Winter is coming! But it’s a Templar winter, not a Targaryan one!

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!


Spain and Portugal – battle ground between Islam and Christianity

Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century – Muslim ruler of modern Spain and Portugal

Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.

So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?

Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.

The medieval cathedral in Porto from where a crusade was launched to take modern Lisbon from its Muslim rulers – an undertaking covered in my book Quest for the True Cross

This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.

For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.

Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.

In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four  hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.



The murder of Thomas Becket

Henry II with Thomas Becket, from a 13th-centu...
Henry II with Thomas Becket, from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript 

No event shook late twelfth century England as much as the cold-blooded murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in his own cathedral.  The knights who plunged their swords in to him as he clutched at his altar believed they were doing the will of king Henry II, ruler of Normandy and England.

Thomas had been born in the same year the Knights Templar were founded – 1118.  He came from a prosperous Norman background and had been mentored as a youth by Theobold, a previous Archbishop of Canterbury.  Through him he had met Henry II and the two men had become firm friends.  Indeed the hot-headed king had even elevated Thomas to the position of Chancellor – the top secular post in his realm.  As Chancellor, Thomas was in charge of all financial matters and he excelled in his duties.

So when Henry wanted to bring the church more under his control, he thought it might be rather a good idea to instal Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury – the top religious job in England.  The small matter of Thomas not being a cleric was resolved in the traditional medieval manner of a rapid ordination and shortly thereafter he was wearing the bejeweled mitre.  However, Thomas went native in his new role – in no time he was defending the church against the king.

Henry operated on a pretty short fuse at the best of times – eating straw off the floor and growling like a dog during some of his worse tempers – and he was soon trumping up charges of financial impropriety against Thomas dating back to his time as Chancellor.  The Archbishop fled the country for several years but was then reconciled to Henry.  Everything, the king thought, was going to be sweet from here on in.  But Thomas, who clearly had an obstinate streak of his own, refused to let Henry exert royal control over church courts and in one volcanic fit of fury, Henry wondered loudly ‘who would rid him of this turbulent priest’.  A group of knights didn’t need a second prompting and made their way to Canterbury, swords in hand.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Bloody history.  The knights hacked at Thomas brutally slicing the top off his head.  But the now dead Archbishop would have the last laugh (from the grave).  His murder turned him in to one of the most revered saints of the Middle Ages and his tomb became a massively popular pilgrimage destination.  Chaucer would describe the journey of one group of pilgrims to the cathedral in his ‘Canterbury Tales’.  Here is the eye witness account of a monk, the appropriately named Edward Grim, who saw the killing and left us this account:

“The murderers followed him; ‘Absolve’, they cried, ‘and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated, and restore their powers to those whom you have suspended.’

“He answered, ‘There has been no satisfaction, and I will not absolve them.’

‘Then you shall die,’ they cried, ‘and receive what you deserve.’

‘I am ready,’ he replied, ‘to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace. But in the name of Almighty God, I forbid you to hurt my people whether clerk or lay.’

“Then they lay sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they may kill him outside the church, or carry him away a prisoner, as they afterwards confessed. But when he could not be forced away from the pillar, one of them pressed on him and clung to him more closely. Him he pushed off calling him ‘pander’, and saying, ‘Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection; you and your accomplices act like madmen.’

“The knight, fired with a terrible rage at this severe repulse, waved his sword over the sacred head. ‘No faith’, he cried, ‘nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord the King.’

“Then the unconquered martyr seeing the hour at hand which should put an end to this miserable life and give him straightway the crown of immortality promised by the Lord, inclined his neck as one who prays and joining his hands he lifted them up, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, to St. Mary, and to the blessed martry Denys. Scarce had he said the words than the wicked knight, fearing lest he should be rescued by the people and escape alive, leapt upon him suddenly and wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God on the head, cutting off the top of the crown which the sacred unction of the chrism had dedicated to God; and by the same blow he wounded the arm of him who tells this. For he, when the others, both monks and clerks, fled, stuck close to the sainted Archbishop and held him in his arms till the one he interposed was almost severed.

“Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’

“Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder.

“As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.’”

The Murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury


Why did England expel the Jews in the Middle Ages?

Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats
Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not the most pleasant episode in English medieval history to look back on but it happened during the Templar period and we can’t ignore it.  Fortunately, we have an excellent book by Robert Winder called ‘Bloody Foreigners’ to fall back on.  The title of the book is not to be taken literally – his contention is that the English have always been ambivalent or outright hostile to immigration and yet it’s a country very much forged by migrants and where, curiously, in spite of the initial negative feelings towards new arrivals, England has a strong record of assimilation and absorbing other cultures – seemingly effortlessly.

Norman England in the 12th century was surprisingly cosmopolitan though not necessarily for the nicest of reasons.  French settlers were encouraged by England’s overlords to dilute the old Saxon ruling class.  Winder says that it was noticeable that foreign merchants could obtain royal permits to trade with relative ease compared to the local Saxons who were still mistrusted. Through the ports of London, Bristol and Southampton came goods – and people….from Flanders, France, Genoa and Venice.  Flemish masons worked on cathedrals and castles while German copper miners instructed locals how to dig for the precious metal. The Germans and Dutch were also very prolific in the beer trade.

Edward III was so impressed by the contribution being made to the country’s well-being by the foreigners that he even joined a Flemish guild.  However, lower down the social scale, there were plenty of English folk who resented the obvious wealth of these merchants who had come from strange lands overseas. To the Saxon poor, it looked like they were literally fleecing the country – benefiting from the great wool industry run by the Cistercian monks who then sold their produce to the Flemish weavers.  This did lead to what we might call in modern parlance ‘race riots’ against merchants from Europe and that did include lynchings and pogroms. England wasn’t the only country to see this kind of xenophobia – but it certainly shocks many English today to know it happened.

One community though suffered from growing hatred and suspicion more than any other. Initially brought over and nurtured by the Norman kings after the conquest of 1066, they found that success came at a cruel price.  The Jews of England engaged in what we might call ‘usury’ but was a primitive form of banking finance.  They did this partly because they were barred from other professions and also because of Christian prohibitions on the flock earning interest from transactions – similar to Islamic prohibitions still in force today.  So the Jews set up a network of financing that would be the germ of what London is today – the financial capital of Europe, if not the world.

JewsAaron, a moneylender in Lincoln, financed the building of the local cathedral – which remains a glory on the skyline.  He lent to the King of Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury and several Cistercian monasteries.  When he died, his estate was taken over by the king and an entire department of state – the Scaccarium Aaronis – was required to work its way through his holdings.

The Jews were effectively the property of the King and harming them was in effect, damaging the king’s property. Rates of interest were undoubtedly high – though comparable to some credit cards today!  Typically, a noble might expect to pay back double the original loan by the end of the year. However, money was needed and wasn’t always readily available in the medieval economy so the Jews were on to something of a winner.

Some of the most prolific moneylenders, according to Winder, were women.  Licoricia of Oxford gave two thousand, five hundred pounds towards the building of Westminster Abbey.  Did she care about such a building? No. But it certainly helped her relations with the King, who was after all her protector. Fund his pet projects and life could go on as usual. Belaset of Wallingford was another women in the usury game and her name is assumed to mean ‘nice assets’ – a little bit of medieval humour there!

It’s crucial to point out that not every Jew in England was a moneylender. Some were, needless to say, rabbis but there were also doctors and shopkeepers and artists.  But it’s the money lending that brought them most in to the public eye.  Certainly the king’s eye.  Increasingly, the Norman and then Angevin kings decided that it would be far more advantageous to tax the Jews instead of borrowing from them.  After all, a king can do that kind of thing.  So the Jews suffered an ever growing tax burden – which they no doubt passed on in part to their increasingly disgruntled customers.

