I have just returned from a visit to the amazing historical sites of Istanbul. This city was formerly called Constantinople and was the capital of what we refer to as the Byzantine Empire. This was the eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived and prospered as the western half split into barbarian kingdoms.
Constantinople – capital of the Byzantine Empire
From the reign of the emperor Diocletian (CE 284 to 311), the Roman Empire was divided between an eastern and western emperor. It had become too massive to run under just one man. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, founded the city of Constantinople as a new Rome in the east and also made Christianity the de facto state religion.
Two hundred years later, the west had gone but whereas Rome was now under the control of Germanic Goths, Constantinople continued as a Roman capital governing everything from modern Egypt to Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece.
Islam overwhelms Byzantium!
Under the sixth century emperor Justinian (CE 527 to 565) it attempted to seize back lost western territories but this weakened the empire’s finances and combined with plague and war with Persia, many of its provinces were lost to the armies of a new religion: Islam.
However, Justinian left behind a vast church called the Hagia Sophia, which is still standing today. Take a look at some of the photos I took over the last weekend. There’s also a huge underground cistern for collecting water, one of several, that featured in the Dan Brown movie Inferno and the James Bond movie Skyfall.
The Byzantine Empire created a form of Christianity we now call Eastern Orthodox. It was often in conflict with the papacy in Rome and rejected the pope’s claim to be the divinely ordained leader of all Christians. This led to a mutual excommunication of both churches and undoubtedly contributed to a shameful act by western crusaders in the year 1204.
FIND OUT MORE: The so-called “Donation of Constantine” – a forgery!
Venice treacherously attacks the Byzantine Empire
Instead of attacking the Muslim Saracens, a crusader force led by the Venetian doge (leader) Enrico Dandolo (CE 1107 to 1205) invaded and sacked Constantinople. Its 800 year old walls had never been breached by Arabs, Goths, Bulgars and other military forces. But the blind Dandolo, already in his 90s, led the crusaders on a mission to fatally damage the Byzantine Empire.
Why? Because Venice had emerged as a major trading rival against Constantinople. Once a junior player, it was now able to flex its muscles and undermine the once great city to the east. Dandolo died during the crusade and was buried within Justinian’s great church of Hagia Sophia. His bones were subsequently dug up and discarded but a later marker indicates his tomb.
READ MORE: How Venice destroyed Constantinople
In 1453, the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. But you can still see strong evidence of the Byzantine metropolis everywhere in the older downtown area. I even found a shop with two Roman pillars sticking out of the basement!
TOURIST ADVICE: If you are looking for a reasonably priced guide during your stay in Istanbul, I’m happy to recommend Karavan Travel – https://karavantravel.com/
This blog started way back in 2010 – and I’ve gone back and compiled the top ten most popular blog posts over the last eight years. There are some that are no longer top scoring on the views front – but might interest those of you who have begun to follow The Templar Knight more recently.
So – without further ado – the top ten Templar blog posts of all time!
In reverse order starting with number 10:
There are many theories about what the Knights Templar may have been looking for under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Now, a sceptic would answer – nothing at all, it’s all made up conspiracy theory stuff. Others believe the Templars were seeking the Ark of the Covenant, buried by the Jews when the Babylonians destroyed the first temple.
Then there is the belief that the Knights Templar had been initiated into the secretive rites of the Jewish Kabbalah – a kind of mix of religion and magic. They knew that their were Kabbalah-related artefacts under the Temple of Solomon, where the knights deliberately chose to be headquartered. The knowledge of the Kabbalah would allow them to converse directly with the divine and possibly attain great power.
You really liked this blog post about all those medieval saints who had their halos removed by the Catholic church in the 1960s. Famous and revered saints like Christopher (pictured here), Barbara and Nicholas (yes, Santa Claus) were de-sainted by the church during modernising reforms fifty years ago.
Why? Well, according to the Vatican – there was simply no evidence to support the existence of these individuals let alone whether they performed verifiable miracles. This clearly came as a rude surprise for many of you!
Being Jewish in the Middle Ages meant a precarious existence. There were periods where Jewish communities enjoyed royal protection but equally, kings were not averse to instigating violence against their Jewish subjects – especially if they were hard up for money.
The crusades often began with deranged mob violence against Jewish neighbourhoods. The Jews found themselves treated as crypto-Saracens – secretly in league with the enemies of Christianity.
Complete rubbish but didn’t stop populist demagogues stoking up hate. What often spurred the mob forward were totally unfounded rumours that Jewish people killed Christian children in their rituals – the so-called “blood libel”. Hard to believe such lurid nonsense was taken seriously.
I examined whether the Knights Templar and the Jews in the Middle Ages ever helped each other out.
Staggeringly popular blog post on Saint Pantaleon – the saint of the lottery!
He was a doctor who reportedly attended to the Roman emperor in the fourth century after Christ. Told he would be executed if he continued to be a Christian, Pantaleon chose martyrdom. And his manner of death involved every kind of cruelty imaginable. How or why he ended up being the saint of the lottery is a mystery to me!
