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.
Intriguingly, 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
In 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
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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!
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
This 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
Jerusalem 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
The 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
Sir 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
Leaving 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.
This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.
But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.
In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.
It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.
Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.
The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.
I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.