Women are often seen as playing a passive role in great political and religious movements – but nothing could be further from the truth – even in the Middle Ages! Because it was some very powerful and resourceful females who led one of the biggest medieval revolts against the power of the Pope at the time of the Templars.
Despite all the best efforts of the Roman Catholic church to exclude women from decision making in religious matters – they took things into their own hands when it came to heresy. They joined movements that challenged papal power and preached ideas that horrified Rome. Even though the punishment for heresy – in case you didn’t know already – was death.
So who were these female heretics daring to challenge the authority of the Pope?
Well, the heresy I’m writing about here is the Cathars – who became dangerously popular in southern France during the 13th century. They denied the authority of the Pope, the Catholic church and the sacraments. Borrowing from ancient belief systems like gnosticism, they turned their back on the material world and all its corruption.
Catharism spread virally across southern France – and many feared it would replace the Catholic church. It’s even believed that the parents of Guillaume de Nogaret – the minister of King Philip of France responsible for arresting the Knights Templar in 1307 – were Cathars. And women played an important leadership role in their ranks.
Women like Esclarmonde of Foix. Her name meant ‘clarity of the world’ in the Occitan language spoken in those days in southern France. She became a “Perfect” within the Cathars – their version of a priest. It’s been argued that the welcoming attitude of the Cathars towards women like Esclarmonde was rooted in their belief in reincarnation. Basically, until your soul was cleansed of earthly sin, you were condemned to be re-born over and over – sometimes as a man – and sometimes as a woman.
There were two classes of Cathar – ordinary believers who were called “credentes” and ministers who were called “perfects”. It scandalised the Catholic church that the Cathars allowed women like Esclarmonde to become perfects – taking the role of priests, which to this day is only done by men in Catholicism.
Esclarmonde became notorious for using her position as a well-connected aristocrat to spread the Cathar heresy among the people. The records of the Inquisition reveal that she was one of many other women preaching Catharism across France. For example, Helis de Mazerolles later told a Catholic inquisitor that her grandmother, mother and sister had all been perfects in the Cathar order.
The involvement of women in the Cathar heresy was so prevalent that when the Catholic Inquisition wanted to spy on them – they sent in women. It’s been calculated by one French academic that these spies would have found that a third of the perfects were women. To get that into perspective, imagine the Catholic church with women making up one in three of its priests, bishops, cardinals and maybe even – a pope!
These spies discovered that Cathars, when captured and interrogated, would recant their beliefs to avoid being executed and then resume being Cathars once freed. Though many took to living in cabins in the wood and adopting a nomadic lifestyle in the countryside. This included brave women who continued to be revered and to whom the faithful would genuflect.
FIND OUT MORE: Did the Knights Templar worship decapitated heads?
Initially, the Catholic church tried to debate with the Cathars in the hope of puncturing their strong beliefs. Esclarmonde was reportedly at one of these debates and even contributed – to the disgust of the Catholic priests present. When she finished talking, an enraged priest screamed at her:
Go madam and tend your distaff (an instrument for spinning wool) as it does not appertain to you to speak in debates of this kind.
One of those present at the debate was Dominic Guzman – who would go on to form the Dominican order of friars. They would play a huge role in the Inquisition. One can only imagine what he thought about this feisty female daring to question Catholic orthodoxy.
But before the Dominicans and the Inquisition could interrogate anybody, the Cathars had to be stamped on hard and the pope called for a full on crusade in the south of France that led to the deaths and execution by burning of thousands of Cathar followers.
Then the Inquisition moved in. Many Cathar men and women went into hiding and continued to try and preach. They were sheltered by Cathar families, now keeping their faith a secret. And it seems that women perfects were helped to the same extent as the men.
Eventually, the church got its way and the Cathars literally went up in smoke – men, women and children. But the memory still continues of those extraordinary women who were so prominent and powerful.
The BBC is broadcasting a new TV series based on The Name of the Rose – a fantastic novel by the late Italian author Umberto Eco. It tells the story of a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, who visits an isolated abbey with his young assistant Adso only to discover a series of grisly murders unfolding.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes the Pope’s holy inquisitor Bernardo Gui – who once tried to put William on trial for heresy. Needless to say, the deaths continue but William discovers the strange cause. Bernardo is more about exercising his authority than revealing the truth and his heavy handed cruelty leads to him being lynched by local peasants.
Some of you may remember that back in 1986, there was a movie version of The Name of the Rose with Sean Connery as William and a very young Christian Slater as Adso. Bernardo Gui was played very convincingly by F. Murray Abraham. So much so that it’s worth pointing out that this inquisitor was a real person.
Bernardo lived between 1262 and 1331 and like many inquisitors was a member of the Dominican order. This very severe organisation of friars was tasked with rooting out what the all-powerful Catholic church regarded as heresy. And by heresy, that was any religious belief – particularly within Christianity – that undermined the legitimacy and authority of the Vatican.
To be declared a heretic was a death sentence. And the form of capital punishment preferred by inquisitors was burning at the stake. The reason being that Catholics hoped that on Judgement Day they would rise bodily to be resurrected and taken into heaven by a merciful God. If your body had been burnt to ashes – well, that might be a problem come the big day.
Inquisitors operated under the authority of the Pope in what came to be known as the Holy Inquisition. Bernardo Gui was typical of your average medieval inquisitor – well educated; brilliant at public speaking; a sharp mind and determined.
There have been attempts in recent years – often from Catholic sources – to tell us that the Inquisition wasn’t really that cruel and bloodthirsty. But a cursory look at the real life story of Bernardo will disabuse you of that notion. He was sent into France to deal with the Cathar heresy, which threatened to overturn the Catholic church in the south of the country.
He was merciless towards Jews who refused to convert to Christianity burning their holy books in public and spreading the usual lies about Jewish people poisoning wells and generally scheming against their neighbours.
Bernardo Gui was also carrying out his ruthless activities at the same time that the French king was crushing the Knights Templar – using accusations of heresy and sodomy. Along with the Cathars, the leadership of the Knights Templar were also tied to wooden stakes and burnt to death.
READ MORE: Where to find the Knights Templar today
There were other famous inquisitors during the medieval period. Konrad von Marburg (1180 to 1233) was one of the first grand inquisitors operating in what is now Germany. Unfortunately for him, he took on a local prince accusing him of heresy and shortly afterwards, Konrad was cut to pieces by a group of knights – in very suspicious circumstances.
Tomás de Torquemada (1420 to 1498) is probably the most famous inquisitor – the head of the notorious Spanish Inquisition. At a time when Spain was being formed out of kingdoms that had previously been Christian and Muslim – Torquemada set about destroying both Islam and Judaism in Spain forcing people to convert to Catholicism, leave the country or die.
In January 2019, I filmed in Rosslyn chapel for America Unearthed – a historical investigative series on Discovery’s Travel channel presented by Scott Wolter. After the production crew had packed up for the evening, I decided to roam around Rosslyn with my iPhone and film an exclusive Templar Knight guided tour just for you.
Now that America Unearthed is broadcasting in the United States, I’m happy to share this video with you. Excuse the grainy quality but the light was not on my side. Nevertheless, for those of you eager to investigate the links between the Knights Templar and Rosslyn, I hope this will give you some insights. Feel free to ask me more questions.
The intrepid Scott Wolter has been back on American TV screens once more with his incredible investigative series America Unearthed. I was honoured to be asked to hook up with Scott in Scotland to unearth clues that might prove the Templars got to the New World with their treasure!
We spent a weekend doing some historical detective work around Rosslyn chapel and then Wemyss Caves – a dangerous subterranean world up the coast. To find what we were seeking there, I had to make a very undignified entrance into the bowel of the cave by very literally crawling on my belly. But it was worth it!
FIND OUT MORE: Caves as sacred places to the Templars
In the cave, as you will have seen on the programme, there is a very odd carving that we took a good look at and I won’t spoil your viewing by telling you what Scott began to uncover.
I’m asked all the time what the Templars did with their treasure. Some believe the knights escaped southwards to what is now Portugal and were protected by the king in that country who re-branded the Templars as the Order of Christ.
Others believe the Templars went northwards to Scotland and were shielded by Scottish families who not only had connections to the brotherhood but may also have been descendants of Jesus Christ. From Scotland, the theories run, the treasure may have found its way along Viking routes to the Americas.
And then there are those who say the treasure either never existed or had been depleted by the time the Templars were crushed in the year 1307. What I can safely say to all parties is that the case is not closed.
DISCOVER MORE: Where did the Templar treasure go?
The story of the Knights Templar is undoubtedly fact woven with fiction and speculation but contrary to what some wiseacres think, it’s not that easy to disentangle the history from the mystery. Many often asserted facts are hearsay and destructive rumours from medieval chroniclers – while many apparent conspiracy theories can possess a germ of truth.
In short – enjoy America Unearthed on the trail of the Knights Templar and blow a huge raspberry at the naysayers!
If you look at the charges brought against the Knights Templar during their trials between 1307 and 1314, it’s difficult for the modern mind to make out whether they were being accused of undermining the church with false belief or were they just sorcerers. In other words, were the Templars magicians or heretics?
My understanding is that for most of the medieval period, what really scared bishops and popes was the threat of heresy. Magic was a nuisance and something to be snuffed out whenever it arose. But it didn’t pose the same kind of existential threat to the Catholic church that heresy did.
READ MORE: Friday the 13th and the Knights Templar
But what about all those witches that were burned I hear you cry?! Well, the witch burning craze didn’t really take off until very late in the Middle Ages – from the 15th century through to the 17th century. With the Templars, we’re looking at the 12th to the 14th centuries. And it was heresy that gave prelates the jitters.
Why? Because false belief (as the pope saw it) undermined the very foundations of the church. And it could also be alarmingly popular. The Cathar heresy in southern France threatened to topple church authority in the region and was the subject of a vicious and bloody crusade to suppress it.
But having stated that, magic did start to feature more in high profile accusations around the time of the Templar downfall. So, when King Philip of France (who suppressed the Templars) fell out big time with Pope Boniface VIII, he accused the pontiff of communing with demons. In fact, we can say that it was King Philip who started to bring magic and witchcraft into high level politics.
The king’s first minister was Guillaume de Nogaret and he was involved in a direct, physical attack on Pope Boniface. This shocked many medieval Christians so De Nogaret tried to justify his thuggery by accusing the pope of sorcery – as well as heresy against his own church. This was a dress rehearsal for the charges De Nogaret would bring against the Templars not long after.
FIND OUT MORE: Were the charges against the Templars trumped up?
Magic now moved from something weird that happened in villages to a standard accusation levelled by nobles against each other. Charges of high treason were often spiced up with stories of magical attacks on the king. And gradually, heresy and sorcery became intertwined in a new and deadly way.
We see this very obviously in the trial of the Templars. Because it doesn’t seem to have been enough to accuse the Templars of being heretics – spreading a false and evil version of Christianity. No – they also were charged with worshipping strange idols and engaging in sordid rituals.
And this seems to have cemented the new trend.
Two years after the Templars were totally crushed, Pope John XXII declared that witchcraft would be treated in the same way as heresy and could be investigated by the Inquisition.
Pope John actually believed there had been assassination attempts against himself through the use of magic. In one case, he accused an Italian noble of making a silver bust of him with an unlucky zodiac sign on it and the inscription “demon of the west”.
So I think in retrospect, it’s true to say that the Templars represented a turning point where the church and secular authorities began to more overtly mix heresy and magic together to concoct a stronger case against their enemies that they could sell to the public.
In 1307, arrest warrants were issued for the Knights Templar from the King of France on charges of heresy, sodomy and conspiracy. This led to the trial over a seven year period of many knights including the leaders of the Templar order. But what did most people think at the time – did serious commentators believe the Templars were guilty?
It’s often assumed that most people in what we call the Middle Ages were thick and gullible. But this is a bit of a Victorian fabrication. The educated classes, although in a minority, were more than capable of thinking critically – though within a very religious framework.
So, did clever people think the Knights Templar were guilty as charged? The answer is that opinions were surprisingly divided. In Italy, there was deep suspicion about the motives of Philip, King of France. One writer, Cristiano Spinola, raised his doubts shortly after the Templars were arrested.
And he was echoed by the poet Dante who doesn’t accuse the Templars of greed in his epic story, the Divine Comedy. But he does take a swing at King Philip, accusing him of avarice and asserting that the monarch had “lawlessly brought his greedy sails into the very Temple itself”.
The Florentine banker, adventurer and chronicler Giovanni Villani ascribed a whole series of catastrophes that befell the French royal family on Philip’s decision to seize the Templars and their wealth. When he heard that the last Templar grand master Jacques de Molay and other Templars had been burnt at the stake, he referred to it as the death of martyrs.
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author who wrote a collection of stories called the Decameron about a group of people escaping the plague and telling each other tales to pass the time. He wasn’t born when the Templars were arrested but his father had been in Paris at the time and Boccaccio was very interested in what had happened to the knights.
He saw it as a classic wheel of fortune tale. They had risen, succeeded and then fallen. Like many contemporary church chroniclers during the lifetime of the Templars, he was both fascinated and slightly repelled by the rapid enrichment of the Templars, which he thought must have corrupted their once lofty ideals.
Raymond Llull was a philosopher born in what is now Spain who had tried unsuccessfully to get the Knights Templar and the rival Knights Hospitaller to merge. The Templars had flatly rejected this idea. Llull had been a fan of the Templars but after his offer had been dismissed, he began to cheerlead for the French king.
What seems to have driven Llull is a strong desire for unity in the church. He came to regard the Templars as a disruptive influence and so maybe convinced himself that it was for the best that the knights went up in flames.
In February and March this year (2019), I was in Paris researching a TV programme and made two visits inside Notre Dame cathedral. It’s as unmissable a monument at the very heart of Paris as it has been for over 800 years. The massive medieval construction sits on an island in the middle of the river Seine dominating its surroundings.
The tragic fire in Notre Dame
How terrible then to see Notre Dame in flames and largely destroyed by fire. Unfortunately, so many historic buildings suffer this fate yet many manage to rise again from the ashes.
However, even if the cathedral is repaired – it will not be the same as it once was. The gorgeous wooden screens I saw – dating back over 600 years – will have gone. Statues will have cracked. Stained glass windows will have been blown out. And the roof has already collapsed.
Notre Dame is a global catastrophe
This isn’t just a disaster for France. It’s a tragedy for all humanity. France gave us the Gothic style of church architecture that you can see all over the world. Notre Dame was the queen of Gothic cathedrals. It had a majestic elegance that inspired architects, masons and carpenters to strive to reproduce it in many cities.
Of course, for us Templar fans, Notre Dame has a poignancy as the last Grand Master of the Templars was burnt close by in the year 1307. Fans of the French novelist Victor Hugo will remember his hunchback character ringing the bells in the towers.
It’s a sad day and I leave you some images I took on my iPhone wishing I’d snapped a whole load more. But then I had no idea what was about to befall this grand structure.
The Knight Templar drama Knightfall has returned for a second season. It introduces us to a new character called Talus played by Mark Hamill. You’ll remember him as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. There’s a certain irony in that connection given that director George Lucas is believed to have modelled the Jedi in Star Wars on the Knights Templar.
DISCOVER MORE: Did the Knights Templar worship heads?
Mark Hamill in Knightfall
So, here we have Hamill making his Templar debut and reviews have been broadly positive. It should give the series a much needed shot in the arm after a slightly shaky first season. There are a couple of characters (no prizes for guessing) that I’m glad got bumped off in season one and I certainly hope they stay that way.
Hamill’s character is called Talus and he’s a gristly and battle scarred old knight come to beat some sense into the main protagonist, Landry, and his associates. I’m hopeful that Hamill is going to lift Knightfall to new heights and, as ever, would value your feedback after viewing.
The Knights Templar lived by a strict rule book written in part by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. It governed their lives laying out how they should dress, conduct themselves, fight in battle and how often they prayed every day. The Templar rule had to be strictly adhered to but what did it actually state? Let’s take a closer look!
Some of the points in the Rule seem very odd to us now. Templars were not allowed to talk about their own faults or somebody else’s faults between each other. I assume this was to stop gossip or self-pity or bitching. Popular activities among secular knights like falconry and hunting were completely forbidden.
Any Templar expressing a wish to have the good things in life was to be given the worst:
If any permanent brother on account of a fault or on account of a feeling of pride shall desire to have beautiful and excellent things, for such a presumption he, without a doubt, deserves the most vile things.
Knights Templar were also forbidden to communicate with their parents unless they had permission. And any letters had to be read out loud to superiors. Associating with women was also frowned upon:
It is dangerous to befriend women because the old enemy has cast out many people from the right path of paradise by female companionship.
And if a Templar broke the rules, they would receive a light penance if they admitted their sin. But woe betide a Templar whose errors were uncovered by another brother and made known to the master. Then they would expect “severe discipline and correction”. One common punishment for transgressors was to be made to eat alone.
So intertwined were the knights that being told you had to have dinner away from your comrades was a terrible fate indeed!