The king of all Templar mysteries! Why did the Knights Templar insist on being based in a building widely believed in the 12th century to be on top of the ancient Temple of Solomon? Were they digging underneath to discover sacred treasure that would give them immense power and knowledge?
Conspiracy theories abound, needless to say. The Templars were variously looking for the Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, Turin Shroud, head of Jesus, head of John the Baptist, etc, etc. I intend to write a lot more about this over the next year so keep following for some insights based on fact!
Wow, this was a blog post that continued to soar in popularity year after year. It’s all about the sordid goings-on in medieval Southwark, on the other side of the river Thames from London. The Winchester Geese were prostitutes who plied their trade to Londoners as they walked over London Bridge – the only crossing point in those days from the City of London to the south bank of the river.
Why were they called the Winchester Geese? The reference to geese is probably from their clucking as they competing against each other for much wanted trade. The reference to Winchester is because the bishop of that city had a large residence nearby.
His Grace owned Southwark as his personal fiefdom and not one to miss out on a revenue raising opportunities, the good bishop taxed the prostitutes. So – they were his very own lucrative “geese”.
Arn is an entirely fictional character – the subject of a trilogy of books by Swedish author and journalist Jan Guillou. The story was made into a movie starring Joakim Nätterqvist in the lead role. This Templar is a brooding fellow, typically Scandinavian, who must restore his honour and win back his true love.
In July, 2018, I had the pleasure of speaking about the Knights Templar alongside Professor Helen Nicholson at the Bradford Literature Festival. On the sidelines, I asked her about Arn and his popularity. She thought it was unusual given that there’s very little evidence for any Templar activity at all in Sweden.
Naturally, many of you want to know where you can find the Knights Templar today. Well, an academic historian would gaze over their horn-rimmed specs and inform you that they ceased to be in the year 1307 so stop asking silly questions. But…as we know…there are people and organisations claiming Templar connections in the 21st century.
In this blog post, I identified the main Masonic and Catholic groups plus some of the more esoteric movements. In the next few months, I’m going to be revealing some other Templar groups operating under the radar so stay tuned!
I compared my top ten medieval era themed movies with those of a YouTube influencer and we certainly had some major divergences. Both of us went for director Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven though I don’t think it’s as good as his Roman epic Gladiator. However, it’s exercised a massive influence on how people visualise the Templars and the crusades.
Braveheart would never be in my top ten medieval movies because it’s not aged well – and is riddled with historical inaccuracies. Plus – and I say this as somebody who is half-Irish – its depiction of the Norman English is way too cartoonishly evil. Anyway, have a look at what we both thought were the flicks to watch!
I mentioned Braveheart above and one of the things director Mel Gibson did in that movie was to thoroughly trash the reputation of Robert the Bruce. Hopefully, the recent Netflix series Outlaw King has salvaged this troubled monarch from Gibson’s onslaught.
I’ve included Game of Thrones because despite being fantasy, it’s based heavily on real events in the Middle Ages. I think it cleverly evokes the period while having a timeless quality. Take a look and see what you think of my choice!
This week, in the English wintry sun, I visited a church packed with history – Waltham Abbey. It’s located in the county of Essex, just 15 minutes by train out of London. The church is famous for including the grave of King Harold, the last Saxon monarch killed by an arrow in his eye during the Battle of Hastings. But more importantly, Waltham Abbey is like a time capsule of English history revealing our stormy past.
The first wooden church was built on this site in the 7th century. A burial near the south door was carbon dated to the 7th century and a Saxon bible clasp shaped as a fish grasped by an eagle (the symbol of St John the Evangelist) was found in recent times. The Saxons had invaded England after the Romans left. They were succeeded by Viking invaders from Scandinavia who built another church – wooden again on stone foundations.
LEARN MORE: Were the Knights Templar guilty or innocent?
England came under Viking rule in the 11th century. In 1035, a blacksmith on the other side of the country in the Somerset village of Montacute discovered a large crucifix made of flint. It was buried on top of a hill and its exact whereabouts were revealed to the blacksmith in a violent dream. An apparition literally tore flesh from the poor man’s arm during the night. Once dug up and revealed, the cross was taken by a local Viking warlord (called Tovi) across England to Waltham and placed in the church.
Some people believe the cross was originally held at Glastonbury and removed by the monks there when the Vikings invaded England. It was then hidden where the enemy couldn’t reach it. But Tovi, one of the invaders, not only got his hands on the Holy Cross but gave it a home at Waltham, which soon became a major pilgrimage site. Many cures were attributed to the large flint object and worship of the relic continued after the Vikings lost control of England.
The Saxons took back the country but in 1066, Normans from across the English Channel decided to invade under their duke, William. The Saxon king Harold invoked the power of the Holy Cross at Waltham to defend his armies and extended the size of the church. Things didn’t work out however and Harold was killed fighting the Normans. His body was eventually placed behind the high altar of the church at Waltham.
