1st Earl of Orkney
Born c.1344 Died 1400-1404
Born probably sometime in the mid 1340s, Henry Sinclair was the son of William Sinclair of Rosslyn and Isabella of Strathearn. With the death of his father in 1358 Henry came into possession of the barony of Rosslyn in Midlothian, whilst his mother was one of the four daughters of Malise, 8th Earl of Strathearn and Earl of both Orkney and Caithness, who died without sons about the year 1350. As the Earl Malise had died without a male heir his former position as Earl of Orkney had fallen vacant, which was a Norwegian rather than a Scottish dignity being that Orkney was part of the kingdom of Norway at the time.
As one of Malise's grandsons, Henry duly travelled to Norway to stake his claim to Orkney, where he faced competition from two of his cousins Alexander del Ard and Malise Sperra. As it was, Henry emerged the victor, and at Maestrand on the 2nd August 1379 he was granted a charter confirming him as Earl of Orkney, when he agreed to hand over the sum of "one thousand gold pieces which are called nobles in English money" payable at "Tunsberg at the next feast of St. Martin, bishop and confessor" as well as providing the usual hostages.
Thereafter the remainder of Henry's life is clouded in obscurity. There is a suggestion that he might have fought in the battle of Falköping in 1389, he could have built Kirkwall Castle on Orkney, but then again, perhaps it was his son. It is known that he married Jane Halyburton, daughter of William Halyburton of Dirletoun and left at least one son, also named Henry, who later succeeded him as the 2nd Earl of Orkney. It is not certain when and how he died, the only reliable account of his death says that he was killed in an attack on Orkney, possibly by English seaman, and died "for the defence of his country" (whichever one that may have been), an event which is dated variously between the years 1400 and 1404. It has been concluded that he "was a minor figure" who "played little or no part in the politics of his native country or of Norway".
The Zeno Narrative
This however is not the end of Henry's story thanks to a work commonly known as the 'Zeno Narrative'.
In 1558 a Venetian by the name Nicolò Zeno published a work entitled De i Commentarii del Viaggio(1) which purported to include copies of correspondence written by his ancestor and namesake Nicolò Zeno to his brothers Antonio Zeno and Carlo Zeno, all of whom were perfectly genuine and historical fourteenth century figures. Said letters told a story whereby the elder Nicolò Zeno was shipwrecked on an island called Frislanda and rescued by a ruler named Zichmni. This Zichmni was the ruler of some islands called Porlanda and in the process of conquering Frislanda from the king of Norway. He employed Nicolò as a pilot to assist him in this endeavour, and after the successful conclusion of the invasion, they subsequently sailed off in search of the lands of Estotilanda and Drogeo in the far west, which they incidentally failed to reach and rather landed on an island called Engrouelanda.
It has since been suggested that Engrouelanda may well be supposed to have been Greenland and that Estotilanda and Drogeo were intended to refer to the North American continent, and it was therefore suggested that the Zeno Narrative contained an authentic account of a pre-Columbian voyage to the New World. As far as this claim is concerned we need to consider two particular works.
The first is The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno(2) written by a geographer named Fred. W. Lucas in 1898. Lucas showed amongst other things, that Nicolò Zeno (the author) had plagarised most of his content from other fifteenth and early sixteenth century accounts of the New World, of which there were plenty around by the year 1558, as well pointing out the many discrepancies that existed between the narrative's view of geography and reality. Following which sometime later in 1933 a genealogist named Andrea da Mosto published an article I navigatori Nicolò e Antonio Zeno(3) in which he demonstrated that the career of Nicolò Zeno was sufficiently well documented in the Venetian State records to conclude that, apart from one brief visit to Flanders in 1385, he had spent his entire life in the Mediterranean.
We can therefore reasonably conclude that the Zeno Narrative should be regarded as a practical joke, a hoax, at best a flight of fancy, or quite simply as "tripe".
The Zeno Narrative Expanded
The trouble is that by the time that Lucas and de Mosta had put pen to paper the Zeno Narrative had already taken on a life of its own.
It was in the 1780s that a travel writer, John Reinhold Forster(4) decided to tackle the question of the Zeno Narrative and in particular whether or not there was any truth behind the tale. Faced with the problem that there was no trace of the island of Frislanda, which was supposedly about the size of Ireland and lying off the coast of Holland, Forster originally suggested that it had "been swallowed up by the sea in a great earthquake". He then rejected that idea and concluded that it was in fact one of the Orkney islands called Faray, which at one and half miles in length was considerably smaller than Ireland, was nowhere near Holland, and would have taken no more than five minutes for even the most casual of invaders to conquer. From that conjecture Forster came to the conclusion that Zichmni was in fact Henry Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney, a conclusion which surprised many, since there was no evidence in the contemporary record that Henry Sinclair was a particularly adventurous soul.
