We always think of the crusades as something that happened in the Middle East pitching western Christian warriors against eastern Muslim saracens. In fact, the crusades of the Middle Ages were far more complex than that – and even involved a war initiated by the Pope against a group of Christians he felt had grown to powerful and influential based in southern France.
The Cathars were in many ways a survival of beliefs the Catholic church of the 12th century would have hoped had died out. These were beliefs like Manichaeism – the teaching of the third century AD Persian prophet Mani as well as the Paulicians, a sect dating back to the seventh century that had thousands of followers in the Byzantine Empire but was regularly persecuted and eventually suppressed. Mixed in with all of this was that most feared of heresies: Gnosticism.
So what does a sect with the influence of Mani, the Paulicians and the Gnostics believe – essentially it was a dualist view of the universe. A universe of light in a clash with a universe of darkness. An evil deity that rules the physical world of corruption and sin and a good deity that rules a pure and spiritual world that we must strive towards. There is a heavy influence of Plato in all this but I don’t want to go off the theological/philosophical deep end here.
Suffice it to say – the Cathars looked at the Catholic church and saw the work of the evil deity with its prelates and bishops decked in jewels and fine robes. What made this situation so dangerous for Rome was that the Cathars included much of the southern French nobility in the Languedoc. If the secular power could not be trusted to deliver the people’s souls to the church – and their contributions – then rocky times lay ahead for the Pope.
The Cathars had to be crushed. No heresy could be allowed to thrive and undermine the Catholic church.
In 1207, the pope called on King Philip II of France to take action. He did nothing. Half of what we now call France was under the control of the English (or the Plantagenet kings to be more precise) and he didn’t much fancy a war against his own nobles.
But the pope wasn’t going to go away and forget these Cathars – he decided that Rome had to strangle the Cathars using all the powers at its disposal. I’ll be looking at how the Cathars were crushed in the next few posts.
At the time the Templars were formed, THE city – the most important metropolis in Europe – was still Constantinople. It may no longer have dominated the Mediterranean as it had done in the late Roman period and under Justinian and his immediate successors, but it remained a wealthy and prospering entrepot.
The armies of Islam – against whom the crusaders and Templars would fight throughout the 12th and 13th centuries might have taken north Africa and the Levant from the Christian emperor in Constantinople – but it still exerted a huge political, cultural and occasionally military pull on the region. It was, after all, an appeal from the emperor that led the pope to call for the First Crusade.
Constantinople survived because it sat behind huge, thick walls built in the 5th century AD to withstand attacks from Huns and other barbarians. It saw off the Arabs, Bulgars, Avars and Turks in succession. By the year 1200, the population believed their mighty city could see off any invader and yet, four years later, fellow Christians would attack and devastate the city, breaching its walls, in the Fourth Crusade.
There have been several attempts to recapture the glory of Constantinople through simulation and I share a couple here.
The Knights Templar existed from around the year 1118 to 1307 and I thought it might be interesting to reveal to you which kings ruled during that time and where are they buried. So…here goes!
- Henry I was William the Conqueror’s son and became king after his older brother was killed in a rather unfortunate hunting “accident”. Being a Norman king, it’s not surprising that he died in Normandy – his domains in what’s now northern France. It’s said that he died from a “surfeit of lampreys”! His body was returned to England, embalmed and sewn into a bull’s hide – nice! He was buried in Reading Abbey but unfortunately for him, the abbey was shut down by Henry VIII four hundred years later during the Protestant Reformation and his body disappeared.
- His successor King Stephen had a stormy reign – a period known as the Great Anarchy in England. Embroiled in a civil war and losing the throne for a while, he managed to regain the crown but died at Dover Castle of dysentery in 1154. Buried at Faversham Abbey in Kent, his body went missing when…Henry VIII shut down the abbey during the Reformation. It’s said the local people stole the jewels off his skeleton and any other valuables.
- Henry II took over after Stephen, the son of the Empress Matilda – daughter of Henry I – who had fought that nasty civil war with Stephen. He married the feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful medieval queens, and she and his children rebelled against him. Not a happy family! He’s buried at Fontevraud Abbey in modern France. His empire extended from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
- Richard the Lionheart – you all know about him. Brave crusading king who spent hardly any time in England and allegedly admired by the legendary Robin Hood (if Hollywood is to be believed). Like his father, he was also buried in Fontevraud Abbey.
- John – “bad king John” who signed Magna Carta, ceding power to the barons. He was forced to flee an invading French army and died of dysentery. According to one account the disease was brought on by eating peaches and wine. He was buried in England at Worcester cathedral, largely on account of having lost his ancestral lands in France.
- Henry III – he was buried in Westminster Abbey, which is appropriate as he rebuilt the original Saxon church into something much grander that we see today. His tomb used to be adorned with jewels but pilgrims and tourists hacked off bits of it over the centuries so only the uppermost part of the tomb glitters anymore.
- Edward I followed the new example and was also buried in Westminster Abbey but this time in a very grand but austere tomb. You can still see it today. This king, you may recall, was the vanquisher of Braveheart and a stern but effective ruler. His tomb was opened in 1774 during a rather morbid and gothic phase of grave inspecting that titillated posh society. The king was found to be ‘richly habited, adorned with ensigns of royalty, and almost entire’. At another tomb opening around that time, of a medieval knight, one of the high society people decided to taste the remains of the Middle Ages warrior. Ugh!
- Edward II – the last king to preside over the Templars came to a grisly end. Reputedly homosexual, though one can argue that with many historians, it’s alleged that his wife and her lover had him executed with a red hot poker placed somewhere I’d rather not mention! His body was buried in an abbey that then became a place of pilgrimage, in spite of his reputation. In fact, he was so popular in death that the abbey expanded to become Gloucester Cathedral. It’s claimed the presence of his remains stopped Henry VIII shutting the place down but as it didn’t stop him dissolving the other two abbeys I mentioned, I wonder if that’s really true.
There’s an intriguing object in York Minster, a medieval cathedral in northern England, that caught my attention. It’s called an oliphant. It’s made from part of an elephant – a tusk. Carved with images of animals, it was filled with wine and presented to the church by a Viking nobleman called Ulf in the year 1036.
What interested me about this object was the way it revealed how interconnected the world was in the Middle Ages. Here is an elephant tusk – probably from Africa. The animals carved on it were copied from ancient Syrian and Babylonian art – ancient even in those times. The carvings were probably done in Amalfi in Italy, where craftsmen had easy access to ivory.
How did it get to be in Viking hands? Well, the Vikings got everywhere. They ruled England at times, served the Byzantines in the east, traded in Russia, founded cities in Ireland and were the ancestors of the Normans. The Vikings were worldly people and it wasn’t so unusual that a rich warrior would have such a trinket. Here are some photos of the oliphant that I took a month ago.
I have always loved historical maps – they never give a wholly accurate view of what the reality was on the ground but they’re fascinating to pore over. And here are some images of Europe and the Middle East at the time of the Knights Templar. What a different world they present!
Going from left to right across Europe, these maps reveal the tempestuous political climate of the period. The Norman aristocracy of England had begun its slow invasion of Ireland as you can see by a smattering of pink on the east coast, Wales and Scotland were still independent and the English crown still claimed vast swathes of what is now France.
The Iberian peninsula is even more striking. Half of it was still under Islamic control – having been completely invaded in the year 711CE. Christian kingdoms like Leon, Castille, Portugal as well as Aragon and Navarre had begun the ‘Reconquest‘ aided by crusaders and Templars from all over Europe.
Central Europe was dominated by the Germanic Holy Roman Empire that stretched down into northern Italy meeting the Norman controlled southern half of the boot. Venice was independent and increasingly challenged the fading power of the Byzantine Empire – which it would eventually deal a huge blow against in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.
Beyond the Byzantines – the Greek speaking inheritor of the eastern Roman empire centred on Constantinople – was the encroaching realms of the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks had become the dominant force in the Islamic Middle East and would crush crusader controlled Edessa in 1144.
Enjoy the maps!
I visited Holy Trinity church, tucked away off the medieval streets of York – a beautiful building that hides a turbulent history. It had a modest beginning in the 11th century looking more like a large, thatched stone walled hut than anything you might call a church. But in the 13th century – the height of the Templar order – the south east chapel was built and tiles replaced the thatch.
It dates back to the Saxon period but with the invasion of the Normans in 1066, the church came under the powerful Durham Priory. Most of the church you can see today was constructed in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries but traces of a much older building do survive. A squint or “hagioscope” was built into the wall at some point in the medieval period allowing the chantry priest to see mass being celebrated at the main altar. In 1316, William de Langetoft was allowed to put up some houses nearby called Lady Row and amazingly these cottages still stand!
The church was originally a riot of colour including stained glass – some of which survives. But in the 16th century – a massive upheaval would see images of the Virgin Mary torn down, the altar replaced with a simple communion table, saints removed from the rood screen, the walls whitewashed and a bible in English (not Latin) available for all to read. By 1553, the church had removed all signs of having once been Catholic – it was now 100% Protestant.
That development took a further leap forward with the introduction of box pews – and unusually for England, they survive in this church. Good Protestant families would face each other inside these closed boxes and the idea of everybody facing a priest was condemned as being too close to what Rome and the pope wanted.
This is a gorgeous church and I thoroughly recommend you visit.