DISCOVER MORE: A horrific disease in the Middle Ages
The Normans tore down the Saxon church – as they did many Saxon buildings – and rebuilt on a grand stone scale. The style was what we call Romanesque with big thick pillars and a vaulted roof. The Norman nave is what we see today, built in the 11th century. Under Henry II in the 12th century, the church was extended to three times its size and turned into an Augustinian priory.
The reason for this generosity was that Henry II had been complicit in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. A furious pope had ordered the king to build three new monasteries as part of his penance. Henry, a bit of a penny pincher, just extended two existing institutions including Waltham. This created an incredibly powerful religious institution with enormous wealth and a prior who sat in parliament.
Then along came Henry VIII in the 16th century. Henry wanted to divorce his first wife and the pope wouldn’t let him. This and other factors led him to adopt the new Protestant faith and he set about closing down England’s network of monasteries and priories. Monks, nuns and friars were thrown out and told to get another job. Relics, including the Holy Cross, were smashed to pieces as superstitious idols. Waltham Abbey saw most of Henry II’s extended church demolished leaving only the early Norman nave.
The local Denny family, like many entrepreneurs of the time, saw an opportunity to snap up some prime real estate. They took over the monastic complex and reused its masonry for their new family mansion, Abbey House. It stood for two hundred years before being destroyed in a massive fire in the 18th century.
Poor Waltham Abbey was reduced to its core building. After Henry VIII died, his daughter Mary ruled for five years and attempted to bring back the Catholic faith. Under her reign (1553-58), Protestants were burned at the stake giving her the nickname “Bloody Mary”. Waltham had lost its once impressive towers so Mary built the one we see in place today on top of the Norman foundations.
The church had effectively been sawn in half and a wall thrown up to encase the nave that wasn’t demolished. The grave of King Harold (died in 1066) was now out in the cemetery where the extended church had once been. The Holy Cross was smashed to pieces. The Augustinian canons had been expelled and their last prior pensioned off (he grovelled enough not to be executed by Henry VIII). The once great abbey was now a quaint village church.
Then in the 19th century there was a revival of interest in all things medieval. This was a reaction against industrialisation and a yearning for a Merrie Olde England – that had probably never really existed. The Victorians set about creating a new rose window for the mutilated church and also gave it a painted ceiling modelled on the one in Peterborough cathedral. Not everybody thought these improvements were a good idea. Some believed they were a kitsch and tasteless rendition of medieval art.
However, I think it’s fair to say today that what you get in Waltham Abbey is a fascinating trip through English history. If you are ever in London or the south of England, I recommend a quick trip to see this church, which has witnessed so much turmoil and change.
All images copyright Tony McMahon – Beardy History
Getting to grips with a medieval Christmas!
Christmas back in the Middle Ages when the Knights Templar were fighting crusades. What was it like? Did it resemble our modern Christmas? Let’s get in a metaphorical time machine and journey back eight hundred years to a Templar Christmas and see what we find.
The day of Christmas roughly corresponds to the Winter Solstice. That is the shortest day of the year when darkness reigns. Harvests had long been gathered in, livestock slaughtered and salted and the average medieval peasant was knuckling down to the arduous task of surviving winter.
EXPAND YOUR KNOWLEDGE: Find out the truth about Oak Island and the Templars
There’s no central heating, lighting or much by way of entertainment on demand. So, our medieval peasant was fixated on the absence of sunlight. In this season, farms lay barren and only the hardiest crops endured. Ancient cultures imagined a battle between light and darkness at this time of year where, eventually, light won out. The sun returned!
This was a matter of life and death to the medieval farmer at Christmas. A long, bitter winter could reduce a family to starvation. So, with that gloomy prospect looming overhead, people went a bit mad. The Romans had the festival of Saturnalia where slaves were allowed to boss around their masters and one lucky slave was appointed head of the house.
This tradition continued in medieval England with a Lord of Misrule nominated to oversee the riotous feasting at Christmas. In Scotland, this person had the rather more sober title of Abbot of Unreason. Games would be played such as Blind Man’s Buff. You may recall that involves somebody blindfolded reaching out and trying to identify the person he or she touches. The only difference in the Middle Ages was that the blindfolded person was “buffeted” – hit, beaten or whipped as they went around. Hilarious!
There seems to have been a notion that the dark could be pushed back through excess merriment. That entailed a large amount of food. Up until Christmas Day, there would be fasting and fish was prominent on the menu. On Christmas Day and afterwards, there was a switch to meat and lots of it. Well, not for everybody. The poor might have “feasted” on a loaf and some ale. If you were lucky, the lord of the manor was a generous sort who might invite all his serfs up to the castle for some hearty grub.
No turkey at a medieval Christmas
Turkey was nowhere in sight as that bird was an import to Europe from the New World. The wealthy would tuck into a boar’s head. There’s even an early Christmas carol celebrating the head of a boar. Venison accounted for a large percentage of meat wolfed down. And instead of turkey, the bird on show would have been goose and if you were super rich…..peacock!
