Another season of Forbidden History being screened now in the United States on Discovery – produced by Like A Shot and talent including my good self provided by the Past Preservers agency. Over the next few weeks – you can enjoy incredible insights into:
This season is going to have you on the edge of your seats as we breathlessly examine these topics. Your feedback would be hugely appreciated and I look forward to hearing from you. Always feel free to leave your comments and observations as we prepare to dive into some Forbidden History on Discovery this summer.
In case you’re missed it – Secrets of the Lost Ark is now broadcasting in the UK on Discovery Science having finished its run in the United States. The six-part show is a hunt for the biblical Ark of the Covenant that once sat in the Holy of Holies – a sacred room in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But it’s been missing for 2,500 years. I was one of the experts trying to find out where it is and what happened.
As the PR release put it:
“This real-life treasure hunt will follow the clues, hidden in the most extraordinary places – from the Holy Land to the countries that surround it. Along the way, the team of researchers will examine its many unsolved mysteries. What did the Ark look like? What was its purpose? And did it actually exist at all?“
The series has given me a chance to team up yet again with the talented team at Like A Shot/Argonon who also bring you the Forbidden History documentary series – that you’ll see me on in the new series later this year. We wanted to investigate all the scenarios about the Ark’s supposed awesome powers and its sudden disappearance during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
That led to the enslavement of the Jewish people and the total destruction of the first Temple – built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a golden vessel in which the Ten Commandments and other holy objects were held. Just to look within or touch the Ark would result in immediate death. On one occasion, God killed over 50,000 of his own Chosen People because some of the priests had the temerity to glance within the Ark.
So, join me on this quest and make sure you watch Secrets of the Lost Ark.
During the Crusades, both Muslims and Christians in the Middle East were terrorised by an army of dagger wielding terrorists known as the Assassins. Led by an individual referred to as the Old Man of the Mountain – this cult carried out target assassinations of Saracen and Crusader rulers with deadly effect. Though they met their match in the Knights Templar and were eventually destroyed by invading Mongol armies.
In a new YouTube video series called “History’s Terrorists”, I’m looking at groups and individuals we might once have viewed as heroic but today could be classified as terrorists. The third episode of this series is on the secretive order of the Assassins and I have no doubt that today, we would view them in the same way as Al Qaeda or ISIS. See below to watch the video episode on the Assassins.
This group of highly trained and brainwashed killers were a branch of Shia Islam. That is a minority position within the Muslim religion that originated not long after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Today, most Shias can be found in Iran and Iraq. But at the time of the Assassins, the Shia Fatimid Empire was centred on Egypt. And the founder of the Assassins, Hassan-i-Sabbah studied there before returning to what is now Iran and establishing a power base at Alamut Castle.
Shia Islam had various splits within it and Hassan was what is called a Naziri who held the rather mystical view that the Koran, the holy book of Islam, had a surface meaning but also a deeper, unseen message. Most Muslims viewed Hassan and his Assassins as heretics to be stamped out. This meant that for the first few decades from the cult’s establishment around 1090 – most victims of its killing activity were Muslim enemies.
When the crusaders arrive at the start of the 12th century and carved Christian kingdoms out of the Middle East they could hardly believe their luck when they realised how Muslims were fighting each other. Their attention fixed on the Assassins who were causing chaos within the Islamic world. All the main Muslim empires – the Fatimids in Egypt, the Abbasid caliphate ruled from Baghdad and the Seljuk Turks – fell victim to Assassin activity. So occasionally, the crusaders would even reach out to the Assassins as potential allies.
The Assassins did eventually begin killing Christian rulers – in one case disguised as monks. But the Knights Templar retaliated against them with such ferocity that they ended up paying tribute to keep the fearsome knights away. In the end, it was the unexpected arrival of vast Mongol armies from the east that proved to the undoing of the Assassins.
Click below to get the full story – a fascinating piece of history!
Ukraine has always been bound up with the history of Europe and so it’s unsurprising to find evidence of the Knights Templar in the region of Transcarpathia in the west of the country. Most incredibly, between the towns of Uzhgorod and Mukachevo, one can still view the impressive ruins of a Templar castle.
Srednyansky Castle possessed huge walls and what’s left behind is still imposing. Built in the Romanesque style, this 12th century monument dominates the local landscape. It would have originally stood at 20 metres high with walls about two and a half metres thick.
It was circled with ramparts and ditches and its structure suggests that invading forces were expected by the Templar knights. The castle was entered from the second floor of a three-tier structure via a wooden ladder. The idea being that this could be burned if a powerful enemy approached.
