It all starts with a night flight from La Rochelle… The Knights Templar, once the poster boys of the Crusades, had been outlawed by the Pope and the King of France. They were being rounded up and imprisoned. Their assets were being seized. But in one last clandestine act, they move sacred and vast treasure from their fortress HQ in Paris. In carts, this tremendous wealth was taken to castles to be hidden away. Or loaded on to ships bound for far off lands.
Well, that’s the tale many would like you to believe….so, if the Templars did hide their treasure in castles around Europe, which ones would they have chosen? I’ve had a go at answering that question. Read on…
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Montségur
Otto Rahn was a Nazi obsessed with the Holy Grail. In the 1930s, he travelled around Europe in a feverish quest to find that sacred object. During his odyssey, he kept a diary which he published with the curious title: Lucifer’s Court: A Heretic’s Journey in search of the Light Bringers. One place that drew him like a moth to the flame was Montségur, nestled in the French Pyrenees mountains.
In Lucifer’s Court, Rahn heads for Montségur in his grail quest. This was the centre of a rebellion by a subversive Christian group called the Cathars who rejected the authority of the Pope. Across southern France they resisted the Roman Catholic church in the 13th century and developed their own rites and rituals. While there, Rahn met another explorer who reported that a vast amount of Cathar treasure was buried nearby as well as an original copy of the Book of Revelation, the final part of the New Testament.
In the year 1244, forces loyal to the Catholic church stormed the castle and burned over 200 Cathars at the foot of the mountain. Another 400 men, women and children were imprisoned at the still very impressive castle at Carcassone (though tarted up a lot in the 19th century).
A shepherd told Rahn that the Grail had been at the castle. It was not a cup but a stone once embedded in the crown of Lucifer (read my other blog posts on this). The Pope wanted to restore that stone to Lucifer’s crown. To thwart this diabolical plan, a female Cathar leader called Esclarmonde had thrown the stone into the gorge below which opened magically and swallowed it. She promptly turned into a dove and flew away before she could be captured.
The castle today is still perched on the mountain top and dominates the town below. However, a large part of it dates to after the medieval period. That’s because the forces that overran the Cathars also pulled down their castle. But, there’s enough there to give you an idea of what it was once like and the surrounding area is dripping with history.
Rahn’s interest in the Holy Grail eventually brought him to the attention of Heinrich Himmler. Their shared interest in the occult resulted in Rahn’s medieval detective work being supported by the Nazis and his induction into the SS – of which Himmler was the leader. But, Rahn’s open homosexuality eventually proved to be his downfall. Himmler was sending gay people to concentration camps and Rahn had to do a spell as a guard at the Dachau camp. In the end, his frozen body was found on an alpine hillside in 1939 with suicide recorded as the official verdict.
If this all seems slightly familiar – Otto Rahn’s escapades informed, to a degree, the Indiana Jones movie series. Below is an image of Rahn, on the left, wondering if he’d found something…
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Gisors
This castle is still very intact with its octagonal tower and forbidding walls. It was built by the Normans who were also ruling England at the time. That was in the 12th century around the time the Knights Templar were founded. Fast forward to the early 14th century and we have the same Knights Templar in deep trouble. The castle was now within the kingdom of France and King Philip the Fair had imprisoned as many knights as his forces could capture.
Some of the seized Templars were held in the dungeon at Gisors ahead of being tortured for confessions and then executed. Miserable and probably disease ridden, they carved very odd graffiti on the walls. Some believe it shows treasure being carted away from the Paris Temple before the king’s soldiers arrived. Presumably then taken to the port of La Rochelle and spirited away.
Or was it? Because in 1929, the caretaker at Gisors castle claimed he found a room brimming with priceless riches. But when the local authorities turned up to investigate, there was nothing. Not one gold trinket. He was duly fired. However, nearly forty years later, the French government ordered a new dig with the army drafted in to help. Yet still no Templar treasure.
FIND OUT MORE: Templar treasure hidden at Gisors
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Acre
The castle at Acre in modern Israel is a stunning piece of medieval architecture, even in its diminished state today. I visited in 2012 and walked through the tunnels that snake under the castle. A recent investigation by a team led by Dr Albert Lin and filmed by National Geographic found a network of underground passageways under the city streets. They appear to lead to a so-called “Treasure Tower” where the team believe the knights hoarded their wealth.
