Prester John was a fabled king who medieval chroniclers imagined ruled lands in the East or in deepest Africa (most likely Ethiopia). He was a Christian, possibly a Nestorian, and some hoped he could be an ally against the Muslim realms. The fact that nobody had ever seen him didn’t deter fervent belief in his existence.
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Prester John – the fabulous but mythical king
There were all sorts of fantastical ideas about this illusory monarch. His wealth was fabulous. He was descended from the Magi, the wise man who had showered gifts on the baby Jesus. Prester John had discovered the fountain of youth and had a mirror through which he could see events happening at any place in his kingdom.
Reports of his existence first emerged during the Crusades after Christian Europe had stormed into the Middle East. Bishop Hugh of Gebal (modern Jbail in Lebanon) wowed the papal court at Viterbo in 1145 with stories of this Christian ruler.
Did Prester John fight Muslim armies?
As recorded by Bishop Otto of Freising in Germany, Prester John was said to have defeated the Muslim emirs of Persia and might have taken Jerusalem if he had been able to cross the mighty Tigris river. There were then confused tales about the Mongols and their wars with Persia and how Prester John might have been involved.
Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, believed that somebody called King David of India had inflicted a huge defeat on the Muslims. He was said to be the grandson of Prester John. In fact, some think this King David was actually Genghis Khan but in a world with poor communications and unreliable histories, the Khan morphed into Prester John’s grandson.
Alberic des Trois Fontaines, a 13th century chronicler, wrote that in 1165, Prester John had sent letters to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa and other kings of Europe declaring that he would soon come to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The Holy Sepulchre, sacred to the Templars, would be retaken.
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A pope even writes to Prester John
Such was the willingness to believe in Prester John, that even Pope Alexander III penned a reply to the legendary king in 1177. He sent an envoy to try and track down Prester John but to no avail.
As the tide turned against the Knights Templar, it was claimed that Prester John had written a letter warning about the order stating that the Templars were enemies of Christ and had to be overthrown. This document was undoubtedly a forgery.
When the Knights Templar morphed into the Order of Christ in Portugal, the rebranded Templars set sail in the 16th century to resume the search for Prester John. But he proved to be impossible to trace.
I work close by to the Templar church in London – as featured in the Da Vinci Code. The church is not the original preceptory founded by the Templars in London, which originally stood further back from the river Thames – close by to Chancery Lane tube. Don’t bother looking for its ruins because they’re long gone and sitting under an office called Southampton Buildings.
What you see today is more or less the original ‘new’ Templar church built at the end of the twelfth century but with some significant ‘improvements’.
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It escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666 but did not escape the attention of Christopher Wren who seems to have believed there wasn’t a church in London that wouldn’t benefit from his architectural nous. So he modified the Temple to reflect the tastes of the late seventeenth century including an organ, which your average Templar would never have played.
But that was as nothing compared to the Victorians who confidently believed that they knew more about building medieval churches than any master mason in the Middle Ages. It’s a curious irony that the Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century resulted in a wave of cultural vandalism against medieval buildings that even William Morris, a huge fan of the Gothic, was forced to eventually condemn.
The Temple church was not left unscathed as it underwent changes in the 1840s and 1860s to ‘restore’ its original appearance (ie, what the Victorians thought a medieval church should look like).
You almost have to feel sorry for Wren and the Victorians because all their wooden excrescences went up in flames courtesy of the Luftwaffe one night in 1941. Unfortunately, damage was done to the original structure and much of what you see is a well intentioned rebuilding in the 1950s. Without that, you’d be standing in a charred shell staring up at the sky. I’m afraid this was the fate of so many London churches.
So please visit the Temple church in London – it’s in lovely little corner of the city off Fleet Street, but be aware that not every stone you see was lovingly placed in position by the Knights Templar. History, as it does, has brutally intervened.
Sodomy was a standard smear against your enemies in the Middle Ages. And one person prepared to do the smearing was a bishop called Adam of Orleton. He accused both the Knights Templar and Edward II, king of England, of sodomy. And the accusations stuck in both cases.
Accusing Edward II of sodomy
This month’s edition of ‘History Today’ mentions in passing a certain bishop called Adam of Orleton who in a sermon on October 15th, 1327 declared that King Edward II of England, who was in the process of being deposed by his wife and a rebel army, was a sodomite.
The magazine says this is the first known reference to Edward II being gay – or a ‘sodomite’ to use the unpleasant terminology of the time. Orleton didn’t actually specify who King Edward had sodomised or when – he was just a sodomite.
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The bishop accuses the Templars of sodomy
As History Today then points out, this was a tried and tested way of denigrating somebody and had even been used against a Pope. What makes Orleton’s accusation interesting was that he had previous form. Because just a few years earlier, the good bishop had condemned the Templars as sodomites before the pope at his residence in Avignon.
If only Freud had been alive in the Middle Ages, we might have put Orleton’s obsession with homosexuality down to a latent desire to do some sodomising himself. But hey ho, no psychoanalysis for another six hundred years.
So who was bishop Orleton? Well, he seems to have been something of a serial bishop, starting with Hereford. He got that bishopric in the teeth of opposition from Edward II – who he later accuses of being a sodomite.
The pope who appointed him was John XXII – often claimed to be the pontiff who initiated an interest witch-hunting that would take off in succeeding centuries. He would be charged with treason by Edward II and had to be placed under the protection of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.
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Once Edward II had been overthrown by his wife and her associate Mortimer, Orleton had the joyful experience of visiting the imprisoned king to force him to abdicate. What happened to Edward II next has always been the subject of salacious gossip.
The goriest account is that he had a red hot poker shoved up his backside – some say to leave no mark on his body but others as a kind of commentary on his sexual preferences. But the one person who claimed to have witnessed the king’s death later retracted his remarks and some claimed to have seen the ex-king alive years later.
As I said, Orleton had spoken against the Templars a decade before in Avignon accusing them of sodomy. At the trial of the Knights of the Temple, they were said to have kissed each other on the mouth, anus, end of the spine (in anca), naval and ‘virga virilis’. Some say this was done to awaken the ‘kundalini’ serpent of knowledge.
Orleton died in 1345 a wealthy man as bishop of Winchester. His alleged role in the death of Edward II was immortalised by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.
There are different theories about the relationship between the Templars and the arrival of cannabis in Europe. Were the knights potheads who popularised dope in the Middle Ages?
Cannabis and the Knights Templar
In the book “Green Gold: the Tree of Life, Marijuana in Magic and Religion”, it is conjectured that hashish came to Europe via the Templars as a result of their trading activities with the Ismailis in outremer.
The warriors of the Ismailis, who defended their faith against Sunni rulers, were the famous ‘Assassins’. These fearless killers struck at their enemies in such a way that their bravery was often ascribed to taking hashish and that was where their derived from. Hashishin = Assassin.
Not so says Amin Maalouf who says the word Assassin means ‘followers of the foundation’ and has nothing to do with ganja.
The Assassins got the Templars hooked on cannabis
But Robert Anton Wilson in his book ‘Sex and Drugs’ recounts the familiar line that the courage of the Assassins must have been influenced by narcotics and that there is evidence the Templars partook of the wacky backy. At the very least to relieve pain.
One must mention the Sufis, the Islamic mystics often said to have influenced the Templars. They worshipped a Golden Head and the Templars worshipped the head of Baphoment and therefore, they were all off their heads. Dope produced that higher level of enlightenment that mead and ale was could never hope to.
I can only hope that when Jacques de Molay faced the fires outside Notre Dame in 1314, he did so with the benefit of several pints of Stella Artois and a big long spliff. How else to endure that public agony?
Abraxas was a grotesque creature with a twin tail – similar to the twin tailed mermaids known as “melusines” in the Middle Ages. So why did this bizarre beast appear on Knight Templar seals?
Abraxas – a gnostic creation known to the Templars
The hideous Abraxas appears on Templar seals and was presumably a cult picked up in the east as Templar knights went to fight in outremer. The origins of Abraxas seems to lie in gnostic beliefs in an overarching deity more powerful than all other gods.
Abraxas seems to have played a central role in the gnostic cult of Basilides in the second century AD. This Alexandrian mystic was teaching at a time of huge religious ferment when Christianity hadn’t completely defined itself in the way that we know it today.
So Basilides did believe in a kind of disembodied Jesus – gnostics didn’t like the idea of an incarnated God – and that the only way to know Jesus was through a process of intense meditation, for want of a better word, called ‘gnosis’.
How Abraxis fitted in to this is probably as some kind of master-god above other divine and semi-divine entities. Happy to have that explained more accurately by experts out there.
The head of Abraxis sometimes resembles that of a Basilisk – the cockerel crested serpent head of that legendary beast. The trunk is normally that of a man and then legs of snakes and feet which seem to resemble scorpions.
Some investigators believe the Templars were using a network of Neolithic caves throughout the UK for religious/mystical purposes. Royston caves is often cited as an example of a magical Templar cave.
Strange carvings in Royston cave
Royston is a bell shaped cave, man made or shaped with a ventilation hole. The symbols carved on the wall bear an uncanny resemblance to Templar images seen at their properties throughout Europe and the Middle East.
It’s thought that the strange inscriptions in the cave at Royston are a form of hieroglyphic text that the Templars discovered in outremer – an ancient form of writing long forgotten.
