Were the Knights Templar really the guardians of the Holy Grail?

500px-Galahad_grailFor 800 years, people have been thrilled by the idea that the Knights Templar were the brave guardians of the Holy Grail. But is it actually true?

The Templars were formed in 1118 ostensibly to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But, many believe, that wasn’t their real mission. It was no accident that they chose to be based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in what we now call the Al Aqsa mosque. When the holy city was under crusader control, the mosque was taken over by the Templars and renamed the Temple of Solomon. Because that’s what they believed it actually was – the site of the biblical king’s palace.

grail2The knights called themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short. They began digging furiously under the temple to find sacred treasure. It’s widely assumed they discovered the Holy Grail and became its guardians. Their mission had then been accomplished and they were to be the eternal keepers of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.

When the Templar order was crushed in 1307 by the King of France and his puppet Pope Clement, the Grail was believed to have been spirited away. Did it end up in Paris and then on to Scotland and even the United States where one rather far-fetched theory has the sacred chalice being melted down into the torch of the Statue of Liberty? Or was it whisked off to Portugal where the Templars were protected by the king? Could it be located at the Templar bastion of Tomar in central Portugal?

In the period that the Knights Templar existed – 1118 to 1307 – there was an explosion of Grail related stories. They often involved the Court of King Arthur and extolled the virtues of chivalry and risking all for divine glory. The association of the Grail with the Knights Templar wasn’t established at first – it evolved even into our own time.

The idea of the Grail may be rooted in pre-Christian folklore, particularly Celtic references to magic cauldrons – much loved by witches as you know.  The cauldron became a cup with magical powers.

holy-grail-2A 12th century poet Robert de Boron made the link between a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have used the same cup to collect blood from Christ’s body on the cross. Joseph then takes the cup to Britain where it ended up at Glastonbury. Joseph is a character who pops up in the gospels as a wealthy Jewish merchant and maybe a relative of Jesus who arranges for his burial. Successive early Christian writers developed him further and Robert de Boron stuck him firmly in the Arthurian legend.

The Grail had its theological uses for the medieval church.  As a cup of Christ’s blood it reinforced the central act of the Catholic mass where the wine in the chalice becomes, literally, the blood of Christ. This would explain the symbolism of Christ sharing the cup at the last supper and then the same vessel being used to collect his blood at the crucifixion. Wine + turning to blood + chalice = Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the turning of wine to blood in the mass.

goodfriday-neuschSo how do the Templars come to be its guardians? Step forward German medieval teller of chivalrous tales Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first decade of the 13th century he wrote Parzival – effectively a new take on the already existing legend of King Arthur. Parzival arrives at Arthur’s court, goes off on a quest to find the Grail, which he discovers in a castle owned by the Fisher King and guarded by…the Templeise.

This brotherhood of knights is indeed chaste and prayerful, like the Templars. They do battle with heathens to protect the Grail, though it’s a stone and not a cup. The stone, incidentally, confers eternal youth and heals people of ailments.  But there is no mention in the Parzival tale of these knights being in any way monastic in nature and their symbol is a turtle dove and not the Templar cross.

However, the die was cast. Templars. Guardians. Holy Grail. There was no going back now. Templar historian Helen Nicholson believes that this story and others that arose afterwards gave the Templars some very good PR in German speaking medieval Europe.

Wolfram von Eschenbach is an interesting fellow. He seems to have been influenced by French literature and knowledge coming from the Muslim world. Wolfram’s aristocratic patron – Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – had been on crusade in the Middle East and both men seem to have been unusually fascinated and sympathetic to the Islamic world.

Wolfram also gained knowledge, he claims, from the Moorish libraries of Toledo in Spain. Toledo had been conquered from the Muslims by Christian armies in 1105. Scholars from all over western Europe descended on its famous libraries translating texts from Arabic that included long lost ancient Greek works and studies on everything from geometry to music and astrology. Like the Templars, Wolfram was somebody who imbibed the wisdom and philosophy of the medieval Muslim world via different routes.

