In 1307, the leaders of the Knights Templar were rounded up and arrested in France. Over the next five years, the wave of suppression spread across Europe and England was no exception. There’s an impressive list of Templars who were sent to the Tower of London – a Norman structure you can still see in the city that was a royal palace, prison, treasury and fortress.
The names included Brother William de la More, master of the Temple in England. Others arrested in London were the prior of the New Temple, Brother Ralph of Barton and a sergeant-brother called William of Hereford.
Templars from outside London were dragged to the Tower including a number from the preceptory at Denny in Cambridgeshire. One of them, Brother John of Hauwile, was noted as having gone insane.
And what were the charges? They were asked whether the Order’s initiation ceremony was secret and if so – why? The interrogators wanted to know if such ceremonies were held at night, whether the existence of God was denied and if false idols were worshiped.
Interrogated at different churches in London, the Templars mainly denied the charges and affirmed that they knew of each other. They were then brought back to be questioned again – possibly after a bit of softening up. Some of the questioning was bizarre by our standards. William de la More was asked, for example, what words were uttered when a brother who had transgressed the rules was forced to bare his back to be “flogged three times with thongs”. De la More said the words were “Brother, ask God that he may remit the punishment due to you”.
Like all political trials, the conclusion had been decided before the trial started. An official from York, Master John of Nassington, said he’d attended a banquet at Temple Hirst where the brothers “adored a certain calf” (!). Another witness gave the damning testimony that a cross in a Templar place was filthy and the Templars refused to wash it.
Sodomy came up a lot in the trial with various people saying Templars had attempted to lie with them. Robert the Dorturer alleged that Brother Guy of Forest, Grand Commander of the Temple, had tried to have sex with him – but he fled in time from the chamber.
A friar claimed he had overheard a Templar called Brother Robert of Bayset walking through a field muttering the words: “Alas, alas that I was ever born because I have had to deny God and bind myself to the Devil“.
Most damningly of all, one witness claimed that all Templars were traitors because through them the sultan – the leader of the Saracens in the crusades – was told what the crusaders were going to do next. This was an often repeated accusation by the Templars’ critics – that they were consorting with the Muslims.
This gallery contains 9 photos.
Dan Brown‘s new book ‘Inferno’ is nearly upon is with its references to the 13th century classic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante – let me give some friendly assistance with some of the people, places and concepts you’ll find in the book:
Who was Dante? Dante Alighieri lived from 1265 to 1321 and was born in Florence. For all your Templars out there, he was alive during the period when the Templars were suppressed by the pope and the king of France. As Chaucer is seen as the father of modern English, Dante is viewed in a similar light in relation to Italian. He is often referred to simply as the poet, il Poeta.
Guelphs and Ghibellines – Dante was born into a Guelph family. The medieval states that would go on to form modern Italy hundreds of years later, including Florence, were divided between supporters of the pope (Guelphs) and supporters of the Holy Roman emperor (Ghibellines). As an adult, Dante would fight with Guelph forces at the Battle of Campaldino.
Beatrice – Dante is believed to have been infatuated with a woman called Beatrice di Folco Portinari whom he only met a couple of times. Beatrice appears in Dante’s works as a kind of muse, an object of fascination and probably bearing little resemblance to the real Beatrice. The pre-Raphaelite painters of the nineteenth century immortalised Beatrice as an exotic medieval woman.
Whites versus Blacks – After the Ghibellines were defeated, Florence divided between those who wanted to fight for Florence’s independence (whites) and those who wanted to place the city under the control of pope Boniface VIII (blacks). Dante was a white and his detestation of Boniface is reflected by placing him in hell in the Divine Comedy. The black seized control of Florence and condemned Dante to death. The poet was outside the city on a mission to negotiate with Boniface and never returned to Florence again. Even the offer of a pardon – on what he regarded as humiliating terms – didn’t get him back. His body is interred outside Florence to this day.
Hell, Purgatory and Paradise – Dante’s Divine Comedy is divided into three parts involving a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. People in the Middle Ages were far more interested and engaged with the afterlife than today. The idea of a voyage through the depths of hell and the heights of heaven was not original in the medieval period but Dante packs his hell with historical and current personalities and some very dark humour.
People in Dante’s hell – To understand the medieval mind, it’s worth looking at who Dante places in hell and why. The City of Dis (a classical reference – Greek/Roman mythology often mixed with Christian concepts) is hell and Cocytus is the frozen lake at the centre of it. Pure hell is a frozen not a fiery place, chilled by the beating of Lucifer’s wings. Cassius, Brutus and Judas are held in Lucifer’s own mouth. They have committed the worst sin of all and betrayed their master. Caiaphas, high priest of the Hebrews, is among the Hypocrites for condemning Jesus to death. Cleopatra is among the lustful. The Greek philosopher Epicurus is with the heretics for denying the immortality of the soul.
How are the wicked punished in hell? – Flatterers are immersed in excrement. Suicides are turned into trees. Soothsayers have their heads turned backwards. Thieves are bitten by serpents. Fraudsters are enclosed in tongue-like flames. Those who were violent towards their neighbours are in boiling blood. And so on.
Dante’s cosmology – Dante was living and writing before Copernicus and saw the Earth as being at the centre of the universe – motionless and still. It is a sphere – not flat – and Jerusalem is at its centre equidistant from the Ebro river to the west and the Ganges to the east. Hell is like a giant funnel consisting of nine concentric circles getting smaller as we get to the middle of the earth.
Virgil – He was a Roman poet who lived 70BC to 19BC writing most of his work under the emperor Augustus. Although Virgil was a pagan, he was one of a handful of pagan Romans held in high esteem by medieval Christians. Another was Cicero. They were seen as good people who lived in error. Virgil was even believed to have predicted the birth of Jesus in his works. The Roman appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy as his wise guide through the afterlife.