Acre held out against Muslim armies during the Crusades up until the year 1291. It then fell after a bloody siege and that loss effectively ended the Crusades. In reality, it also set the clock ticking on the end of the Knights Templar as well. Without a mission in the Middle East, their whole reason to exist was fatally undermined.
The castle is now in the Israeli city of Akko. Dr Lin’s team used lasers and hi-tech detectors and were able to recreate the original fortress. Much of it has now been absorbed into the later city or has been covered by the sea. You can actually see the walls under the waves at the shoreline, which is quite a sight.
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Tomar
I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll happily say it again – nowhere in the world evokes the Knights Templar as much as Tomar in Portugal. If you’re based in Lisbon on holiday, take a two hour train to Tomar and stay overnight at the Hotel Dos Templarios. You then walk across the main road and up a steep and winding path to the castle at the top of the hill.
What confronts you is a 12th century octagonal Templar tower – called a ‘charola’ – bolted on to a later 16th century palatial convent. Surrounding the area is a wall with towers dating back to the Templar period. Today, the town of Tomar is in the valley nestled around the river Nabao. In the 12th century, the townspeople very wisely lived behind the sturdy walls built by the Templars.
Tomar was in the borderlands between the Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia and the Muslim caliphate that still ruled the southern half of the peninsula. This region changed hands between Christian and Muslim rulers depending on who had the military advantage. In one confrontation, a vast Muslim army fought the Templars at the walls and one of the entrances to the castle is still called – the Gate of Blood.
FIND OUT MORE: Portuguese Templar hero Gualdim Pais
When the Templars were outlawed after 1307, the king of Portugal simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. As such, they continued to occupy Tomar for centuries. This has led to speculation that the knights would have brought their treasure to this castle as it was protected by a friendly king. Local historians have claimed there is a network of tunnels linking the castle to other key sites in Tomar such as the church of Santa Maria Olival, where the Portuguese Templar grand masters were buried.
FIND OUT MORE: Me filming with the History channel at Tomar
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Castle of Le Bézu
Back to the Cathars! Le Bézu castle is part of a network of Cathar fortifications in southern France. It’s also in the same region as the village of Rennes-le-Chateau – a place heavily associated with the Knights Templar and their treasure. The now ruined castle was home to the Lords of Albedun. It’s claimed by some historians that this noble family were both keen supporters of the Knights Templar and adopters of the Cathar heresy.
Le Bézu and Rennes-le-Chateau are two high points among five in the area that are referred to as the Pentagram of Mountains. They were made famous by the author Henry Lincoln in the 1970s who popularised the idea of the Templars being founded by a shadowy organisation called the Priory of Sion. He co-wrote the best seller The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail that influenced Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I’ve blogged in massive detail about this before so click on the link directly below this paragraph for the full story.
FIND OUT MORE: Rennes-le-chateau and the Priory of Sion
Throughout the 20th century, there have been official and unofficial excavations around these castles. Some digging, unfortunately, has caused damage. I’d personally urge people not to turn up with their spades and metal detectors. But at the same time, please visit these fascinating Templar castles and see if you can sniff out some treasure.
Season 6 of Forbidden History has already started airing in the United States and comes soon to the UK and Europe. I’m at 45 seconds in the trailer above if you need to see me quickly!
I think this is the best series so far. It’s now on the Science channel, part of Discovery, and the production values are amazing. Plus some really great topics that include:
In a graveyard in the county of Suffolk in eastern England, there are ten elm trees in a graveyard, which are believed to have been planted on top of the bodies of ten dead Templar knights. When one of the trees blew down decades ago, a skeleton was found trapped in its roots.
Local historian Mike Burgess runs the Hidden East Anglia website and has detailed the story. East Anglia, for my many non-United Kingdom visitors, is the bit of Britain that sticks out like a big tummy on the right-hand side. It comprises the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. I grew up in the county of Essex to the south and can assure you that this part of the world is dripping in Templar and medieval history. Wherever you turn, there is a castle or ruined abbey.
Burgess refers to the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Kedlington. There’s been a Christian place of worship on this site since the Saxons nearly 1500 years ago. The building you see today was erected in the late 13th century so well within the Templar period. And it was constructed in a part of the world made rich by the wool trade. Fortunately, the Victorians didn’t get to “improve” the church in the 19th century so you have a very authentic medieval experience.
Dead Knights Templar in the graveyard?
The story of an elm that fell over revealing a Templar skeleton first appeared in a 1949 book by Herbert W. Tompkins called Companion Into Suffolk. Today, the elms stand in a row, almost guarding the cemetery but this may not be their original location. However, the one tree that has toppled revealed evidence of human remains beneath.
The fact they are elm trees has been seized on by some Knights Templar enthusiasts. They refer to the Templar mythology of an incident called the “Cutting of the Elm” where the Knights Templar and Priory of Sion agreed to go their separate ways in 1188. This allegedly acrimonious encounter was a fabrication by the French 1950s fantasist Pierre Plantard. It’s a story grafted on to a real incident by the same name in the same location, Gisors in France, where the Kings of England and France had a bitter falling out.
Elm trees are heavily associated in Celtic folklore with the underworld and the realm of spirits and demons. Along with the oak, elm trees have an emotional hold on the English psyche. They are ancient, looming landmarks on the landscape. In the mid-1970s, a fungal disease called Dutch Elm disease spread by bark beetles led to millions of elm trees being felled. I remember at the time for many people the loss of these haunting trees was like having a limb amputated. To see a scenery they loved changed forever.
Elms marking the spot of dead Knights Templar’ treasure?
The local newspaper for Kedlington has speculated on whether Templar treasure is located nearby. They point to ancient references to the knights’ wealth being “between the oak and the elm”. The journalist added that the Templars were known to ascribe magical properties to elm trees.
Near to Kedlington is evidence of the presence of long dead Knights Templar. A place called Temple End in Little Thurlow points to a land grant to the knights by aristocratic donors, Roger and William le Bretun. Of more interest is the church in Great Thurlow which contains some real medieval graffiti. This includes depictions of archers practising with their longbows and the prophet Moses turning his rod magically into a snake before a shocked pharaoh.
In the arch that leads to the Lady Chapel, there are shields that have led some to speculate that this part of the church was used by the Knights Templar for their initiation rites.
Following my recent review of the Turkish historical drama series on Netflix Resurrection Ertugrul – or Diriliş: Ertuğrul in Turkish – I was inundated with views and comments. And amazingly – an actor from the series got in touch. Ismail Kargi has been in several episodes of Ertugrul and shared some great photos with me.
I’m still ploughing through season one so I haven’t reached Ismail’s appearance yet. In case you’ve missed this thoroughly engrossing epic series, it centres on the life of Ertugrul Ghazi.
Ertugrul was a warrior whose tribe – the Kayi – fled the Mongol invasion of the Middle East. They ended up settled on the Anatolian plain. But that meant bumping up against their overlords the Seljuk Turks, the Byzantines and the Knights Templar.
Below is Ismail Kargi in his costume as a warrior of that period – the 13th century. He certainly seems to have enjoyed the experience of being in Ertugrul. I notice that in the bottom right photo, there are Kayi tents in the background. I do wonder how exhausting it must have been to fight in all that armour and heavy clothing. These Kayi must have been very strong guys.
Thanks to Ismail for sending me these images!
Eight years ago, I first blogged about where you can find the Knights Templar in the world today. I think it’s time for a thorough update. Today, there are over 1700 groups and organisations around the world calling themselves Knights Templar or Templars. They range from sensible and worthy bodies through to fringe extremists and even organised criminals. So – you have to tread carefully!
And it must be added that today’s Knights Templar can be a fractious bunch. There have been splits and fall-outs aplenty. But I think we can identify the genuine organisations and steer you away from some of the very dubious outfits.
Our starting point has to be the assumption that in 1307, the Knights Templar came to an end. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned to death in 1314 and with that, the Templars were no more. Well, not according to a lot of people out there. These include Roman Catholic and Freemason groups – but also charitable bodies that trace their lineage back to the knights.
