Winter is coming – but courtesy of the History Channel, it will be a Templar winter. Forget the dragons and white walkers, give me the Knights Templar any day of the week. Here is the trailer for the series you must not miss this fall. Or autumn for my British followers!
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!
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’ve been filming with the History Channel in Tomar, a town in central Portugal that was once a stronghold of the Knights Templar.
I’ve written about this magical place before but having gone back again this year, I just need to beg you all to book a ticket and go and visit. It’s breath taking. The only place on earth where I really think you can feel the presence of the Templars around you.
I made a little iPhone movie while I was there and want to share it with you. I’ll tell you more about the History Channel programme in future blog posts.
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:
It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Crusades and one to ponder if you get bored with your family’s company over the Christmas dinner – which I am sure you will not. But just in case!
The story unfolds in the 1160s. Jerusalem had been in crusader hands since 1099 and a string of Christian states had been formed encompassing such cities as Antioch, Tripoli and Gaza. There was both a constant fear of attack by the Muslim caliphate but also a curious if uneasy co-existence with the enemy.
When King Baldwin III of Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly died, it was said that the Muslim governor of Aleppo – Nur ed-Din – publicly grieved for the young man. His brother, Almaric, took the kingdom as there were no children to inherit and set about planning an attack on Egypt. The Fatimid rulers of that country were divided and weakened and Almaric calculated that if he didn’t try and seize the Nile with its huge bread basket, then Nur ed-Din would certainly have a go. Either the crusaders or the Turks would rule in Egypt.
Almaric’s subsequent campaign in Egypt relied on Templar support and it didn’t go well. While Almaric was occupied in the Nile delta, Nur ed-Din attacked Antioch to the north. The ruler of that crusader domain, Bohemond III, was lured into a familiar Saracen retreat and then attack trap, which killed many Templars. The experience of Almaric’s activities in Egypt and Bohemond in Antioch made the Templars think that in future they might rely on their own knowledge of battlefield tactics instead of the more impetuous Latin princes.
The Templars were able to act with some independence as the Papal bull Omne Datum Optimum meant they answered only to the Pope and not to any king or prince. However, somebody must have failed to give a copy of that document to Almaric because when he discovered a band of twelve Templar knights who had decided to abandon a castle in TransJordan to Nur ed-Din rather than face heavy losses, he hanged all of them. This completely poisoned relations between Almaric and the Templar Grand Master, Bertrand of Blanquefort.
So when Almaric announced he wanted to have another go at Egypt, the Templars stayed put – even though the Hospitallers, rivals to the Templars, agreed to go. This bad atmosphere continued into 1173 when Almaric began talks with the leader of the notorious Assassins, a messianic group based in Syria. They were fanatical Ismailis who attacked Christians and Sunni Muslims alike, taking out senior figures whenever the opportunity presented itself. But they were shy of attacking the Templars – and maybe rightly understood these knights were made of sterner stuff.
Instead – and incredible as it might seem – the Assassins paid the Templars an annual tribute of 2,000 Bezants (high value coins) to be left alone by the knights! In the 1160s, Sinan – leader of the Assassins and known as the Old Man of the Mountain – announced that the end of the world and the resurrection of the flesh had arrived. This was heretical to Christians and Muslims but led the Assassins into a constant orgy – by all accounts – where hedonism ruled.
Breaking off from one of these orgies, Sinan sent out feelers to Almaric saying that he was up for converting to Christianity. The king of Jerusalem was overjoyed and guaranteed safe passage to an envoy from Sinan to visit him. But en route, a group of Templar knights attacked the messenger from Sinan sending the traveling party of Assassins scurrying back to their leader.
Almaric was incandescent with rage. It was bad enough that the Templars were acting in an increasingly independent spirit but to attack the Assassins when they were offering to convert to Christ seemed outrageous and nonsensical. He ordered the arrest of the Templar who had led the attack, Walter de Mesnil.
The Templar Grand Master was noticeably circumspect about the whole incident though it’s hard to believe Walter acted in isolation like some kind of rogue Templar – most analysts believe he must have been ordered to undertake the attack. The chronicler William of Tyre, who despised the Templars, wrote very cattily that the order was just worried about losing its 2,000 Bezants a year if peace were made with the Assassins. Walter Mapp scribbled that the Templars didn’t want peace – because it would destroy their whole reason for being. The order craved war and destruction, he wrote.
But others have been kinder. It just might be that the Templars understood the Assassins better than Almaric. They knew that the crafty Sinan was up to no good. He was an unscrupulous murderer who had dipped his hands in Muslim and Christian blood. When Almaric died, he was succeeded by Raymond III. His father had been slain by the Assassins and so all talks were Sinan were abandoned.
Nevertheless, down the years the opinions on the Templar attack on the Assassins have remained divided. Was it naked self interest or the advancement of the crusades that lay behind their act?
A rather quaint term for prostitutes in medieval London was the ‘Winchester Geese‘. The reason being that the brothels that served Londoners on the south side of the Thames, in the district of Southwark, fell under the Bishop of Winchester. Far from being displeased by the presence of these licentious houses, the good bishop taxed them with gusto – as recorded in the court rolls.
You can still see remains of the 12th century Winchester Palace today in Southwark. The bishop took his title from the city of Winchester, which had been the capital of England during the Saxon and early medieval period. London, however, emerged as the top city and the bishop’s most impressive residence was what we see a sad remnant of today. Southwark cathedral, which was part of a large complex of religious buildings, is still there – though heavily restored. There is also the notorious Clink – the bishop’s prison, which continued to serve as a criminal lock up till the eighteenth century. Worth a visit!
But back to the ladies! They plied their trade and unfortunately, on occasion, contracted and spread venereal disease. Syphilis, in particular, was a killer in those days. In fact, a Saxon graveyard has just been unearthed in Ipswich, Suffolk and among three hundred skeletons, many been found bearing clear signs of the disease. Getting a dose of the clap was referred to as being ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ or getting ‘goose bumps’. The humour, no doubt, intended to detract from the sometimes dire consequences.
Medieval attitudes to prostitution seem to be mixed. Sex was clearly for procreation but these fallen ladies seem to have been viewed as a way of preventing good Christian men falling into even worse practices – like sodomy or masturbation (seen as mortal crimes by the church). From Saint Augustine onwards, there’s a tradition of fulminating tracts about the evils of sex in quite prurient detail. So, prostitution was a kind of safety valve for wicked desire and it had the added benefit of filling the bishop’s coffers.
When these geese died, they had the final indignity of being buried in unconsecrated ground. The Cross Bones graveyard in Southwark has been preserved by local residents and a little memorial set up to commemorate the Winchester Geese. Below are some medieval ladies of the night I encountered this year at medieval fairs in Obidos and Santa Maria da Feira in Portugal
They only existed for barely two centuries – but the Knights Templar continue to fascinate….so says the National Geographic channel and we certainly wouldn’t object. The knights formed the top of the medieval fighting machine and were based in the Temple of Solomon – what is now the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. With preceptories all over Europe, they were bequeathed huge amounts of money and ran a kind of medieval banking system. But all good things must come to an end – and King Philip the Fair of France decided to crush the Templars. So it came to pass that on Friday 13th in 1307, a dawn swoop resulted in the arrest of Templar leaders.
Heresy was the charge. Torture got the desired answer. Spitting on the cross, etc was confessed to and the pope – under pressure from the French king – suppressed the order in 1312. Eventually, the elderly grand master Jacques de Molay was burnt at the stake before Notre Dame cathedral – at a spot still marked by a monument in Paris. From the flames, De Molay demanded that within the year – the pope and French king would meet him before God. And sure enough – both men died in the following months.
So – what happened to the treasure of the Templars? Could it lie hidden in a Templar treasury? That’s what National Geographic set out to find discover!
When the French went to arrest the knights at the massive Temple in Paris in 1307 – they found no treasure. Legend has it that some Templars fled to England with untold riches. At a Templar preceptory in Gisors, northern France – there is some enigmatic graffiti left by Templars held prisoner in their own castle. It seems to show large carts being moved piled high with something.
In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo – author of the Hunchback of Notre Dame – was intrigued by Gisors and the images left by these imprisoned Templars. In the 1920s, an enthusiastic caretaker set about excavating Gisors to see if the treasure had been left there. He kept digging for decades, even through the Nazi occupation of France, and eventually claimed to have found a vault with nineteen stone caskets and thirty chests – full of treasure. When local authorities went to check – they found nothing. No underground room and no treasure. The caretaker was sacked.
Subsequent digs at Gisor have yielded zilch. So attention turns to England and specifically the Templar church in London. But no sign of gold and jewels there. So it’s off to an eighteenth century stately home at Shugborough in the English countryside. Templar enthusiasts will know that in the grounds there is an intriguing folly called the Shepherds Monument. Inscribed on it are ten letters that don’t appear to make any sense. National Geographic invokes a quote from Nostradamus that infers it’s a clue to the existence of an underground chamber that if discovered will result in the trial of the world’s leaders – attractive thought, eh?
The monument is a copy of a structure that appears in Poussin’s famous painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ and National Geographic goes into a theory linking Poussin to a future pope and a possible coded interpretation of the title of his painting that suggests knowledge of divine secrets. All of which propels the programme out of England and off to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome. There we find a bust of Poussin and an ancient throne occasionally used by the pope.
I’m a little disappointed that a reference to king Louis XV is accompanied at this point by an image of Louis XIV – c’mon National Geographic! Anyway, we’re now asked to believe that the carving on the Shepherd’s Monument is actually a reference to Nova Scotia. L’Acadie in French being the old name for that Canadian province. Joel Doucet – a descendant of early French settlers in eastern Canada has been investigating Templar links to Nova Scotia. There seem to be clues of sorts. Not least that a local native American tribe in the region uses symbols not dissimilar to the Templar cross. Could the Templars have brought their treasure all the way to this part of the world?
A very deep pit at Oak Island has captivated treasure hunters for a century and many digs have been conducted to find Templar treasure. Incredibly, a young Franklin Roosevelt – the future US president – dug at the site. And National Geographic has a picture of FDR with his spade and a gang of like minded treasure seekers. But is this pit and others really the work of the Templars? Well, some Templar experts are prepared to say yes.
Back in France, a massive coin horde has been found by Bernard Delacourt. It’s not a mystical treasure from Jerusalem – but it could be wealth squirreled away by the Templars as the order was crushed.
- Barnes & Noble stocks ‘Quest for the True Cross’ – a great Templar adventure (thetemplarknight.com)
- Quest for the True Cross – the Templar port of Acre (thetemplarknight.com)
- Fellow Templars – would you like a cut of my book earnings? (thetemplarknight.com)
- Templar terminology – how they described themselves (thetemplarknight.com)
- Quest for the True Cross – the opening chapter in Jerusalem (thetemplarknight.com)