Forster's ideas were later expanded upon by Richard Henry Major in The Voyages of the Venetian Brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno(5) which appeared in 1873 and promoted the idea of Henry Sinclair as a great explorer who had spent his life travelling throughout the North Atlantic, whilst this identification of Henry Sinclair with Zichmni was sufficient to persuade one Thomas Sinclair to take matters one step further. In 1893 he read a paper about Henry to the Society of Sancto-Claro in Chicago as part of the celebrations of Columbus's epic journey five centuries previously. Thomas claimed that "In a very true sense, Henry as a civilised man, in the modern sense of civilisation, was the one and only discoverer of America" and so promoting Henry to the ranks of fabled early 'discovers' of the American continent.
The fact that Lucas and da Mosta subsequently demonstrated that all of the above was indeed nonsense has not, of course, prevented people from continuing to claim that Henry Sinclair 'discovered America'. One of the more recent examples being one Frederick J. Pohl (6) who has claimed that the existence of the Newport Tower(7) and the so-called Westford Knight(8) are evidence of Henry's discovery of the North American continent, and that the legends of the white god 'Glooscap' recounted by the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia are an authentic memory of Henry's visit.
This might well have been an end of the matter were it not for the fact that Henry's grandson William Sinclair built Rosslyn Chapel, which has attracted a certain amount of attention due to its alleged connections to the Knights Templar, and/or Freemasonry, the Holy Grail, Gnosticism, Egyptian Pharoahs etc etc. We thus find ourselves in the territory inhabited by the The Hiram Key and the Da Vinci Code or any one of a number of similar pseudo-historical works which promote sundry esoteric conspiracy theories in which Henry Sinclair often plays a pivotal role. One particular author named Andrew Sinclair appears to have made a career of writing a series of works in which he continues to assert the truth of the Zeno Narrative, and makes a number of extravagant claims regarding Henry Sinclair, most notably that he was intent on establishing "a military and religious empire in the west".
Whilst it might be easy to dismiss such flights of the imagination, even sources who except that the Zeno Narrative is a load of tripe, often present a grossly inflated picture of Henry Sinclair citing various 'facts' that are nothing of the sort, but are simply the more believable assertions made in such works. Falling into this category are various claims that Henry had his own fleet of thirteen ships, or that he conquered the Shetland Islands or indeed the Faroe Islands, or even attacked Iceland. In a similar vein, references to him as 'Prince Henry' are quite unhistorical, said title being first conferred upon him in the nineteenth century in support of claims that he had quasi-regal authority over Orkney; a claim that is easily disproved by examining the surviving charter which details the basis on which he held the islands from the king of Norway.
The plain truth is that Henry Sinclair was not a man of any particular significance in fourteenth century Scotland.
(1) De i Commentarii del Viaggio in Persia di M. Caterino Zeno ... et dello Scoprimento dell' Isole Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrouelanda, Estotilanda, & Icaria, fatto sotto il Polo Artico, da due fratelli Zeni, M. Nicolò il K. et M. Antonio ..., (Venice, 1558) otherwise known as the Zeno Narrative.
(2) The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno in the North Atlantic about the end of the fourteenth century, and the claim founded thereon to a Venetian discovery of America: a criticism and an indictment.
(3) Published in Ad Alessandro Luzio, Miscellanea di studi storici, i, (Florence, 1933).
(4) John Reinhold Forster, History of the Voyages and Discoveries made in the North (London, 1786).
(5) Richard Henry Major ed., The Voyages of the Venetian Brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, to the Northern Seas, in the xivth century, comprising the latest known accounts of the lost colony of Greenland; and of the Northmen in America before Columbus (London, 1873).
(6) Frederick J. Pohl, Prince Henry Sinclair: his expedition to the New World in 1398 (London, 1974).
(7) The Newport Tower is to be found on Rhode Island. In addition to its alleged connection with Henry, it has been variously claimed that this was built by the Vikings in the eleventh century or by the Portuguese in the sixteenth, whereas it is in fact the remains of a seventeenth century windmill.
(8) The Westford Knight allegedly depicts a Knight Templar in armour carved into a rock face at Prospect Hill in Westford, Massachusetts. It appears to be nothing more than a natural phenomenon which was later 'improved' upon in the nineteenth century with some additional carving. Some people say it looks more like a tomahawk.
- Brian Smith, Earl Henry Sinclair's fictitious trip to America New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, vol. 2, 2002.