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.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 

An odd tale from the medieval period…

A Yuletide feast at the court of King Arthur is interrupted by a strange figure who enters on horseback.  He has a green beard, green robes and is riding a green horse.  He has a holly branch in one hand and an axe in the other.  The only thing that isn’t green are his eyes, which are red.  But this is undeniably – the Green Knight.  A threatening chap who throws down a challenge to the knights of the Round Table.  One of them should strike a blow at him and in a year’s time, he will strike a blow of equal force back at his assailant.

All the knights look at him askance. So he starts to mock their fabled courage.  So much for King Arthur and his glorious knights.  Well, the king isn’t going to take that kind of talk lying down so he gets up to strike the Green Knight.  However, just as the monarch is about to defend his honour, Sir Gawain insists that he put things right and with that Gawain chops the Green Knight’s head clean off.  That should have been an end to the matter but rather unexpectedly, the Green Knight’s now headless body walks over to the head, picks it up and informs Gawain that the challenge still stands.  See you in a year.

As the time draws near to meet the Green Knight, Gawain embarks on a long journey to meet him at a place called the Green Chapel where he will have to meekly receive the strike that is owed.  Gawain, no doubt with an eye on his immortal soul and possibly hoping for some divine intervention this side of the grave, tries to be chivalrous and noble.  But things go a bit wrong on that front when he ends up staying at a castle where Christmas is once more being celebrated – as it was a year before in Arthur’s court.

The lord of the castle is an amiable enough noble, called Bertilak de Hautdesert, who convinces Gawain to stay.  The Green Chapel, he explains isn’t far away and so he shouldn’t fret about making it there on time.  He then strikes a rather odd bargain with Gawain.  Bertilak explains his daily routine of hunting in the forests and suggests that when he returns, the two men should share whatever gain they have made during that particular day.

Sure enough, Bertilak goes off hunting leaving Gawain to snooze in bed – where the lord’s wife pops in to get better acquainted.  Gawain tries to resist her charms. But in the end he concedes a single kiss from her.  When Bertilak returns, he gives Gawain some venison he has killed.  Gawain responds by….giving him a kiss!  On the second night, he concedes two kisses to Bertilak’s wife and when the lord returns once more from hunting and gives Gawain a wild boar he has bagged, the slightly less chivalrous knight gives him two kisses.  On the third occasion when Bertilak has gone off hunting in the early morning and Gawain is left with his wife, she wants to exchange a love token. But he refuses a ring which is too valuable.  However, she then offers her green girdle which has magical powers and will protect him from all harm.  Well, Gawain can hardly refuse given the predicament he is about to face.

Bertilak comes back to the castle with a dead fox and gives Gawain the pelt.  The knight gives him three kisses.  But he does not give him the green girdle.  Incidentally, you might have thought all these kisses from Gawain would have aroused some kind of suspicion in Bertilak but at this stage in the story….apparently not.

It’s the appointed time to meet the Green Knight and Gawain goes off to find the Green Chapel with the Green Girdle wrapped twice around his waist.  He chances upon the mouth of a cave which he decides must be the chapel and indeed, the Green Knight appears with a freshly sharpened axe.  Gawain stretches out his neck to receive what will surely be the death blow but in an act of shameful cowardice, ducks the axe.  The Green Knight is rather annoyed and Gawain apologises as he bares his neck again.

The Green Knight brings the axe down a second time but then pauses, the blade just inches away, saying he was just testing Gawain’s nerve that time….what an irritating man!   But we then move on to the third attempt – things always happen in three’s in medieval legends – and now he does make contact with the axe.   But he only inflicts a minor wound.

Gawain grabs his shield and makes to defend himself as the bargain has now been met – in his view.  The Green Knight tells him to cool it.  It’s all over as far as he’s concerned too.  Suddenly, the Green Knight reveals that he is Bertilak transformed in to the shape of the Green Knight by the sorceress Morgan le Fey, wicked sister of King Arthur.  She had been in disguise as an old lady in Bertilak’s castle and the two of them had cooked up this (rather pointless?) scheme.

The first two blows had not succeeded because Gawain had kept his promise to exchange the gains of the day but on the third day, he had kept the Green Girdle.  Only because this was to protect himself and not out of criminal intent did the Green Knight spare him.  Otherwise he’d have been groping around for his head by now.

A new article in History Today points out that we wouldn’t even know about this story if it hadn’t been for the bravery of a librarian in the eighteenth century.  In the year 1731, a terrible fire burnt down the Cotton Library – an incredible collection of books that over a hundred years before had been amassed by Sir Robert Cotton.  This gentleman of the Tudor/Stuart period had basically hoovered up as many books and manuscripts as he could find from the old monasteries, that Henry VIII had closed down.  Each of the bookshelves in this collection was topped by a Roman emperor’s bust and the indexing was linked to this so the Gawain story is referred to as ‘Cotton Nero A.X.’  It’s the only copy of the story and if it had disappeared, we wouldn’t know this tale from the Arthurian cycle.

The language used is a Middle English dialect from the north of England that reads and sounds bizarre:

Tyffen her takles, trussen her males,
Richen hem þe rychest, to ryde alle arayde,
Lepen vp lyȝtly, lachen her brydeles,
Vche wyȝe on his way þer hym wel lyked.
Þe leue lorde of þe londe watz not þe last
Arayed for þe rydyng, with renkkez ful mony;
Ete a sop hastyly, when he hade herde masse,
With bugle to bent-felde he buskez bylyue.

The January 2012 edition of History Today speculates that the inspiring figure in this story could have been the fourteenth century prince and super-politician John of Gaunt.  The Green Girdle strikes History Today as being a reference to the Order of the Garter established by Gaunt’s father, king Edward III.  So, although this is notionally about Arthur and his knights lost in the mists of time, the references are firmly in the fourteenth century.

Well, that’s one theory among many and rooting around online you’ll find plenty of discussions among Gawain obsessives as to what this story is really all about.  Here’s a recent BBC documentary shedding some light on the mystery.

And here’s an animated cartoon of the story