Tomar – filming with the History Channel on a Templar quest

I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal – in the next few blog posts, I’ll share my discoveries with you:

SPOILER FREE! I’m not going to give away one tiny morsel of the thrilling documentary on the Templars that the History Channel is planning to accompany its Templar drama series Knightfall – coming out in the autumn.

Forget Game of Thrones – that was fiction! Knightfall and other content on the Templars coming your way will be about brave knights who really existed. Winter is indeed coming. But it’s a Templar winter for us – not a Targaryen one!

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Answering questions from the History Channel in Tomar – August 2017

I had the honour and pleasure of filming with the History Channel team in Tomar, central Portugal just three weeks ago. This is a historic town dominated by a Templar castle.

It was once the front line between Christian and Muslim Europe about 800 years ago. On top of a hill, the Templar castle stares solemnly down at the small town. Within its walls is an eight sided chapel modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It also may borrow from the shape of the Dome of the Rock, another sacred site in Jerusalem, which at the time Tomar was built – from 1160 – was under crusader control. The Dome of the Rock had been shut down as a mosque and consecrated as a Christian church, the Templum Domini. Nearby, on the Temple Mount, was what is now the Al Aqsa mosque. That had been taken over by the Knights Templar as their global headquarters as it was believed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon.

But enough of Jerusalem – back to Portugal!

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The Gate of Blood – in 1190, Templars and Muslims slaughtered each other until the blood ran down the hillside

While Jerusalem was the front line between Christianity and Islam in the east, Tomar was the front line between the two faiths in the west. A Muslim caliphate had ruled the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Now a huge reconquest by Templars, crusaders and Christian kings was underway. The Templars used Tomar as their base of operations. In 1190, it even came under direct attack from a vast army that stormed out of Morocco determined to crush the knights once and for all.

But what is underneath Tomar? For decades, rumours have swirled of secret tunnels that may have been used for initiation rituals or for storing treasure the Templars brought back from Jerusalem via Cyprus and the Paris temple. Here are some of the old books I’ve used in my research on Tomar – often picked up in Lisbon bookstores and street markets.

The theory is that one tunnel links the Templar castle to their church and mausoleum of Santa Maria Olival. That church was built at a surprisingly remote location very vulnerable to Muslim attack. It housed the bodies of Templar grand masters of Portugal. It’s believed to have been built on top of an earlier Benedictine monastery after those monks fled in the face of Muslim armies in the eighth century. That monastery in turn may have been constructed atop a Roman temple and even earlier pagan places of worship.

The Templar castle on the hill is also slap bang on top of Roman and Moorish (Muslim) remains and you can see a stone from a Roman altar embedded in its medieval walls.

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Inside the Templar chapel of Tomar – modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Tomar became a place of safety for the Templars when in 1307, the rest of Europe turned against them. Led by the French king and the papacy, there was a movement to crush the Knights Templar forever.

But the Portuguese did not forget that the Templars had fought bravely against Muslim warriors and so they let them continue at Tomar though under a new name – the Order of Christ. The Portuguese king – Dinis – protected them and allowed the knights to continue to serve the kingdom.

The question remains though – when the Templars retreated to Tomar, did they bring their wealth with them? Did that wealth include sacred items from Jerusalem that might have included something we term today as the Holy Grail?

The Order of Christ would play a leading role in Portugal’s voyages of discovery around the world. The ships that rook the great discoverers to Brazil, India and South Africa bore the distinctive red cross of the Order of Christ – and the Templars – on their sails. Why? Did the Order of Christ possess knowledge that the Portuguese could ill afford to do without?

I’m half-Portuguese myself. I’m always pleased to see how bright Jewish people were able to contribute to Portugal for far longer than in other countries. Many, posing as “New Christian” converts, would be at the forefront of the discoveries and scientific and artistic accomplishments that were a hallmark of that period.

But there was also the Order of Christ – that emerged from another persecuted group of people, the Templars. Was it Templars and Jews together who led Portugal to its period of greatness? More on the role of Portugal in the Templar story in subsequent blog posts. Your comments welcome as ever!

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The Dark Truths of the Templars – watch me on TV expose some secrets

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 15.10.47I will be appearing as a guest several times in a special edition of Forbidden History devoted to exposing the secrets of the Knights Templar. Presented by Jamie Theakston and broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday TV, Forbidden History asks the questions you have all been dying to know the answers to.