To shore up his claim that the Templars were the guardians of the Grail, Wolfram also mentions an elusive character called Kyot of Provence as a cast iron source for his tale. Chrétien of Troyes got the Grail legend details wrong in his King Arthur story, Wolfram alleges, whereas Kyot of Provence is spot on. And the Templar connection is completely true. Problem is, nobody can find any shred of evidence for the existence of this chap Kyot of Provence.

It’s almost like he never existed.

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Friday 13th and the end of the Knights Templar

dayIt’s one of those weeks again when a Friday 13th occurs and our thoughts turn to the Knights Templar. So why is the 13th so significant?

On the morning of Friday 13th October 1307, a huge dawn raid saw Templars all over France rounded up and imprisoned. Orders to conduct this raid had been secretly circulated to law enforcement officers – bailiffs as they were termed – from the King of France.

King Philip the Fair had resolved to destroy the order with one devastating blow. Each bailiff would have read the king’s words with trepidation:

A bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an execrable evil, an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from humanity.

The king claimed that while the Templars said they were Christian, they were in effect nothing of the sort. Honest men had informed the royal authorities that these knights were spitting and urinating on crucifixes and worshipping devilish idols. Worse, the Templars were giving each other illicit kisses all over their bodies including the “base of the spine”.

Every member of the Knights Templar was to be held for trial by the church while the King of France would take over all the assets of the Templars – buildings, gold, farms, etc.

Some knights managed to escape including the Preceptor of France, Gerard de Villiers. One has to feel rather sorry for another terrified knight who ditched his white mantle, shaved his beard and got into disguise but was still apprehended by the king’s men.

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Templars: once revered, now hated

The evidence suggests that nearly all the Templars had no idea what was about to happen. As the bailiffs kicked down their doors, the knights surrendered to their doom.

They were carted off to grim dungeons where many experienced a range of tortures to extract confessions. The king was determined that they would admit their guilt to the charges of sodomy and heresy.

Many of those taken away to have their feet roasted or hung up with their arms tied behind their back – two common forms of torture – were old men by the standard of the day. They were retired warriors or members of the order who had always been farm managers or administrators.

Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master, was probably the most surprised victim of the Friday 13th arrests. Only the day before, he had been an honoured guest at the funeral of the king’s sister-in-law.

Newark Castle – where Templar knights were imprisoned

I must confess to having known little to nothing about Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire until the announcement this month that it will be hosting an exhibition on the Knights Templar.

Why an exhibition here? Well, several knights were imprisoned down below in the dungeons of the castle after the order was crushed by order of Pope Clement. The English dragged their feet initially in suppressing the Templars but then got on with the job. The poor knights were rounded up, locked away and tortured to confess to various trumped up charges.

Knights-Templar-Grafitti-225x300Intriguingly, the imprisoned Templars scrawled religious symbols on the walls – something they seemed to have done wherever they were imprisoned. For example, Gisors in France.

The dungeons were incredibly grim and disease ridden. Many of those incarcerated would have survived a matter of days and death might have been a sweet release. Food was basic and disgusting while the only drink would have been ale brewed in the castle. That at least might have eased your suffering.

Like many Norman castles, it started out as a wooden construction commissioned by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln. Later on, a stone fortress replaced the wood. As happened to quite a few medieval castles,  it was partially demolished after the English Civil War in the 17th century to stop royalists threatening the newly founded republic  of Oliver Cromwell.

 

How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.

 

How to deal with The Walking Dead in the Middle Ages

Temporarily used for contact details: Historic England, Archive Services, The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email: archive@HistoricEngland.org.uk, Website: http://www.HistoricEngland.org.uk
The deserted village of Wharram Percy. Credit: Historic England

New evidence unearthed in England has revealed that medieval villagers in the county of Yorkshire were genuinely terrified of the dead coming back to life. So much so that they mutilated their bones, chopped up bodies and burned them. The University of Southampton and Historic England have just released their findings and it makes gruesome reading.

 

The bones were found in Wharram Percy, north Yorkshire. They were covered in knife marks and very obvious attempts to break up the skeletal remains. Heads were cut off and thigh bones snapped before being thrown into a bonfire. The bodies were of people aged between four years old and fifty.