Carols appear in the Middle Ages as part of an activity called “wassailing”. This involved going from door to door, knocking up your neighbours. A sort of Christmas trick or treat. And your group would have a large bowl of some kind of alcoholic beverage. And there was lots of singing. One of the early carols is In Dulci Jubilo and in the 1970s, the musician Mike Oldfield recorded a version that I still love today. Enjoy!
The Knights Templar have been re-invented in every century. In the 20th century, the Nazis imagined them as Aryan warriors. Not just that, but cosmic beings who existed outside of human evolution and were descended from the inhabitants of Atlantis.
Aryans and Atlantis
This all seems pretty crazy to us now. But there’s been increasing interest in recent years in the intersection between the Nazis and the occult. It’s not as surprising as one might think. Nazism was a fundamentally irrational ideology. And central to its beliefs was that Aryans – blonde and blue eyed – were the master race. Therefore, Hitler needed to find a narrative to back up this assertion.
So, from early on in their political development, Hitler and Himmler even more so, immersed themselves in fringe beliefs. Now, we often think of the counter-culture as something that originated in the 1960s. But the late Victorian and Edwardian era saw a boom in mysticism, esoteric belief and completely cranky conspiracy theories. And it wasn’t necessarily progressive – some of the ideas were completely racist and supremacist.
TEMPLAR EXCLUSIVE: Do you want to find your Templar ancestors?
Aryans as ice people
Take for example Hans Hörbiger who had a nutty theory about the cosmos being made of ice. I’m sure you can find a copy of his book Glacial Cosmogony online if you want to delve into all the specifics. Where it’s relevant to this blog is his belief that Aryans were not descended from apes but originated from ‘divine sperma’ brought to earth by ice meteors.
Their descendants populated Atlantis, which was destroyed by icy meteors and moons that constantly crash into planet Earth and are absorbed. Jesus Christ was descended from the Atlanteans, as were the Knights Templar and the Cathar heretics who rebelled against the Catholic church in the Middle Ages.
Because the Templars were viewed as being cosmic Aryan superhumans, Himmler devoted considerable resources to finding their fabled treasure. Nazi booty seekers apparently scoured sites like Rennes-le-Chateau and Tomar in Portugal in a frantic and fruitless search for mythical riches.
This insane activity led to the employment by the Nazis of thousands of astrologers, Tarot card readers, water dowsers, etc. The British apparently exploited this promotion of the occult in Germany by dropping leaflets with dire astrological forecasts for the Nazi war effort.
More seriously, promoting the views of people like Hörbiger was done at the expense of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Replacing decent science with duff science undermined Germany’s intellectual strength. Aryans, Atlantis and the Templars proved to be a destructive combination.
I’ve been looking at the Templar Google search terms you typed in before discovering this blog. WordPress gives me access to this data and I get amazing insights into what’s going on in your heads!
So, I thought to myself, why not answer directly some of the questions I’ve seen popping up in the Google search terms. These are real searches so hopefully reflect the kind of things you want to now but were ashamed to ask.
No question is too silly. Here we go with your Google search terms in recent days:
Templar Google Search Term: “Did the Templars invade Iran?”
Excellent question – and very topical right now! In the first century of the Knights Templar’s existence, what we now call Iran was part of the Seljuk empire. The Seljuks were a Turkic people.
That doesn’t they came from what we now call Turkey – which confusingly was then mostly part of the Byzantine empire (a Christian, Greek speaking realm).
The Seljuks originated on the western Steppe near the Caspian and Aral seas. They had been used as paid mercenaries but then invaded Iran and merged with the local Persian people over time to create the Great Seljuk Empire.
The Templars fought the Seljuks in all the early Crusades. They also crossed swords with a Shia Muslim cult called the Assassins. This group of zealots had their own castles and leader inside Iran. Their notoriety was derived from the assassinations they carried out of both Muslim and Christian leaders, allegedly under the influence of hashish.
While the Templars didn’t invade Iran, they did battle the Assassins. In fact, they fought them so successfully that the Assassins ended up paying the Templars tribute to leave them alone.
The answer to the original question though is no, the Templars did not invade Iran.
Templar Google search term “Was there a Templar named Landry?”
Landry is the main protagonist in the History channel’s Templar drama series Knightfall. He is played by the brooding actor Tom Cullen. From the first episode, we meet a ferocious and hot blooded knight who is secretly breaking his vow of celibacy with the queen of France. He is loyal, impetuous and handsome. But…did he actually exist?
There are other characters in Knightfall who were real enough. Pope Boniface was an extremely corrupt pope who fell out spectacularly with the king of France. King Philip the Fair of France was definitely real and issued the arrest warrants for all Templars in his kingdom. William De Nogaret was the king’s adviser and leading henchman. He made sure the Templars came to a sticky end.