 

I will be discussing:

 

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Me on Forbidden History: The Dark Truths of the Templars (Yesterday TV/UKTV)
  • The trial of the Knights Templar in 1307
  • Pagan rituals that may have become part of the Templar rites
  • How did the Templars become so rich, so quickly?
  • Were the Templars influenced by eastern ideas?
  • Did they reject church authority?
  • Why was such violence used to put down the Templars?
  • The way in which the order was wiped out

 

Ten best medieval TV series

Like most of you – I love watching historical TV series.  Even the ones that are a little suspect from a factual point of view.  Some lists of medieval TV series include stuff I wouldn’t regard as being strictly medieval.  Hope I’m a bit more authentic here.  We’ve been spoilt in the recent past so let’s look at what we’ve been offered.

PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Pillars of the Earth brought us a murderous romp from the civil war that engulfed England under the reign of King Stephen. It was a period called The Great Anarchy that tore families apart and reduced some aristocrats to outlaw status. This was at the beginning of the Templar era and a very violent time for England. I loved this series – absolutely faultless.

THE DEVIL’S CROWN

This was a BBC series about the Plantagenet kings that never got repeated after a controversial airing in the late 70s. It’s quite gory in parts including a very disturbing castration. The style is a bit dated but to get to grips with English history at the time of the Templars, I can’t recommend this enough.

DA VINCI’S DEMONS

Total nonsense about a young Leonardo da Vinci on a quest to find the “book of leaves”. Set at the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance. The series was pulled as it got sillier and sillier. But it’s a decent enough romp through the corruption of Italy at its most artistic and innovative.

GAME OF THRONES

It’s mythical, Tolkein with attitude and full of gory violence – but strangely, it captures the flavour of the Middle Ages quite well.  Full of court intrigue and belief in strange beings that dwell in the forests, what’s not to like as a medievalist? I’m always of the view that the Targaryen family are basically the long reigning Plantagenets of England who went a bit off the rails with Richard II. The dynasty ended with his murder and a usurper Henry taking over. Sounds familiar?

WORLD WITHOUT END

Like Pillars of the Earth, this comes from the pen of Ken Follett – only now we’ve moved about 150 years ahead. This is the reign of Edward III and again, it’s after another civil war. The last king, Edward II, has been killed….or has he?  Edward II, by the way, was the last king to preside over the Knights Templar before they were crushed.

THE WHITE QUEEN

BBC drama series takes us to the War of the Roses – the bloody end to the Middle Ages in England when the aristocracy tore itself to pieces. This focuses on the strong women who emerged in this conflict.

MERLIN

Merlin had a long grey beard when I was a kid but the BBC re-imagined him as a youth for this very dynamic and rather scary kids series.

THIBAUD

This was a 1960s French TV series about a crusader – I just like the theme tune to be honest! It’s a classic depiction of the Templars all neatly laundered white tunics and long flowing hair. Nobody seems to ever get filthy and dirty in the battle scenes.

ARABIAN KNIGHTS

This cartoon series was part of the goofy 1960s/70s kids show Banana Splits – it completely shaped my early view of the saracens.

THE TUDORS

I was brought up to believe that the Middle Ages ended at the Battle of Bosworth and you couldn’t really call the Tudors medieval.  But I think that view might be simplistic. The Tudors were as much medieval as modern and so I’ve included the delightful Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives. Henry is depicted as rather dashing and good looking – which he was to start with – but he never becomes the corpulent ogre that he did in real life in this series.

Many of these TV series exerted a huge influence on the writing of my Templar novel Quest for the True Cross which you can download on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback in the US and UK. See if you can spot the TV historical influences! And watch the book trailer promo video here:

Battle wounds in the Middle Ages

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A concerted attempt to decapitate this chap
A sword or axe has sliced into this head - he didn't survive!
A sword or axe has sliced into this head – he didn’t survive!
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Trauma to the side of the skull
An almight blow to the back of the head here
An almighty blow to the back of the head here
Injuries to the pelvis crop up a lot from stab wounds
Injuries to the pelvis crop up a lot from stab wounds
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This soldier was lightly armed and injured just about everywhere – no head protection!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve just returned from a trip to the northern English city of York – a place absolutely dripping in medieval history and I will be sharing some of the wonderful things I saw with you in upcoming blog posts.

