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.
DISCOVER MORE: Were the Knights Templar actually Cathars?
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.
FIND OUT MORE: Were the Templars innocent or guilty?
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.
DISCOVER MORE: The Templars and the Cathar heretics
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.
FIND OUT MORE: Why did the Templars worship heads?
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.
FIND OUT MORE: Evidence of Templars fleeing with their loot?
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.
DISCOVER MORE: The truth about Templar head worship
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.
FIND OUT MORE: How children died in medieval England
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.
DISCOVER MORE: Where was the last Templar grand master executed?
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!
Women are often seen as playing a passive role in great political and religious movements – but nothing could be further from the truth – even in the Middle Ages! Because it was some very powerful and resourceful females who led one of the biggest medieval revolts against the power of the Pope at the time of the Templars.
Despite all the best efforts of the Roman Catholic church to exclude women from decision making in religious matters – they took things into their own hands when it came to heresy. They joined movements that challenged papal power and preached ideas that horrified Rome. Even though the punishment for heresy – in case you didn’t know already – was death.
So who were these female heretics daring to challenge the authority of the Pope?
Well, the heresy I’m writing about here is the Cathars – who became dangerously popular in southern France during the 13th century. They denied the authority of the Pope, the Catholic church and the sacraments. Borrowing from ancient belief systems like gnosticism, they turned their back on the material world and all its corruption.
Catharism spread virally across southern France – and many feared it would replace the Catholic church. It’s even believed that the parents of Guillaume de Nogaret – the minister of King Philip of France responsible for arresting the Knights Templar in 1307 – were Cathars. And women played an important leadership role in their ranks.
Women like Esclarmonde of Foix. Her name meant ‘clarity of the world’ in the Occitan language spoken in those days in southern France. She became a “Perfect” within the Cathars – their version of a priest. It’s been argued that the welcoming attitude of the Cathars towards women like Esclarmonde was rooted in their belief in reincarnation. Basically, until your soul was cleansed of earthly sin, you were condemned to be re-born over and over – sometimes as a man – and sometimes as a woman.
There were two classes of Cathar – ordinary believers who were called “credentes” and ministers who were called “perfects”. It scandalised the Catholic church that the Cathars allowed women like Esclarmonde to become perfects – taking the role of priests, which to this day is only done by men in Catholicism.
Esclarmonde became notorious for using her position as a well-connected aristocrat to spread the Cathar heresy among the people. The records of the Inquisition reveal that she was one of many other women preaching Catharism across France. For example, Helis de Mazerolles later told a Catholic inquisitor that her grandmother, mother and sister had all been perfects in the Cathar order.
The involvement of women in the Cathar heresy was so prevalent that when the Catholic Inquisition wanted to spy on them – they sent in women. It’s been calculated by one French academic that these spies would have found that a third of the perfects were women. To get that into perspective, imagine the Catholic church with women making up one in three of its priests, bishops, cardinals and maybe even – a pope!
These spies discovered that Cathars, when captured and interrogated, would recant their beliefs to avoid being executed and then resume being Cathars once freed. Though many took to living in cabins in the wood and adopting a nomadic lifestyle in the countryside. This included brave women who continued to be revered and to whom the faithful would genuflect.
FIND OUT MORE: Did the Knights Templar worship decapitated heads?
Initially, the Catholic church tried to debate with the Cathars in the hope of puncturing their strong beliefs. Esclarmonde was reportedly at one of these debates and even contributed – to the disgust of the Catholic priests present. When she finished talking, an enraged priest screamed at her:
Go madam and tend your distaff (an instrument for spinning wool) as it does not appertain to you to speak in debates of this kind.
One of those present at the debate was Dominic Guzman – who would go on to form the Dominican order of friars. They would play a huge role in the Inquisition. One can only imagine what he thought about this feisty female daring to question Catholic orthodoxy.
But before the Dominicans and the Inquisition could interrogate anybody, the Cathars had to be stamped on hard and the pope called for a full on crusade in the south of France that led to the deaths and execution by burning of thousands of Cathar followers.
Then the Inquisition moved in. Many Cathar men and women went into hiding and continued to try and preach. They were sheltered by Cathar families, now keeping their faith a secret. And it seems that women perfects were helped to the same extent as the men.
Eventually, the church got its way and the Cathars literally went up in smoke – men, women and children. But the memory still continues of those extraordinary women who were so prominent and powerful.