The man behind the theory of the Da Vinci Code

cryptexThe whole fascination with the alleged bloodline of Jesus and the Templar association with the Holy Grail goes back hundreds of years. But in relatively recent times, the 1970s to be exact, there was a huge surge of interest in this subject. It was a decade obsessed with the occult and the esoteric.

Henry Lincoln was a charismatic individual who satisfied the insatiable curiosity of the public in these areas. He was convinced that stories about a shadowy organisation called the Priory of Sion dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Christ were true. So, he changed tack in his broadcast career from writing scripts for the BBC television series Doctor Who in the 1960s to presenting programmes about the Templars in the 1970s.

In a book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, published in 1982, Lincoln and his co-authors promoted the hypothesis that the Priory’s main aim was to re-instal the Merovingian dynasty that had once ruled France. These kings had allegedly intermarried with the descendants of Christ. The Messiah, it turned out, had been the husband of Mary Magdalene and she had borne him children.

The popes in Rome have always known that a bloodline of Jesus exists and the role of the Knights Templar, called into existence by the Priory of Sion, has been to protect those descended from Christ. The idea being that it’s the intention of the Vatican to snuff out the bloodline because it poses a threat to papal power. It also reveals that Jesus was very different to the biblical portrayal.

Academics and professional historians are almost 100% united against this account of the Knights Templar as a brainchild of the Priory of Sion, an organisation protecting the bloodline of Jesus. But the book written by Henry Lincoln was an undeniable influence on the Da Vinci Code though I should point out that an attempt by Lincoln’s co-authors to sue Dan Brown failed.

It would also be dishonest of me not to mention that the originator of the Priory of Sion theory was a Frenchman called Pierre Plantard in 1956 who claimed that he himself was in the bloodline of Jesus and descended from the Merovingian kings. He is widely regarded as having perpetrated an elaborate hoax.

Here is Henry Lincoln in 1979 on the BBC explaining his theory.

Henry Lincoln has developed his theories further since the Da Vinci Code was published and you can see a later documentary here:

 

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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:

London – the filthy medieval city revealed

If you live outside the United Kingdom – you may have missed this BBC series on Filthy Cities.  Literally – how filth molded many of our modern cities. This episode was about London and how after a big rise in the population up to the 1300s, the city finally drowned in its own horrific waste. Watch and enjoy!

The cult of Santa Muerte claims some victims

Santa Muerte
Santa Muerte (Photo credit: Anuska Sampedro)

A growing number of people in Mexico are turning to the worship of Saint Death – a figure who appears to be a combination of Catholic imagery with pre-Columbian beliefs. This blending of religious beliefs is called ‘syncretism’ and is a common feature of most faiths. In this case, Mexicans have taken the blood stained effigies of latin Catholicism imported from Spain and mixed them with the macabre ancestor worship of pre-Columbian peoples.

But in a disturbing turn – a family in Mexico is now being investigated in connection with several murders which are allegedly sacrifices to Santa Muerte. The victims were two ten year olds and a 55 year old. The alleged killers are part of a very poor family whom the local community had felt rather sorry for…but no longer. Several media outlets including the BBC and Fox News have reported on the story.

The offering of blood to the deity has an eery chime with Aztec blood sacrifices – if you recall, prisoners taken in war by the Aztecs would be dragged to the top of a pyramid where a priest would carve open their chest with an obsidian dagger and tear out their still beating heart. In this way, the sun god would be appeased and crops would grow, battles would be won, etc.

It should be emphasised that most devotees of this cult do not endorse ritual murder but the growth of worship to Santa Muerte suggests this syncretic beflief is fulfilling a spiritual need in modern Mexico – particularly among the poor – that the mainstream Catholic church cannot satisfy.

Christianity is no stranger to syncretism – from the start, it has absorbed elements of other religions possibly without being aware of the fact. Mithraism, Manicheanism, Greek philosophy, Roman gods, etc have all influenced the iconography and views of Christians. Who, for example, could look at an image of Isis and the baby Horus and not see the Virgin and child?  Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia concedes that early Christianity was heavily influenced by other faiths around it and you have, for example, the efforts of one emperor, Heliogabalus, to combine both Judaism and Christianity in to his Syrian god cult.

Turning back to Mexico, one of the country’s best actors Gael Garcia Bernal has narrated this documentary on the growth of the Santa Muerte cult and it makes fascinating viewing.

Eleanor of Aquitaine versus Pope Celestine

English: A mural which most likely depicts Ele...
A mural which most likely depicts Eleanor of Aquitaine in a royal procession, with a figure variously identified as her son, John I of the England, her daughter, Joan, or her daughter in law, Berengaria of Navarre. 

A new BBC programme airing now in the UK looks at the so-called She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens – these were the women who married kings of England but often wielded equal if not more power than their husbands.

If you think women in the Middle Ages were demure damsels in distress then I strongly advise you to watch the programme – follow the link above and download the episodes on the BBC i-Player. You’re in for an education!

The queen that cannot fail to impress anybody the most is Eleanor of Aquitaine. Well, that was one of her many titles. She took full control of the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1168 and was also Countess of Poitou. This you might say was the French period of her life. She married Louis VII of France and became queen of that country. Unfortunately, Louis seems to have had trouble in the bedroom and Eleanor bullied the pope in to a dissolution of her marriage. She then plumped for a prince eleven years her junior who conveniently became King Henry II of England and the Angevin empire. So now she had been queen of France and then England and duchess of Normandy – not bad going.

Her children were a fiery brood – inheriting some of their mother’s backbone and they included Richard the Lionheart and John – both of whom went on to become kings of England. Richard famously spent the greater part of his reign on crusade against Saladin. And while returning from crusade, he was imprisoned by a German prince who was something of an enemy of his.

Eleanor – no longer wife of the king but an imperious mother to her darling enthroned Richard was furious when Pope Celestine didn’t pull his finger out to get her son released. And she wrote the pope a letter which no leader would write today. It began with a curious description of herself – saying she was queen by the ‘wrath of God‘.

To her revered father and lord, Celestine, by the grace of God the highest pontiff, Eleanor, in the wrath of God queen of the English, duchess of Normandy and countess of Anjou, to show himself a father to her, a suffering mother.

And she implored him to get her son back.

I beg that the clamor of the afflicted enter your ears; for our calamities are multiplied beyond number. You cannot pretend not to know of the crime and infamy, when you are the vicar of the crucified, the successor of Peter, the priest of Christ, the anointed of the Lord, the God even of Pharaoh.

But Celestine seems to have been rather deaf to her pleas.  So two more letters came from her queenly hand and they were far less polite than the first.

Give my son back to me, man of God, if you are a man of God and not a man of blood. If you are sluggish in the freeing of my son, may the Highest exact his blood from your hand.

She even suggested that if the pope had any honour, which Eleanor now doubted, he would have offered his life for the return of Richard.

My son is tormented in chains and you do not descend nor send to him; you are not moved by Joseph’s grief. Christ sees this and is silent; but the work of God abundantly repays with the highest severity those who act negligently.

Eleanor went on to lambast the pope for promising to send legates that never arrived whereas if her son was free – they would have come in the hope of getting riches from him.

You alone compel me to despair who alone after God are my hope, who were the confidence of our people. Cursed is he who trusts in man. Where is my expectation now?

She then employed a very poetic turn of phrase to suggest that the pope was a man who condoned wrongdoing.

The highest pontiff sees this and suppresses the sword of Peter which he has replaced in its sheath. So he adds horns to the sinner and his silence is taken for consent.

It’s astonishing to us that such a letter could have been sent but after watching She-Wolves – you’ll find that England brought forth female rulers with the sharpest tongues and most poisonous of pens.

Saladin the merciful – think again!

SaladinAn excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode.   Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge.  It’s hard not to agree.  It is an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan.  His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.

But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187.  The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city.  He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms.  There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood.  Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo.  They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.

The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin.  The legends that followed were stuff and nonsense.  When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil.  Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople.  It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate.  And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.

But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem.  After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill.  So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would.  Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy.  If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock.  This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down.  Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.

However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy.  There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist.  I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.

Here we have Saladin depicted in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’

Saladin animated in a cartoon series!

The Devil’s Crown – the series the BBC won’t repeat

Français : Temple Church, Temple, London EC4, ...
Temple Church, effigy of William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke

In 1978 – fresh from the success of its Roman romp “I Claudius“, the BBC aired a medieval historical drama from April to August of that year called “The Devil’s Crown“.

Following the stories and intrigues of the early Angevin, or Plantagenet if you prefer, monarchs from Henry II to John.   It was quite bloody as I recall, being a teenager at the time, and involved some hapless prince being castrated in a dungeon – which was certainly the talk of the school playground the next day.

Brian Cox – he of Troy and countless other movies – played Henry II.  The greatest knight that ever lived, or so it was said at the time, William Marshal – was played by former Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton.

The episodes had titles like “Bolt From The Blue”, “When Cage Birds Sing”, “Before the Dark” and “The Hungry Falcons”.

After some reticence to have the video made available on YouTube, the BBC seems to have relented and here is an episode for your enjoyment. Bit dated – but fascinating viewing: