We think of the Crusades as a series of battles between Christianity and Islam fought in the Middle East. But in fact, the Crusades were fought in many places including modern Spain and Portugal.
When the Knights Templar were founded in 1119, the Iberian peninsula was divided between an Islamic caliphate in the south and several Christian kingdoms in the north. Separating these two very different and warring realms was a buffer zone that swapped hands over and over.
Between the rivers Mondego and Tagus in Portugal lay lands referred to in the medieval period as ‘nullis diocesis’ – territory with no bishop or patriarch. Church and state had no firm hold over these lands. Instead, crusaders and Moors (the Muslim armies) fought each other bitterly gained and losing the advantage.
It fell to the Knights Templar to try and hold the line. The king of Portugal gave the Templars control over nullis diocesis hoping their combination of religious zeal and military courage would be enough to push back the Moorish invaders.
The knights built a string of castles to defend their position. One such was the fortress at Tomar, which you can still see today. It’s famous for an octagonal church that lies within it referred to as the ‘charola’ – allegedly modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The Portuguese Templars at Tomar elected a grand master for their new nation and the most famous of these was a formidable character called Gualdim Pais. You can still see a statue of him in the town square. He holds a kite shield and resembles a Norman knight of that period.
He had served in the Holy Land and been present at the Siege of Ascalon in 1153 – when Fatimid Egypt had been soundly defeated. Back in his native country, he fought yet another crusade. The difference being that this war, by and large, was moving in favour of the Christian side. Bit by bit, the Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus, that had ruled much of Spain and Portugal for four hundred years, was gradually being driven back.
However, in 1190, Gualdim faced a dire threat he might never have anticipated. A vast army from Morocco surged through southern Portugal and arrived at the mighty stone walls of Tomar. So bitter was the hand to hand combat that a door into the city is still called the Gate of Blood. The ground was crimson as both sides thrust and cut at each other.
Five years later, Gualdim died and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Olival, which you can visit today.
Any of you who watched the Swedish Templar movie Arn will know all about Gerard de Ridefort – or at least be familiar with the name.
Gerard was a Grand Master of the Templars who was either a crazed, over-zealous hothead leading the crusader project in the Holy Land to bloody defeat or a brave knight undermined by intrigue within the Christian court of Jerusalem. All depending who you want to believe.
It was nearly a hundred years since Jerusalem had been taken from Muslim control to be ruled by a succession of Christian crusader rulers. Their Kingdom of Jerusalem was one of several states carved out by the crusaders in the Levant (modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel basically).
The first half of the twelfth century had been all about expansion, pushing back Muslim opponents who were divided among themselves. But a leader had emerged on the Muslim side bringing both a new unity and a strength of purpose. His name was Saladin. Pragmatic genius or proto-jihadi? Historians differ in their view of the man.
He was the formidable enemy that Gerard had to face in the 1180s as Grand Master. The crusaders had managed to survive thus far through a combination of military organisation but also a degree of diplomacy and finding ways to co-exist with notionally hostile neighbours. But Saladin, having united Syria and Egypt, was in no mood to continue with crusaders sitting on his doorstep. They were going to be driven into the sea – back to the lands from whence they had come.
The Templars had emerged as the elite fighting force in the vanguard of the Christian Middle East. But Gerard had to contend with some very poisonous politics in Jerusalem. On one side of the scheming was Raymond of Tripoli, a local Christian magnate. Gerard is said to have hated him for very personal reasons.
Gerard had arrived in the Holy Land as just an ordinary knight – not a Knight Templar. He had hoped to marry a very eligible heiress called Lucia of Botrun, a daughter of one of Raymond’s vassals.
Raymond had agreed to this match but was then offered Lucia’s weight in gold if he would hand her over to a very wealthy Italian merchant. Well, Raymond wasn’t going to turn that offer down. So, Lucia was given to the merchant and Gerard had to remain a very disgruntled bachelor.
It almost looks like Gerard joined the Templars in a fit of pique. But he took to his new role. Rapidly, he rose to be Seneschal and was then elected Grand Master. His ascension to the top job came as Saladin massed his armies on the crusader borders while Christian kings in Europe had too much trouble at home to spare more resources for the war against Islam in the east.
And then the leper king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, died. He was succeeded by the seven year old son of his sister Sybilla – not exactly what the crusaders needed at that moment. Here was a child monarch, crowned as Baldwin V, who couldn’t even raise a sword let alone make any strategic decisions. And over his head, two men – Raymond of Tripoli and Guy de Lusignan – battled for real control.
Gerard backed Guy, the husband of Sybilla. And his support for Guy became even more essential when the child king suddenly died aged only eight. Gerard and Guy raced to crown Sybilla queen before Raymond could intervene. In an almost comical twist, the three keys to the chest containing the crown jewels of Jerusalem were held by the patriarch of the city, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.
The master of the Hospitallers, Roger de Moulins, didn’t want to hand over his key but a bit of roughing up by Gerard and others convinced him to play along with the plan. Though he did petulantly throw his key out of the window, which probably earned him another punch in the face. Sybilla was duly crowned and although she had promised to divorce Guy, as a condition of becoming queen, she then stuck a crown on his head too – and dared anybody to dissent. Gerard looked on approvingly.
Down the road in his castle, Raymond was horrified. So full of anger that he made a truce with Saladin. Worse, he then gave permission for one of Saladin’s commanders to march his forces through territory under Raymond’s control, right past the biblical town of Nazareth.
Gerard got wind off this while on his way to Raymond to negotiate peace terms between him and Sybilla. In truth, Gerard would rather have been heading towards Raymond to cut his head off and stick it on a pole. But he was under orders to patch things up between the rival factions. Instead, he ran into a seven thousand strong Muslim army.
The Templar grand master was accompanied by the leader of the Hospitallers – he of the key thrown out of the window. Together they were followed by about 140 knights dedicated to fighting for Christ.
So, let’s so the maths. 140 as a percentage of 7,000. My calculator says that’s fifty Muslims on Saladin’s side to every one crusader knight. Everybody agreed it was probably a good idea to retreat – except Gerard. He demanded they honour the Templar code and charge towards the opposing force.
They did and were cut down in a bloody massacre. Gerard narrowly escaped. Roger de Moulins wasn’t so lucky. This was seen by some chroniclers as typical of Gerard’s emotional approach to decision making. Whereas previous Templar masters had been cool and calculating, Gerard de Ridefort just ploughed in and hoped God was smiling on his endeavour. Evidently not at Cresson.
That engagement would be a rehearsal for the even bigger catastrophe at Hattin, which I’ve blogged about before and I’m returning to very shortly – so keep following!
Gerard would be taken prisoner by Saladin after the massive crusader defeat at Hattin but then negotiated his own release – showing he could do diplomacy when he had to. However, he was captured again by Saladin after the siege of Acre and this time, his head was struck off his shoulders.
Right at the beginning of the Templar story, nine knights gathered to found a new order of warriors who would take monastic vows. One of them was a man called André de Montbard. So, what do we know about him?
Well, he was the uncle of a very influential religious figure called Bernard of Clairvaux – later to be made a saint. Bernard was a really unusual individual. He was constantly plagued by illness including what appear to have been severe migraine attacks and high blood pressure. But far from adopting a healthy regime, Bernard tortured his own body with punishing routines of fasting, sleep deprivation and intense prayer. The sort of thing that impressed people in the Middle Ages!
Bernard had joined an order of monks called the Cistercians who wanted to bring back some discipline and modesty to medieval monasticism. He hated twiddly ornamentation in churches and illuminated bibles and believed monks should eat very plain food. So not much fun to be holed up in a monastery with Bernard – unless you shared his point of view.
Crucially, he also believed that killing in the name of Christ was OK. You weren’t committing homicide – killing a human in other words – you were killing evil. And that was just fine. So when Bernard got a visit from his uncle André de Montbard in 1126, who wanted to tell him all about the new order of Templars, it was a marvellous meeting of minds. Bernard didn’t need much convincing to swing his support behind his uncle’s friends.
Uncle and nephew wrote to each other over the years exchanging very touching thoughts. Uncle André was busy with the Second Crusade in the Holy Land while Bernard made rousing speeches to huge throngs of peasants urging them to go and fight. The future saint also found time to write the rule book for the Templars and promote the order to the pope as a jolly good idea.
Towards the end of his life, a chronically sick Bernard begged André to come and see him again. Though he also acknowledged that the crusades were in trouble and needed André’s undivided attention:
…I wish even more strongly to see you. I find the same wish in your letters, but also your fears for the land that Our Lord honoured with His presence and consecrated with His blood…
Bernard began to realise he might never see his uncle again and their conversations would have to continue beyond the grave.
But let us mount above the sun, and may our conversation continue in the heavens. There, my Andre, will be the fruits of your labours, and there your reward…
The two never met again. André de Montbard had his work cut out as Muslim armies put huge pressure on the Christian kingdoms in the Middle East. This took its toll on the Templar Grand Masters. Everard des Barres, third master of the Templars, resigned and went to join Bernard as a monk in his abbey.
Des Barres had already been absent from the Holy Land for a while and this clearly annoyed André de Montbard. He was effectively his second in command as Seneschal and wrote a rather testy letter to his boss asking him to come back and show some leadership:
Never has your presence been more necessary to your brothers. And however Providence may dispose of us, do not hesitate to start your journey back.
But Des Barres decided he’d had his fill of dangerous battles in far off lands. Instead, he tonsured his head, put on a plain monks’ habit and went off to pray with Bernard for the rest of his life. The Templars then elected Bernard de Tremelay as Grand Master number four.
But De Tremelay was killed during the siege of Ascalon – controlled by Egyptian forces. A breach in the wall of the city was created and Bernard unwisely rushed in with a band of Templars. This act reflected the first in/last out mentality of the Knights Templar – depicted as courage by their supporters and vainglorious rashness by their detractors. All of these Templars were cut to pieces and their bodies displayed, hanging headless from the walls.
André found himself elected the fifth Grand Master. Unfortunately, he didn’t have long to enjoy his time in that position. Less than three years later he passed away in Jerusalem – the last of the original nine knights who had founded the Knights Templar.
Get read to find out where the treasure of the Knights Templar is buried – when the History channel airs Buried on 31 January, 2018. And guess who appears as an expert when they arrive in Portugal? Yes – me!
I’ll be seen clambering around tunnels in Tomar, once the nerve centre of Templar operations in Portugal. This is where the knights fought off repeated invasions of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim forces in the south. It’s also where the Templars transformed into the Order of Christ after they were banned in 1307.
Buried is accompanying the History channel drama series Knightfall – which you will know all about if you follow this blog! So….look out for me on screen soon!
So now Knightfall is creating a dramatic and tense conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and William de Nogaret, chief adviser to the king of France. Scroll down and you’ll see the two historical profiles I provided you of these two very real-life characters.
As I explained in blog posts previously – and do search – De Nogaret was from a family tainted by association with the Cathar heresy. This was a large-scale rebellion in the south of France against the Catholic church led by a Christian sect that rejected the power of Rome’s bishops and priests. In my view, De Nogaret was possibly over-compensating for his family’s treachery towards the French state through being ultra-loyal to the king. But he remained hostile to the church – and especially the pope.
Boniface existed and was reviled by the poet Dante as an utterly corrupt and venal pope. However, in relation to the king of France, he was simply refusing to be his puppet. The king wanted to tax church wealth without seeking Rome’s permission and the Vatican was refusing to comply. This would eventually result in a violent physical conflict between De Nogaret and Boniface – and I wait to see how Knightfall depicts that.
As I suspected, the clash between these two medieval heavyweights has somewhat overshadowed Landry, our Knight Templar hero. But it’s a delicious and spiteful battle to watch! Ostensibly, they are duking it out over a royal marriage but we can sense there are bigger themes underlying this that will eventually lead to the destruction of the Knights Templar – an army of monastic warriors protected by the pope.
This episode flagged up King Philip of France’s hefty debts to the Templars, which we know will provoke their downfall. He’s a monarch always in debt and on the look out for treasure he can grab to balance the books. Meanwhile, the Templars, oblivious to their impending doom, are desperately looking to recover the Holy Grail – which they have carelessly lost. Click on the tab above for more information about the Templars and the Holy Grail.
The Grail plot for now is less compelling than the scheming between De Nogaret and Boniface but it’s clearly going to erupt to the surface as the series progresses. So far – so good. Your thoughts?
Imagine a disease that results in you losing your fingers and toes, your nose collapsing and going blind – just because somebody sneezed over you. By the time the Knights Templar were formed in the early 1100s, Europe was in the grip of a leprosy epidemic. Villages all over England saw poor unfortunates excluded and shunned for bearing the tell-tale signs of Hansen’s disease.
You had to come into close contact with an untreated leper and be exposed to their nasal droplets but clearly this happened as more and more people succumbed. In the period in which the Templar order existed – 1118 to 1314 – over 300 leper houses were established across England. Some believed that if they were kind to lepers, then God would shorten their time in purgatory after they died for their acts of charity to the afflicted.
But many more medieval folk simply wanted lepers shunted away and unseen. They even insisted that they carry a bell around their neck to announce that they were in the vicinity. You can imagine the terror that some superstitious and ignorant peasants felt when they heard that bell coming towards them. They might have hidden behind a bush until the sad, bedraggled figure limped past.
The bacteria that causes leprosy – Mycobacterium leprae – is slow growing and today very treatable. But of course with no modern medicine in the medieval period, an infected person could expect a long period of painful suffering before death. And I’m talking years here.
So in my book Quest For The True Cross – I have a village leper called Jake, once a respected member of the community and now an outcast. Somebody like him would have been a familiar figure. Villagers might have remembered him as a fixture down the local tavern but now reduced to being treated like a dog with scraps thrown to him while he watched holy mass through a hole in the church wall – called a “leper squint”. There is one such squint in a Saxon church at Greenstead near where I grew up.
When somebody was identified as having succumbed to leprosy, they had to undergo an unusual religious ritual where they were officially excluded from the community. The priest would lead the leper to the local church telling him or her on the way that while they were sick in body, their immortal soul might still be pure. In life the leper would endure pain but in death, the invalid could ascend to heaven with a body free of disease.
Once inside the church, the leper had to kneel under a black cloth – almost as if he was dead already – while the priest set out the rules by which he or she would now have to live:
I forbid you ever to wash your hands or even any of your belongings in spring or stream of water of any kind and if you are thirsty, you must drink water from your cup or some other vessel.
The leper was told by the priest, in no uncertain terms, to wear the designated clothes, carry the bell; never to touch things they wanted to buy but point; never to enter taverns again; to only have intercourse with their own husband or wife; never go down a narrow alley in case they infected somebody; not to touch fences or posts; avoid infants and to only eat and drink in the company of other lepers.
And know that when you die you will be buried in your own house unless it be by favour obtained beforehand in the church.
The most famous leper known to the Knights Templar was the young King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV – featured with a silvery mask in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of the debilitating condition and the appalling attitudes towards leprosy in the Middle Ages, Baldwin was able to rule for eleven years and fought the Saracens bravely in the Holy Land.
This Christmas, relax by the fire with a historical adventure that will transport you back to the Middle Ages and a time of battle, adventure and danger. Join my Templar hero William de Mandeville as he searches for the True Cross, the most holy relic of the Knights Templar, stolen by the Saracens!
See him team up with a Syrian mercenary Pathros and an English urchin Nicholas as they travel across the known world to find the lost treasure. They will encounter corrupt and murderous clerics, barbaric crusaders, a sadistic sultan and the beautiful Orraca – who will fall in love with William but….how that love will be tested!
In the United States, it’s available as an e-book or paperback via Amazon – click HERE.
It’s also stocked by Abe Books in the US – click HERE.
In the United Kingdom, Waterstones is retailing the book for £2.99 – click HERE for more details.