Podcast 309 – The Westford Knight

On the side of the road in Westford, Massachusetts, sits a carved stone and memorial to a medieval knight said to have died here in 1399.

In Episode 309 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger begin their quest for the Holy Grail via the medieval Westford Knight in Westford, Massachusetts. Some believe this carved stone marks the grave of Knight Templar Sir James Gunn who died on Prince Henry Sinclair expedition to North America in 1399. Could this expedition have brought the Holy Grail to Massachusetts? Is this truly a grave site or just old graffiti on a rock? Let’s explore!

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Westford Knight Memorial on Depot Street in Westford, Massachusetts.

The Westford Knight Memorial on Depot Street in Westford, Massachusetts.

The Henry Sinclair marker by the Westford Knight.

The Henry Sinclair marker by the Westford Knight.

The Ship Stone on display at the J.V. Fletcher Library, 50 Main St., Westford, MA.

The Ship Stone on display at the J.V. Fletcher Library, 50 Main St., Westford, MA.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

JEFF: Okay, we just passed Fisher Way, so what we’re looking for is coming up on the side of the road on our right.
RAY: Got it. This Westford, Massachusetts, neighborhood is pretty residential. There are some nice homes on either side of the…
JEFF: That’s what we’re looking for right there!
RAY: Woah! I see a bronze soldier or something lying on a slab on the ground. There’s a small area chained off with pillars and a monument. But…. there’s nowhere to park.
JEFF: Yeah. We’ll pull up here at the next right and park at Abbot Elementary School and walk back.
RAY: What was that thing?
JEFF: That’s our destination, Ray. We’ve come to Westford, Massachusetts, to get medieval… to visit a site with possible ties to the Knights Templar, and maybe even…. the Holy Grail!
RAY: The Holy Grail?!
JEFF: We’re in town looking for the Westford Knight.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 309 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to find every legend in New England one story at a time. Whether roadside oddities, ghosts, monsters, UFOs, or odd history, we love it all. And we really love it when you reach out to us with stories you think we should check out. Most of our story leads come from you! This one did. Thanks to Shawn Zimmerman for emailing us. You can send us an email through our Web site anytime. Also, hit that subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss a thing.
JEFF: We’ll get back to our quest to find the Westford Knight right after this quick word from this sponsor.
RAY: So we’re looking for a medieval knight in Westford, Massachusetts?!
JEFF: We are.
RAY: You don’t really think of knights in Massachusetts… or anywhere in America for that matter.
JEFF: Nope. By the mid-1600s, the idea of a knight clad in armor from head to toe was mostly drifting away as new armor and weapons technology made those old heavy suits less ideal in battle. So if a knight in armor WAS here, it begs some questions like what was he doing here? Who was he? And why was he here?
RAY: So we’re talking pre-Christopher Columbus?
JEFF: Definitely.
RAY: Okay, we’re coming up to the monument… I guess we’d call it a monument?
JEFF: Sure. Monument works.
RAY: Okay there’s this small area with a short stone wall just a few feet from the road. There are some stone pillars with a chain protecting the area. The most obvious feature is a life-sized bronze medieval knight lying on a stone slab and holding his sword and shield over his body. Like the way you might lay out a knight in his armor before burial. There’s a stone monument in the back.
JEFF: Right. And this stone slab to the left of the bronze statue is what started all of the fuss. The first time I was here about a decade ago, the statue wasn’t here, or the wall. There wasn’t much of anything. Just this stone in the ground. But this slab is said to have the outline of a medieval knight holding his sword and shield similar to the statue.
RAY: Okayyyy. I can see there are some carved lines in the stone. It’s pretty tough to see or make out anything specific. It’s far from perfect.
JEFF: It is. But these lines got people asking questions and speculating about knights being here in America before Columbus, on all kinds of quests up to and including a connection to the Holy Grail.
RAY: Not the metaphorical Holy Grail. The actual cup of Jesus Christ?
JEFF: That one. To find out what happened, summon your squire, mount your horse, grab your sword, and let’s head back to the year 1399.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1399 and we’re sailing aboard the ship of Henry Sinclair of Orkney, Scotland. Back in 1390, Sinclair commanded a fleet of 13 warships with the goal of conquering Shetland for King Hakon. After leaving victorious, he sailed home to Orkney. And that’s when a fisherman who had been missing for 20 years started talking about a strange land full of native people. He said the land was temperate and beautiful. People in Scotland already knew about Greenland. But the fisherman insisted this land was much further west.
JEFF: Henry Sinclair was intrigued enough that he never stopped thinking about an expedition to this strange new world. This past fall, Sinclair and some of his knights began sailing west. They passed Greenland, and continued sailing until they found land. But this was not the temperate land he had heard about. This region looked more like Greenland’s climate. Still, Sinclair made camp for the winter and waited for Spring’s thaw. When the weather broke, Sinclair set his ship heading south and followed the coast of this new found land.
RAY: And here we are approaching land that’s clearly more temperate than where we sailed from.
RAY: Sinclair describes what he sees as a fertile land, mild and pleasant beyond description. After making land, he and some of his knights head inland to explore.
