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
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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!
Well, you heard it here first – Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame coming to your TV screen in the next season of Knightfall on the History channel. I now have a picture of him in his new role next to the drama series’ main protagonist, Landry – a hot headed Templar knight.
Hamill is of course battle scarred already – the crusades and his inter-galactic activities!
To my UK followers!
You may have seen me dressed up as Henry VIII in The Sun this week. The story was about the launch of a new ITV prime-time show called The Big Audition. Each week, viewers will follow the struggles of a group of candidates vying for three very interesting jobs!
I decided to throw my hat in the ring for one of those jobs but I can’t go into any details ahead of transmission. You’re going to have to watch at 9pm on Friday, 5 October to find out what happened. Just to say it was great fun filming and I suspect you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
Tune in and watch The Big Audition on ITV.
Cannibalism in the crusades – fact or fiction?
A special investigation into the question: is it true that crusaders ate human meat during the Crusades and were they even encouraged to do so? Your views and knowledge on this subject would be very welcome in the comments section. Now, read on…
The first years of the crusades were marked by butchery.
Even before recruits to this holy war had left their homeland, they would kick things off with a pogrom directed at the local Jewish population. In the so-called Rhineland Massacres, crusaders on their way to Jerusalem attacked Jews in towns throughout southern Germany. Many took their own lives rather than be subjected to the sacrilegious humiliation of enforced baptism.
This grim episode has been viewed as a medieval precursor of the 20th century holocaust of European Jews.
Accusation of cannibalism in Syria
When these rough and ready crusaders got to the east, things hardly got much better. For a monk who was rooting for the warriors of Christ, Fulcher of Chartres didn’t flinch from recording what would be termed war crimes in the modern age. In one alleged incident, earlier on in the First Crusade, he claimed that some Christian soldiers had cooked and eaten flesh from the bodies of dead Saracens at the Syrian town of Ma’arra.
This practice was also reported by Ralph of Caen, who claimed to have seen this grisly meal being prepared. Albert of Aix, another chronicler, added that along with Saracens, the crusaders were eating dogs too. But it was Guibert of Nogent who pointed an accusing finger at poor, bedraggled but extremely zealous crusaders he referred to as Tafurs.
These were the foot soldiers notionally under the control of nobles and princes who were leading the armies of God into the Middle East. But they appear to have been a law unto themselves, “barefoot, wearing sackcloth, being covered in sores and filth, and living on roots and grass”.
Wherever they went, they left a trail of devastation. Too poor to afford swords, they fought with clubs, knives, shovels, hatchets, catapults and pointed sticks. Their ferocity was legendary; the leaders of the crusade were unable to control them and never went among them without being armed, while the Muslims were terrified of the Tafurs.
Were the Tafurs practising cannibalism?
The word ‘Tafur’ is said to have come from a nobleman of that name who saw the vast army of beggars that arrived to join the First Crusade under the leadership of the charismatic French priest Peter the Hermit. Tafur was so moved by this sight that he forsook his fine clothes for rags and embraced a life of poverty.
It was also, apparently, Peter the Hermit who introduced Tafur and the unruly band he soon gathered around himself to the option of cannibalism as a way of enduring a long siege, such as the one at Antioch. The term ‘Paynim’ is Middle English slang for a pagan, specifically a Muslim:
Peter the holy Hermit, he sat before his tent
Then came to him the King Tafur, and with him fifty score
Of men-at-arms, not one of them but hunger gnawed him sore
“Thou holy Hermit, counsel us, and help us at our need;
Help, for God’s grace these starving men with wherewithal to feed”
But Peter answered, “Out, ye drones, a helpless pack that cry,
While all unburied round about the slaughtered Paynim lie.
A dainty dish is Paynim flesh, wth salt and roasting due.”
“Now, by my fay,” quoth King Tafur, “the Hermit sayeth true.”
The cartoonishly ghastly nature of these sadistic peasants has led some to wonder whether the Tafurs were a propaganda invention of the crusader nobility. By creating a devilish lower class stereotype motivated solely by greed and malice, this would divert attention from the equally appalling avarice and cruelty of the Christian aristocracy in the Holy Land.
Both Christian and Muslim writers painted a picture of the crusaders that hardly accorded with the idea of a war fought for a higher and noble purpose. Instead, this was brutish thuggery coated with a thin veneer of Catholic religiosity. A sad excuse for base and bestial behaviour.
Please share any more information you have about cannibalism during the Crusades.