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.
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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.
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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.
As I’m writing a book on the Templars for publication next year and seeking to improve this long running Templar blog – I wanted to know the questions YOU want answered.
Hundreds of you responded through the Facebook pages I run to encourage discussion about the Knights Templar – more details on how to follow those pages below. What you told me has led to a rethink of the book and even what I put on this blog going forward.
I was genuinely surprised by your responses. So, let’s look at the topics you want to know more about.
TODAY’S TEMPLARS – One of my most popular blog posts is on which organisations today claim to be genuine Knights Templar. It seems that some of you have been ripped off by certain bodies claiming to be Templar. I’d like to find out more about this activity and hopefully we can put a stop to it. You also want to know a whole lot more about the Freemason and Catholic links to the Templars and about certain political organisations that claim (falsely in my view) to be Templar today. Expect a blog post on this shortly.
TEMPLAR ANCESTRY – Many of you are keen to trace your family tree back to Templar knights or other important figures in the Middle Ages. I’ve had several emails recently from people using Ancestry dot com to try and discover their family’s medieval roots. I’m a big fan of Ancestry and being half-Irish have connected with a lot of long lost American cousins. I’ll be looking at ways to unearth your Templar era ancestors.
THEIR TRIAL AND EXECUTION – I got a lot of comments and emails asking for more information about the arrest of the Templars in 1307 and their subsequent torture, trials and executions. You also want to know if there’s any truth to the allegations of heretical worship, initiation rites and whether the Templars could have saved themselves. I’m on the case!
MONEY MAKING AND TREASURE – I expected people to be interested in the treasure of the Templars but many of you are more interested in their innovative banking activities. Their role as early financiers seems to fascinate you greatly! One of you believed they may have founded the Swiss banking system, something I have heard before. But, another one of you thought that by the end they were totally broke – there was no treasure left. I have covered the money angle previously on the blog but will return to it on your behalf.
BLOODLINE OF JESUS – Some of you hate the whole Dan Brown approach to the Templars but, equally, many of you want the Merovingian dynasty theory explained in more depth and what exactly is the link to Mary Magdalene and Christ? Several of you were vexed as to whether they were enemies or defenders of the Catholic church. Let me shine some light on this….look out for some blog posts!
CLEAR LINE BETWEEN HISTORY AND MYSTERY – One of you expressed total contempt for the 1980s Templar conspiracy theory book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – which made the Priory of Sion theory very popular and influenced Dan Brown. It seems some of you have had enough of this alleged hokum. To help you navigate fact and fiction, I’m now going to separate blog posts into “Templar mystery” and “Templar history” categories from now on, clearly labelled – so you will know when I’m giving you acknowledged facts or just chatting about the conspiracy stuff. You’ll see I’ve actioned this already.
BRAVERY AND BROTHERHOOD – You likened the Templars to the SAS and the Foreign Legion and admired their bravery in battle. I clearly need to tell you more about how they fought and whether it was true that they were the most courageous of crusaders. The word “Loyalty” came up a lot and you view that as one of the Templars’ most likeable qualities.
Thank you for your feedback and keep it coming!
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Knights Templar Forum – click HERE
Quest for the True Cross – click HERE
Henry VIII as never seen before!
Henry VIII was king of England long after the Knights Templar had ceased to exist. But I thought this appearance by my good self on prime time British TV in October 2018 would amuse many of you. I agreed to dress up as Henry VIII and audition for a part playing this larger than life monarch. If I’d got the part, I’d have ended up working at Hampton Court Palace telling tourists about his life!
The TV programme is called The Big Audition and I was in the first episode of the new series. I’ve done lots of guest slots on history TV programmes talking about everything from the Nazis to the Romans to the Tudors. But I’d never done reality TV before so this was an interesting insight into how reality TV programmes are made.
What you see in the video clip below is me making my way to the TV studio in full costume. It was filmed as a kind of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever meets Henry VIII. Great day and huge fun. But kind of glad a young actor got the job. I’ll stick to my current day job!