If you look at the charges brought against the Knights Templar during their trials between 1307 and 1314, it’s difficult for the modern mind to make out whether they were being accused of undermining the church with false belief or were they just sorcerers. In other words, were the Templars magicians or heretics?
My understanding is that for most of the medieval period, what really scared bishops and popes was the threat of heresy. Magic was a nuisance and something to be snuffed out whenever it arose. But it didn’t pose the same kind of existential threat to the Catholic church that heresy did.
READ MORE: Friday the 13th and the Knights Templar
But what about all those witches that were burned I hear you cry?! Well, the witch burning craze didn’t really take off until very late in the Middle Ages – from the 15th century through to the 17th century. With the Templars, we’re looking at the 12th to the 14th centuries. And it was heresy that gave prelates the jitters.
Why? Because false belief (as the pope saw it) undermined the very foundations of the church. And it could also be alarmingly popular. The Cathar heresy in southern France threatened to topple church authority in the region and was the subject of a vicious and bloody crusade to suppress it.
But having stated that, magic did start to feature more in high profile accusations around the time of the Templar downfall. So, when King Philip of France (who suppressed the Templars) fell out big time with Pope Boniface VIII, he accused the pontiff of communing with demons. In fact, we can say that it was King Philip who started to bring magic and witchcraft into high level politics.
The king’s first minister was Guillaume de Nogaret and he was involved in a direct, physical attack on Pope Boniface. This shocked many medieval Christians so De Nogaret tried to justify his thuggery by accusing the pope of sorcery – as well as heresy against his own church. This was a dress rehearsal for the charges De Nogaret would bring against the Templars not long after.
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Magic now moved from something weird that happened in villages to a standard accusation levelled by nobles against each other. Charges of high treason were often spiced up with stories of magical attacks on the king. And gradually, heresy and sorcery became intertwined in a new and deadly way.
We see this very obviously in the trial of the Templars. Because it doesn’t seem to have been enough to accuse the Templars of being heretics – spreading a false and evil version of Christianity. No – they also were charged with worshipping strange idols and engaging in sordid rituals.
And this seems to have cemented the new trend.
Two years after the Templars were totally crushed, Pope John XXII declared that witchcraft would be treated in the same way as heresy and could be investigated by the Inquisition.
Pope John actually believed there had been assassination attempts against himself through the use of magic. In one case, he accused an Italian noble of making a silver bust of him with an unlucky zodiac sign on it and the inscription “demon of the west”.
So I think in retrospect, it’s true to say that the Templars represented a turning point where the church and secular authorities began to more overtly mix heresy and magic together to concoct a stronger case against their enemies that they could sell to the public.
In 1307, arrest warrants were issued for the Knights Templar from the King of France on charges of heresy, sodomy and conspiracy. This led to the trial over a seven year period of many knights including the leaders of the Templar order. But what did most people think at the time – did serious commentators believe the Templars were guilty?
It’s often assumed that most people in what we call the Middle Ages were thick and gullible. But this is a bit of a Victorian fabrication. The educated classes, although in a minority, were more than capable of thinking critically – though within a very religious framework.
So, did clever people think the Knights Templar were guilty as charged? The answer is that opinions were surprisingly divided. In Italy, there was deep suspicion about the motives of Philip, King of France. One writer, Cristiano Spinola, raised his doubts shortly after the Templars were arrested.
And he was echoed by the poet Dante who doesn’t accuse the Templars of greed in his epic story, the Divine Comedy. But he does take a swing at King Philip, accusing him of avarice and asserting that the monarch had “lawlessly brought his greedy sails into the very Temple itself”.
The Florentine banker, adventurer and chronicler Giovanni Villani ascribed a whole series of catastrophes that befell the French royal family on Philip’s decision to seize the Templars and their wealth. When he heard that the last Templar grand master Jacques de Molay and other Templars had been burnt at the stake, he referred to it as the death of martyrs.
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author who wrote a collection of stories called the Decameron about a group of people escaping the plague and telling each other tales to pass the time. He wasn’t born when the Templars were arrested but his father had been in Paris at the time and Boccaccio was very interested in what had happened to the knights.
He saw it as a classic wheel of fortune tale. They had risen, succeeded and then fallen. Like many contemporary church chroniclers during the lifetime of the Templars, he was both fascinated and slightly repelled by the rapid enrichment of the Templars, which he thought must have corrupted their once lofty ideals.
Raymond Llull was a philosopher born in what is now Spain who had tried unsuccessfully to get the Knights Templar and the rival Knights Hospitaller to merge. The Templars had flatly rejected this idea. Llull had been a fan of the Templars but after his offer had been dismissed, he began to cheerlead for the French king.
What seems to have driven Llull is a strong desire for unity in the church. He came to regard the Templars as a disruptive influence and so maybe convinced himself that it was for the best that the knights went up in flames.
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.
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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?