From Monday 11 March 2019, I will be appearing in every episode of Private Lives broadcasting on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world. Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I’ll be covering the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:
Back in the 13th century, a French king – Louis IX – went on crusade to the Holy Land. While in the great Christian city of Constantinople, Louis bought what he believed to be the Crown of Thorns of Jesus and part of the True Cross for an astonishing sum of money. When he returned, the saintly king then built an equally expensive chapel to house these relics of the passion. Recently I visited the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which you can still see today.
DISCOVER MORE: The Knights Templar and the Holy Grail explained
What are the Passion relics?
Louis wasn’t the only person to be convinced he had found passion relics from the crucifixion. From himself down to the Nazis in the 20th century, there has been a fascination with acquiring these treasured and sacred items. When we talk about “passion relics”, we’re normally referring to the following:
It can also refer to the veil of Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus; a piece of stone from the table or room where the Last Supper was held; the burial shroud of Jesus (Turin Shroud for example) and I’ve even heard of a chip from the column to which Jesus was tied for the flagellation as being revered by the Catholic faithful.
READ MORE: Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Holy Grail
Holy Grail as passion relic
Templar conspiracy theories have often claimed that the knights’ core mission was the retrieval of passion related relics, most notably of course the Holy Grail. That is a cup held against the body of Jesus during the crucifixion to collect some of his blood (unless you think it wasn’t a cup but the literal “bloodline” of Jesus – see Dan Brown).
During the Middle Ages, churches and abbeys vied to get their hands on passion relics. If they couldn’t get part of the cross Jesus was nailed to then they’d claimed to have a splinter of the cross on which the so-called Good Thief died. That’s the thief who was nice to Jesus as they died together.
Or one church in Rome still claims to have the finger of saint Thomas that was poked by the doubting follower of Christ into one of his wounds after the saviour came back from the dead. Then there’s the seamless robe Jesus wore on his way to die that several churches claim to possess, most notably Trier in Germany.
FIND OUT MORE: The mysterious Priory of Sion and the Templars
Himmler and one passion relic
Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler stole the lance of the centurion Longinus from Austria during the Second World War. It was returned to the Austrian capital Vienna after Hitler was defeated in 1945. And then the most enormous passion relic has to be the Scala Santa in Rome – the entire marble staircase that led up to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who condemned Jesus to death.
When the Knights Templar were put on trial in 1307, an accusation made over and over again was that these holy warriors worshipped heads. But why would these defenders of the Catholic church be engaged in religious practices condemned as heretical?
The proof for head worship
The historian Malcolm Barber has written very authoritatively about the trial of the Templars and I’m drawing on information in his excellent book The Trial of the Templars. So what evidence did he find for Templar head worship?
I will confess that this aspect of the trial of the Knights Templar fascinates me. Why the emphasis by the church on head worship? What was so significant? I’m going to return to this topic and some of the theories that have sprung up around it.
FIND OUT MORE: Were the Knights Templar heretics?
In the year 1198, Duke Frederick of Austria died on crusade. His body was transported back from Palestine to the monastery at Heiligenkreuz in his home country where it was buried with full royal pomp. Well, not all his body. Because like several rich nobles who died on crusade, Frederick had been stripped of all his flesh at death through a process called “excarnation”.
Evisceration and Excarnation
Defleshing of the dead was done to allow the body of a wealthy lord to be transported back across hundreds of miles to their homeland without rotting. It was simply unacceptable for a noble to be buried in a strange land that might not even be Christian. As well as the fact that kings expected to lie for eternity in their dynastic vault and not some random hole in the ground. So, they had to lose all the flesh – because it would decay in the heat.
And here I have to distinguish between excarnation and evisceration. It had become established practice to remove just the organs of medieval kings. This evisceration may have begun as an act of preserving the corpse but developed into a means of sharing the late king’s body with different locations.
So, the heart might be sent to a cathedral hundreds of miles away from the rest of the body. This is what happened to the heart of Richard the Lionheart after he was killed by an archer while on crusade. His body was interred at Fontevraud abbey but his heart was sent to the city of Rouen.
That was evisceration and it was practiced in royal courts down to the early 20th century. But the removal of all the flesh leaving just the bones – excarnation – was something peculiar to monarchs and nobles far, far away from their homeland. It increased in frequency during the crusades to the Holy Land and southern Europe.
LEARN MORE: The mummified heart of Richard the Lionheart
Defleshing your rulers!
It’s such a gruesome thing to happen to a dead person that it’s an under-discussed topic. Basically, the deceased was boiled in water, wine or vinegar – then defleshed – and finally the remains were wrapped in animal skins for transportation.
In 1299, the Pope outlawed both the practice of evisceration and excarnation. Not least because on Judgment Day, the dead were supposed to rise bodily from their graves. Nobles who had been defleshed might not present a pretty sight! There was also a Roman Catholic aversion to cremating the dead and excarnation was done on some occasions by roasting the body – a big no-no for the Vatican!
DISCOVER MORE: Exorcism and magic in history
One defleshed body that didn’t make it back!
Not everybody who went through this procedure made it back home. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa drowned while on crusade in modern Turkey. His body was boiled and then defleshed with the skeleton ready for transport. However, at some point, the skeleton was lost. Frederick Barbarossa never made it back to the family vault.
On the 18 March 1314, the last Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay was executed in Paris – burned to death in front of a large crowd. His death brought two hundred years of the Knights Templar to a gruesome end. But where exactly was De Molay judicially incinerated?
I often read that the grand master was executed “in front of Notre Dame”. There are plenty of artist representations online that show De Molay screaming his last before the magnificent cathedral that still stands today. So, last week, I began my search for the execution site of Jacques de Molay at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame is at one end of a cigar-shaped island in the middle of the river Seine referred to as the Île de la Cité. This was the original ancient city of Paris, protected on all sides by water. From the 11th century, a mighty church began to emerge dominating the island. But nowhere around Notre Dame could I find a plaque commemorating the execution of Jacques de Molay.
For the next ten minutes, I walked past impressive government buildings to the other end of the island. There I found the so-called Pont Neuf – or new bridge. Thing is, it’s not very new. In fact it dates back to the very early 17th century and is amazingly still in use.
I was assured that if I wanted to find the execution spot, it was near some steps by the bridge. And so I descended a stone staircase to what I think was the original ground level of the island.
And there I found a small park ending in a point. I’m informed this land was reclaimed since the Middle Ages so Jacques de Molay couldn’t have been burned at the very end of the Île de la Cité. Otherwise, they’d have been trying to burn him underwater – not really feasible!
Frustrated in my quest, I asked a tour guide where on earth the grand master met his fate. He told me to turn around. And sure enough, up on the bridge itself, was a plaque. I mean, you’d seriously have to know it was there. As public monuments go, this is beyond understated. Maybe the Catholic church still isn’t keen to draw attention to a very shameful episode in its history.
DISCOVER MORE: Torture and violence in the Middle Ages
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.
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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!