Today – I’m going to share some gruesome evidence of battles fought in the 11th century between Vikings and Saxons and later on, Vikings and Normans. Strange to say that most of the leaders involved on all sides were related to each other – basically part of the northern European aristocracy.  But in those violent times, that didn’t stop them sticking axes in each others’ heads.

Back in the 1970s, archaeologists started to find the remains of the Viking city of York – dating back to the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries.  If you know your English history, then you’ll be aware that after the Romans left in the early 400s, there were various waves of invaders including the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Saxons eventually established kingdoms like Mercia and Wessex only to see the whole eastern half of England gobbled up by fiersome Vikings from Scandanavia.

I went underground to look at the remains of the Viking city – well below today’s modern street level – and snapped some skulls of those who fell in battle.

 

 

 

 

Top ten medieval battles – in the movies

Here are ten movies with great medieval battles!

The first is the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 where the leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV managed to defeat a numerically superior Saracen force. Here’s how the movie Arn portrayed it. An incredible crusader victory!

Ten years later and Saladin turned the tables on the crusaders defeating them at the Horns of Hattin – depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. A miserable crusader defeat!

This is a mythical medieval battle from Game of Thrones but really brings the sights and smells plus unmitigated horror of conflict to your screen. The Battle of the Bastards!

 

Scotland and England were forever at war with each other in the Middle Ages and some believe the Knights Templar helped the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. Here’s Mel Gibson and a lot of men in kilts killing the English.

The 13th Warrior is about a Muslim young man forced to live among the Vikings in the Dark Ages. This movie has its fans and detractors in equal measure. I loved it. It’s trashy and confused but I come back to it again and again.

More Vikings – why not? This time from the History Channel.

This takes us 100 years after the Templars were suppressed to the life of Joan of Arc leading her French army to defeat at the hands of the English. She would later be burnt at the stake.

Before Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings was giving us a mythical take on the Middle Ages.

Maleficent – another fantasy set in an imaginary medieval kind of landscape. Didn’t happen of course but the battle scene is interesting nevertheless.

And finally – a battle that really happened between the Russians and the Teutonic Knights – on ice! This is an old black and white movie but a fantastic music score, amazing atmosphere and released shortly before the Russians went to war for real with Nazi Germany.  So just imagine how terrified audiences in Moscow felt.

 

 

Priests who kill – was it unusual for men of God to fight in the Middle Ages?

We look back to the Knights Templar and it’s odd from our modern standpoint to see men of God dressed in full battle gear off to slay the enemy. Aren’t priests and bishops supposed to be advocates of peace? Well, in the medieval period, it was not uncommon for churchmen to stick on a breast plate, grab a sword, mount a horse and ride off to slaughter their foes.

bishop-odoTake for example Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror who had no difficulty joining the Norman leader when he invaded England in 1066.  He enthusiastically joined the army at Hastings and though not permitted to strike or kill with a sword, he resorted to wielding a club with gusto during the battle.  So proud was Odo of his exploits on that victorious day that he commemorated it in the Bayeux tapestry, which he commissioned, to ensure his contribution was duly immortalised.

Medieval bishops were major landowners in their own right and could be just as ruthless as any secular ruler in their treatment of the serfs.  The downtrodden might decide that their lot was so grim that revolt was the only option.  The people of Drenth, who had been handed over to the not so tender mercies of the Bishop of Utrecht by the Holy Roman Emperor, rebelled against their clerical overlord in 1228.  Bishop Otto was in no mood to tolerate this impudence and rode out in to battle with an army to put his surly serfs back in their place.  Unfortunately for Otto he hadn’t reckoned on the level of hatred he had built up in Drenth and his force was defeated at a village called Ane.  The bishop was cut down and killed.

maxresdefaultThen there was Archbishop Absalon of Roskilde who led a campaign for the Danish king against the Wendish people. He captured their stronghold of Rugen, which he then incorporated into his archdiocese. For Absalon, this campaign was also a crusade. The Wends were resolutely pagan and refused to accept Christianity. So when the archbishop took their fortress of Arkona, he took a particular delight in demolishing the huge image of their many-faced god Svantevit.

Also, consider the astonishing sight of Pope Julius II who was spotted by the great Renaissance thinker Erasmus riding back from a military skirmish in full battle armour. Astonishing to think that even the leader of the Catholic church was not past taking up arms in the service of Christ.