Templar secret initiation rites

When the Templars were arrested throughout France on 13th October 1307, one of the key accusations brought by the King of France, Philip the Fair, against the order was that their initiation rites involved denying Christ and spitting on the cross. So what is true?

The reward

Frale has an explanation for strange initiation rites

Under torture – the rack and the strapado – many Templars gave differing accounts of their initiation that involved the above as well as illicit kisses to the base of the spine, navel and mouth. But it was the desecration of the crucifix that shocked medieval opinion. These were supposed to be religious warriors fighting for Christendom in the Holy Land and they were denouncing their own faith in private.

The Vatican secret archives historian Barbara Frale offers an explanation that this was a form of psychological testing of Templar knights. If they were captured by the Saracens, then they would more than likely be forced by the enemy to reject Christ, spit on the cross and convert to Islam. Or so it was believed.

This test stripped bare a man’s true character, and it was at that point that courage, pride, determination, and the capacity for self-control emerged – all essential qualities for a Templar…

As for some of the other more lewd aspects of the initiation, Frale argues that the whole thing was about bending the individual will to the collective needs of the order – that a knight would do what he was told by this superiors without question. Frale claims that there were abbreviated ceremonies for more well-connected initiates and one boy related to the king of England was excused spitting directly on to the cross, instead spitting on the preceptor’s hand.

However, this failed to convince king Philip who viewed this bizarre rite as a very strong excuse for banning the Templars, burning dozens of them and confiscating their property.

What exactly were the Templars accused of?

In 1307, the king of France – Philip the Fair – issued orders to arrest every Knight Templar in his realm. This was done in total secrecy in what one writer has described as the medieval equivalent of a dawn raid. A couple of ex-Templars, disgruntled with the order they had once sworn loyalty to, had spilled the beans to the king’s officials about all manner of dubious practices the Templars were alleged to engage in.

401270_279190018817179_100001785495655_671372_1873688118_nThis included the notorious kiss on the base of the spine, the mouth and the navel. There was also the worship of a head – sometimes described as a cat’s head or a three-faced head or the head of John the Baptist or a head in the sand that spoke, etc, etc. The Templars denounced Christ, it was alleged, and stamped, urinated and spat on the cross. This was the very cross that they displayed on their tunics and yet they dishonoured it.

The heresies that the rumour mill attributed to the Templars included being closet Muslims, closet Cathars or closet Mandaeans. The latter were an eastern gnostic sect who revered John the Baptist but rejected Jesus Christ. The stamping on the crucifix was believed to evidence the Templar disdain for Christ. The Cathars were a major heretical movement in France that threatened both royal and church power in the south of the country. Cathars rejected the Catholic church’s hierarchy and sacraments disputing the real nature of Jesus. As regards Islam, it has been argued from the medieval period to the present day by some that the Templars had got a little too close to Muslim belief and the scientific knowledge held in the caliphate’s universities and libraries.

Of course, all of these accusations may be utter tripe. The real reason for the Templars being rounded up, tortured and forced to confess to all of this was that king Philip of France just needed their money. He had bolted to the Paris Temple during a mob riot in the city asking the Templars for their protection but while in their safekeeping, he had seen their wealth at first hand and determined to get his hands on it. Philip had form in this regard having already mugged France’s Jewish population, Lombard merchants and even the church. Why not shake down the Templars?

But in the ‘no smoke without fire’ camp, there are those who think the Templars may genuinely have been influenced by eastern philosophical and religious ideas that crept into their ritual and belief. Maybe not in the lurid terms described by the charges at their trial – but hateful to the western church all the same. The truth is – we don’t know. But what is certain is that the allegations above were upheld at the time and dozens of Templar knights including the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay were burnt at the stake on the basis of their forced confessions.

Did the Templars find anything under the Temple of Solomon?

The nine knights who founded the Knights Templar petitioned the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1119 to establish their headquarters in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque – before the crusaders seized the city in 1099, putting an end to four hundred years of Muslim rule. The knights believed that the Al Aqsa was actually the Temple of Solomon. It stood, as it does today, on the Temple Mount – which had previously been home to the vast temple of the Jews of the Old Testament. The Babylonians and later the Romans had destroyed that temple and any vestige of its magnificent past.