But Landry? No, I’m afraid he’s not a real character. Though, executive producer Dominic Minghella says the knights depicted in Knightfall are based on a real fraternity of very brave warriors. However – just to be pedantic – Landy is still a work of fiction.
Templar Google search term: “Where was the Grand Master when the Templars were captured?”
This is a really fascinating question. Jacques de Molay was the last Grand Master. After the fall of Acre (modern Akko in Israel) to the Egyptian Mamluks in 1291, the Templars retreated to Cyprus.
On that island, they seemed to become embroiled in two lines of activity. One was the poisonous politics of Cyprus and the other was planning yet another crusade to retake the lost possessions in the Middle East. By 1291, all the crusader kingdoms that had once ruled modern Lebanon, Israel and Jordan had been invaded by Muslim forces.
Jacques de Molay hoped to get support from Christian kings in Europe for another crusade. This would involve hooking up with the Mongols, who had invaded a massive swathe of territory from China through to the fringes of central Europe. The dream was of a joint force of Christians and Mongols to retake the Syrian city of Tortosa.
But, frankly, Europe was suffering from crusade fatigue. And De Molay was ordered to return to France by the pope, who was then living in Avignon, exiled in effect from Rome. Pope Clement V ordered the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller to merge. But De Molay wasn’t keen.
He hot footed it back to Paris. There, he lobbied hard for a new, big crusade and for Templar independence. And it seems to have come as a genuine shock to discover the king of France, Philip, was plotting the downfall of the Templars and seizure of their assets on trumped up charges. Only days before his arrest, De Molay attended a royal funeral and even carried the coffin.
Templar Google Search Term: “Did the Templars protect Jews?”
This is an interesting question. Let’s start by looking at what was happening in France just before the Templars were arrested in 1307.
King Philip of France expelled France’s Jews and seized their money in 1306. This didn’t yield the dividend he was expecting and so he had to find another source of revenue. The French treasury had become very depleted because of the crippling cost of the king’s wars. And so Philip went after the Templars, more than aware of how much bullion they were sitting on.
Philip was relatively late in attacking the Jews. Edward I of England had already expelled his Jewish population a decade before. The Jews had been important to medieval monarchs as money lenders and financiers of building projects and wars. But as other sources of finance began to emerge, their importance waned.
Those sources included the world’s first banks as we understand them, which emerged in northern Italy. And of course, there were the Templars. Their financial operations became increasingly lucrative and they were able to extend lines of credit to princes and popes.
With such a commercial mindset, they would have understood the kind of business that Jewish people were involved in – because the Templars were also money lenders and pawn brokers to the wealthy. Whether or not they had a special empathy with Jewish people is open to question. But they wouldn’t have shared the widespread hatred and contempt of those engaged in money lending because they were doing it themselves.
Templar Google Search Term: “Present day Knights Templar loyal to the Roman Catholic church”
The Knights Templar today come in all shapes and sizes. The most important distinction is between those who are Freemasons and those who sit under the Roman Catholic church. Most of these organisations do not claim direct descent from the Knights Templar, but a small number do.
The most significant Catholic leaning organisation is the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem. You will often see it referred to online as the OSMTH – an acronym formed by the Latin translation of its name: Ordo Supremus Militaris Templi Hierosolymitani. Less often, you will the SMOTJ acronym derived from its English title.
There are about 5,000 “Knights and Dames” worldwide. It claims to be the largest Knight Templar body in the world today. Its declared focus is on human rights and “religious freedom”. OSMTH has been accredited by the United Nations as a non-governmental organisation with “Special Consultative Status”. As a result of that, it’s able to have missions within the United Nations in New York and Geneva.
There is a much smaller traditionalist Catholic organisation called the Ordo Militia Templi. Its membership is several hundred around the world who live by Templar vows. Both men and women can join. My understanding is that they oppose reforms within the Catholic church dating back to the Vatican II council in the early 1960s. So, for example, they prefer to celebrate the Catholic Mass in Latin.
Templar Google Search Term: “Arn Magnusson”
It’s fascinating that one of the top Google searches for my blog regards information on the fictional Swedish Templar knight Arn Magnusson. Born in 1150 and raised by monks, the handsome Arn is destined for a life of prayerful seclusion in a monastery. But then he falls in love with Cecilia.
The monks don’t take too kindly to that. And so Arn is packed off to join the Knights Templar. In the Holy Land, he experiences all manner of adventures before returning to his native Sweden.
I have blogged in more detail on Arn so use the search button to get more details. Interestingly, I was told by Templar academic Professor Helen Nicholson that there was no Templar presence to speak of in Sweden.
Templar Google Search Term: “Who was the patron saint of the Templars?”
There isn’t really a patron saint as such of the Knights Templar. But there were saints who meant a lot to the knights. Though in all honesty, these saints were widely venerated such as Saint Barbara and John the Baptist.
You could argue that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – champion of Templar interests to the pope – was their patron saint. But he wasn’t a saint at the time and certainly not worshipped as such by the Templars.
Bravery and the Knights Templar – has the courage of these warriors been vastly overstated?
In my recent survey of what fascinates you about the Templars, one theme that came up was their loyalty and bravery. You even likened the knights to the SAS or the Foreign Legion. So, the question is – did they live up to the hype?
Ten proofs of the bravery of the Knights Templar
So – pretty brave!
What’s your view of the Knights Templar? Maybe you think their bravery has been over-hyped or, as some of the medieval chroniclers inferred, they were just interested in defending their own narrow interests.
Or, the Templars were a unique proposition. Monks and warriors who selflessly threw themselves into the vanguard of the crusader mission. The poster boys of medieval Christendom who ensured that the crusades remained popular at home in Europe.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Oak Island has been claimed as the site for a vast, secretly hidden store of Templar treasure. Possibly the location of priceless items they discovered under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
Vast amounts of money have been spent excavating below ground to find millions of dollars worth of medieval booty. Companies have been set up with the sole task of getting to the treasure left behind by these enigmatic warrior knights. So – is the wealth of the Templars actually there?
Of course the answer is – we don’t know. But let’s try and figure out how the story has come about and why it still exercises such a tremendous hold on the popular imagination.
The Viking link to Oak Island
I think a good starting point are the claims made in the 20th century that the Vikings had got to the New World long before Christopher Columbus. Why is this important? Because if the Vikings could have got there – then why not the Templars?
This theory has been supported by the so-called Vinland map (dating from the 15th century), that seems to show our Viking ancestors touched down in north America. Trouble is, the map is just a little too good to be true and even though scholars from the British Museum and Yale backed it up in the 1960s, the evidence (for example dating of the ink) suggests it could be a forgery.
If it was true, the Vinland map would establish the feasibility of Europeans sailing across the Atlantic to the American coastline. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility because the Vikings did get to Iceland and Greenland. Some Templar conspiracy theorists suggest the knights or those who helped them had access to Viking navigation charts.
TEMPLAR EXCLUSIVE: Do you want to find your Templar ancestors?
The Templars and Oak Island
Moving away from the Vikings now, let’s shift our focus to the Knights Templar. In 1307, their number was up. Philip, king of France, had ordered the arrest of all the knights and they were interrogated under torture in various dungeons. But if the king had hoped to find lots of loot at the Paris Temple, their headquarters, he was to be severely disappointed. Only empty shelves greeted his soldiers.
We then get the story of Templar treasure being spirited away from Paris in wagons bound for the port of La Rochelle and from there on to Scotland (and/or maybe Portugal, see my other blog posts on that option). And then – the wealth of the Templars simply evaporates into thin air!
In his book Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar: Solving the Oak Island Mystery, Steven Sora claims that the Templars’ treasure – gold, silver, jewels and sacred relics of immense power – were firstly hidden away in the crypt at Rosslyn chapel by the Sinclair family. The Sinclairs are central to the whole Templar getaway-via-Scotland theory.
The Sinclair connection
Quick detour on the Sinclair family then. They are an ancient Scottish family that includes Henry, the first earl, who fought alongside the first Grand Master of the Templars, Hugh de Payens (or Payns) in the Holy Land in the early 12th century. So, we have an early association between this family and the order of knights.
Fast forward to the early 14th century and Sir William Sinclair (sometimes spelt St Clair or Saint-Clair) is sometimes held up to have been the last Templar Grand Master before his death in 1330. Trouble is, he also appears to have given evidence at their trials AGAINST the Templars – somewhat scuppering that theory unless he was involved in some kind of complex double bluff!
Then we have another Henry Sinclair who in the late 14th century allegedly explores the coast of north America with an Italian navigator called Antonio Zeno. This establishes the idea that the Sinclair family know all about the New World so are ready for a subsequent very important voyage.
According to Steven Sora, the Sinclairs leave the Templar treasure under Rosslyn until the 16th century. But then along comes the Protestant Reformation. The Sinclairs are devout Catholics. Fearing that that the Templar treasure might be seized, they set sail with it and land on…Oak Island!
Daniel McGinnis on Oak Island
Now, nothing more gets said about this – obviously, being a secret mission – until the 19th century. Then stories circulate in newspapers of discoveries made on the island by a man called Daniel McGinnis in the 1790s. I’ve read different versions of the McGinnis story. In one account, he found a curious depression in the ground while setting up his farm. Or, he saw unusual lights on the island one evening and sailed across, discovering the pit when he got there.
The story of McGinnis and his excavations only emerges fifty years later in a paper called the Liverpool Transcript. By the mid-nineteenth century, tales of pirates and their hidden treasure had become the stuff of boys’ magazines. In 1881, the author Robert Louis Stevenson would publish Treasure Island in a boys’ magazine called Young Folks. The Oak Island booty came to be associated with both the Templars and notorious pirates like Captain Kidd and Blackbeard.