The nearest town is Serednie located in the ‘oblast’ (province) of Zakarpattia. There may have been an economic reason for Templar activity in Transcarpathia and that would have been the lucrative trade in salt. Even under the rule of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, salt mining was still an important source of revenue. For the Templars, revenue from salt would have been diverted to fund their crusades in the Holy Land.
End of the Knights Templar in Ukraine
When the Knights Templar were crushed by order of the Pope and the King of France after the year 1307, many Templar properties were turned over to the rival Knights Hospitaller. But the Srednyansky Castle fell into the hands of the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit (Ordo Fratrum Sancti Primi Eremitae).
This was an order of monks founded in 1250 in the Kingdom of Hungary. They venerated a saint known as Paul of Thebes (227-341 CE) who allegedly lived alone in the Egyptian desert from the age of 16 until he died at 113 years of age. As the Ukraine was ravaged repeatedly in wars over the centuries that featured the Mongolians, Russians, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire, the castle took a battering from which it never recovered.
I believe there are also claims of a Templar ‘cave’ on the so-called Black Mountain (Chornohora), a dormant volcano in the Carpathian Mountains in the same part of Ukraine. Curiously, websites with details about this have been taken down during the present Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
The world-famous Turin Shroud is said to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ bearing an imprint of his face and entire body. But a new theory suggests the face is that of the Fisher King – a legendary figure in the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
British anthropologist David Adkins argues that the cloth wasn’t a funeral shroud for the Messiah two thousand years ago, but a tablecloth used by monks in the Middle Ages. So why does it bear this strange ghostly image that many have believed to be the dead Jesus?
Templar treasure, the Holy Grail, and the Fisher King
It all involves fleeing Templars, English sculptors, and monks keen to promote Burton Abbey – a place of worship in the English Midlands.
Adkins has previously claimed that the Knights Templar brought their treasure – including the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant – to England. The sacred horde, he contends, would have been held for a period in the town of Burton, which had a very wealthy abbey.
You won’t find it now as during the Protestant Reformation under King Henry VIII it was shut down amidst accusations of ‘idolatry’ and corruption. The worship of a statue of Saint Modwen was especially offensive to the new idol-and-relic-hating Protestant faith. The monks were kicked out and much of the monastic complex demolished or stripped for building materials over the years.
But two hundred years before the Reformation – in the 13th and 14th centuries – venerating statues was all well and good. Nobody thought it was a pagan practice. And to celebrate the arrival of the Holy Grail, Adkins thinks local craftsmen carved a life-sized statue of the Fisher King to put in the abbey. A mythical character who was the guardian of the Holy Grail in the Arthurian tales.
The material they used for this statue would have been alabaster sourced locally as there were deposits of alabaster and gypsum in the nearby mines. Traces of both these substances have been found on the Turin Shroud, Adkins notes.
How the Fisher King ended up on the Turin Shroud
Adkins explains how the Fisher King’s face ended up imprinted on the cloth. Up until 1350, the statue of the Fisher King was proudly on display. A reminder to the faithful that the Knights Templar had brought the Holy Grail there. But then the abbey was rebuilt, and its statues and effigies put into storage.
“They would have been wrapped in cloth and linen to protect them and, no doubt, stored in the abbey’s vaults and cellars. “It is highly likely the statue was left slumbering in the vaults of the abbey for over a decade – or at least until the new abbey church had been completed.
“Then it was retrieved and placed back on display. However, when the monks came to unwrap it, they noticed that the alabaster had reacted with chemicals in the mustiness of the cellar and left an image of the Fisher King on the old linen cloth. This is where the story of the Turin Shroud begins.
Confronted with a cloth bearing the likeness of a bearded male figure, the monks decided to concoct a story that this cloth had been part of the Templar treasure brought from Jerusalem. Churches and abbeys were always competing in the Middle Ages for who had the best and most holy relics.
Adkins claims the monks then destroyed the statue of the Fisher King to hide the true origin of the image. To bolster the credibility of the shroud being the burial cloth of the crucified Messiah, the monks added blood. Their own blood. Or that of patients who came to have bloodletting as the monastery acted as a kind of local medical centre.
So, to summarise Adkins’ theory:
Previous Templar related claims by David Adkins
Adkins is well known for his claims regarding the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant being brought to England – specifically, Burton-on-Trent. I previously posted about his assertion that these holy objects are buried in a labyrinth of tunnels underneath Sinai Park House – a mansion near Burton.
I’ve also written about other theories such as the bizarre claim from another source that the Turin Shroud bears the face of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar.
New evidence suggests that crusaders rode horses that were the size of modern ponies. Forget that mental image of a knight on a mighty steed. It seems that even the Knights Templar may have ridden warhorses that were less than impressive.
This devastating new perspective on the Middle Ages comes from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. I’ll freely confess I’m not a fully paid-up subscriber. But this article certainly had me reading. Because if we review the equine remains from archaeological sites, then we’re looking at horses that were about 14.2 hands in height. Ponies today range from 14 to 14.3 hands. So you get the picture.
Our large horses today reach 17 to 18 hands. But it’s a mistake to transpose a crusader on to these animals because more than likely, that doesn’t reflect the historical reality. Rather a crusader was at risk of his feet dragging on the ground. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.
DISCOVER: Templar armour explained
Our image of crusaders and horses
Horses were central to medieval warfare and were trained for military combat purposes. About two hundred horses appear in the Bayeux Tapestry. But what we don’t get from these images are the physical attributes of horses at that time. And where they were larger than average – the destrier for example – then their use may have been more in tournaments and for display than in military campaigns. The more robust rouncies and trotters would have featured in the armies of the crusaders.
It’s actually been harder to get an accurate picture of medieval horses than for the earlier Iron Age – where they might feature in a grave. A dead medieval horse was normally destined for the tannery and the knacker’s yard. However, a better idea on size is emerging.
Saxon horses were titchy
Essentially in the late Roman, Saxon and Norman periods – horses are pony-sized. In fact, they get smaller in England in the period leading up to the Norman conquest in 1066. For some reason, horse breeding went through a dismal spell under Aethelered II (978-1016 AD) and the Viking rulers of England in the 11th century didn’t prioritise stud farms.
Horses got a big bigger from 1200 to 1350 AD but it really takes until the post-medieval period – 1500 to 1650 AD – for horse size to begin increasing significantly. Until we get to the size of animal we’re used to seeing today. This research is by no means conclusive and the search for a great horse ridden by crusaders continues. The remains most likely to be found in a medieval tannery and not a battlefield.
Think about the Knights Templar and your mind turns to the Holy Land or western European medieval kingdoms like England and France. But the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus played a huge role in Templar history that is often overlooked. And it’s why Templar fans should make a beeline for this very attractive destination.
Cyprus had been part of the eastern Roman Empire but in the seventh century CE came under attack from the new Islamic caliphate. A Muslim woman called Umm Haram famously died at the Cypriot town of Larnaca in a riding accident. She was the sister of one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and a mosque commemorates her death to there to this day. But despite the success of Muslim forces all over the Middle East, Cyprus proved to be a tougher nut to crack.
The eastern Romans – more often called the Byzantines – fought the caliphate to a stalemate. Both sides agreed to an uneasy joint control over Cyprus sharing tax revenues for three centuries. Eventually, under the warrior emperor Basil the Macedonian, the Byzantines took the island back decisively. But despite that, Cyprus proved to be a turbulent place to govern. It retained a rebellious and independent streak.
By the 12th century, the Byzantine governor Isaac Komnenos had begun a concerted attempt to seize the imperial throne in Constantinople but was rebuffed. However, he managed to keep hold of Cyprus with Norman support and while ruling in the name of Byzantium, in reality ignored the emperor.
Unfortunately for Isaac, he then made a terrible mistake. Richard the Lionheart, the crusading king of England, was on his way to fight Saladin in the Holy Land. A princess called Berengaria of Navarre sailed to meet Richard, docking at Limassol in Cyprus. Instead of offering warm greetings to his royal guest, Isaac kidnapped Berengaria to extort some money out of Richard. Big mistake!
A furious Richard the Lionheart landed at Limassol, got his future wife back and imprisoned Isaac. Apparently the Byzantine governor was shackled with silver chains as Richard had explicitly promised not to clap him in irons. Aaaah – that medieval sense of humour!
DISCOVER: Richard the Lionheart – war criminal?
Cyprus was then taken by Richard who promptly sold it to the Knights Templar to raise some ready cash for his crusade. He also married Berengaria at Limassol though their union was very much a political affair and had nothing to do with love. The Templars only held on to Cyprus for a matter of months. Faced with a very restive population, they flogged it to Guy de Lusignan, the King of Jerusalem.
Having recouped their investment, the Templars held on to castles like Kolossi and their presence was very evident on the island right through to the year of their destruction in 1307. For the Knights Templar, Cyprus was well located to supply soldiers in Jerusalem and the other crusader states. But the knights faced a constant simmering animosity from the Cypriot population who resented what was essentially ‘foreign’ domination.
The Templars were Latin Christians from western Europe. The Cypriots were eastern orthodox Christians in communion with Constantinople’s version of Christianity and not that of the Pope in Rome. There was also a minority Muslim population in Cyprus. In 1204, Latin Christian crusaders destroyed much of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade which would have validated the fears of many Cypriots about these knights clad in white mantles and red crosses.
That said, the Templar influence on Cyprus was strong. As was the legacy of the rival Knights Hospitaller. Both military orders left a strong physical and political mark on the island which is still very obvious today. One very spooky reminder is the deserted vilage of Foinikas that was part of a Templar commandery. The house of the Grand Commander can still be seen today.
In the English village of Enville, several long lost graves of Knights Templar have been unearthed. Researcher Edward Dyas chanced upon the medieval tombs while investigating St Mary’s church, a building that dates back to the medieval period. The graves were reported by the Stourbridge News to correspond to a “standard Templar design”.
Enville is a village in Staffordshire recorded in the Domesday Book. That’s the voluminous survey of England conducted by the Normans after they defeated the previous Saxon rulers of the country at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The current St Mary’s church has a Norman nave, 13th century chancel and a Victorian tower added in 1871. But there’s evidence a much older Saxon church once stood on the site.
DISCOVER: The lost castles of London
Dyas believes these Templars were based at a place called Onneley, which was part of the Templar preceptory at Keele in Staffordshire. This land was given to the knights by King Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart, in the year 1168.
They expanded their interests rapidly but in 1308, after the Templars had been crushed across Europe, the preceptory and all its holdings across Staffordshire were taken back by the monarchy. The Templar estate eventually ended up in the hands of the rival Knights Hospitaller – as happened to a lot of Templar property.
Dyas thinks one of the graves is that of a Templar chaplain. The other two are “acolyte assistants”. The Templars are often described as warrior monks but they weren’t strictly speaking priests and only the designated chaplains could say mass and administer the holy sacraments. So, this may be the last resting place of one of these chaplains.
All of which begs the question why these Templar graves hadn’t been noticed before. Well, according to Dyas they had – but that was back in 1588 in a local survey. But incredibly, descriptions of the cemetery in the 18th and 19th centuries completely overlooked the Templar graves. With the permission of the vicar, Dyas and colleagues have cleared away slabs of earth, moss and lichen to reveal these crusading Templars in all their glory – no longer lost and forgotten.
In recent years, I’ve appeared on several TV documentary series asked to discuss whether the Knights Templar got to Scotland with the Holy Grail. The idea being that they fled France in 1307 with their treasure, escaping the arrest warrants put out by King Philip and sailed up to Scotland. There, they were protected by local nobility and possibly sailed on to the New World.
So runs the theory in differing forms. Evidence of course is a bit thin. But then that’s why it’s a mystery!
I’ve just released a new edition of Templar Knight TV covering my travels to Rosslyn chapel, the ruins of Kilwinning Abbey and Abercorn church. I also spent time in the Scottish capital Edinburgh and visited the medieval cathedral of Saint Giles. That cathedral was once run by the Order of Saint Lazarus. They fought alongside the Templars in the Holy Land and had a special responsibility for the care of lepers.
We know for a fact that the Knights Templar did establish a base at Balantrodoch by the river Esk in Midlothian. That is about nine miles away from Rosslyn chapel. They also had a preceptory at Maryculter in Aberdeenshire. The establishment of these Templar bases followed a visit to Scotland by the first Templar grand master, Hugh de Payens. He had been crusading in the Holy Land alongside a local noble by the name of Henri St Clair, First Baron of Rosslyn.
Rosslyn and the Knights Templar in Scotland
You of course know about the alleged links between Rosslyn chapel and the Knights Templar. This is often presented as concrete proof the Templars were in Scotland. And there are claims that the Holy Grail was at one point buried under the nave of the chapel. Down in the sacristy, there are curious marks on the walls that some assert are a sort of map to the New World.
Rosslyn was built by the St Clair – or Sinclair – family decades after the official destruction of the Knights Templar. But the linkage between that aristocratic family and the knights has proven too irresistible to ignore. Depending on your point of view, it’s either been spun out of control or reflects what actually happened.
In a nutshell, the St Clair – or Sinclair – family helped the Knights Templar go undercover in Scotland. The knights then fought alongside the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn, defeating the English. An act of gratitude one assumes. And then the Templars make their way to America.
That story plus the alleged links to Kilwinning and Abercorn are explored in the video below – watch and enjoy!