This does beg the question why the Knights Templar, who derived their name from this holy site, were so keen to be based there? The answer many have advanced is that the Templars were not so much interested in the mosque above ground as the treasure they thought might lurk below. Those who give credence to this argument point to the warren of tunnels underneath the Temple Mount – or Haram al-Sharif as Muslims call it. Surely, they argue, the Templars were scrabbling around for something down there?

Could it have been thTemplare fabled wealth of king Solomon? If they had discovered those riches, that could account for the very rapid financial growth of the Templar order and its position as a major banking power as well as military force. Or did they uncover sacred relics under the temple of Solomon? Some minds have raced in the direction of the Ark of the Covenant, the shroud of Jesus and the head of John the Baptist. Note that during the trials that ended the Templar order in 1307, they were accused of worshipping a head – some say that of a cat, others a three-faced god and yet others – John the Baptist.

There is a theory that when the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they discovered ancient secrets that had to be guarded – kept secret maybe. The Templars were specifically founded to keep these secrets under lock and key – away from the eyes of the faithful. What could be so terrifying to the church that it needed to set up an order of military monks? Some allege it was the Holy Grail – which was neither a platter nor a cup but the relics of Mary Magdalene who had married Jesus and borne him a child after his crucifixion. Those of you who have read the Da Vinci Code will know that the child was a girl and established a divine blood line to the present day.

And if – just if – the Templars really had found great treasures under the Temple of Solomon and spirited them away – what happened to this treasure? Well, in 1307 when the king of France decided to shut down the Templars and seize their money to clear his debts, knights were seen scurrying out of the great Temple building in Paris with carts groaning under the weight of large sacks. They made their way to the port of La Rochelle and the treasure, Templar knights and the Templar fleet of ships were never seen again.

 

Split – the Croatian city that appears in Game of Thrones. My visit this year

Split is a very unusual city. The whole downtown area was once the purpose built Roman palace of the emperor Diocletian. He was the only emperor to ever retire from the office and went to spend his last days living in great luxury. In the Middle Ages, a warren of streets was built within the Roman walls that didn’t respect the original grid plan but has left us with a very evocative place. You will recognise some of these streets from Game of Thrones and here is a video I did on my iPhone as I was guided round.

Game of Thrones locations I visited in Dubrovnik

I’ve just returned from a very interesting break in Croatia where I was able to visit some of the key Game of Thrones sites in Dubrovnik and Split. Below is a film of the locations used by the series producers with my guide holding up a picture of what it looked like once the set designers had got to work – and the CGI boffins. Really clever use of medieval castles and streets with fantastical imagery superimposed.

FYI – Dubrovnik was ruled by the Byzantines then the Venetians after the crusades before centuries as a vassal city state of the Ottoman empire. It is now a beautiful walled city in the European republic of Croatia.

How were the Knights Templar formed?

Templar-Knights

According to the medieval chronicler William of Tyre – who wasn’t a huge fan of the Templars – the order appeared in the year 1118. They promised to live as canons of the church living under vows of chastity and obedience. Nine knights banded together to form the Knights Templar with two playing a particularly prominent role: Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St Omer.

Templar-KnightsThey pledged to guard the routes to Jerusalem for pilgrims, protecting them from robbers and assassins. In an act of supreme generosity but also laden with meaning, this new militaristic religious order was given what is now the Al Aqsa mosque as its new headquarters. In 1118, it was under crusader Christian control and believed to be the temple of Solomon. Nearby was what’s now the Dome of the Rock but had then been renamed the Temple of the Lord with a crucifix placed on its golden dome.

They wore secular clothes for the first nine years of operation but then in 1129, a group of knights appeared before pope Honorius II at the Council of Troyes – where he gave them permission to wear a white habit, signifying their purity. Bernard of Clairvaux, the most influential churchman of his day, drew up new rules for the order. The Templars did not have to answer to any power in Christendom except the pope himself.

It’s aroused some curiosity as to how the Templars rose so fast to a point where the pope would take them under his wing within a decade of their formation. By 1170, according to William of Tyre, there were about 300 Templar knights and “countless” Templar sergeants – who were not permitted to wear the white habit, which had now acquired a red cross as well.

From this point onwards – their military, political and financial power increased rapidly.

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!