So we all know that the Holy Grail might have been a cup featured in the Last Supper and used to collect blood from Jesus while he hung on the cross. Or, conversely, the Holy Grail is actually the bloodline of Jesus – an unbroken chain of descendants from the children of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But what if the Holy Grail actually originated with the Devil – the lord of all darkness?
Let me run you through the theory in outline. The New Testament ends with a very strange and apocalyptic section called the Book of Revelation. it describes a war that raged in heaven when the Devil attempted to overthrow God. The Archangel Michael leads the good angels against the rebel angels whose leader, the soon-to-be Devil, is often referred to as Lucifer.
Lucifer was incredibly beautiful and gifted and God favoured him above all the other angels. His fondness for Lucifer is what made the angel’s betrayal that much worse. Is this mentioned in the bible? Not exactly. It’s an account that has evolved over the centuries. But it’s loosely based on a few verses in Ezekiel where a very angry God (isn’t he always in the Old Testament?) lays out what terrible punishments he intends to inflict on the King of Tyre – an implacable enemy of the Israelites.
These verses touch on the king’s beauty and wisdom, how his pride will be his ruin and how his downfall will be full of agony and torment. Curiously, at one point, the passage refers to the king as having been in the Garden of Eden. That clearly was unlikely – unless he’d lived to an astonishing age. And this is what has been seized on to suggest that the King of Tyre isn’t really the subject of these verses at all. It’s therefore assumed by some that God is instead referring at this point to none other than Satan.
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As a result of rebelling, Satan was ejected from the heavens with considerable force. And as he tumbled down to his new realm of hell, a stone popped out of his crown and hurtled to the earth. This is the so-called Lapis Exillis. And it’s this magical pebble which is mentioned by the medieval author and knight, Wolfram von Eschenbach. He wrote his own version of the legend of the Arthurian legend called Parzival. And in this tale of valiant warriors, he refers to the Templars and the sacred stone they guarded – the Lapis Exillis – also known as the Grail.
One of the properties of this stone was that merely by sitting on top of it, the legendary Phoenix was firstly burnt to a crisp and then reborn from magical flames. Even human beings who gazed upon the stone were incapable of dying for a week. And if you stuck around the stone long enough, you might endure for two hundred years without ever ageing.
In this account then, we have a stone that brings the Phoenix back to life and stops people from ageing, which is guarded by Templar knights. Eschenbach was indeed a contemporary of the Knights Templar and did service as a crusader in the Holy Land. This has given rise to the idea that not only did he rub shoulders with Templars but got wind of the strange and secret rites they indulged in – which he wove into his Parzival epic.
The name of the stone – Lapis Exillis – has generated lots of detective work. Different theories basically on what the Latin means. One notion is that the words should be read: lapis de coelis. If you did Latin at school, you’ll know that roughly translates as ‘stone from heaven’. I now anticipate a hail of abuse from Latin grammarians yelling that ain’t true. But – indulge me for a moment – because it would give rise to the idea that the stone was an astronomical phenomenon.
You see – some have speculated that the stone that fell from the Devil’s crown was a meteorite. They point to the frequency of meteor worship in ancient cultures from ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire. Take for example the wayward teenage Roman emperor Elagabalus who brought an object called the Black Stone of Emesa and its high priest to be worshipped in the city. He was later murdered by the Praetorian Guard but the stone shows an already established cult around meteors.
Today in Mecca, millions of Muslims venerate a black stone at the Kaaba that some claim is a meteor – though that is disputed. It clearly originated in pre-Islamic Arabia and has somehow been integrated into the holiest place in Islam. Important to say the black stone is not worshipped as an idol. But there it is – a meteor in Mecca still venerated by pilgrims every year.
Objects that fall from heaven with sacred power is a recurring theme in ancient mythology. A wooden figure of the goddess Pallas Athene was said to have fallen from the skies. It was used to protect the city of Troy and later reputedly ended up in Rome where it guaranteed the strength of the empire.
Long before the Roman empire was founded, the city was ruled by Etruscan kings and the second of these kings – Numa Pompilius – possessed a magical shield called the Ancile that fell from heaven. Several Roman writers described it including Ovid, Livy and Suetonius. Ovid described the moment when Numa, wearing a white hood, begged the god Jupiter to send him holy weapons and as he implored, the skies raged furiously with thunder, then “yawned” and a shield landed at the king’s feet.
So – the Holy Grail as a magical stone that fell as a fireball from above. Any takers?
I have just visited the Basilica of St Denis on the outskirts of Paris. It’s in a working class suburb – a little out of place these days. A medieval church slap bang in the middle of a 1970s shopping precinct. Much of it was destroyed in the French Revolution of 1789 while the surrounding area took a pounding during the Second World War – and from post-war town planners.
All the Kings and Queens of France were buried in this 12th century building – constructed on the site of an even more ancient Christian church – and possibly a pagan temple before that. The tombs included the last resting place of King Philip IV of France – referred to as “the Fair”. But he wasn’t very fair to the Knights Templar. In fact he crushed them in the year 1307 and seized their assets. His final cruel act was to have the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, burnt to death near Notre Dame cathedral.
FIND OUT MORE: Why did King Philip of France crush the Templars?
But maybe the Templars had the last laugh from their graves. Because 450 years after Philip died, his body – and those of other French monarchs – was dug up flung into a common grave. This was during the French Revolution when the Paris mob wanted to wipe out everything associated with the old regime. As a consequence, they pillaged the royal tombs at St Denis – graves that dates back countless centuries. And Philip was not spared.
Here I am wandering around St Denis, giving you an exclusive look at a church that is hard to get to – but worth seeing.
I am appearing as a contributor on the new Discovery channel history investigation series Rob Riggle Global Investigator presented by Mr Riggle – who you will have seen previously on Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show as well as several comedy movies.
He brings his comedic talents, military background and ability to connect with TV audiences to this new fun history series. I was honoured to be asked to appear with Rob on his special investigation into the Holy Grail. We filmed at Kilwinning Abbey – a Scottish ruined medieval structure.
Some believe that when the Templars fled the wrath of the King of France – they ended up in Scotland with their treasure. So we went hunting to see what we could find! There are reputedly secret tunnels under Kilwinning – one of them leading from my hotel. But for some curious reason, the hotel owner has built a toilet over the tunnel entrance. I have no idea why!
Anyway – enjoy!! And tune into Rob Riggle Global Investigator!
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.