Even a king like Henry II – a friend to both the Jews and the Templars – drained Jewish finance for his own needs.  His son Richard the Lionheart was brutal in squeezing the Jewish community – and the rest of England – to fund his crusades against Saladin.  In fact, it was in the year of Richard’s coronation – 1189 – that the first serious outbreaks of violence against Jews in England erupted.  Most appallingly was the death of 150 Jews in York herded in to a castle tower and murdered.  Elsewhere, the Jews were able to take refuge in castles and nobles felt obliged to extend the King’s protection over them.  But the writing was on the wall – things were going to get a lot worse.

Matters were not helped by a series of so-called ‘blood libel’ incidents across northern Europe.  In Norwich, a child called William was found crucified and his blood drained allegedly by the Jews. Similar cases occurred elsewhere.  I think it’s safe to say these were completely fabricated but they gave the mob a very good excuse to attack Jewish property.

The nail in the coffin was a hardening of attitude on the part of the Angevin kings.  John badly needed finance and even had one Jewish moneylender in Bristol tortured till he handed over ten thousand Marks.  The method of torture was to have a tooth extracted every day until he agreed.  He apparently got to the seventh tooth before giving in!

Henry III personally attended the torture of a Jewish man – Copin of Lincoln – accused of another blood libel against a child called Hugh.  Torture extracted the required confession and he was dragged through the town then hanged.  This legitimised assaults and murders on Jews and in 1263 on Palm Sunday in London, about four hundred Jews were slaughtered.  Winder makes the point that this event hardly figures in most England history books.

The kings were simply moving towards confiscation of Jewish wealth – no more borrowing or taxation – just seizure.  The Templars, of course, would also see opportunistic monarchs grab their holdings and eventually terminate the Order.  In 1275, the final act in this tragedy unfolded as Edward I issued his Statutus de Judeismo which stated:

Forasmuch as the King hath seen that divers evils and the disinheriting of good men of his land have happened by the usuries which the Jews have made in time past, and that divers sins have followed thereupon albeit that he and his ancestors have received much benefit from the Jewish people in all times past, neverthless, for the honour of God and the common benefit of the people the King hath ordained and established, that from henceforth no Jew shall lend anything at usury either upon land, or upon rent or upon other thing.

So Edward basically said – thanks for everything you’ve done in the past but I’m now ending it all for you.  Already Jews had been banished from several towns, now they would be forced to wear identification badges – so the Nazis weren’t the first to invent this:

And that each Jew after he shall be seven years old, shall wear a badge on his outer garment that is to say in the form of two tables joined of yellow fait of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.

Measure by measure was enacted against the Jews, eventually banning their religious customs. In 1290, they were given a deadline of the first of November, All Saints Day, to leave England.  One captain ferrying a boat load of Jews across the wide Thames estuary hit a sandbar and invited his passengers to get out and stretch their legs.  He then sailed off, leaving them stranded, shouting obscenities to the effect that they could pray to Moses to save them.  All of the passengers drowned.

It would take four hundred years and the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century for Jews to be  re-admitted to England.

Season of the Witch – Nicholas Cage and the Templars

Just downloaded this as couldn’t bring myself to see it in the cinema after some pretty bad reviews.  So what do I think?

season-of-the-witchWell, it starts with the trial of three witches on a bridge.  They are cast off said bridge with nooses round their necks and die instantly.  A considerably more humane approach to hanging than was the norm at the time.  A hanging in the Middle Ages tended to involve prolonged strangulation and a bit of dancing by the dying criminal for the crowd’s entertainment.  Witches were more likely to be dunked in the water to see if they floated as part of a trial by ordeal.  Then they’d be burnt.  The witch burning mania in Europe was more a product of the 16th and 17th centuries than the Middle Ages by the way.

Anyway – at the risk of publishing a spoiler – one of the witches comes back to life and kills the priest who condemned her.  So – this isn’t social realism.

The movie is set in the Crusades but then early fourteenth century dates flash up – wrong of course.  I assume the reason for this duff chronology is that the dates should be closer to the Black Death because there is a strong plague theme in the movie.  By the early 1300s, the Crusades were pretty much over – Acre had fallen in the Holy Land – and the Templars had been disbanded.  But that doesn’t stop movie stars Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman playing Templar knights – who get drunk and carouse with women in their spare time.  So much for the monastic vows of the Knights Templar.

As usual, Ron Perlman delivers his lines as if English wasn’t his first language (is it?) and while other characters speak Medieval-ese, Perlman delivers macho one-liners that I think he last used in Alien Resurrection.  The two heroes leave the Templars but continuously refer to quitting “the service of the church”.   Now, I don’t know what rogue Templars would really have said but I’m guessing they would have quite “the service of the Order” as church and Templars were not necessarily synonymous.

It may even be that they’re not intended to be Templars – strictly speaking.  There is a scene round the camp fire where Cage says they were made holy knights for two years by the church in return for the remission of sins.  That’s not how you became a Templar.  But in the earlier battle scenes, they dress in what can only be described as Templar-esque mantles.  I dunno – go figure.

There is an amusing character called Hagemar the Swindler who has been put in the stocks for selling false relics – including the tale of the ass ridden by Mary in the biblical flight from Egypt.  I did laugh at that.

Great anachronistic line from Nicholas Cage after knocking out a witch with the pommel of his sword, he says – “now she’s sedated”.   Six hundred years before the invention of the modern anesthetic.  This witch – or alleged witch if you prefer – has apparently brought the plague to a kingdom.  Perlman and Cage must transport this wicked woman to a monastery to be exorcised.  And so begins the long second act of the film.

Anyway – enough spoilers – it’s not that bad.  But don’t expect a classy movie.  Just a diverting evening in with some popcorn.

Your Day of Judgment has arrived – medieval style

In English medieval churches, it’s now almost impossible to imagine the walls as they once were – covered in lurid depictions of the Day of Judgment and hell fire for the sinful.  During the Protestant Reformation, church walls were whitewashed, the faces of saints in wood carving were hacked off and stain glass windows even smashed.  These were all seen by Protestants of a radical flavour as being idolatrous.

But in southern Europe, we can still see what the English would once have been treated to in church.  Here’s a cheerful sculpture that shows the virtuous very literally being pulled up to heaven while the bad are in flames below.  Note that some of those in the flames appear to be priests and bishops.

Judgment Day – some go up and others go down
What went wrong for these sinners?
Another image of those sinners
A similar sculpture shows a bishop in hell

Why so much blood and gore in Roman Catholic churches in the Latin world?

Porto, Portugal

I’m half Portuguese and for years I’ve watched English friends of mine recoil at the sight of the blood and gore that is to be found all over statues in churches in southern Europe. My great grandmother’s crucifix has pride of place in my study in London and it’s a gore fest. Why is it then that the Latin world loves to see Jesus, the saints and martyrs covered in wounds, cuts and bleeding?

Porto, Portugal

The first thing to say is that at the time of the Knights Templar between the 12th and 14th centuries, it may have also been a common sight in northern European churches. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century demanded simplicity and a cull of graven images, seen as being sinful as per the Ten Commandments. So an English church in 1150, say, may have had equally gory paintings on its walls subsequently whitewashed during the Reformation.

Click HERE for an article on the discovery of lurid murals in an English church where William Shakespeare was born. While England has got used to a more restrained and buttoned up form of Christianity over the last five hundred years, southern Europe has continued with life sized representations of Jesus and the saints being scourged or executed.

Spain is home to some pretty gory Christian icons and this life sized Jesus was one I discovered in the Roman/medieval city of Segovia.   The same city includes a Templar church built in the shape of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem.

Christ in death in the church of San Martin, Segovia
A close up image of the same image of Christ