driven off by natives, and then sailed into Chedabucto Bay. It is believed he dropped anchor on the first of June in Guysborough Harbor in what is now Nova Scotia.

At this point, Sinclair divided his men into two groups. One group returned to Scotland with Zeno while the other remained in Nova Scotia through the winter, building a new ship of some size. When spring arrived, Sinclair sailed away from Nova Scotia.

According to Zeno’s (admittedly second-hand) accounts, Sinclair travelled southward to the New England coast, landing just north of present-day Boston. The party landed and spent the following winter living peacefully with the Indians. To the west they could see a hilltop from which the Indians frequently sent smoke signals. Accompanied by his 100 men, Henry marched inland to the summit of this hill, now called Prospect Hill, located in present-day Westford, Massachusetts. It is 465 feet in altitude and afforded a good view in all directions.

I question this cross-country march. It seems more likely (to me) that Sinclair may have sailed up the Merrimack River, which would have brought him within a few miles of Prospect Hill, then marched overland only the last few miles. Such a river trip would have been much easier than marching overland through the wilderness from a location near what is now Boston. Then again, Sinclair probably didn’t have a reliable map. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the easier route. Whatever the route, the claim is that Sir Henry Sinclair and his party eventually arrived at the top of the highest point of land in the area.

While at this area, one of Prince Henry’s loyal attendants by the name of Sir James Gunn, also from Scotland, died. In memory of the lost companion, it is believed the party carved a marker on the face of a stone ledge. The marker consisted of various sizes of punched holes which depicted the outline of a Scottish knight with a 39-inch long sword and shield bearing the Gunn Clan insignia. The punch-hole method of carving involved making a series of small impressions with a sharp tool that was driven by a mallet. Such techniques were common at the time in Scotland.

The carving was discovered in the 1700s and is still visible today in Westford, although difficult to decipher. The marker is only a few feet from the pavement of a very busy street. I recently took pictures of the carving, and my pictures are used to illustrate this article. I have also enclosed a drawing that is used to clarify the holes and scratches on the stone that are now nearly illegible. The holes are still visible today but do not closely resemble a Scottish knight. In fact, the weathering of the nearly horizontal stone has caused the lines to almost disappear.

When I visited the ledge in question, I found it difficult to imagine the drawing of a Scottish knight. Someone had recently made a chalk outline of the drawing that helped immensely. Without the chalk as a visual aid, I would never have realized that this was a possible 600-year-old figure. The drawing apparently was much clearer when first discovered more than 200 years ago. Snow, ice, and acid rain have taken their toll on the nearly horizontal stone ledge.

The “drawing” was a crude representation, even when created in 1399. It consists of a group of holes that provide an outline of the figure of a knight in armor. The observer needs to mentally “connect the dots” in the same fashion as the popular childhood game. I have enclosed a drawing in which someone else has connected the dots (holes) in this stone carving.

The six-foot-long figure punched into the rock seems to represent a medieval knight. The knight is shown in full armor, wearing a helmet, mail, and surcoat. If the inscribed figure is genuine, it would appear to corroborate a statement in the Zeno narrative that states that a knight died while on the continent.

If the Westford Knight is indeed a 14th century carving, it is typical of an effigy used to mark the grave of a fallen knight. It certainly resembles a number of similar effigies found in the Orkney and the Faeroe Islands as well as throughout Scotland. It certainly does not resemble any other known Indian carvings in the area. The Indians of that area reportedly did not possess metal tools capable of leaving such holes, much less know what a knight in armor looked like.

Supporters claim the carving shows the warrior’s right hand resting on his sword – a pommelled sword of the period that was shown to be broken, indicating that the knight had died in the field.

The identity of this fallen knight has been claimed to be Sir James Gunn. However, not everyone agrees. According to David K. Schafer, curatorial assistant for Archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the supposed carving of a 14th century knight is nothing more than a “T” shaped engraving (which he believes may even have been created by two young boys in the late 1800s) surrounded by glacial scratches and weathering marks.

You can read more about Mr. Schafer’s report at http://www.ramtops.co.uk/westford.html.

I must question if two schoolboys of the late 1800s would have been capable of making an accurate image of a knight in full armor, wearing a helmet, mail, and surcoat. They certainly would not have known the coat of arms used by a particular knight in the Orkney Islands nor would they have been knowledgeable of  pommelled swords or of the tradition of showing a broken sword of a knight who had fallen in the field.

To deepen the mystery a bit more, another medieval carving was found some years later in Westford, which can now be seen at the Westford Museum. It is a stone covered with similar markings to the Westford Knight, depicting a 14th century ship and trail markings, consistent with the medieval style. The stone is consistent with other stones native to the area and apparently was not transported by a tourist who had been to Scotland. Some think that this stone depicts the “knorr” that brought Sinclair and his company to the New World almost one hundred years before the voyage of Columbus. The markings also match runes found in Newfoundland, in Newport, Rhode Island, and at other places along the New England coastline.

Further information about the Westford Knight is available at the Westford Museum and at the J. V. Fletcher Library in Westford. For more information and directions, visit the Westford Museum website  at http://www.westford.com/museum/.

Some researchers believe that the Sinclair expedition then sailed southward to the Rhode Island coast, where they perhaps built the Newport Tower as part of a settlement. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newport_Tower_%28Rhode_Island%29). Sir Henry was familiar with the style of architecture of the Tower, which is similar to European strongholds built by the Knights Templar in both the Orkney Islands and in Scandinavia.

The number of Norse and Gaelic words in the languages of the Algonquin tribes indicates that trade had been taking place between Europe and America before the time of Columbus. Micmac Indians of the 14th century told legends of a blond haired, blue-eyed god who they called “Glooscap,” whose friendly manner won the hearts of the natives. He treated them fairly and taught them to fish with nets. According to a Micmac legend, “[Glooscap] built himself an island, planted trees on it, and sailed away in his stone canoe.” They also spoke of the men who built Newport Tower as “fire-haired men with green eyes.”

Henry Sinclair’s historic voyage of 1398 is even indelibly hewn in stone at the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, 7 miles south of Edinburgh, where there are stone carvings of Indian maize and American aloe cacti, which were carved before Columbus was born and depicted vegetation native only to the Americas. Scottish stone carvers of the time would have no idea what maize or cacti looked like, unless they had been on the voyages themselves or possibly had seen plants brought back by earlier voyagers. Construction of the Rosslyn Chapel began in 1456, many years after the voyage of Sir Henry Sinclair. This is the same Rosslyn Chapel that was a major feature in the last part of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel and the movie, The Da Vinci Code.

The more fanciful story is that Sir Henry Sinclair and his men were on a mission to hide the Holy Grail at Oak Island, Nova Scotia, and, in search of a more secure location, they traveled south to Massachusetts and up some river, and thus found their way to this lovely section of country.

Is the Holy Grail buried near Westford, Massachusetts? It is a great story, worthy of a fictional novel, but totally unproven. Even so, it is true that Sir James Gunn’s coat of arms is engraved in an area of the Rosslyn Chapel apart from the knights whose bodies are entombed there, the only other known memorial to this knight. The coat of arms in Rosslyn Chapel closely resembles that found on a ledge in Westford, Massachusetts. There are no other known examples of Sir James Gunn’s coat of arms anywhere else in the world.

Did Scottish Templar Knights roam Massachusetts in the 1300s? I suspect the answer is “Yes.” The evidence at hand includes well-known narratives written by the Zeno brothers in the early 1400s and published throughout Europe, some scratches on a stone in Westford, Massachusetts, and some similar markings in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Newfoundland, Canada.

Of course, Sir Henry Sinclair was not the only person to lead an expedition to the New World. Many historians believe there were other frequent voyages by other groups even earlier. Today we have no evidence of a conquest or even a claim to land in the name of Scotland. So, the question remains: If Scottish Templar Knights did indeed leave that memorial to their fallen comrade at Prospect Hill in Westford, Massachusetts, why were they there?

Please post any comments, questions, or corrections at the end of this article in the Standard Edition newsletter’s web site.

3 Comments

have basket hilt Scots sword with what look like two half moons back to back on each side of the blade. Any idea as to history?

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A church in Randazzo, Sicily, Italy has original stain-glass windows which include items that botanists have identified as corn and tobacco. The windows date from the early 1100-1300’s .. well before Columbus reached the New World. Randazzo historically is identified as a stronghold for the Knights Templar.

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In 1247, a master stone mason, the portuguese Gonçalo D’Avô built at Ponta do Marco place, in the Island of Corvo, Azores, a Templar statue in which the figure was pointing to the American continent (specifically, North America) as a representation for the future navigators routes. Templars already were using Azores as naval base before the statue start to point the New World.

Note: “Columbus” is not the name of the navigator signature, it is a creation of modern novels.

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