Henry Sinclair was the son and heir of William Sinclair, Lord of Roslin, and his wife Isabella (Isobel) of Strathearn. 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).
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.
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.
On 2 August 1379, at Marstrand, near Tønsberg, Norway, Haakon chose Sinclair over Sparre, investing Sinclair with the Jarldom. 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.
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.. 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.
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.
Henri Santo Claro (Henry St. Clair) signed a charter from King James II 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.
Born about 1346 – married 1. Florentia, Princess of Denmark 2. Jean, (Joneta or Joan) Haliburton, daughter of Sir Walter de Haliburton, 1st Lord Haliburton of Dirleton, and had issue:
three sonsHenry II Sinclair, Earl of Orkney (c. 1375–1422)
John Sinclair, he got from his brother, lands in Lothian, namely, Kirkton, Loganhouse, Earncraig, East and West Summerhopes.
and nine daughtersBeatrix m. Sir William Borthwick, 2nd feudal lord of Borthwick;
the second m. the Laird of Dalhousie;
the third m. the Laird of Calder, named Sandilands;
Jean m. the Laird of Corstorphine, named (Sir John) Forrester (ancestor to Lord Forrester);
the fifth m. the Earl of Errol, named Hay;
the sixth m. the Laird of Drummelzier, named Tweedie;
the seventh m. the Laird of Stirling, named Cockburne:
the eighth m. the Laird of Moreton, named Heron;
Mary m. the Lord Sommerville, so named (Thomas Somerville, of Carnwath, ancestor to Lord Somerville).
Saint-Clair of the Isles by Roland Saint-Clair
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.
Almost nothing more is known about Sinclair's life. However, much has been written through conjecture about his supposed career as an explorer. In 1784, he was identified by Johann Reinhold Forster 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.
The authenticity of the letters (which were allegedly rediscovered and published in the early 16th century), the exact course of the voyage, as well as whether it even took place, are challenged by historians. Most regard the letters (and the accompanying map) as a hoax by the Zenos or their publishers. 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. 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, although scholars have said the plants are simply stylised depictions of common European plants.
Also commonly cited is the Westford Knight, a rock carving in Westford, Massachusetts, that allegedly depicts one of Sinclair's companions, Sir James Gunn. Although one of the features, having the appearance of a sword handle, is definitely a carving of some sort, modern historical studies have identified the rest of the marks as naturally occurring glacial scratches. Moreover, the rock in question is not thought to have been accessible during the time of Sinclair's alleged journey.
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.
The claim that Henry Sinclair explored North America has been popularised by several other authors, notably by Frederick J. Pohl, Andrew Sinclair, Michael Bradley, William S. Crooker (who claimed to have discovered Henry Sinclair's castle in Nova Scotia), Steven Sora, and more recently by David Goudsward. The claim is based on several separate propositions:
- That the letters and map ascribed to the Zeno brothers and published in 1558 are authentic.
- That the voyage described in the letters as taken by Zichmni around the year 1398 to Greenland actually reached North America.
- 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 tried to relate this to the name "Sinclair", but "Prince Sinclair" is not normal usage, while "Prince of Orkney" seems a better fit, and Frederick Pohl points out that the "Z" could have easily come from a misreading of the cursive "d'O" in "d'Orkney". 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".
In his letters, Antonio Zeno describes a spring of pitch running down to the sea. In his book, Frederick Pohl states that this seems to support the idea that the voyage actually took place, as it can be related to the Stellarton region of Nova Scotia, famous for its oil shales. There are still place names today in the area referencing the word "Asphalt".
The Prince Henry Sinclair Society of North America believe he landed at Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia in 1398. The monument to the expedition was erected on November 17, 1996. It is a fifteen-ton granite boulder with a black granite narrative plaque located at Halfway Cove on Rt. 16 in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.
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.
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 and fought in the Battle of Bannockburn.
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: 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. 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).
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), 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.
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.
Historians Mark Oxbrow, Ian Robertson, Karen Ralls and Louise Yeoman 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.