The Templars had a thing about martyred saints – in part because they accepted the likelihood that they themselves might be martyred on the battlefield or afterwards.
Historian Karen Ralls claims that Saladin often reserved the nastiest post-battle treatment for the Templars and Hospitallers on account of their penchant for pain.
Martyred saints adored by the Templars
One of the saints venerated in Templar houses was Catherine of Alexandria, a saint of the fourth century AD. She is best known to lay people as the woman who has given her name to the Catherine Wheel – a type of firework. Appropriate as she was condemned to die on the ‘breaking wheel’.
I’ve often heard people say that she was strapped to a wheel and rolled down a hill. This may be a misunderstanding of how the wheel was used as a form of capital punishment right up until the eighteenth century. It was employed in France for the worst type of capital crime – in fact the guillotine was a humane replacement for it.
The criminal would be strapped to the wheel but then broken on it from the feet upwards. For those of you with a more ghoulish disposition, I believe the instrument used was a large lead truncheon.
Some legends say that the moment her body touched the wheel, it shattered. So the Romans just got on with beheading her.
In about 800 AD, her body was allegedly discovered near Mount Sinai and the usual thing about being miraculously preserved with skin, still growing hair and “healing oil” emanating from her body – sounds revolting I must say.
Saint Catherine was in fact a pagan called Hypatia
One theory about Catherine is fascinating and shows how appallingly cynical the church can be. The argument is that Catherine herself never existed. In fact, she is a Christianization of the female pagan philosopher Hypatia who was murdered by……Christians.
The theory rests on Catherine often being described in the Middle Ages as a woman of great learning, who lectured in philosophy, etc. Just like Hypatia. Catherine is said to have lived under the Emperor Maxentius, one of the last pagan rulers of the Empire, at the start of the fourth century. Hypatia was active at the other end of the century under the very Christian Emperor Theodosius.
Hypatia was murdered by Christian zealots whipped up by the Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria. This story has been immortalised in the movie ‘Agora’. Catherine was killed by pagans. Was Catherine then an attempt to smother the Hypatia story by generations of embarassed Christians – including the Templars? Or was she a real person who just happens to have suffered a similar fate to Hypatia?
Whatever the truth – the Templars were very fond of her and the oil from her body crops up in vials in churches all over Europe in the Middle Ages.