Knights Templar today
Earlier this year, before the Coronavirus lockdown confined us to our homes for a while, I spoke at an event in Manchester organised by the OSMTJ Grand Priory of England Wales. In the photo below – I’m on the left, in case you didn’t know, and the Grand Prior, Mark Borrington, is next to me in the middle.
Now, I’m not affiliated to any group – as I know some of you will be trying to work that out. But the OSMTJ are a level headed group of people doing charitable work and I was happy to go to their event and talk about the Templars. They have a Grand Master who is currently Michel Van Der Stock, based in Belgium. Below him in the organisation is a Magisterium and then each region has its own Grand Prior.
The organisation is called the Ordre du Temple for short and its history goes back to the re-emergence of the Knights Templar in the French Revolution courtesy of a man called Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat (1773 to 1838). I’ve blogged about him in more detail before so search for my previous posts to get full details.
Fabré-Palaprat revealed an ancient document called the Larmenius Charter. This showed an unbroken line of Knight Templar Grand Masters from 1324 to 1804. The charter was named after a man called Johannes Marcus Larmenius who was named Grand Master by Jacques de Molay, the last visible Grand Master, before his execution in 1314. Larmenius in turn named his successor, Thomas Theobaldus Alexandrinus, in 1324. And he was the first to write his name down on the charter. After him, each master entered his details down to Fabré-Palaprat.
This document ended up in Freemason hands in the early 20th century and is now kept at Mark Masons Hall in London. These are the OSMTJ emblems for England and Wales below.
In the spirit of the French Revolution, Fabré-Palaprat wanted to establish a new religion. But also, in the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte, the newly visible Templars also reached out to the Vatican for reconciliation. Their overtures were met with cool reserve. After all, the papacy had crushed the Knights Templar and admitting they’d done something wrong was probably asking too much.
Splits in the Templar world down to today
As the OSMTJ website and other sources point out – egos have got in the way of Templar unity. So, in the late 19th century, a Parisian gentleman called Josephin Paladin decided he could be both Regent of the Order of the Temple and Master of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood. But it didn’t work out. And the leadership of the order moved to Brussels.
Then the Nazis invaded. The order’s entire archive was moved to neutral Portugal. The man entrusted with this wealth of information was Antonio Campello Pinto de Sousa Fontes – who proclaimed himself the new Grand Master. In 1948, he then did the unthinkable and declared that his son, Fernando, would be the new leader on his death. Well, the Knights Templar were never run on a hereditary principle so this caused a global fall-out among Templars that continues to this very day.
At a stormy meeting in Paris in 1970, a Polish Marshal called Antoine Zdrojewski was acclaimed as the new Grand Master – in opposition to the Sousa Fontes father and son in Portugal. They, incidentally, refused to hand over the Templar archives. Instead, they forced a split. The OSMTJ Templar priories accepted the Paris decision. While the OSMTH continued to recognise the Portuguese.
And so you can find the OSMTJ and the OSMTH websites if you go on Google. And now you know the heritage of these organisations. Both claim to be multi-cultural and in favour of inter-faith dialogue. They have attempted to reconcile over the last 25 years but instead, there have been further splits on both sides. However, the two groups were able to unite in condemning the 1990s death cult called the Order of the Solar Temple who I’ve also blogged about previously.
Dangerous Knights Templar organisations to avoid
Now, let’s leave the OSMTJ and OSMTH and other Masonic, Catholic, charitable and esoteric groups – and focus briefly on the darker side of the Templar universe today. And I would urge you all to keep away from the dark side!
Unfortunately, the terms “crusade” and “jihad” have been used and misused to devastating effect by people of violence and terrorists in our time. And this will continue to be a problem. I’m particularly concerned by people claiming to be Knights Templar infiltrating video game chat rooms to try and radicalise teenagers into hate crime. If you have kids and you don’t want them to grow up to be bigots – be aware this is going on.
I have been quoted in Wired magazine about my fears regarding a particular organisation I refer to directly calling itself the Knights Templar International and their online activity. This has nothing to do with the medieval knights I describe in this blog. If you wish to debate this – I’m all ears. This blog has never and will never endorse hate politics. If you think otherwise – you may be on the wrong blog.
Medieval history fans will know all about Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury killed at Christmas by four knights. The head of the English church had fallen out big time with King Henry II and paid the ultimate price. But how many people know anything about the illustrious sister of Thomas Becket – Mary? This medieval woman was a leper healer and powerful religious figure. Yet who’s heard of her today?
Shamefully I hadn’t. And I say shamefully because she was running a leper colony in the 12th century not far from where I grew up in north east London. Mary Becket – or Mary a’ Becket if you prefer – was the Abbess of Barking.
This wasn’t just any old convent. Barking Abbey was the richest and most powerful convent in the country at a time when the church called the political shots. And she used her position to tackle the leprosy pandemic then terrifying England.
Mary Becket – leper healer and powerful abbess
Mary has been somewhat overshadowed by her way more famous brother, Thomas. He was a friend of King Henry II – a rather hot-tempered monarch – who rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The king hoped that he would be compliant to the royal whims.
But Thomas boldly defended the power of the church. An exasperated king wondered out loud how much longer he’d have to put up with such clerical insolence. Four of the king’s knights took that as their cue to pop down to Canterbury and dash the brains of the archbishop with their swords all over his altar – at Christmas.
The whole of Christendom was appalled by what they saw as a murder sanctioned – even commissioned – by King Henry. The pope wasted no time declaring Thomas a saint just to rub some salt in Henry’s political wounds. The king, seeing he was losing the PR battle quite badly, allowed himself to be whipped at the tomb of Thomas. He also handed over Barking Abbey to the sister of his one-time friend, Mary.
Mary Becket sets to work on the leper issue
Like brother, like sister – Mary wasn’t about to accept this as a token appointment. She took over an abbey that was already five hundred years old. A venerable institution on the outskirts of London with a large community of Benedictine nuns. Mary took full advantage of her new found power and influence.
DISCOVER: An exclusive look at Rosslyn chapel
Mary set about enlarging the Hospital Chapel of St Mary the Virgin at a place called Ilford – that was within her jurisdiction. Just to poke the king in the eye she added “and Saint Thomas of Canterbury” to the chapel’s name. And then threw open the doors to ever more lepers. Many of these would have been nuns or servants of the convent who had succumbed to this very infectious disease.
There was no cure for leprosy at this time. Antibiotics were centuries in the future. So, Mary Becket use the abbey’s resources to bring as much comfort as possible to these medieval lepers rejected by their families and communities.
Incredibly, the chapel is still there. Ilford is just a typical suburb of London now. And you’d never believe this medieval gem was in its midst. But there it is. Defiant and open to visitors. It’s only been closed in 2020 because of…..a modern pandemic!
Diriliş: Ertuğrul – translated as Resurrection: Ertugrul in English – is a Turkish historical fiction TV series that has cost a huge amount and gained millions of viewers. It’s also divided opinion globally. And one must say – the Knights Templar don’t come across at all well. But it shows that medieval history continues to be a Netflix ratings winner.
Resurrection:Ertugrul – the founding of the Ottoman Empire
Since 2014, this series has run to five seasons. It’s got a massive fan base from from Turkey to Afghanistan but less well received down in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Because in some parts of the Middle East, there have been accusations that Resurrection: Ertugrul reflects a desire by Turkey to resurrect the Ottoman Empire.
And what was the Ottoman Empire – you might ask?
The Ottomans were a Turkic people who overthrew the declining Christian Byzantine Empire turning its capital Constantinople into what we now call Istanbul. That was in the year 1453. For the next four hundred years, most of the Middle East down to Mecca and Cairo was governed by this empire.
And the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul regarded himself as not only a ruler of land and people but by taking the title “caliph” – he was also the keeper of their Muslim souls. The guardian of the holy places (Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem).
Introducing the hero of Resurrection: Ertugrul – and his hatred of the Knights Templar
The hero of Resurrection: Ertugrul is a 13th century warrior called Ertugrul Ghazi and he is the father of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. In season one, he leads a Turkic tribe (the “Kayi”) that is supporting the dominant clan among the Turks in the period before the Ottoman ascendancy – the Seljuks.
