In February and March this year (2019), I was in Paris researching a TV programme and made two visits inside Notre Dame cathedral. It’s as unmissable a monument at the very heart of Paris as it has been for over 800 years. The massive medieval construction sits on an island in the middle of the river Seine dominating its surroundings.
The tragic fire in Notre Dame
How terrible then to see Notre Dame in flames and largely destroyed by fire. Unfortunately, so many historic buildings suffer this fate yet many manage to rise again from the ashes.
However, even if the cathedral is repaired – it will not be the same as it once was. The gorgeous wooden screens I saw – dating back over 600 years – will have gone. Statues will have cracked. Stained glass windows will have been blown out. And the roof has already collapsed.
Notre Dame is a global catastrophe
This isn’t just a disaster for France. It’s a tragedy for all humanity. France gave us the Gothic style of church architecture that you can see all over the world. Notre Dame was the queen of Gothic cathedrals. It had a majestic elegance that inspired architects, masons and carpenters to strive to reproduce it in many cities.
Of course, for us Templar fans, Notre Dame has a poignancy as the last Grand Master of the Templars was burnt close by in the year 1307. Fans of the French novelist Victor Hugo will remember his hunchback character ringing the bells in the towers.
It’s a sad day and I leave you some images I took on my iPhone wishing I’d snapped a whole load more. But then I had no idea what was about to befall this grand structure.
The Knight Templar drama Knightfall has returned for a second season. It introduces us to a new character called Talus played by Mark Hamill. You’ll remember him as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. There’s a certain irony in that connection given that director George Lucas is believed to have modelled the Jedi in Star Wars on the Knights Templar.
DISCOVER MORE: Did the Knights Templar worship heads?
Mark Hamill in Knightfall
So, here we have Hamill making his Templar debut and reviews have been broadly positive. It should give the series a much needed shot in the arm after a slightly shaky first season. There are a couple of characters (no prizes for guessing) that I’m glad got bumped off in season one and I certainly hope they stay that way.
Hamill’s character is called Talus and he’s a gristly and battle scarred old knight come to beat some sense into the main protagonist, Landry, and his associates. I’m hopeful that Hamill is going to lift Knightfall to new heights and, as ever, would value your feedback after viewing.
The Knights Templar lived by a strict rule book written in part by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It governed their lives laying out how they should dress, conduct themselves, fight in battle and how often they prayed every day. The Templar rule had to be strictly adhered to but what did it actually state? Let’s take a closer look!
Some of the points in the Rule seem very odd to us now. Templars were not allowed to talk about their own faults or somebody else’s faults between each other. I assume this was to stop gossip or self-pity or bitching. Popular activities among secular knights like falconry and hunting were completely forbidden.
Any Templar expressing a wish to have the good things in life was to be given the worst:
If any permanent brother on account of a fault or on account of a feeling of pride shall desire to have beautiful and excellent things, for such a presumption he, without a doubt, deserves the most vile things.
Knights Templar were also forbidden to communicate with their parents unless they had permission. And any letters had to be read out loud to superiors. Associating with women was also frowned upon:
It is dangerous to befriend women because the old enemy has cast out many people from the right path of paradise by female companionship.
And if a Templar broke the rules, they would receive a light penance if they admitted their sin. But woe betide a Templar whose errors were uncovered by another brother and made known to the master. Then they would expect “severe discipline and correction”. One common punishment for transgressors was to be made to eat alone.
So intertwined were the knights that being told you had to have dinner away from your comrades was a terrible fate indeed!
(Trigger warning – this post does contain factual material that some blog followers may find contrary to their morals. I don’t wish to offend anybody but be aware I will be talking about the erotic philosophy of Aleister Crowley though not in too salacious depth.)
There are many organisations claiming to be Knight Templar in nature but one of the oddest in the 20th century had to be the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO for short). And this Templar sect’s most notorious devotee was the occultist Aleister Crowley, a bizarre individual who mixed sex, magic and religion – often for his own personal pleasure.
READ MORE: Were the Knights Templar gay?
Ozzy Osbourne, Aleister Crowley and a teenage me
I first came across the name Aleister Crowley when, in 1980, I bought an album by the rock group Blizzard of Ozz. The lead singer of this short lived band was former Black Sabbath front man Ozzy Osbourne who shared with Crowley an interest in the darker side of the occult. The track is named after Crowley and it’s not one of Ozzy’s classic numbers but you get the gist of who Crowley was – a man so reviled and feared in Britain before the Second World War that the press referred to him as “the Beast” and “666”.
Born in 1875, Crowley came from a typical Victorian Christian family in the English Midlands. But he grew up at a time when there was a booming interest in magic and spiritualism. Seances and ouija boards were all the rage! What Crowley brought to this was bags of charisma and a stratospheric libido.
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Ordo Templi Orientis – Templars and Aleister Crowley
At the turn of the 20th century, two men – Karl Kellner (a chemist and Freemason) and Theodor Reuss (a German journalist and Freemason) – founded the Ordo Templi Orientis. When Crowley jumped on board, the original Masonic aims of this Templar group were diverted increasingly into his philosophy centred on the Greek word “Thelema”. In a nutshell, this pseudo-philosophy essentially stated – if you want to do something, then just do it.
The OTO mixed up elements of different religions with Masonic and magic symbology and obligatory references to ancient Egypt. Crowley developed a religious rite based heavily on the Catholic and eastern Orthodox mass declaring it was Gnostic in nature. Into this he inserted his trademark obsession with the erotic. Those who decided to join the OTO went through grades of membership similar to the Masonic structure but with a very different approach to moving up the chain.
FIND OUT MORE: The truth about Oak Island and the Templars
Look away now if you’re squeamish!
Crowley recommended devotees eat special cakes into which might be baked semen, blood or excrement. Members moved up through degrees of membership to achieve an understanding of their identity and nature. This culminated in something termed The Hermit Triad where masturbation was taught as a former of magic. Members then advanced to mixing magic with other sex acts – in which, needless to say, Crowley was only too happy to participate.
Crowley justified this sexual behaviour claiming he was trying to return Christianity to its origin as a “solar-phallic religion”. Gnosticism is in part about releasing the spirit from the evil and corrupt physical world. Crowley – and OTO founder Reuss – believed that sex was a means of achieving this. Or as Reuss put it: the more sperm you eat, the more the manifestation of the Christ takes place within you.
This kind of logic led OTO to be described as – Spermo-Gnostics. Seriously dear readers, I’m not making this up!!
And the Templar connection to Aleister Crowley…
There isn’t space in this modest blog post to detail the whole belief system of Crowley and its ranging across all kinds of mythologies, religions and cultish practices. This is a mere taster. The Templar elements centred on initiation rites believed to reflect what the knights practiced – particularly alleged magic kisses on the body, defiling the crucifix and even sodomy.
Add to that the reported worshipping of a being referred to in the trials of the Templars as Baphomet. This was a devilish head of varying description. See my earlier blog posts for accounts from the early 14th century trials stating that this head sometimes spoke, gave orders or demanded obedience. Crowley lapped all that up!
What Crowley believed was that the Templars had indulged in a form of sex based magic while pretending to be defenders of the Catholic church. His OTO was carrying on that noble tradition.
The much darker side of Crowley
Given the turbulent politics of our own times, I need to highlight that Crowley had views which were elitist and racist. He advocated the strict separation of racial groups and assigned rather crass stereotypes to them. In one almost laughable statement he claimed that Italians had “discarded the noble and beautiful toga for shoddy city clothes”.
He claimed – with zero scientific evidence – that hashish incited some races to murder whereas others (pointing at himself no doubt) became more philosophical under its influence. Crowley’s comments on India and the superiority of the British Empire are best left unprinted here. I could go on and on but you get the gist.
From Monday 11 March 2019, I will be appearing in every episode of Private Lives broadcasting on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world. Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I’ll be covering the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:
Back in the 13th century, a French king – Louis IX – went on crusade to the Holy Land. While in the great Christian city of Constantinople, Louis bought what he believed to be the Crown of Thorns of Jesus and part of the True Cross for an astonishing sum of money. When he returned, the saintly king then built an equally expensive chapel to house these relics of the passion. Recently I visited the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which you can still see today.
DISCOVER MORE: The Knights Templar and the Holy Grail explained
What are the Passion relics?
Louis wasn’t the only person to be convinced he had found passion relics from the crucifixion. From himself down to the Nazis in the 20th century, there has been a fascination with acquiring these treasured and sacred items. When we talk about “passion relics”, we’re normally referring to the following:
It can also refer to the veil of Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus; a piece of stone from the table or room where the Last Supper was held; the burial shroud of Jesus (Turin Shroud for example) and I’ve even heard of a chip from the column to which Jesus was tied for the flagellation as being revered by the Catholic faithful.
READ MORE: Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Holy Grail
Holy Grail as passion relic
Templar conspiracy theories have often claimed that the knights’ core mission was the retrieval of passion related relics, most notably of course the Holy Grail. That is a cup held against the body of Jesus during the crucifixion to collect some of his blood (unless you think it wasn’t a cup but the literal “bloodline” of Jesus – see Dan Brown).
During the Middle Ages, churches and abbeys vied to get their hands on passion relics. If they couldn’t get part of the cross Jesus was nailed to then they’d claimed to have a splinter of the cross on which the so-called Good Thief died. That’s the thief who was nice to Jesus as they died together.
Or one church in Rome still claims to have the finger of saint Thomas that was poked by the doubting follower of Christ into one of his wounds after the saviour came back from the dead. Then there’s the seamless robe Jesus wore on his way to die that several churches claim to possess, most notably Trier in Germany.