Secret corridors in Florence – The Vasari corridor in Florence is an elevated walkway built long after Dante’s death. It’s an enclosed passageway you can still see above the city going through buildings and over bridges that allowed the Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici to avoid the common people while moving around.
Bargello – This is a palace mentioned early on in Dan Brown’s book. It was constructed as a noble residence around the time Dante was born. Long after his death it became a prison and until the eighteenth century, executions were conducted in its courtyard.
This is a simply brilliant silent movie version of the Divine Comedy incredibly made in 1911 – the effects are beautiful.
Tomar is a beautiful Templar town in Portugal where the order held out after being crushed throughout Europe. On top of a hill overlooking the winding streets of the medieval town is a Templar ‘charola’ or octagonal church built like a fortress. Attached to it is a semi-ruined convent constructed in the 16th century Manueline style.
Tomar was recently chosen to be the global HQ of The International Order of the Knights Templar – OSMTH – and this has led to the first ever Templar festival being held in the town. Quite why it hasn’t happened before I can’t imagine. Having visited Tomar every year since 2009, I can assure you that this is a must see for any Templar.
I wish I could have given you more notice but I only found out about the event yesterday, which is happening between the 23rd and 26th of this month. Full details in Portuguese can be found HERE. If you can’t make it – then please browse the images below from my last visit in August, 2012.
Films are a great way to pick up historical knowledge tempered with your own research of course. So let’s look at ten movies that captured great medieval battles. The first would have to be the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 where the leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV managed to defeat a numerically superior Saracen force. Here’s how the movie Arn portrayed it.
Ten years later and Saladin turned the tables on the crusaders defeating them at the Horns of Hattin – depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven.
Here’s a battle you may not know much about – I didn’t – but is a key date in the emergence of Islam. In the year 636CE, the Byzantine (or eastern Roman) army was defeated by an Arab army. This ended seven centuries of Roman rule in Syria and brought the region in to the Arab/Islamic caliphate.
When you’re heavily outnumbered, you need a leader to make a rousing speech – and who better than Henry V courtesy of Shakespeare played by Kenneth Branagh (or you could watch the Lawrence Olivier movie made in the 1940s).
Within the Templar era - a new enemy emerged that nobody in Europe could have forseen: The Mongols. This movie – called ‘Mongol’ – was co-funded by Germany, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. And here’s taste of what the Mongol hordes brought into the Middle East and Europe, terrifying all in their path.
It’s often assumed that crusades were all against Islam. In fact, the medieval popes had other enemies in their sights. One was the Hussite heresy in eastern Europe, which proved very attractive to many people. In 1420, the Holy Roman Emperor fought for the Catholic church against the Hussite leader, Jan Zizka, at the Battle of Vitkov Hill captured in this movie.
Another thorn in the papal backside were the schismatic orthodox Christians and the Teutonic Knights were sent off to bring the Poles and Lithuanians into line. Unfortunately, all did not go as planned as the this communist era film of the Battle of Grunwald shows.
Here is a movie on the life of Saladin – with lots of battles – made in 1963 by the Egyptian film industry. Note the reference to refugees fleeing the crusaders. This was a time when a very nationalist government had taken over in Egypt and was engaged in hostile rhetoric with neighboring Israel.
And I suppose I’d better include Mel Gibson’s take on the wars between Scotland and England in the Middle Ages.
And finally – let’s have a mythical battle from Lord of the Rings
The castle of Al-Karak in Jordan – الكرك – الأردن – is one of the three greatest crusader forts in the region. Unfortunately right now, the other two are in Syria. So you can visit this castle, but you’re unlikely to get anywhere near the incredible Krak des Chevaliers any time soon.
This question is asked of me so often that I scripted and designed a cartoon to explain my view – enjoy!
Say the word ‘cannibal’ and most people in the west have been brought up to think of some tribe of man eating savages located in the deepest jungle, maybe in a place like Borneo. But in a recent book on the Second World War by Max Hastings – called Inferno (nothing to do with Dan Brown) – he alleges that the people of Leningrad in Russia were so hungry during the Nazi onslaught that they ate their own. The Imperial Japanese Army has also been accused of cannibalism of prisoners in the same war – again in recent books on the subject.
So what about our favorite time period – the Middle Ages? I was asked by a regular visitor to this blog whether allegations of crusaders indulging in cannibalism were really true. Well, the chronicles suggest it happened – even if we have to treat all written accounts with a pinch of salt. But we should give some credence to the stories because those writing about crusaders eating their Saracen enemies weren’t Muslims – they were Christians.
Astonishingly, one person accused of cannibalism is none other than Richard the Lionheart. It’s said that he requested pork to eat while camped outside the Hospitaller fortress of Acre in modern Israel. His attendants cook him up some Saracens on the basis that they taste of pork (even though they’re not allowed to eat pork – go figure!). Richard bolts down his food and asks to see the pig’s head. Needless to say the attendants produce a Saracen’s head and Richard, far from being appalled, gets stuck into some more “pork” pointing out to his men that they shall never starve as this meat is so plentiful.
This story might have been intended as a sick joke or a boastful means of scaring the Saracens – conversely, the incident may have happened. You have to recall that Richard the Lionheart presided at a mass execution of prisoners so there was a very mean streak to the man.
In an earlier incident in 1098 during the First Crusade – a year before Jerusalem was taken by Prince Tancred – the crusaders overran a Syrian town called Ma’arra. Christian chroniclers, three of them, felt constrained to both record and try to excuse acts of cannibalism by the crusader. In his History of the Expedition to Jerusalem Fulcher of Chartres wrote the following about what happened at Ma’arra.
I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth
"The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he game them hashish to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping into the garden where he had them awakened.