From the 11th century onwards, there are writings on so-called ‘revenants’ who would come back from the grave – often wicked people who could not rest at ease after death. Possibly brought back to life by the devil himself, they were believed to be capable of attacking the living.

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Follow Medieval Death Bot on Twitter @DeathMedieval

The archaeologists toyed with the possibility that the bodies may have been cannibalised at a time of famine. But the knife marks didn’t suggest de-fleshing and were concentrated in areas like the head and neck. This horrific practice seems to have endured from the 11th to the 14th century.

 

Needless to say this covers the period of our very own Knights Templar.

Of course we are still obsessed with the subject of zombies – witness the success of The Walking Dead. I’ve also just discovered a Twitter site called Medieval Death Bot where real stories of curious deaths in the Middle Ages are tweeted every day.

 

Is there a Muslim inscription on the Throne of Saint Peter?

tcajan13_p18In an early nineteenth century book in my library I came across a fascinating story that I’d like some historical sleuths out there to confirm or deny. The claim in the book is that on the Throne of St Peter in the Vatican – held aloft by the four Doctors of the Church – is inscribed the declaration of faith made by all Muslims (the Shahadah): “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger)”

I came across this because the book is a calendar of holy events during the year and the 18th January, just gone, is The Feast of St Peter’s Chair. The book describes the throne at the end of the nave in St Peter’s basilica – the centre of the Roman Catholic church:

A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair on which St Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated

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Charles the Bald

The chair has not been seen in modern times. It is indeed a worm-eaten relic donated to pope John VIII in the 9th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. He gave the pope this present in return for being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pontiff, thereby making him the divinely anointed ruler of central Europe. This papal ceremony had been initiated by his grandfather Charlemagne.

Pope John VIII was in terrible trouble. The Muslim Saracens had overrun Sicily and southern Italy and were menacing Rome. He needed the help of the emperor. In the end, Charles couldn’t give the papacy the support it badly needed and the pope turned to the Byzantine empire for assistance. This angered some in Rome and he became the first pope to be assassinated.

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Pope John VIII

Fast forward to the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. The French leader took Italy and, as in other places, Napoleon’s soldiers looted religious sites. They were imbued with the anti-clerical ideas of the revolution and not cowed by the holiness of the Vatican. Once they got into the basilica, they had the throne of St Peter in their sights. By now, the ancient relic was encased in seventeenth century statuary – a magnificent ebony and gold construction.

The sacrilegious curiosity of the French broke through all obstacles to their seeing the chair of St Peter. They actually removed its superb casket and discovered the relic. Upon its mouldering and dusty surface were traced carvings, which bore the appearance of letters. The chair was quickly brought into a better light, the dust and cobwebs removed, and the inscription faithfully copied. The writing is in Arabic characters and is the well-known confession of Mahometan faith – “There is but one GOD and MAHOMET is his prophet!”

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The Shahadah appears on ISIS flags

The book speculates that the chair might have been crusader spoil from the east – though that would be contradicted by the account of it being an earlier donation in the ninth century, 200 years before the First Crusade. The statement inscribed on the chair is known as the “Shahadah” – which only has to be recited three times in order for somebody to become a Muslim. In our time, it’s also the Arabic statement on the flags of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State.

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The Venice throne

Coincidentally, there is another throne of St Peter held in the church of San Pietro di Castello in Venice – once the seat of the Venetian patriarchs. This church is rarely visited by tourists, though it should be. The throne is clearly modelled from an Islamic gravestone. Historians believe its journey began in the Muslim Fatimid empire. When that collapsed, it was most likely looted by Byzantine troops. Then during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, it would have ended up in Venetian hands after their soldiers ransacked Constantinople.

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The worm-eaten throne in Rome

Back to the throne in Rome – it was exposed again to public view in 1867. This was for the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. Photos were taken by the Alessandri brothers at the time. The throne is one foot ten inches high and just under three feet wide. With metal rings on the side, it was clearly intended to be carried with poles – presumably with the pope seated in it. Bits had been hacked off for relics to be given away. The “arabesque” motifs were noted by spectators.

