Were the Knights Templar really the guardians of the Holy Grail?

500px-Galahad_grailFor 800 years, people have been thrilled by the idea that the Knights Templar were the brave guardians of the Holy Grail. But is it actually true?

The Templars were formed in 1118 ostensibly to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But, many believe, that wasn’t their real mission. It was no accident that they chose to be based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in what we now call the Al Aqsa mosque. When the holy city was under crusader control, the mosque was taken over by the Templars and renamed the Temple of Solomon. Because that’s what they believed it actually was – the site of the biblical king’s palace.

grail2The knights called themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short. They began digging furiously under the temple to find sacred treasure. It’s widely assumed they discovered the Holy Grail and became its guardians. Their mission had then been accomplished and they were to be the eternal keepers of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.

When the Templar order was crushed in 1307 by the King of France and his puppet Pope Clement, the Grail was believed to have been spirited away. Did it end up in Paris and then on to Scotland and even the United States where one rather far-fetched theory has the sacred chalice being melted down into the torch of the Statue of Liberty? Or was it whisked off to Portugal where the Templars were protected by the king? Could it be located at the Templar bastion of Tomar in central Portugal?

In the period that the Knights Templar existed – 1118 to 1307 – there was an explosion of Grail related stories. They often involved the Court of King Arthur and extolled the virtues of chivalry and risking all for divine glory. The association of the Grail with the Knights Templar wasn’t established at first – it evolved even into our own time.

The idea of the Grail may be rooted in pre-Christian folklore, particularly Celtic references to magic cauldrons – much loved by witches as you know.  The cauldron became a cup with magical powers.

holy-grail-2A 12th century poet Robert de Boron made the link between a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have used the same cup to collect blood from Christ’s body on the cross. Joseph then takes the cup to Britain where it ended up at Glastonbury. Joseph is a character who pops up in the gospels as a wealthy Jewish merchant and maybe a relative of Jesus who arranges for his burial. Successive early Christian writers developed him further and Robert de Boron stuck him firmly in the Arthurian legend.

The Grail had its theological uses for the medieval church.  As a cup of Christ’s blood it reinforced the central act of the Catholic mass where the wine in the chalice becomes, literally, the blood of Christ. This would explain the symbolism of Christ sharing the cup at the last supper and then the same vessel being used to collect his blood at the crucifixion. Wine + turning to blood + chalice = Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the turning of wine to blood in the mass.

goodfriday-neuschSo how do the Templars come to be its guardians? Step forward German medieval teller of chivalrous tales Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first decade of the 13th century he wrote Parzival – effectively a new take on the already existing legend of King Arthur. Parzival arrives at Arthur’s court, goes off on a quest to find the Grail, which he discovers in a castle owned by the Fisher King and guarded by…the Templeise.

This brotherhood of knights is indeed chaste and prayerful, like the Templars. They do battle with heathens to protect the Grail, though it’s a stone and not a cup. The stone, incidentally, confers eternal youth and heals people of ailments.  But there is no mention in the Parzival tale of these knights being in any way monastic in nature and their symbol is a turtle dove and not the Templar cross.

However, the die was cast. Templars. Guardians. Holy Grail. There was no going back now. Templar historian Helen Nicholson believes that this story and others that arose afterwards gave the Templars some very good PR in German speaking medieval Europe.

Wolfram von Eschenbach is an interesting fellow. He seems to have been influenced by French literature and knowledge coming from the Muslim world. Wolfram’s aristocratic patron – Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – had been on crusade in the Middle East and both men seem to have been unusually fascinated and sympathetic to the Islamic world.

Wolfram also gained knowledge, he claims, from the Moorish libraries of Toledo in Spain. Toledo had been conquered from the Muslims by Christian armies in 1105. Scholars from all over western Europe descended on its famous libraries translating texts from Arabic that included long lost ancient Greek works and studies on everything from geometry to music and astrology. Like the Templars, Wolfram was somebody who imbibed the wisdom and philosophy of the medieval Muslim world via different routes.

To shore up his claim that the Templars were the guardians of the Grail, Wolfram also mentions an elusive character called Kyot of Provence as a cast iron source for his tale. Chrétien of Troyes got the Grail legend details wrong in his King Arthur story, Wolfram alleges, whereas Kyot of Provence is spot on. And the Templar connection is completely true. Problem is, nobody can find any shred of evidence for the existence of this chap Kyot of Provence.

It’s almost like he never existed.

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Saint James – patron saint of crusaders

MatamorosJames, often known as Saint James the Greater, was a fisherman from Capernaum. He needs to be distinguished from James the Just, the brother of Jesus, who was another apostle. This James came from a well-to-do family. He had a burning hatred of the Samaritan community and when they failed to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, he suggested raining fire down on them from heaven. This suggestion was firmly turned down by Jesus.

The martyrdom of James is recorded in the New Testament. He was killed at the orders of Herod Agrippa. In the centuries that followed, stories began to emerge that James had found his way to what is now the province of Galicia in Spain, in the north-western corner. Opinions are divided whether he was alive or dead. Either his body was taken there for burial or he preached the gospel there.

Why did such a story develop? Well, what is now modern Spain and Portugal had been invaded by Muslim armies in 711CE. But slowly, small Christian kingdoms developed in the north of the Iberian Peninsula initiating a 700-year process of military re-conquest called the “Reconquista”. At the outset, these kingdoms came under relentless attack from the caliphate to the south, which was richer and better resourced. But slowly they pushed forward. Being the Middle Ages, these crusaders needed divine inspiration and they got it by adopting Saint James as THEIR apostle.

The town of Santiago de Compostela was designated as the true burial place of James. The saint appeared as a vision to armies before battle. Miracles were attributed to him. And slowly but surely a basilica complex developed over his grave and the pilgrims began to swarm in from all over Europe. In fact, the cult of Saint James was second only to Jerusalem in the Templar period.

I’ve been twice to Santiago and the pilgrims are still coming journeying along the Camino de Santiago. They climb the stairs behind an enormous statue of the apostle to kiss his gold and jewel encrusted shoulders. They worship before statues of him trampling on the enemy Moor.

He’s not the only biblical figure believed to have journeyed very far after the death of Jesus. There’s also:

  • Joseph of Arimathea went to Glastonbury to convert the ancient Britons
  • Thomas the apostle went to India to spread by the Christian faith
  • Mary Magdalene fled to France with the child of Jesus