For centuries, Christians celebrated a horrific murder at Christmas. This was the brutal killing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, by soldiers in the year 1170. He was cut down in front of the altar of his cathedral by knights carrying heavy swords and it’s even said that Thomas Becket’s brains spilled out on to the floor.
Up until about 150 years ago, Christians wouldn’t just celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Day but for twelve days starting on 25 December and ending on 6 January. Feasting and drinking would continue for nearly two weeks with special food culminating in a very rich Twelfth Night cake on 6 January.
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This was the date (6 January) that the three kings were traditionally believed to have arrived at the crib to venerate Jesus and offer him presents. Celebrations we normally associate with Christmas Day now were actually a feature of Twelfth Night at the time of the Knights Templar.
On the fifth day of Christmas, Christians paused in their merry making to remember a saint killed on that day in his cathedral: Thomas Becket. Because it was on the 29 December, 1170 that four knights burst into Canterbury Cathedral and finding Thomas at his altar, hacked him to pieces.
This was an appalling act of sacrilege that shocked the whole of Europe. The men of violence thought their act would please King Henry II of England who had fallen out badly with Thomas Becket. They had been friends but Thomas continuously asserted the rights and powers of the Catholic church over those of the king and Henry didn’t like that at all. He felt the church should be subordinate to his will and not vice versa.
In a fit of anger, the king yelled:
“Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest!”
Four knights – Richard FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton – took Henry at his word. Eager to please their sovereign lord, they made their way to Canterbury and committed the terrible deed. The date of their crime was the 29 December.
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That was the fifth day of the twelve days of Christmas. As the shocking news spread across Christendom, there was a widespread clamour to make Thomas a saint. And so he was canonised by the pope not long after his death. The 29 December became his special day and a time when Christians would put down their festive food and drink to commemorate a bloody murder in Canterbury in the year 1170.
This is one of the most unexpected stories I’ve discovered about the Knights Templar. In 1306, the Templars were accused of dumping waste into the river Fleet in London – a gross and irresponsible act of urban pollution.
A year later, they’d have bigger things to worry about when the King of France issued arrest warrants and imprisoned hundreds of Templar knights. But in 1306 in London, their main concern was a serious accusation by Henry Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln.
The earl was furious at the Templars – accusing them of blocking the river Fleet by building a water mill. The Fleet was a tributary of the river Thames that’s now invisible to Londoners. In the 19th century it was roofed over and today flows through the city’s sewers. But in the medieval period, it was a busy waterway along the edge of the ancient city walls of London.
In the 1180s, the Templars had abandoned their original headquarters to move closer to both the river Fleet and the much bigger river Thames. The rushing water could power a mill and help with their commercial activities. But in the 1240s, a group of Carmelite friars – the White Friars as they were known – moved in nearby. They complained about the polluting activities of the Templars ten years before the Earl of Lincoln.
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In 1290, the White Friars claimed that the stench from the river was so bad as a result of Templar pollution that some of their brothers had died from the unhealthy aroma (disease was believed to be caused by evil smells). And they told the king that the stink was so bad that even the frankincense they burned during holy mass couldn’t mask it.
In truth though, the friars were always moaning about something – and accusing other people of causing problems of their own making. Plus, it was very likely in their interests to undermine the Templars. Because after the Knights Templar were destroyed, the White Friars muscled in on their role as political power brokers and bankers.
In 1307, a commission was eventually set up to look at why the River Fleet had become so filthy. And it turned out that the culprits were the butchers and leather workers further upstream at Smithfield meat market. They were involved in tanning animal skins, which was a filthy and pretty disgusting process. It was these people, and not the Templars, who had been engaged in systematic pollution of the Fleet.
But regrettably by then – the Knights Templar had been shut down by order of the Pope.
The normal account of what happened to the Templars is that King Philip of France – greedy for their wealth – crushed the knights with the active help of a compliant pope who did what he was told. But is that true?
Clement V was a pope in a weak position. His predecessor, Boniface VIII, had tried to stand up to King Philip and had literally been beaten to a pulp by Philip’s minister Guillaume de Nogaret and a band of French troops.
So, Clement had no wish to suffer that fate. In addition, he had been forced to flee Rome because of the city’s poisonous politics and the papacy had moved to the city of Avignon – right on the doorstep of King Philip. But this doesn’t appear to have meant that the pope was entirely in Philip’s velvet pocket.
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In the year that followed the arrest of the Templars – on the orders of King Philip – the pope began to doubt that they were guilty of anything. In February 1308, he even told his inquisitors to rein in their investigations. Needless to say – King Philip was furious.
Not only did he meet Pope Clement in person to deliver a thinly veiled threat – but began what we would now call a PR campaign to trash Clement’s reputation. De Nogaret had anonymous tracts questioning the suitability of the pope circulated around the country. These poison pen letters said that:
“Are not all these Templars homicides or fautores, sustainers, accomplices and receivers of homicides, damnably uniting with them apostates and murderers?”
Pope Clement was still minded to defend the knights who had been so loyal and brave in defending Christendom but then an event played into King Philip’s hands. A Templar being held in a papal prison escaped. Oliver of Penne, the preceptor of Lombardy, broke a promise to the pope to be a good prisoner and made a run for it.
King Philip was then able to throw up his hands and basically say: Well, look at that excuse for a pope – can’t even keep one Templar behind bars, let alone two thousand!
And with that – papal attempts to stop King Philip destroying the Knights Templar faded.
When the Knights Templar were arrested and imprisoned they were accused of a whole range of stuff including worshipping idols – and particularly heads. It was alleged that they touched these sacred heads with a cord that they then wore at all times.
The head was often alleged to have been a strange being called Baphomet – which some believed was the devil and others have asserted was the prophet Muhammed. And then another claim is that the head was that of John the Baptist.
But it’s this thing about a magical cord I find very odd. And the idea that such a notion would shock medieval public opinion. How outrageous that these knights paraded around with a magical cord around their waists! To us, it seems almost comical that anybody would find this shocking.
So, what were the accusers trying to tap into? What significance did this small piece of rope have for people seven hundred years ago?
Some commentators have wondered whether talk of this magical cord was supposed to infer that the Knights Templar had absorbed Muslim ideas picked up in the Middle East. Others think that it referenced rituals developed by the Cathar heretics in southern France – who I have blogged a great deal about so look it up!
Cords similar to those that the Templars were said to wear may have featured in the Consolamentum – a sacrament practised by the Cathars and condemned by the Catholic church. The Cathars rejected all the Catholic sacraments as they denied the doctrine of the Resurrection and the Catholic definition of redemption.
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Why associate the Templars with the Cathars? What the French king was trying to do was tarnish the reputation of the knights and paint them as un-Christian. By doing so, he could justify seizing their lands and treasure – assuring people it was the right and Christian thing to do.
And reference to a magical cord was part of this propaganda campaign.
How did King Philip of France manage to make such damning accusations against the Knights Templar leading to their arrest in 1307? The answer is that his chief minister Guillaume de Nogaret sent spies into the organisation to gather information. These were his so-called “moles” who worked undercover to expose the knights!
According to a French historian, Alain Demurger, who is an expert on the Templar trials – an envoy of the King of Aragon who attended one of the judicial hearings against the Templars at Poitiers in 1308 heard about these spies.
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He wrote a report for his master (Aragon is in modern day Spain by the way) in which he detailed how 12 men had been sent by De Nogaret to infiltrate the Templars. These spies were instructed to “boldly do what they were told and then leave”.
They fed salacious details about Templar rituals and sexual practices back to De Nogaret – and then quit the Knights Templar before the secret arrest warrants were opened across France. There is, of course, no written evidence from De Nogaret or anybody around him about this operation – so we know about it only through the testimony of the Aragonese envoy.
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The other sources of evidence used by those prosecuting the Knights Templar were individuals who had left the order for one reason or another, possibly harbouring some grievance. And those who were tortured into making lurid confessions they often then tried to retract. Men, as Shakespeare once noted, will say anything when stretched on the rack.
We will never know the identities of the spies unless something turns up in the Vatican archive – which is always a possibility.
All the time I’m discovering places where the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller had bases of operation in England. Today, I had a big surprise. On the site of Alexandra Palace in north London, the Knights Hospitaller once had a dairy farm – something I never knew.
This nugget of medieval information popped out of a book in my collection called London Pictorially Described published in 1891. It claims that the land on which Alexandra Palace is built was owned by the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and run from their priory in central London – Clerkenwell to be exact.
Alexandra Palace, for those of you who don’t know, is a large public building erected by the Victorians in 1875. Fondly known as “Ally Pally”, it’s where the BBC started broadcasting from in 1936. I used to live nearby and it hosts many events including rock concerts and antiques fairs.
But I was blissfully unaware that 800 years ago, it was in the hands of the rival military order to the Templars – the Hospitallers. It was this order of sacred warriors that eventually took over most of the Templars’ property when they were crushed by the Pope and the King of France.
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Close by is the London suburb of Muswell Hill – which derives its name from an ancient well, the Mossy Well. It was one of several healing wells around the city of London. Should be said that at this time, London was much smaller – a densely populated square mile that could be viewed in the distance.
According to my Victorian book on London, these nuns managed the dairy farm for the Hospitallers and further enriched themselves by selling alleged “miracle-working water” from the well. Both Hospitaller control of the area and the presence of the nuns ended when King Henry VIII dissolved England’s abbeys and convents during the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
A team from National Geographic led by Dr Albert Lin has uncovered a series of tunnels under the modern Israeli city of Akko – known as Acre 800 years ago – that were built by the Knights Templar.
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The team also established the location of a watch tower and using 3D reconstruction have begun to piece together what the mighty fortress of Acre looked like under Templar control.
I visited Acre a few years ago and got to see one of the tunnels but National Geographic has uncovered a warren of Templar tunnels stretching out under today’s streets. And they believe that these secret passages were used to transport Templar gold into the so-called “Treasure Tower”, keeping it safe from the knights’ enemies.
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Dr Albert Lin has led the team and is presenting a new action packaged documentary on National Geographic. He’s an interesting fellow. The Nat Geo website calls him “part-man, part machine” as he has a hi-tech prosthetic leg. At one point visiting a huge Templar church underground he talks about putting a “bionic” foot down on the medieval ruins.
Credit to him for being a positive role model and he’s certainly great fun to watch on TV. Here he is finding that Templar church below ground level.
Lost Cities broadcasts on National Geographic on Sundays.
Back in 1976, aged 12, I was taken to see the mummified body of a crusader at the church of Saint Michan’s in Dublin, Ireland, The decayed corpse was in the crypt of an ancient church lying in an opened coffin. It had been preserved by the dry air in that dark, underground space dating back centuries. Incredibly, I was allowed to shake the hand of the crusader – and being a ghoulish child, I did it!
So it was with massive sadness that I discovered that in February this year some idiot pulled the head off this 800 year old warrior. For a fortnight, the crusader lay headless after being undisturbed since breathing his last at the time of the Templars.
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Thankfully, in March this year, the head was recovered. The 31 year old thief was sentenced to 28 months in prison. Unbelievably he not only stole two heads but smashed the crusader’s body and “interfered” with other ancient bodies. Apparently he had a history of narcotics and alcohol abuse but was not mentally ill.
Frankly, it makes me mad. Fifteen years ago I went back to the church with some friends who are medical doctors. They were able to conduct an impromptu medical investigation on the crusader even guessing at the cause of death. Whether they could that now is open to question.
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Still, if you are visiting Dublin – and I’m going there for New Year 2020 – please go to the church of St Michan’s. There’s an eighteenth century building at ground level and then will be lowered through a hatch down to medieval monastic cells. It’s an eery experience – but what a shame this worthless individual has perpetrated such a crime on the long dead.
I have just appeared in two episodes of the Diggin’ Oak Island podcast – click on that title and you should be transported to the relevant episodes. If not – put this in your browser http://www.digginoakisland.com/ and proceed to episodes 7 and 8. And please give the other episodes some of your time as David McBride has put together a cracking series.
In the first episode we rattle through a pretty comprehensive history of the Knights Templar and all the discrepancies in their history – things that just don’t seem to add up.
And in the next episode, we delve into the conspiracy theories and see which of them holds much water. It’s all great fun and I think you’d all enjoy the listen.
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Separately, I have just filmed with History for a documentary that will appear alongside The Curse of Oak Island next year. For those of you not in the know – Oak Island is off Novia Scotia and is the rumoured burial plot of a heap of Templar treasure. I have blogged about this before so head for the search button and you shall be enlightened!