Huge plague pit discovered in London – Black Death victims

There’s now no doubt that a grisly discovery in London is a mass grave of Black Death victims from the 14th century.  For those of you in the United States and elsewhere, there has already been news and documentary coverage in the UK and I’m sure you will hear more about this very soon.

The skeletons were discovered in Charterhouse Square – what would have once been the outskirts of the medieval city of London and the site of a huge monastic complex.  It was also close to Smithfield – or the Smooth Field – which aside from being a livestock market was also an execution ground (Braveheart came to a sticky end there).

Just over a dozen remains were found initially during construction of London’s new rail link – Crossrail.  DNA evidence revealed that they were victims of Yersinia Pestis – better known as the bubonic plague and the outbreak between the years 1348 to 1350, termed the Black Death.  In recent years, it was questioned whether or not the Black Death was bubonic plague – a condition that still exists in some parts of the world – but scientific advances now affirm categorically that it was bubonic plague.

It’s estimated that up to 60% of the English died during this plague and a documentary on Channel Four last night suggested that famine had already weakened the population’s ability to resist the disease.  The skeletons show evidence of malnutrition and poverty related disease suggesting that for ordinary Londoners, daily life was pretty grim.

Here is an image of the point at which the bodies were discovered in a work shaft for the new rail system.

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 09.53.34

About these ads

The Templars and Magna Carta

Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by King John – one of the least liked monarchs of the Plantagenet dynasty.  What is often unappreciated is the role that the Knights Templar played in the background to this momentous occasion.

John was forced by the barons to agree not to use royal powers in an arbitrary manner.  Magna Carta also covered a whole range of distinctly medieval issues that have long become irrelevant but this is the clause – buried quite deep in the charter at the time – that excited lovers of liberty in subsequent centuries.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

Other more arcane clauses related to a proper system of weights and measures for ale, cloth and corn (no, really!) and the release of hostages John had taken from the Welsh and Scottish royal families.

There wasn’t actually a fully written charter in front of John on the day he was surrounded by angry barons – it was written up afterwards in full by court scribes and then circulated.  Four copies exist – two in the British Library in London and one in Salisbury and another in Lincoln.

Magna Carta wasn’t signed as such by King John – but acknowledged with his wax seal…nothing unusual in that.  He may or may not have been literate though John did boast to owning a big library, which suggests he may have had some reading and writing ability. It seems astonishing to us now but illiteracy was widespread beyond the clergy and even extended into the upper reaches of society.  Though the notion that everybody outside of the church was illiterate before the Reformation is now not accepted as having been the case.

The role of the Knights Templar is shadowy.  We know that John stayed with the Templars the night before he had to place himself in front of the barons to agree Magna Carta.  Brother Aymeric accompanied John to Runnymede – where the charter was assented to – in his role as Grand Master of the Templars in England.  Contrary to the enjoyable but historically inaccurate tosh in the movie Ironclad – the Templars were not opposed to John.  They were, after all, his bankers, advisers and played a lead role in the crusades in the Holy Land.

John made a series of gifts to the Templars during his reign and they in turn paid a thousand pounds – then a vast sum – for the confirmation of their privileges in the first year of his reign.  John bestowed on the Templars the Isle of Lundy and manors at Huntspill, Harewood, Radenach and Northampton.  Hardly the act of a king on bad terms!

As we near the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, I’ll share more insights with you – and happy to hear your views of this seminal historical event.  Here we have some glorious historical inaccuracy in Ironclad:

A more considered view of Magna Carta



Best medieval walled cities in the world

All over Europe and the Middle East, you can still find towns that have retained their medieval walls.  It’s hard to imagine now but cities were often contained within imposing fortifications – there was even a massive wall that ran all the way round London from the late Roman empire (as barbarian attacks increased) through to large scale demolition in the eighteenth century.

Many cities burst out from their walls over the last two, three hundred years and then like London – dispensed with this restraint on urban growth.  But some have managed to hold on to their walls and it’s a huge pleasure to walk them.  Though I should warn you that in certain towns, the walls do not have protective railings – Obidos in Portugal being a case in point.

The most picturesque – though heavily restored – is Carcassone in France, which was home to the Cathar revolt against the Catholic church in the Middle Ages.  As you approach it, Carcassone does look uncannily like one of those towns depicted in medieval illuminated manuscripts – or a medieval version of Disneyland if you prefer.

Here is Carcassone then in its full glory!

2013 – Templar annual report!

Another good year for this blog with tens of thousands of hits but I’m sure 2014 will see a huge upsurge – and I want to extend an invitation to all of you to feel able to contact me with topics and contribute yourselves to this blog.  It must be more of a collaborative effort.

So – what did you like reading here?  Well, there are some blog posts going back two years or more that simply refuse to die.  Top Ten Movies about the Middle Ages was a post written in March, 2011 and it was the number one viewed post in 2013.  Every day, I still get a persistent flood of people to that post and it shows no signs of abating.

They say that sex sells and in the top five were two posts on medieval prostitution – specifically the so-called Winchester Geese (you can use the search button lower down to find it) – and a post answering questions about whether the Knights Templar were gay (yes, I get asked that alot!).

I put up less posts last year – 88 in total, taking the three year grand total to 648 – but views climbed and I think spending more time on research was appreciated.  I also posted more images and went back to older posts brightening them up with photos that I’ve taken on my recent travels.

Jordan was my big trip and so glad I went – still have plenty of photos of crusader forts to share and I must get round to that.  I had planned to go to Lebanon in the autumn but political events there made me delay though I’m assured it’s possible to tour round with a reliable guide.  So watch this space.

My top followers are a hugely appreciated group of people who I thank sincerely – in particular, Alejandro De La Garza who posted eleven times on the blog this year.  I do try and answer everything.  There was an increase in spam – especially from so-called Illuminati groups, which I trashed so you weren’t exposed to that stuff.

Finally, the blog was viewed in 170 countries with the United States in the lead followed by the United Kingdom and Canada – but I got growing interest from Brazil, India and Russia as well as a regular flow from Europe – many of whom join me through the William De Mandeville fan page on Facebook.  He’s the main protagonist in my Quest For The True Cross fiction book on the Templars.  If you haven’t downloaded that yet – shame on you and the link is on this page.

So – forward to 2014!!

Cathars – the crushing of a medieval heresy

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I promised more on the Cathars – so here goes!

The crusades had got off to a ripping start in the Middle East with Jerusalem taken by the crusaders and several Christian kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coast (roughly equivalent to Israel, western Syria and Lebanon today).  All this religious zeal and the success of the endeavour gave the papacy the idea to turn this energy – a combination of the sword and the bible – on to a heresy in France that had annoyed the pope greatly.

Rome had fought to establish its primacy as the centre of the church – with the pope, as the successor of Saint Peter, as its leader. This was not a given in the early days of Christianity and there were still some who baulked at the idea of Rome telling them what they should be thinking and how to pray. One such group were the Cathars and their beliefs were complete anathema to Rome.

They didn’t believe in a formal clergy for a start and took a very dim view of the wealth and riches of the Catholic church.  In the Languedoc region of France, they had powerful supporters among the feudal nobility and the general population. This all posed a dire threat to the papacy – it needed to stamp out this affront to clerical authority.  The weapon that would be chosen would be crusade – a bloody confrontation with the Cathars every bit as violent as what had been meted out to the Saracens in the east.

The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out.  These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed.  Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.

So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe.  A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness.  An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards.  There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.

Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes.  What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc.  If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.

The Cathars had to be crushed.  No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church.   I’ll talk more about how the crusade against the Cathars developed in the next few blog posts.