It all starts with a night flight from La Rochelle… The Knights Templar, once the poster boys of the Crusades, had been outlawed by the Pope and the King of France. They were being rounded up and imprisoned. Their assets were being seized. But in one last clandestine act, they move sacred and vast treasure from their fortress HQ in Paris. In carts, this tremendous wealth was taken to castles to be hidden away. Or loaded on to ships bound for far off lands.
Well, that’s the tale many would like you to believe….so, if the Templars did hide their treasure in castles around Europe, which ones would they have chosen? I’ve had a go at answering that question. Read on…
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Montségur
Otto Rahn was a Nazi obsessed with the Holy Grail. In the 1930s, he travelled around Europe in a feverish quest to find that sacred object. During his odyssey, he kept a diary which he published with the curious title: Lucifer’s Court: A Heretic’s Journey in search of the Light Bringers. One place that drew him like a moth to the flame was Montségur, nestled in the French Pyrenees mountains.
In Lucifer’s Court, Rahn heads for Montségur in his grail quest. This was the centre of a rebellion by a subversive Christian group called the Cathars who rejected the authority of the Pope. Across southern France they resisted the Roman Catholic church in the 13th century and developed their own rites and rituals. While there, Rahn met another explorer who reported that a vast amount of Cathar treasure was buried nearby as well as an original copy of the Book of Revelation, the final part of the New Testament.
In the year 1244, forces loyal to the Catholic church stormed the castle and burned over 200 Cathars at the foot of the mountain. Another 400 men, women and children were imprisoned at the still very impressive castle at Carcassone (though tarted up a lot in the 19th century).
A shepherd told Rahn that the Grail had been at the castle. It was not a cup but a stone once embedded in the crown of Lucifer (read my other blog posts on this). The Pope wanted to restore that stone to Lucifer’s crown. To thwart this diabolical plan, a female Cathar leader called Esclarmonde had thrown the stone into the gorge below which opened magically and swallowed it. She promptly turned into a dove and flew away before she could be captured.
The castle today is still perched on the mountain top and dominates the town below. However, a large part of it dates to after the medieval period. That’s because the forces that overran the Cathars also pulled down their castle. But, there’s enough there to give you an idea of what it was once like and the surrounding area is dripping with history.
Rahn’s interest in the Holy Grail eventually brought him to the attention of Heinrich Himmler. Their shared interest in the occult resulted in Rahn’s medieval detective work being supported by the Nazis and his induction into the SS – of which Himmler was the leader. But, Rahn’s open homosexuality eventually proved to be his downfall. Himmler was sending gay people to concentration camps and Rahn had to do a spell as a guard at the Dachau camp. In the end, his frozen body was found on an alpine hillside in 1939 with suicide recorded as the official verdict.
If this all seems slightly familiar – Otto Rahn’s escapades informed, to a degree, the Indiana Jones movie series. Below is an image of Rahn, on the left, wondering if he’d found something…
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Gisors
This castle is still very intact with its octagonal tower and forbidding walls. It was built by the Normans who were also ruling England at the time. That was in the 12th century around the time the Knights Templar were founded. Fast forward to the early 14th century and we have the same Knights Templar in deep trouble. The castle was now within the kingdom of France and King Philip the Fair had imprisoned as many knights as his forces could capture.
Some of the seized Templars were held in the dungeon at Gisors ahead of being tortured for confessions and then executed. Miserable and probably disease ridden, they carved very odd graffiti on the walls. Some believe it shows treasure being carted away from the Paris Temple before the king’s soldiers arrived. Presumably then taken to the port of La Rochelle and spirited away.
Or was it? Because in 1929, the caretaker at Gisors castle claimed he found a room brimming with priceless riches. But when the local authorities turned up to investigate, there was nothing. Not one gold trinket. He was duly fired. However, nearly forty years later, the French government ordered a new dig with the army drafted in to help. Yet still no Templar treasure.
FIND OUT MORE: Templar treasure hidden at Gisors
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Acre
The castle at Acre in modern Israel is a stunning piece of medieval architecture, even in its diminished state today. I visited in 2012 and walked through the tunnels that snake under the castle. A recent investigation by a team led by Dr Albert Lin and filmed by National Geographic found a network of underground passageways under the city streets. They appear to lead to a so-called “Treasure Tower” where the team believe the knights hoarded their wealth.
Acre held out against Muslim armies during the Crusades up until the year 1291. It then fell after a bloody siege and that loss effectively ended the Crusades. In reality, it also set the clock ticking on the end of the Knights Templar as well. Without a mission in the Middle East, their whole reason to exist was fatally undermined.
The castle is now in the Israeli city of Akko. Dr Lin’s team used lasers and hi-tech detectors and were able to recreate the original fortress. Much of it has now been absorbed into the later city or has been covered by the sea. You can actually see the walls under the waves at the shoreline, which is quite a sight.
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Tomar
I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll happily say it again – nowhere in the world evokes the Knights Templar as much as Tomar in Portugal. If you’re based in Lisbon on holiday, take a two hour train to Tomar and stay overnight at the Hotel Dos Templarios. You then walk across the main road and up a steep and winding path to the castle at the top of the hill.
What confronts you is a 12th century octagonal Templar tower – called a ‘charola’ – bolted on to a later 16th century palatial convent. Surrounding the area is a wall with towers dating back to the Templar period. Today, the town of Tomar is in the valley nestled around the river Nabao. In the 12th century, the townspeople very wisely lived behind the sturdy walls built by the Templars.
Tomar was in the borderlands between the Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia and the Muslim caliphate that still ruled the southern half of the peninsula. This region changed hands between Christian and Muslim rulers depending on who had the military advantage. In one confrontation, a vast Muslim army fought the Templars at the walls and one of the entrances to the castle is still called – the Gate of Blood.
FIND OUT MORE: Portuguese Templar hero Gualdim Pais
When the Templars were outlawed after 1307, the king of Portugal simply rebranded them as the Order of Christ. As such, they continued to occupy Tomar for centuries. This has led to speculation that the knights would have brought their treasure to this castle as it was protected by a friendly king. Local historians have claimed there is a network of tunnels linking the castle to other key sites in Tomar such as the church of Santa Maria Olival, where the Portuguese Templar grand masters were buried.
FIND OUT MORE: Me filming with the History channel at Tomar
TEMPLAR TREASURE CASTLE: Castle of Le Bézu
Back to the Cathars! Le Bézu castle is part of a network of Cathar fortifications in southern France. It’s also in the same region as the village of Rennes-le-Chateau – a place heavily associated with the Knights Templar and their treasure. The now ruined castle was home to the Lords of Albedun. It’s claimed by some historians that this noble family were both keen supporters of the Knights Templar and adopters of the Cathar heresy.
Le Bézu and Rennes-le-Chateau are two high points among five in the area that are referred to as the Pentagram of Mountains. They were made famous by the author Henry Lincoln in the 1970s who popularised the idea of the Templars being founded by a shadowy organisation called the Priory of Sion. He co-wrote the best seller The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail that influenced Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I’ve blogged in massive detail about this before so click on the link directly below this paragraph for the full story.
FIND OUT MORE: Rennes-le-chateau and the Priory of Sion
Throughout the 20th century, there have been official and unofficial excavations around these castles. Some digging, unfortunately, has caused damage. I’d personally urge people not to turn up with their spades and metal detectors. But at the same time, please visit these fascinating Templar castles and see if you can sniff out some treasure.