FIND OUT MORE: The mysterious Priory of Sion and the Templars
Himmler and one passion relic
Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler stole the lance of the centurion Longinus from Austria during the Second World War. It was returned to the Austrian capital Vienna after Hitler was defeated in 1945. And then the most enormous passion relic has to be the Scala Santa in Rome – the entire marble staircase that led up to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who condemned Jesus to death.
When the Knights Templar were put on trial in 1307, an accusation made over and over again was that these holy warriors worshipped heads. But why would these defenders of the Catholic church be engaged in religious practices condemned as heretical?
The proof for head worship
The historian Malcolm Barber has written very authoritatively about the trial of the Templars and I’m drawing on information in his excellent book The Trial of the Templars. So what evidence did he find for Templar head worship?
I will confess that this aspect of the trial of the Knights Templar fascinates me. Why the emphasis by the church on head worship? What was so significant? I’m going to return to this topic and some of the theories that have sprung up around it.
FIND OUT MORE: Were the Knights Templar heretics?
In the year 1198, Duke Frederick of Austria died on crusade. His body was transported back from Palestine to the monastery at Heiligenkreuz in his home country where it was buried with full royal pomp. Well, not all his body. Because like several rich nobles who died on crusade, Frederick had been stripped of all his flesh at death through a process called “excarnation”.
Evisceration and Excarnation
Defleshing of the dead was done to allow the body of a wealthy lord to be transported back across hundreds of miles to their homeland without rotting. It was simply unacceptable for a noble to be buried in a strange land that might not even be Christian. As well as the fact that kings expected to lie for eternity in their dynastic vault and not some random hole in the ground. So, they had to lose all the flesh – because it would decay in the heat.
And here I have to distinguish between excarnation and evisceration. It had become established practice to remove just the organs of medieval kings. This evisceration may have begun as an act of preserving the corpse but developed into a means of sharing the late king’s body with different locations.
So, the heart might be sent to a cathedral hundreds of miles away from the rest of the body. This is what happened to the heart of Richard the Lionheart after he was killed by an archer while on crusade. His body was interred at Fontevraud abbey but his heart was sent to the city of Rouen.
That was evisceration and it was practiced in royal courts down to the early 20th century. But the removal of all the flesh leaving just the bones – excarnation – was something peculiar to monarchs and nobles far, far away from their homeland. It increased in frequency during the crusades to the Holy Land and southern Europe.
LEARN MORE: The mummified heart of Richard the Lionheart
Defleshing your rulers!
It’s such a gruesome thing to happen to a dead person that it’s an under-discussed topic. Basically, the deceased was boiled in water, wine or vinegar – then defleshed – and finally the remains were wrapped in animal skins for transportation.
In 1299, the Pope outlawed both the practice of evisceration and excarnation. Not least because on Judgment Day, the dead were supposed to rise bodily from their graves. Nobles who had been defleshed might not present a pretty sight! There was also a Roman Catholic aversion to cremating the dead and excarnation was done on some occasions by roasting the body – a big no-no for the Vatican!
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One defleshed body that didn’t make it back!
Not everybody who went through this procedure made it back home. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa drowned while on crusade in modern Turkey. His body was boiled and then defleshed with the skeleton ready for transport. However, at some point, the skeleton was lost. Frederick Barbarossa never made it back to the family vault.
On the 18 March 1314, the last Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay was executed in Paris – burned to death in front of a large crowd. His death brought two hundred years of the Knights Templar to a gruesome end. But where exactly was De Molay judicially incinerated?
I often read that the grand master was executed “in front of Notre Dame”. There are plenty of artist representations online that show De Molay screaming his last before the magnificent cathedral that still stands today. So, last week, I began my search for the execution site of Jacques de Molay at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is at one end of a cigar-shaped island in the middle of the river Seine referred to as the Île de la Cité. This was the original ancient city of Paris, protected on all sides by water. From the 11th century, a mighty church began to emerge dominating the island. But nowhere around Notre Dame could I find a plaque commemorating the execution of Jacques de Molay.
For the next ten minutes, I walked past impressive government buildings to the other end of the island. There I found the so-called Pont Neuf – or new bridge. Thing is, it’s not very new. In fact it dates back to the very early 17th century and is amazingly still in use.
I was assured that if I wanted to find the execution spot, it was near some steps by the bridge. And so I descended a stone staircase to what I think was the original ground level of the island.
And there I found a small park ending in a point. I’m informed this land was reclaimed since the Middle Ages so Jacques de Molay couldn’t have been burned at the very end of the Île de la Cité. Otherwise, they’d have been trying to burn him underwater – not really feasible!
Frustrated in my quest, I asked a tour guide where on earth the grand master met his fate. He told me to turn around. And sure enough, up on the bridge itself, was a plaque. I mean, you’d seriously have to know it was there. As public monuments go, this is beyond understated. Maybe the Catholic church still isn’t keen to draw attention to a very shameful episode in its history.
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