Jerusalem was taken by the Muslim caliphate in 638CE ending centuries of Roman rule. The late Roman – or Byzantine – period had seen the city become one of the great centres of Christendom. Its patriarch was one of five leading patriarchs in Christianity – the others being Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. At the centre of the city was the church of the Holy Sepulchre built under the Emperor Constantine and covering the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Throughout the early period of Islamic rule, Christians continued to visit Jerusalem on pilgrimage and revere the holy sites. But in the eleventh century, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim – widely assumed to have been mentally disturbed – demolished the city’s churches reducing the Holy Sepulchre to rubble. To add to Christian woes, reports circulated of pilgrims being systematically robbed and worse as they made their way to the city.
Me at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 2012
In 1099, a Crusader army stormed Jerusalem ending four hundred years of Muslim rule. Contemporary accounts suggest a huge massacre ensued of Jews, Muslims and anybody who got in the way. The blood, it was said, splashed on the crusader stirrups. Even allowing for a certain degree of hyperbole, it does seem to have been a violent event.
The crusaders were western knights who had been heeding the call of Pope Urban to defend the holy places in the east. This they did with gusto! The pope in turn had been responding to a call from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople to defend what was left of his empire from the forces of Islam. After two centuries of the Byzantines enjoying a position of relative strength in relation to the caliphate, they had suffered a terrible defeat against the Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. This defeat would eventually lead to the complete transformation of Anatolia from Greek speaking and Christian to Turkish and Muslim.
Into this very volatile situation came a group of French knights led by Hugues de Payens. They approached King Baldwin II of crusader-controlled Jerusalem and the patriarch in 1118 with the novel idea of setting up a militaristic order of monks that would protect pilgrims. This was very much in keeping with the ethos of a church that carried a bible in one hand and a sword in the other. It was a muscular and very medieval approach to the defence of Christ.
The band of knights were allowed to base themselves in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. This site had housed the long destroyed Jewish temple and was revered by Christians. In turn, it had become a holy place for Muslims. Now under crusader rule, the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock – both early Muslim buildings – became the temple of Solomon and the Templum Domini respectively. Basing themselves in what they believed had once been the temple of Solomon – the new order of knights called themselves the Poor-Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Or the Knights Templar for short.
It’s 800 years since King John was forced to sign Magna Carta by the barons of England. The British Library has an exhibition on until September where you can see an original version of Magna Carta and learn about the surrounding history. I thoroughly recommend.
As I’ve blogged previously, King John was no enemy of the Knights Templar. Quite the contrary. He regarded the Templar preceptories as safe bolt-holes to head for when he was in trouble – which was quite often. This of course contradicts other fictional accounts of the king’s relations with the Templars – in particular the glaringly inaccurate movie Ironclad.
Reading about King John and the events leading up to his capitulation to the barons, you get the image of a man running between the Tower of London to the east of the capital and then over to the Templars in Holborn, to the west. While with the Templars he was advised by them on how to handle a precarious situation having fallen out with both the English aristocracy and the pope, who had excommunicated the hapless monarch.
In 1213, King John had his excommunication limited in return for a gold Mark – which he borrowed from the Templars. In early 1215, his fraught negotiations with the barons were largely conducted from the Temple in London. He spent Easter there and then in May, granted the City of London the right to freely elect its own mayor. Unfortunately, any goodwill this may have accrued from the citizenry was cancelled out when the barons seized the city.
In June, he agreed to sign Magna Carta. Just to look a bit grander for the occasion, he borrowed the imperial regalia of this grandmother the Empress Matilda – which the Templars had under lock and key in the preceptory. With Brother Aymeric, the English grand master of the Templars, King John then went and signed the historic document at Runnymede.
How a Roman soldier who was martyred by the emperor Diocletian came to be the patron saint of England is a long story. And I’ve touched on it in other blog posts. Today, our local community here in south London celebrated St George’s Day with some battle re-enactment. It was France (booo!!!) versus England (hurrah!!!). Lots of good fun and a surprise – France was allowed to win! I snapped some of the action on my iPhone.
