I know – you have to rub your eyes at the headline and check you didn’t misread it. But yes – the Suffragettes really did try to bomb Rosslyn chapel in 1914 as part of their campaign for women’s votes. A terrorist act that sparked global outrage.
Rosslyn has long been recognised as a great Scottish medieval survivor. An incredible example of Gothic architecture. But it’s much more than that in the public imagination. In particular, since the runaway success of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code and the subsequent movie which raised its profile massively. To millions of people, it’s bound up with the story of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and even the bloodline of Jesus.
In the early 20th century, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) came to be regarded as the more militant wing of the women’s suffrage movement – advocating deeds, not words. Smashing windows, attacking artworks in museums, and chaining themselves to railings landed many so-called “suffragettes” in prison. What is less well known is the Suffragette penchant for bombs and explosives.
This is how the fight for women’s votes came into collision with Rosslyn Chapel.
Suffragettes turn to bombs
In support of using bombs to achieve their aims, Christabel Pankhurst – co-founder of the WSPU – wrote:
‘If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war, and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men? It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!’
From 1912 to 1914, the Suffragettes were as good as their word. Several letter bombs were sent to the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. On 5 February 1913, five postal workers were severely injured when envelopes containing tubes of phosphorus addressed to Asquith burst into flames in a sorting office in Dundee.
While the WSPU was adamant it would avoid loss of life with its bombing campaign, its deeds said otherwise.
How to explain the bomb left on a bench in Westbourne Park or another on the steps of Rotherhithe Public Library? What about the crudely made devices hidden at several football stadiums, including Crystal Palace on the eve of the 1913 F.A Cup final? Then there were the three explosives left in the Third Class carriage of a train in southern England and a nitroglycerine bomb deposited callously on the platform at Piccadilly Circus tube station in London.
Suffragettes, bombs, and Rosslyn Chapel
Sadly there were fatalities as a result of the bombing campaign. This didn’t stop the Suffragettes extending their action to places of worship. They justified this on the grounds that the Church of England was not supporting the campaign for women’s suffrage. A bomb was exploded in Westminster Abbey and there was an attempt to let off a device in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Up in Scotland, the Suffragettes managed to set off some gunpowder at Rosslyn as part of their onslaught on churches. It damaged some of the medieval tracery and windows and caused a huge bang. When locals rushed to see what had happened, they found Suffragette literature scattered around.
Nobody doubts the central aim of the Suffragettes was correct: getting votes for women. And the opposition was pig-headed, ignorant and sometimes brutal.
But their tactics left something to be desired. Churches were targeted with remarkably little consideration for people worshipping or visiting. There seemed to be a complete indifference to working-class people, such as the fire started at Plymouth Dockyard just before Christmas 1913 that killed two. And in 1914, Suffragettes were attacked by female millworkers in Belfast as they protested against a local politician.
The Suffragette bombing of Rosslyn – with all its associations with the Knights Templar – had passed me by. But having clocked this interesting historical event, I felt compelled to share it with you. Thankfully, one report in an Indiana newspaper that the chapel had been “destroyed” was way wide of the mark.