And as my book notes:

This story has been since hushed up, the chair replaced, and none but the unhallowed remember the fact, and none but the audacious repeat it. Yet such there are, even at Rome!

 

Five Templar hotspots mentioned in Quest for the True Cross

Here’s a great idea for a Templar holiday this year – visit all the Templar hotspots mentioned in my book Quest for the True Cross. I’ve been to all of them (barring one) and can guarantee – they are fascinating places. So – let’s start our quick journey!

TEMPLAR HOTSPOT ONE: Edessa

220px-Battle_of_Edeesa_1146This city is now in modern Turkey – which is appropriate as it was the Seljuk Turks who drove the crusaders out of Edessa on Christmas Day in 1144. The city had been the capital of the County of Edessa, one of the first Christian kingdoms established after the First Crusade. The unsuccessful defence of the city was led by its Latin archbishop Hugh who was either trampled to death by his own fleeing flock or killed by the Seljuks as they stormed the city’s fortifications. I begin Quest for the True Cross with the siege of Edessa in full swing and two unscrupulous thieves using the tumult to steal the True Cross from a church in the city.

TEMPLAR HOTSPOT TWO: Jerusalem

source_4b7ebd592258c_hartmann-schedel-hierosolima-1493_2-bw-1147x965Jerusalem had been taken by Christian forces in the First Crusade – in the year 1099. A contemporary chronicle claimed that the massacre perpetrated by crusaders against the populace was at such a level that blood splashed up from the streets on to the knights’ stirrups. In the years that followed, a crusader kingdom was established with the Al Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock converted from Muslim to Christian use. This was reversed back again when Jerusalem fell to Saladin eighty years later. We meet the hero of Quest for the True Cross, Sir William de Mandeville, in Jerusalem as he helps to defend it from encroaching saracens.

 

TEMPLAR HOTSPOT THREE: London Templar church

Knight Templar church in LondonThe Temple church in London was the second Templar preceptory in the city and stands between Fleet Street and the river Thames. You need some imagination to picture it as part of a complex of medieval buildings long gone that would once have served the knights’ requirements. It’s now surrounded by law firms. In my novel, Sir William returns to the Temple to discover his father’s body hanging from an apple tree. This is based on a factual account of a failed rebellion by the 1st Earl of Essex Geoffrey de Mandeville’s against King Stephen. The Earl was subsequently declared an outlaw and killed. His body was forbidden a Christian burial but was rescued by the Templars. I won’t spoil what happened next – you’ll have to read Quest for the True Cross.

TEMPLAR HOTSPOT FOUR: Cressing Temple

The_wheat_barn_at_Cressing_Temple,_Essex_-_geograph.org.uk_-_255587Sir William is forced to return to the Templar preceptory where he began his life as a knight. It’s an unhappy return. The preceptory is run by a bitter old curmudgeon by the name of Wulfric who detests the young and valiant Sir William. Cressing Temple is in Essex and was once a major centre of the Knights Templar in England – founded during the unhappy reign of the aforementioned King Stephen. You can still see remains of a huge barn that I mention in the novel. I grew up in Essex and it’s with great pride that I bring this Templar gem to your attention!

TEMPLAR HOTSPOT FIVE: Clairvaux

Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206Leaving England, Sir William journeys to Clairvaux to see his old mentor – Bernard. The French Cistercian Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was a titanic figure in the Middle Ages – a reformer, ascetic, advocate of the crusades and supporter of the Templars. With the fall of Edessa to the Turks, he gave a series of rousing sermons urging the European nobility to make haste to the Holy Land and defend the Christian kingdoms. I depict Sir William as being one of many knights swept up in this fervour. Unfortunately, the Second Crusade suffered many setbacks, which hit Bernard hard. In my book, I convey his bitterness at the turn of events. I also touch on the intellectual battle that Bernard fought against a rival cleric called Peter Abelard. The latter was a worldly philosopher who offended the more spiritual Bernard.

Find out more about all these places when you order Quest for the True Cross on Amazon.