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Peggy's Cove Lighthouse

Did the Knights Templars reach Nova Scotia? 

Did Henry Sinclair, a Scottish nobleman and potential member of the Knights Templar, make a voyage across the Atlantic and reach North America in 1398?

Peggy's Cove Lighthouse in Nova Scotia | Image: Unsplash

For hundreds of years, the 15th century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was known as the first European to 'discover' the New World. Then, dramatic 20th century archaeological discoveries put forward an alternative narrative, that the Vikings had set foot on North American soil some 500 years before Columbus.

Before the remains of the Viking encampment were found in Newfoundland, the journey of the Norsemen to America was thought to be just stories, myths, and legends passed down the ages.

Now, there’s another persisting legend about the arrival of Europeans in North America that continues to be discussed. Did Henry Sinclair, a Scottish nobleman and potential member of the Knights Templar, make a voyage across the Atlantic and reach North America in 1398, pre-dating Columbus by nearly a century?

Henry Sinclair

Born in 1345, Henry Sinclair inherited his father’s titles of Baron of Roslin and Lord High Admiral of Scotland when he was still a young teenager. In 1379, he was invested the title of Earl of Orkney by King Håkon of Norway. In return, Sinclair was to bring Orkney under tighter control and defend it along with Shetland.

Sinclair passed away around 1400, possibly after an invasion of Orkney by the English. The earldom passed to his son, also called Henry. That is all the recorded history we have on Sinclair; the rest is slightly more speculative.

Voyage to America

The legendary story about Sinclair and North America comes from a single source – a Venetian document dating from the 1500s. In 1558, Nicolò Zeno the Younger published a series of letters and a map purportedly describing a voyage undertaken by his ancestors Nicolò and Antonio Zeno. The brothers’ journey had supposedly taken place in the 1390s and saw the pair venture westwards towards North America. Zeno the Younger had discovered these documents hidden away in the family home.

According to the letters, the brothers were under the direction of a prince called Zichmni. They had come into his service when the prince had rescued them from a shipwreck near an island called Frislanda.

The trio then embarked on a journey westwards to discover unknown new lands. They landed on Greenland, which was already discovered by then, before heading off once more where they supposedly reached Newfoundland. There, they failed to land due to hostile Native Americans and so carried on westwards until they discovered a fertile place that they described as ‘heavenly’.

Was this North American soil, possibly even Nova Scotia?

Rosslyn Chapel

Firstly, it's clear from the Zeno letters that neither Sinclair nor Orkney have been directly mentioned. Their involvement comes from certain interpretations of the Zeno narrative. In those interpretations, Prince Zichmni is in fact, Sinclair. Zichmni was simply a misspelling of his name and perhaps Frislanda was Orkney or Shetland?

If that were the case, then seemingly backing up the Zeno evidence is imagery discovered in the Rosslyn Chapel. Founded in 1446 by William Sinclair, the grandson of Henry Sinclair, Rosslyn Chapel is situated a few miles south of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

Within the chapel are carvings of North American plants that were supposedly unknown at the time of its construction. Given the family link between the chapel’s founder and Henry Sinclair, were these carvings a nod to the journey Henry had made?

The Westford Knight

Situated in Westford, Massachusetts, a mysterious rock adds further intrigue to the Sinclair story. On the rock is a carving, although some believe it’s a natural feature. For those that argue the former, the carving supposedly shows a human figure, perhaps even a knight.

The modern inscription nearby seems to firmly believe this story stating the figure is a knight, equipped with a helmet and shield and identifiable as Sir James Gunn, due to the coat of arms on the shield. Gunn was believed to have travelled with Sinclair on his voyage and passed away during the trip. The rock was left as a memorial to the fallen knight.

The Zeno documents seemingly tie in with this belief as they mention a cousin of Zichmni passing away during the expedition.

The Knights Templar

Continuing further down the rabbit hole, the story of Sinclair is also intertwined with the medieval military and religious order known as the Knights Templar. There are few organisations throughout history so intrinsically linked with myths and legends than the Knights Templar. So it seems beyond fitting they could play a role in the Sinclair story.

The legend states that Sinclair was a secret member of the Knights Templar. There’s an 18th century tale that speaks of an influx of Templars to Scotland during the reign of Robert the Bruce, in the hope of escaping the suppression of their order. If Sinclair did have Templar links and went on to land in Nova Scotia, could he be the real reason the Canadian province’s name is Latin for ‘New Scotland’?

If the theory about the Westford Knight being James Gunn was true as well, it would add further credence to the Templar myth as Gunn was a known Knights Templar. There are also persisting beliefs that the Rosslyn Chapel contains Templar imagery.

Oak Island

No story about Templars and Nova Scotia would be complete without the appearance of Oak Island, a location that has played host to a 232-year-old treasure-hunting mystery.

Everything from the treasures of the Knights Templar to Shakespearean manuscripts have been claimed to be buried in the famous ‘Money Pit’ situated somewhere on the Nova Scotian island. Digs continue to this day under the guidance of the Lagina Brothers, whose treasure-hunting efforts are documented on The Curse of Oak Island.

If Sinclair did make it to Nova Scotia and was a member of the Knights Templar, some have suggested he was the man behind the Oak Island Money Pit. Many have speculated about what he and the Templars would have stashed away there. Theories include gold or religious artefacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant or even the Holy Grail.

Only time will tell if the voyage of Henry Sinclair can be categorically proven by archaeological discovery. For those who love a historical mystery, watch this space!

Season 11 of The Curse of Oak Island airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.