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These are some of the identified carvings:
Richard the Lionheart has been identified with his queen Berengaria of Navarre whose crown is above her head but not on top of it, as her status as crowned queen seems to have been disputed The poor woman also had to contend with the Lionheart’s alleged preference for chaps over the ladies. All good fun with the squires and knights no doubt.
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One carving at Royston erroneously attributed
There is a figure that looks almost Celtic in its crude simplicity who was wrongly credited as King William of Scotland – mainly because a ‘WR’ is scrawled on him. More likely to be Saint David. Unfortunately, the cave is covered in the grafitti of idiots who have seen fit to leave their names there – as if posterity would remember them on account of that act of vandalism.
If Royston is a Templar creation, it does beg the question of whether the Templars had other similar cave-like places of worship. Caves have always been mystical places seen as bringing worshippers closer to the subterranean Gods but as the Templars, like all Christians, worshipped as sky god, it’s hard to see what the significance would be.
King John of England was one of the least popular monarchs ever but curiously he received significant support from the Knights Templar. Even when his barons were moving in on him, the Templars remained resolutely loyal to this treacherous king.
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King John stays with the Templars before Magna Carta
It’s an interesting fact that when King John was first presented with the demands of the barons, who were forcing Magna Carta (the great charter) on to him, he was staying at the New Temple in London with Brother Aymeric (sometimes spelt Elmeric), master of the Order in England.
This was rather like lodging with your bank manager who also happened to enjoy a papal seal of approval and have a handy stock of weapons and well trained soldiers.
King John uses the Templars as his personal bank
The Templars were very much John’s bankers, particularly after he was declared excommunicate by Pope Innocent III.
John seems to have both deposited and taken out multi-thousand ‘mark’ amounts to protect his wealth and to use it to hire troops. Aymeric also helped John out with his papal problems – particularly important as Innocent III was beyond doubt the most powerful pope in history.
Why did the Templars support the Kings of England?
The Templars were enthusiastic supporters of the Plantagenat kings and did rather well out of them. Henry II was a keen benefactor and John gave them the island of Lundy, bits of Northampton and Cameley amongst other bequests. For this, he got their support in his bust up with the aristocracy.
Aymeric St Maur may have been related to Milo St Maur, one of the rebel barons. Entirely plausible as they were all from the same Norman knightly class. It’s also claimed that the St Maur family were ancestors of the Seymours from whom Jane Seymour emerged, third wife of Henry VIII – two hundred years after the crushing of the Templar Order.
Praying and training to be warriors in communities called Ribats, a certain class of muslim warrior could have been an influence on the founders of the Knights Templar. Unless somebody wants to dispute this and please feel free. But it’s certainly tempting to believe that knights who found themselves exposed to the influences of the Islamic world, adopted some of their practices. They saw Ribat warriors effectively combining prayer with fighting and thought, hey – we’ll have some of that.
At Santa Maria Olival in Portugal, the Pentagram is very clearly evident at the end of the nave. This is the church where Templar grand masters were buried in the Middle Ages. It’s based in the former Templar citadel of Tomar. So, we have to ask, what is a Pentagram doing in a Christian church?
Now, I’ve read one theory that the Catholic church with its numerological obsessions – 3, 5, 7, 12, 13 – has a perfectly good explanation relating, I think, to the wounds of Christ. The Catholic church obviously lists them: two in the wrists for the nails; two through each of his feet and one wound from the lance of the Roman soldier Longinus who pierced the side of Jesus.
The church pictured here is actually Franciscan and was built after the Templars were destroyed in 1307. However, one normally associates the Pentagram with paganism so it’s interesting to see it pop up in a Christian context. And it seems to do so especially in Portugal.
That said, there is also a curious carving in Rosslyn church, Scotland where a pentagram features. One theory, rejected by the Rosslyn authorities needless to say, is that the pentagram represents Venus. This is said to indicate that the Templars undertook major sea voyages. And the voyage which excites the most speculation – is a possible flight to America with all their treasure.
If you want to get an idea on why the Templars may have made quite a few enemies early on, then their acceptance of excommunicated men in to the Order is a good starting point.
Some early sources say that the Order had to gain the permission of a local bishop to allow somebody who had been cast out of the church to become a Templar. But even that requirement seems to have been junked as the Order blithely informed the “established” church that it answered only to the Pope.
So…it could admit anybody it wanted so long as the Holy Father, in far off Rome, didn’t raise any objections. In the context of medieval Christendom, that does seem quite extraordinary.
It must have been angered and confused many prelates to see the Temple recruiting people who, one assumes for good reason, had been forbidden the holy sacraments and shut out from the Catholic church.
Yet it seems they could knock on the door at their local Templar preceptory and next thing, they were off to the crusades. How did the Templars get away with this?