How a Roman soldier who was martyred by the emperor Diocletian came to be the patron saint of England is a long story. And I’ve touched on it in other blog posts. Today, our local community here in south London celebrated St George’s Day with some battle re-enactment. It was France (booo!!!) versus England (hurrah!!!). Lots of good fun and a surprise – France was allowed to win! I snapped some of the action on my iPhone.
Often viewed as one of the most evil monarchs England every endured – Richard III was immortalised by Skakespeare (100 years after the king’s death) as a wicked hunchback capable of murder and deceit. Richard was notorious for allegedly having his two young nephews confined to the Tower of London and then killed in secret.
He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end the House of York and ushering in the House of Tudor. The whereabouts of his body had been a mystery until it was discovered under a car park in the English city of Leicester. Scientific analysis of the bones confirmed the identity and this week will see his formal burial in Leicester cathedral.
There had been demands for him to be returned to York but he will be interred in Leicester. Should you ever visit that city, I advise you to raise a pint in his memory at a pub named in his honour: The Last Plantagenet.
Now – I have to say that Richard III does not fall within the Templar period, he reigned 150 years after the order was suppressed. But it’s this week’s major medieval event in the UK with media from twenty countries attending. And it seemed wrong not to mention it.
Here’s some memorabilia that I picked up in York from campaigners who – very seriously – are determined to clear his bad name. They think he’s been a victim of Tudor propaganda.
During the Templar period, the patron saint of Venice wasn’t Saint Mark but Saint Theodore of Amasea. He was one of those martyrs during the Roman period. His statue was placed on top of a pillar in what is now Saint Mark’s square but the original medieval statue – now removed to a museum – was actually cobbled together from bits of Roman statuary. This wasn’t an uncommon practice and given that the saint was high up on a pillar, nobody would have noticed the odd artistic arrangement.
I photo’d this on my trip to Venice last year and found it quite amusing. The torso is clearly a Roman emperor wearing decorative military armour. The head doesn’t fit but is also Roman – possibly the ancient king Mithridates of Pontus. The legs, however, do look medieval. Somehow, the ensemble seems to work.
Venice is full of these slung together bits of Roman artwork put to the service of medieval buildings – Saint Mark’s cathedral is a right hodge podge including items stolen by the crusaders from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
I’ve got a large collection of very old books, which I browse for this blog. And in one 1826 almanack, there’s a few pages about a disturbing custom practised in the Middle Ages: the stoning of Jews. It appears that from the sabbath before Palm Sunday to the last hour of the Tuesday before Easter, “the Christians were accustomed to stone and beat the Jews”. Any Jewish person not wishing to be assaulted, just had to pay whatever monies were demanded.
This looks suspiciously like extortion under a religious guise. This sort of anti-semitism was pretty rife at the time with Jews seen as the Christ-killers as well as disliked for their role as money-lenders – a role that Christians had more or less forced them into, by excluding them from other professions.
In 1262, Londoners broke into many Jewish homes and murdered seven hundred people in cold blood. King Henry III handed over their ruined synagogue in Lothbury (a street that still exists) to the friars of the sackcloth. Another synagogue became the church of St Olave in a street called Old Jewry (which you can still see as well).
Interesting news article HERE from the Scunthorpe Telegraph about the Templars in Lincolnshire – a county in eastern England. It name checks Bottesford Preceptory, one of several Templar estates in the county. A Preceptory, by the way, was a Templar manor and would include farms, mills, workshops, living quarters, a great hall and a chapel. There was a vast network of Preceptories across Europe stretching from Wales to the Holy Land.
Templar preceptories in Lincolnshire included Witham and Aslackby as well as Great Limber and Temple Bruer. It must be said that today’s remains give little away – in some cases, there’s nothing left. Temple Bruer, for example, was used for military exercises but you’ll only find a farmyard there now.
If you are planning a visit to Lincolnshire, you do have the splendid medieval cathedral at Lincoln and nearby medieval buildings to sate your interest in this period of history.
If you have any further information about the Knights Templar in Lincolnshire – do share!
Bit of festive fun – here are ten things you may not have known about the Knights Templar – add your own facts in the comments below:
The Templars allegedly ran a white slave trade
Let’s start with a contentious claim made by Michael Haag in his book The Templars – that the Knights Templar were involved in trading Turkish, Greek, Russian and Circassian slaves brought from the east and set to work in their preceptories in southern Italy and Aragon. The centre of this grim trade was the Mediterranean port of Ayas in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Turkish or Mongol slavers would capture or buy these unfortunate human beings then sell them to the Templars. I’d be very happy to be told that this is complete tripe. But it’s recorded in various sources.
Saladin specifically slaughtered the Templars AFTER the Battle of Hattin
The battle at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 was a disaster for the Knights Templar and the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem – Saladin and his saracen army emerged totally triumphant. In the aftermath, countless Christian soldiers were sold as slaves – so many that the price went down to 3 dinars each and one was reputedly sold in exchange for a shoe! Initially, the Templars and Hospitallers were also sold off as slaves. But Saladin then decided that he really wanted all the Templars slain – without exception. Those who had bought Templars were compensated with 50 dinars each and the knights were then brought before the Muslim ruler. Conversion or death was the choice. It seems few decided to convert. There are accounts from both sides of what happened next – a grisly mass beheading often carried out by zealous individuals and botched very badly. In revenge, Richard the Lionheart would later execute 3,000 prisoners at Acre in one of the worst war crimes in history.
The Al Aqsa Mosque was the global headquarters of the Knights Templar
Even today, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is fought over – a holy place that inspires bloody hatreds. In the early 12th century, it was firmly under the control of crusader Christians. The Dome of the Rock was renamed the Templum Domini and the Al Aqsa Mosque became the HQ of the Templars – sited on what was believed to be the palace of Solomon. Beneath were Solomon’s stables, or so it was thought, and abundant rumours that hidden somewhere on the site was the Holy Grail….or the Ark of the Covenant. Much of the existing mosque today was of Templar era construction.
England’s crown jewels were pawned by King Henry III to the Templars
Facing a rebellion by his barons, King Henry III of England sent the crown jewels to the Temple in Paris for safekeeping and to raise money for his fightback. The previous king, John, had made a series of concessions to the same barons by agreeing to sign the Magna Carta. The Templars were broadly supportive of the kings as both advisers and bankers (and pawnbrokers!).
Templars were not – strictly speaking – priests
While the Knights Templar did take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – they weren’t actually priests as such. Barbara Frale in her book on The Templars points out that the knights were not allowed to administer the sacraments as they weren’t formally ordained. And she argues that priests could not wield a sword in battle. Instead, they had their own Templar chaplains assigned to their houses to say mass. But by 1300, many Templar houses didn’t have chaplains. So their spiritual needs had to be administered by priests from other orders.
One monarch donated his kingdom to the Knights Templar
It wasn’t a popular move but King Alfonso of Aragon donated his kingdom to the Templars at his death. The Templars were very active in the “reconquest” (reconquista) of modern Spain and Portugal from Moorish (Muslim) rule. It’s often forgotten that the Templars were active on many fronts – in the Middle East, eastern Europe and southern Europe. The caliphate ruling the Iberian peninsula was remarkably tolerant and urbanised for the standards of the time with Jews, Christians and Muslims living together. But kings like Alfonso were determined to drive out the caliphs and the Templars assisted in this process. They often took control of dangerous areas in the no-man’s land between Christian and Muslim control. Alfonso rewarded their bravery with a big portion of his kingdom when he died but this was reversed afterwards by the counts of Barcelona.
Offshore banking was invented by the Templars
Most of you will know that the Knights were also bankers. You could deposit wealth in one of their preceptories – say at the Temple in Paris – and with a credit note they would issue, you could make a withdrawal at a preceptory in outremer (Christian controlled territories in the Middle East). This meant not having to haul heavy caskets of bullion around with you. But the Templars went a step further and had treasure ships located offshore from which crusaders could make withdrawals safely.
Charges against the Templar included “adoring a cat”
The framing of the Templars was a shabby episode with popes and kings working together to destroy the Order. Various ridiculous charges were trumped up including inappropriate kissing in various parts of the body, denying Christ, venerating idols, operating to secret codes and…..adoring a cat.
Templars were accused of behaving like Muslims
In the frenzy to blacken the name of the Knights Templar – their critics pointed to the fact that some of them allegedly spoke Arabic (well you would being in the Middle East for a while and wanting to understand your enemy’s documents and messages). They also claimed that the Templars performed rituals medieval Christians falsely attributed to Muslims. According to Helen Nicholson in her book The Knights Templar – this included worshipping idols of Mohammed (sic!!), Apollo and Jupiter. Plus spitting on crucifixes. The church loved to tell stories of Muslim Saracen soldiers urinating on the cross to antagonise crusaders. Of course, Muslims do not revere idols – certainly not of the Prophet – and the accusations against the Templars are just absurd. But it worked at the time!
The Spanish and Portuguese nationalised the Templars
The kings of Spain and Portugal more or less took over the Knights Templar. In Spain, the king took the powers of the Grand Master whereas in Portugal a successor order was created called the Order of Christ. The latter organisation was even based at the old Templar preceptory at Tomar – a stunning church you can still see today.
In yet another act of barbarism, the so-called Islamic State has blown up the citadel of the historic city of Tikrit – birthplace of Saladin, the great Saracen warrior who fought Richard the Lionheart in the crusades. This is one of a grim series of attacks on archaeological sites driven by a salafi/wahhabi literalist view of the Qur’an. Namely that shrines and tombs must not be venerated and so should be destroyed.
The same logic, incidentally, has been pursued by the authorities in Saudi Arabia where, in recent years, the tombs and houses of many of the founders of Islam have been levelled. This may seem odd given the image of the Saudis as ultra-religious. But it’s the type of Islam they adhere to that means they’re indifferent to the buildings that once housed the Prophet and his family and companions.
Saladin as depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven