I have just returned from a very Templar themed holiday in Portugal!
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!
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!
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.
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!
I 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:
- 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
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 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.
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.
This cartoon series was part of the goofy 1960s/70s kids show Banana Splits – it completely shaped my early view of the saracens.
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:
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.
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.
Here they are – the TOP baddies of the Middle Ages!
KING JOHN OF ENGLAND
- Took on the barons and lost, then made to sign Magna Carta
- Excommunicated by the Pope
- Mislaid the crown jewels in a marshy swamp
- Fled in the face of an invasion of England by the King of France
PHILIP THE FAIR OF FRANCE
- Never seemed to have enough money
- So shook down the church and France’s Jewish population
- Then saw how much wealth the Templars when he fled to their Paris headquarters during a riot against his proposed currency devaluation
- Issued secret orders to arrest all Knights Templar on trumped up charges of sodomy and heresy then attempted to seize the wealth he’d seen
POPE HONORIUS III
- The Inquisition really got going with Honorius
- He sanctioned the new Dominican order to go heretic hunting
- Wrote a very odd book called the Grimoire of Honorius with helpful tips on how to summon up demons in order to control them and how human sacrifice could be used to root out sorcerers
- The Doge of Venice who funded the Fourth Crusade only so he could direct it against another Christian state instead of the Muslims
- Though blind and very old, he led the crusaders against the Byzantine empire
- Constantinople, the Christian jewel of the east, was comprehensively smashed up by the Venetians and their allies – and never really recovered until conquered by Muslim forces 250 years later
ANDRONIKOS I KOMNENOS
- A Byzantine emperor who ruled using terror between 1183 and 1185
- His own people could take it no longer, rose up and overthrew him
- A mob in Constantinople tied him to a post and beat him for three days
- Then they cut off his right hand, pulled out his teeth, hair and eyes and then poured boiling water over his head
FREDERICK II – HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR
- A very medieval approach to science, this absolute ruler conducted experiments on living people
- This included imprisoning somebody in a cask with a hole to see if their would escaped from that opening at the point of death
- Feeding two prisoners and then sending one out to hunt and the other to bed. Then disembowelling them to see which had digested his food better
- Raising two children without any human interaction to see which language they ended up speaking