This was also an era of gold rushes – speculators dashing to reputed finds of the precious metal. So, maybe not entirely surprising that Oak Island was soon swarming with diggers. The main attention was the Oak Island Money Pit. This was a curious shaft with what appeared to be booby traps set at different levels.
Most intriguing was the discovery of a stone slab that allegedly has carved on it the message: Forty feet below, two million pounds lay buried. That line is best said if you impersonate Nicholas Cage in the movie National Treasure. More seriously, at least six people have died investigating the very deep money pit due to flooding and in one case, a boiler exploding.
The Franklin Roosevelt connection
One well known Oak Island devotee was the US president Franklin Roosevelt. The Democrat occupant of the White House through the 1930s was a Freemason and from his youth until his death in 1945, retained an abiding interest in the site. One feature that apparently gripped him was the rumour that the jewels of the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, had been squirrelled away on the island.
Which brings us to the 21st century! Such is the level of interest in Oak Island that the History channel has just commissioned a whopping 30 hours for season six of its series The Curse of Oak Island. This runaway success of a documentary series features two Michigan brothers Rick and Marty Lagina who have bought much of Oak Island to pursue the treasure hunt. They are accompanied by local expert, Dan Blankenship.
Rick is a retired US postal worker who passionately believes something lurks under the surface. His brother Marty is the sceptical foil raising doubts every so often about their enterprise. However, as the digs proceed, Marty is seen to convert by degrees to the cause.
The programme has attracted an impressive four million views. And it’s spawned two spin-offs: The Curse of Civil War Gold and Yamashita’s Gold. The first spin-off speaks for itself. The second is the alleged burial of treasure by Japanese soldiers in the closing days of World War II in the Philippine jungle.
In case you missed my recent outing on the History channel – I appeared in episode four of the Templar documentary series Buried earlier this year. Together with presenters Mikey Kay and Garth Baldwin, we looked for Templar treasure in the ancient citadel of Tomar in Portugal.
If your ancestors were Templar knights – how could you confirm this?
I’m told by many of the blog’s followers that they have traced their ancestry back to the Middle Ages and some are sure they have identified Templar ancestors.
Use Ancestry websites
For my part, I’m addicted to Ancestry.com and have managed to link up with several of my Irish-American long lost cousins. This year, I went with two third cousins I’d never met before to see the musical Hamilton in London and share our family knowledge over dinner.
They were grandchildren of my great grandmother’s sister who left county Tyrone in Ireland to marry a grocer from Connecticut. She never returned to the old country and died in Arizona aged over 100 in the 1980s. So, I know the power and awesomeness of Ancestry.com
Were your ancestors from Europe?
Which brings me to what tools are available if you want to find any Templar ancestors. The first step for any American today is to find out where your family came from in Europe. Ancestry.com or other family tree websites should hopefully get you back a century or two to establish that. Then the fun starts!
Ireland is problematic because Catholic church records weren’t so good before the 1820s; many records were lost forever when the Custom House in Dublin was burnt down in 1921 by Irish Republicans (including a cousin of mine!) and of course names may have been recorded in Gaelic and not English. So, check out different spellings and anglicising of ancient Irish names.
Services like Irishgenealogy.ie and nidirect.gov.uk (for Northern Ireland) will help enormously. And read this helpful article in the Irish Times. Also search Ireland’s National Archives online. You will most likely find a Templar antecedent if your family were of Anglo-Norman stock as opposed to pure indigenous Irish. The Templars were basically part of the invading Norman forces, though there may have been local recruits.
For the United Kingdom, birth, marriage and death certificates are held by the General Register Office. But your best bet as you go back beyond the 19th century is going to be local parish records. Therefore, you need to find out where your family was from and pester the local church or council to find where the records are kept and if your family features. The National Archives have court documents going back to the medieval period but no family records, like birth and death certificates.
Medieval records are better than you think!
If you manage to get back to the Middle Ages, then check out medievalsoldier.org Incredibly, the medieval authorities kept very detailed records of peasants enrolling as soldiers in the wars between England and France between 1369 and 1453. There is also data on individuals who fought in England’s wars against the Welsh, Irish and Spanish.
Medieval people sued each other, joined guilds and were contractually bound as apprentices. This kind of very valuable information has been kept by London’s Livery Companies (ancient trade associations) and they have now pooled their data on the London Roll website, otherwise referred to as ROLLCO. The rolls, incidentally, are literally rolled up parchments with details of transactions, court rulings, etc.
Wills and land transfers will help you trace Templar era relatives so try medievalgenealogy.org.uk where there are probate and manorial records galore. There are also details of church monuments that might give you useful clues.
Check the spelling of the names of your ancestors
As I’ve found with my Irish ancestors, the spelling of names goes all over the place from one century to the next. Census takers often didn’t seem to bother getting the name spelt correctly or couldn’t spell very well or there are linguistic factors. Your family might have had a French Norman name that confused a Saxon scribe. Check out variations in documents like the Domesday Book and through your own detailed research.
