Catherine of Siena – a very odd medieval saint

I was in Italy in August and September this year and visited many medieval sites – in the next few blog posts, I’ll give you some highlights

Catherine kisses the wounds of Jesus in an ecstatic vision

Catherine kisses the wounds of Jesus in an ecstatic vision

In late August, I went to Siena – a gorgeous medieval city in the heart of Tuscany, Italy. This was the home of one of the fourteenth century’s more colourful saints: Catherine of Siena. From a very early age, she had ecstatic visions of Jesus Christ and underwent some kind of mystical marriage with her Saviour. Some of these visions are, frankly, very disturbing to the modern mind. They included a Dante-like journey through heaven, hell and purgatory and some very intimate encounters with Christ.

The Popes during this period weren’t based in Rome but far off Avignon in France. Catherine visited the Pope in his French exile and begged him to return. The saint became very embroiled in the fighting between different Italian states and competing claimants to the throne of Saint Peter. She eventually died in Rome aged just 33 of a stroke.

A statue at the shrine to Catherine

A statue at the shrine to Catherine

Was this really a Templar church?

I have been travelling round Italy and will be sharing some amazing videos and images from that incredible country in the next few posts. To begin with, here is a church in the medieval town of San Gimignano that claims to have been built by the Templars. But…did the knights really construct San Jacopo dei Templari?

A seventeenth century convent grew up alongside it but the main chapel looks medieval. San Gimignano was at its height during the 12th and 13th centuries – the Templar period – so it could very well have been built by the Order. Share any information you may have.

Templar Knight TV: Prostitution in medieval London

Would you believe that Facebook turned down my ad campaign for this edition of Templar Knight TV because it included a MEDIEVAL depiction of very naughty behaviour – too much flesh apparently! Even if it was 13th century flesh. Apparently, you can show scenes of ultra-violence and recruit to extremist organisations on Facebook – but woe betide you if a hint of leg or arm from eight hundred years ago appears. Anyway, it’s actually a very tasteful edition of Templar Knight TV and I hope you enjoy it.

Templar Knight TV – your new Templar TV channel!

Along with my usual text based blogs – I thought it was time to freshen things up with a foray into digital TV. So, I’ve launched Templar Knight TV. Production values will improve as we go along with filmed insights into the Knights Templar and the Middle Ages. You may even get to see me in one of the programmes. They’re intended to be bite-sized, easily digestible pieces of information. So watch and hopefully enjoy!

How did the Knights Templar come to exist?

Templar sealJerusalem 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

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.


Magna Carta – an original version on display!

Magna CartaIt’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.

Magna CartaIn 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.


St George’s Day celebration in London

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.