London history fans – pay attention!

The Templar Knight grows from strength to strength but I’m now launching a new blog that reflects my obsession with London history – it’s called London Ghosts and if you’ve enjoyed this blog, please follow the new one. I shall not disappoint!  It details the stories of long dead Londoners and how they helped build the greatest city on earth!  Click to visit:

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ISIS destroys the birthplace of Saladin

In yet another act of barbarism, the so-called Islamic State has blown up the citadel of the historic city of Tikrit – birthplace of Saladin, the great Saracen warrior who fought Richard the Lionheart in the crusades. This is one of a grim series of attacks on archaeological sites driven by a salafi/wahhabi literalist view of the Qur’an. Namely that shrines and tombs must not be venerated and so should be destroyed.

The same logic, incidentally, has been pursued by the authorities in Saudi Arabia where, in recent years, the tombs and houses of many of the founders of Islam have been levelled. This may seem odd given the image of the Saudis as ultra-religious. But it’s the type of Islam they adhere to that means they’re indifferent to the buildings that once housed the Prophet and his family and companions.

Saladin as depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven

Templar crop circle?

Lots of excitement in the English village of Temple Balsall – which is indeed a former Templar preceptory. Apparently some aerial photographs have revealed a rather odd feature in the landscape – looks rather like a mini version of the Nazca lines. Anyway, nobody has the slightest idea what they mean and it’s hoped they relate to the Knights Templar, former residents in the area. Go HERE to read more!

Templar crop circle

Precursors of ISIS

The Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).

A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.

So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog.  The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.

Assassin

Victorian image of an Assassin at work

“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!

Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.

If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment. 

Venice – evidence of an evil Crusade

One of the worst atrocities committed in the name of religion must surely be the sacking of Constantinople by Christian crusaders in the year 1204. The city of Constantinople had been the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire since the emperor Constantine – the first emperor to embrace Christianity. it had been “The City” of the early Middle Ages rivalled by none. Yet by the Fourth Crusade, the eastern Roman Empire – or Byzantine Empire as it’s more commonly called though it was never called that at the time – was in a slow decline. The lands it had once ruled in Egypt and the Levant were now under Muslim control and the Balkans had mostly slipped away. 

Tetrarchs in VeniceBut Constantinople – defended by huge walls – endured. That is until a wily, nonagenarian and blind Doge of Venice called Enrico Dandolo decided that the crusades shouldn’t attack their intended Muslim target but instead divert to Constantinople and sack it. Why? Because the Byzantines had long been the commercial and political rivals of Venice. And the latter was in the ascendancy while the Byzantines were not the force they had once been. So why not kick them while they were down.

And so it came to pass that the city was put under siege and its walls breached. The destruction was on an epic scale and the Venetians stripped the place of all the booty they could carry. That included the four horses you see on top of Saint Mark’s cathedral (well, they’re replicas and the real ones are now under cover). One statue taken back that tourists always seem to miss is a third or fourth century CE depiction of the last pagan Roman emperor Diocletian and his three co-emperors or “tetrarchs”. 

This statue was obviously part of an ancient monument in Constantinople and was just unceremoniously slammed into a corner of Saint Mark’s cathedral where it looks weirdly out of place. But there it is – a piece of crusader/Templar booty.  And most tourists walk past it without blinking.

Tetrarchs in Venice

How the Nazis damaged a Templar Knight

In July, I visited the Templar church in London – it still retains its characteristic round building based (very loosely) on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The original round church is connected to a nave that also dates back to the Middle Ages. But unfortunately, the whole building has suffered over the years. Not least at the hands of the Nazis as they blitzed London with bombs in the Second World War.

You’ll recognise the church because it featured in The Da Vinci Code and other great movies and TV programmes. At the centre of the round church, on the ground, are the stone figures of several knights. Miraculously, these had survived in good condition until modern times.  One of the knights was Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville.  He was the first Earl of Essex who made the unwise decision to rebel against King Stephen in the early 12th century. On the run from the king’s forces and branded a bandit, he was shot through with arrows.

His rather messed up corpse was brought to the Templar preceptory in London but the knights were not allowed to bury him. De Mandeville had rebelled against God’s king – he’d also despoiled an abbey during this rebellion to raise funds. That didn’t play well with the church. So De Mandeville’s body, in a lead coffin, was left above ground. Various stories say it hung in an apple tree in the Templar orchard or was chucked in a ditch. Eventually he was buried and his stone image remained in good condition with some other knights until the 1940s. 

The along came the Luftwaffe. In a horrendous night of bombing in 1941, the church took a direct hit and down came the roof on top of the tombs. The damage is still very clear. Some people might think it’s wear due to age, but it’s not. The poor knights lost limbs and noses as the heavy stones and wood from the roof caved in. Here’s some images of Geoffrey de Mandeville before and after the Nazis struck:

Geoffrey de Mandeville

Geoffrey de Mandeville before the Nazis

Geoffrey de Mandeville

Geoffrey de Mandeville after the Nazis