JEFF: It’s an exciting time for Sinclair and his men. Everything is new. This land is like nothing any of them has ever seen or heard of. They see the potential.
RAY: For weeks the men explore this new world. They head further inland over hills and following rivers. They climb to the top of a large hill giving the expedition a view of some valleys, rivers, and a view out to the ocean. It’s incredible! However… one of Sinclair’s men, a Knight Templar named Sir James Gunn… seems off.
RAY: He’s clearly ill, but doing his best to keep up.
JEFF: There’s not much that can be done for Gunn. They build a fire and try to keep him warm, but he’s only getting worse.
JEFF: With each new day, Gunn deteriorates. His illness is more than he can bear.
JEFF: Until Gunn draws his last breath.
RAY: Henry Sinclair is devastated by the loss of one of his knights. He demands the most fitting burial they can muster under the circumstances.
RAY: A grave is dug. And a stone slab is placed to mark Gunn’s grave.
JEFF: Sinclair insists on some kind of carving to memorialize their fallen brother. So they do their best to carve Gunn’s likeness, sword, shield, and family crest into the rock, before they move on in their exploration of this new world.
RAY: Everyone understands these expeditions can be dangerous. But still, the loss hits them hard. Sinclair and his knights make their way back to their ship, and sail back to Scotland. Even with the loss of his Templar Knight James Gunn, Sinclair is determined to plan a more significant expedition back to this land. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Henry Sinclair would never get the chance to come back to this new world because he died in the year 1400 while fighting English raiders in Orkney.
RAY: So… 1399 was almost a full century before Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition.
JEFF: Yup. The story goes that Sinclair first landed in what’s modern-day Newfoundland, Canada, before he headed south and discovered what is modern-day Massachusetts.
RAY: And here we are standing at the grave-side of Sir James Gunn?
JEFF: Welll… it depends who you believe. There’s the stone monument in front of us. Go ahead and give that a read.
RAY: Okay, it says: Prince Henry First Sinclair of Orkney Born in Scotland made a voyage of discovery to North America in 1398. After wintering in Nova Scotia, he sailed to Massachusetts and on an inland expedition in 1399 to Prospect Hill to view the surrounding countryside, one of the party died. The punch-hole armorial effigy, which adorns this ledge is a memorial to this knight.
JEFF: Prospect Hill in Westford is about one mile due south of this stone. It would seem odd to carry a body for a mile in unfamiliar land. You’d think they would find the most convenient spot and go with that.
RAY: But clearly someone carved up this rock.
JEFF: I agree. Most of it has been lost to time, but yes, a human hand carved this stone. And Sinclair had connections to the Knights Templar, and some even speculate the Templars had the holy grail and were bringing it here for safekeeping or hiding.
RAY: I wonder what early colonists thought of this carving?
JEFF: This is where the story gets a little stranger. The first record of carvings on this rock date back to 1873.
RAY: So not THAT long ago.
JEFF: Not at all. At the time it was thought that maybe this was a Native American carving. It’s possible the rock and carving went unnoticed by earlier settlers. It’s also possible the carving isn’t as old as everyone thinks.
RAY: So how do people make the leap to a medieval knight?
JEFF: In the 1930s someone suggests maybe the carving has Irish origins. Not necessarily centuries old, but it could go back decades or even a hundred years to a time where there were already plenty of colonists here. But then in 1950 the theory was put forth that maybe this stone is a sign from Prince Henry Sinclair’s expedition to North America. We know Sinclair lost one of his men, James Gunn, and some believe the carvings on the rock match the family crest of the Gunn clan.
RAY: That’s a lot of assumptions. North America is a big place. And back then there weren’t place names, so it’s not like Sinclair could write in his journal: after hitting the Dunkin Donuts in downtown Westford, we made for Prospect Hill where Jimmy died.
JEFF: Yeah, we can’t be sure. Like I said, the first time I came here the wall wasn’t here, that statue wasn’t here. None of this stuff. It’s obviously getting more famous, and more people want to see it. It’s turned into an attraction.
RAY: Plus, look at how close to the road we are.
JEFF: Very close. And this is a well-traveled street.
RAY: Right. Think about the winter. Snow plows pushing snow, salt, and sand from the road and onto the side here.
JEFF: Yes. It’s a miracle there’s anything to see at all now. Though they do cover it in the winters now to protect it. Plenty of people are highly skeptical that this carving dates back to 1399. It’s pretty well established that Europeans were here before Columbus. There are journals of voyages that survive, there’s run stones marking ancient graffiti, and so on. But did they make it to modern-day Westford?
RAY: And once there’s a monument and statue here, that just adds to the belief that this must all be true.
JEFF: It does. I’m a fan of anything that can shake up the status quo. Something that forces us to ask bigger questions. We don’t give our ancestors enough credit. They were brave, innovative, and daring. If someone said there were intriguing lands to the west, there are plenty who would want to see for themselves. Whether a Templar Knight died here or not, we can’t help but connect to that romantic time of danger and discovery.
RAY: Seeing a medieval knight laid out in bronze in the middle of Westford, Massachusetts, doesn’t just cause a double-take when driving by, it forces you to travel back in time and wonder.
RAY: We love discovering new legends with you each and every week. And that takes us to After the Legends where we exploring this week’s story a little deeper and sometimes veer of course.
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