It was the Seljuk Turks who sparked off the Crusades as they marched across what is now Turkey and menaced the Byzantine capital Constantinople. Terrified of the approaching threat, the Byzantine emperor appealed to the west, which brought crusader armies into the region. The forces from the west seized Palestine and parts of modern Syria and Turkey establishing Christian kingdoms. A new military order was formed to consolidate those gains: The Knights Templar.
So, Resurrection; Ertugrul is basically about a Turkish warrior fighting the Byzantines on one side, the Knights Templar on another and then the Mongols show up. I’ve blogged about the surprise Mongol invasion of the Middle East so use the search tab to find out more. For a while, both the Seljuk Turks and the Knights Templar thought the Mongols would dominate.
In the first episode of season one, while hunting in the forests, Ertugrul chances upon a group of Templars abusing a Seljuk prisoner. Now, as you know, the Knights Templar are either depicted as heroes or villains in fiction. In Resurrection: Ertugrul – they are definitely the bad guys. As this clip below shows.
Getting a medieval history drama to be a roaring success
Whatever you think of the historical angle of Resurrection: Ertugrul – the makers have certainly proved that medieval history drama can be massively successful. It’s a story told with conviction and flair. Is it biased? You bet. This is five seasons of Turkish patriotism. But in many ways, it reminds me of Victorian fictional depictions of the Middle Ages heroising “English” figures like Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood.
Resurrection: Ertugrul is set in a period when the Knights Templar would have been in what is now Turkey. Ironically, it wasn’t the Seljuks that destroyed Constantinople in the 13th century but a western Christian army funded by Venice. I’ve blogged about this too – search for my posts on the Fourth Crusade. In the year 1204, crusaders breached the walls of Constantinople and shamefully looted a Christian city.
Constantinople never really fully recovered from that act of criminal treachery. The Byzantine Empire limped on until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire took it after a very eventful siege. That amazing last battle between the Byzantines and the Ottomans is the subject of a Netflix drama/documentary called Rise of Empires: Ottoman – which I watched on a long haul flight last year and was hooked to every episode.
Here’s the trailer for Rise of Empires.
In February this year – before the Coronavirus lockdown – I visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. This was once the palace of the Ottoman sultans. To say it’s ornate would be an understatement!
This week, we have a holiday in the United Kingdom to celebrate VE Day. That is short for Victory in Europe Day when the Allies accepted the formal surrender of Nazi Germany. While we mourn the millions who died in that terrible war, I’d also like to look at those medieval treasures that were bombed in the senseless destruction and carnage.
MEDIEVAL BUILDINGS BOMBED IN WORLD WAR TWO: Coventry Cathedral
In November 1940, the city of Coventry in central England endured a night of bombing. A nightmarish hell that killed hundreds and left its proud and famous cathedral a gutted, smoking hulk. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the site and in the years that followed, a huge new cathedral was built next to it. This was to exemplify a city determined to rise from the ashes.
Today, you can still visit the shell of Coventry medieval cathedral and pause to consider all those who died on that night.
MEDIEVAL BUILDINGS BOMBED IN WORLD WAR TWO: Temple Church, London
You remember the Templar church featured in The Da Vinci Code – but did you know it was badly bombed in World War Two? The roof of the circular building built by the knights to mimic the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem caved in damaging the tombs of the knights below. I’ve blogged about this previously but here is a reminder of the tragedy that occurred in World War Two.
The list of churches bombed in London alone is huge. Many of the fine structures designed by Christopher Wren after the 1666 Great Fire of London took a pounding in World War Two. Some were restored, others left as a shell while quite a few were demolished – beyond any hope of repair.
DISCOVER: Did the Knights Templar get to America?
I often walk past St Clement Danes – the church of the Royal Air Force – which dates back to the Viking occupation of London a thousand years ago. You can still see where shrapnel gouged holes in the side of the building. The church that was bombed was post-medieval but the picture of it in flames is so eerie that I share it with you below. The flames are like tongues sticking out of every opening in the spire.