Often viewed as one of the most evil monarchs England every endured – Richard III was immortalised by Skakespeare (100 years after the king’s death) as a wicked hunchback capable of murder and deceit. Richard was notorious for allegedly having his two young nephews confined to the Tower of London and then killed in secret.
He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end the House of York and ushering in the House of Tudor. The whereabouts of his body had been a mystery until it was discovered under a car park in the English city of Leicester. Scientific analysis of the bones confirmed the identity and this week will see his formal burial in Leicester cathedral.
Richard III – not all bad according to some
There had been demands for him to be returned to York but he will be interred in Leicester. Should you ever visit that city, I advise you to raise a pint in his memory at a pub named in his honour: The Last Plantagenet.
Now – I have to say that Richard III does not fall within the Templar period, he reigned 150 years after the order was suppressed. But it’s this week’s major medieval event in the UK with media from twenty countries attending. And it seemed wrong not to mention it.
Here’s some memorabilia that I picked up in York from campaigners who – very seriously – are determined to clear his bad name. They think he’s been a victim of Tudor propaganda.
During the Templar period, the patron saint of Venice wasn’t Saint Mark but Saint Theodore of Amasea. He was one of those martyrs during the Roman period. His statue was placed on top of a pillar in what is now Saint Mark’s square but the original medieval statue – now removed to a museum – was actually cobbled together from bits of Roman statuary. This wasn’t an uncommon practice and given that the saint was high up on a pillar, nobody would have noticed the odd artistic arrangement.
That head and that bust and that halo never sat together originally
A loose connection between body parts
The shield isn’t even the same colour as the arm or the torso
Got a feeling that dragon was added later
I photo’d this on my trip to Venice last year and found it quite amusing. The torso is clearly a Roman emperor wearing decorative military armour. The head doesn’t fit but is also Roman – possibly the ancient king Mithridates of Pontus. The legs, however, do look medieval. Somehow, the ensemble seems to work.
Venice is full of these slung together bits of Roman artwork put to the service of medieval buildings – Saint Mark’s cathedral is a right hodge podge including items stolen by the crusaders from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
I’ve got a large collection of very old books, which I browse for this blog. And in one 1826 almanack, there’s a few pages about a disturbing custom practised in the Middle Ages: the stoning of Jews. It appears that from the sabbath before Palm Sunday to the last hour of the Tuesday before Easter, “the Christians were accustomed to stone and beat the Jews”. Any Jewish person not wishing to be assaulted, just had to pay whatever monies were demanded.
Jews had a rough time during medieval Lent
This looks suspiciously like extortion under a religious guise. This sort of anti-semitism was pretty rife at the time with Jews seen as the Christ-killers as well as disliked for their role as money-lenders – a role that Christians had more or less forced them into, by excluding them from other professions.
In 1262, Londoners broke into many Jewish homes and murdered seven hundred people in cold blood. King Henry III handed over their ruined synagogue in Lothbury (a street that still exists) to the friars of the sackcloth. Another synagogue became the church of St Olave in a street called Old Jewry (which you can still see as well).
Interesting news article HERE from the Scunthorpe Telegraph about the Templars in Lincolnshire – a county in eastern England. It name checks Bottesford Preceptory, one of several Templar estates in the county. A Preceptory, by the way, was a Templar manor and would include farms, mills, workshops, living quarters, a great hall and a chapel. There was a vast network of Preceptories across Europe stretching from Wales to the Holy Land.
Lincoln cathedral – well worth a visit by Templar fans!
Templar preceptories in Lincolnshire included Witham and Aslackby as well as Great Limber and Temple Bruer. It must be said that today’s remains give little away – in some cases, there’s nothing left. Temple Bruer, for example, was used for military exercises but you’ll only find a farmyard there now.
If you are planning a visit to Lincolnshire, you do have the splendid medieval cathedral at Lincoln and nearby medieval buildings to sate your interest in this period of history.
If you have any further information about the Knights Templar in Lincolnshire – do share!