To make the Templar connection, find out if your family’s origin was in a place where the Templars had an estate. Helpfully in the UK, the clue is in the names of villages and towns like Templecombe (county of Somerset) and Temple Meads (city of Bristol). But….Temple Grafton in Warwickshire has no obvious Templar link – so beware.
In Scotland, the Templar headquarters were at a place called Balantrodoch, just outside the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. And of course, you’ve all heard of Rosslyn, home of the chapel made ultra-famous by Dan Brown. One service you can use to trace Scottish links is ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk
Good luck with your hunting and I’m keen for you to share your experience of tracking down Templar ancestors – so share your discoveries!
Many of you want to know if the Knights Templar were running a sophisticated banking system – way ahead of our modern financial services sector today.
Two things are often asserted about the Templars and their wealth.
Firstly that they possessed massive amounts of “treasure”, some of which may have been discovered in Jerusalem. Details are never very specific but it’s deemed to be a combination of money, land and – of course – sacred relics like the Ark of the Covenant of incalculable value.
Secondly that they operated as bankers taking deposits from pilgrims, knights and nobles who could then draw on their money at any Templar house from London to Jerusalem. This meant that the wealthy didn’t have to drag their loot behind them in caskets with the risk of robbery on the way to their destination.
The Templars as bankers
I’m going to focus on the second type of wealth in this blog post. As the Templars emerged, they would have known about how money lenders operated, many of them in the Jewish communities. Jews were often barred from other professions and Christians were not allowed to charge interest. So, this ‘encouraged’ Jews into the money lending space, which made them quite unpopular on occasion.
They weren’t the only people handling large amounts of gold and bullion. The church, innkeepers and goldsmiths would also have stored a great deal of money. When Edward I of England seized private deposits in 1294, he shook down the monasteries first. The notorious King Philip of France, nemesis of the Templars, had already fleeced the monks, Jews and merchants before his greedy gaze shifted to the knights.
Bankers or pawnbrokers?
In terms of other medieval financial activity contemporary with the Templars, there were also medieval pawnbrokers. This profession dates its activities back to China three thousand years ago. But it only really got going in Europe alongside the first proper banks in northern Italy in the 15th century, long after the Templars had been crushed.
However, there were occasions were the Templars looked very much like pawnbrokers. For example, to fund his wars against his own barons in England, Henry III took out large loans from the Templars and deposited the Crown Jewels with them as security. The order also brokered a real estate deal for Henry III helping him to buy the island of Oleron, paying the seller by instalments over five years.
The Templars, very early on in their history, found themselves handling a large number of bequests, donations and tithes on members. But they quickly transformed themselves from being custodians of other people’s wealth to deposit bankers. Why?
Templar bankers and the Crusades
The reason was the Crusades. A massive military undertaking necessitated a huge channelling of resources from western Europe to the Middle East. One has to assume the Templars realised that their network of preceptories (estates) from England to the Levant gave them the infrastructure to achieve that.
When huge taxes were levied in England or France to fund the crusades, the Templar network could be used to transmit that money to where it was needed. This put the knights in a great position on crusade. Not only could they offer a Christian king additional military muscle in the shape of their knights but they could also a line of credit to a king or prince. And money, as we know, equals power.
The idea of issuing a medieval equivalent of cheques – pieces of paper that could be taken from one place to another and used to withdraw hard cash where required – may have come from medieval trade fairs. Money changers would often have stalls at the great fairs in Europe.
Customers could go from one fair to another cashing in cheques instead of carrying large amounts of coin with them. Note that the first Templars originated in the Champagne region of France famous for its great fairs in the city of Troyes – a place of huge significance for the order. Maybe they picked up some ideas on how to run a global financial operation there.
I mentioned northern Italy as the place where modern banks would get going in the 1400s dominated by families like the Medici. But even in 12th century Genoa, we can see the first signs of deposit banking. Could it be that Italian Templars brought some financial acumen from Genoa or Venice into the order? Pure speculation of course.
Did the Templar bankers use secret codes?
How the Templars avoided fraudulent transactions is a bit of a mystery. It’s given rise to chatter about secret codes used to ensure cheques were genuine. I’ve even seen these codes published online – not so secret then!
The problem for the Templars was that their underlying mission – the reason for their existence – crumbled away in the late 13th century. Most of the Holy Land was lost. By that stage, they were engaged in all kinds of financial activity that bore little relation to crusading activity.
You could argue that showed foresight – using the skills they had built up internally to help the king of France manage his books more effectively, for example.
Modern fund managers would probably cheer the Templars as a corporate entity for diversifying away from a failing venture. But that’s not how the medieval mind worked.
Losing all their castles in the Levant and failing to protect the Christian kingdoms of Jerusalem, Antioch and Tripoli meant that God no longer favoured these valiant warriors. And tongues wagged. And monks wrote poisonous diatribes. Bit by bit their reputation was trashed.
Without their core purpose, the Templars were unable to survive no matter how talented they were as bankers.