We think of the Crusades as a series of battles between Christianity and Islam that took place 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.
From mid-June, Jamie Theakston will be presenting the fourth series of Forbidden History on UKTV’s Yesterday Channel and on Discovery AHC in the autumn. The fourth programme in this series will be The Dark Truths of the Templars and yours truly will be appearing as a contributor.
Jamie and the team landed in my study a few months back and we discussed all things Templar for a couple of hours. It’s been in post-production ever since but excitingly is now ready to broadcast.
I haven’t seen the finished programme but issues we covered included:
How did an order of monastic knights pledged to vow of poverty become so hugely rich?
What could have been the real reasons for the formation of the Knights Templar in 1118?
The connections between the order’s founders and some very wealth and influential people
Why did the Templars base themselves on the Temple mount in Jerusalem and what were they doing there?
The salacious charges brought against the Knights Templar during their trial
Did the secular powers, kings and pope, manage to seize all their treasure or did they escape with some of it?
What do we make of persistent accusations that the Templars were influenced in their rites by pre-Christian and non-Christian ideas?
Do feed back to me what you think. There will be other TV appearances later in the year and I’ll keep you posted. Make sure all your Templar fans and friends are watching!
In 2012, I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre several times in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s a church that inspired the construction of Templar places of worship from London to Tomar with its distinctive circular shape. The dome of the Holy Sepulchre also appeared on Templar seals
The Holy Sepulchre was originally built by the Romans after they converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. It was, they believed, the site of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. How did they arrive at this conclusion?
Well, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, authorised the demolition of a temple to the goddess Venus in order to venerate the place where Christ died to save the sins of humanity. As the temple came tumbling down, a tomb was revealed. All those present decided that it had to be the resting place of the Messiah.
The first church erected by Constantine was a richly decorated affair with brilliant mosaics and a garden with the rock of Golgotha as its centrepiece. From there, the pilgrim would have entered another open space where a rock cut tomb was exposed to the elements. This church was damaged massively by invading Persians in the seventh century CE and then all but flattened by the volatile Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It’s more than likely that Al-Hakim had the tomb of Jesus hacked to bits.
The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus began funding of a new church decades later but it was never completed.
In fact, when the crusaders invaded Jerusalem in 1099, the church had no roof. It was left to the newly victorious crusaders to put up a new building that would enclose the site of the crucifixion and the tomb, giving the latter it’s own little chapel. This was consecrated in the mid-12th century. The crypt is possibly the most evocative of the Middle Ages and its walls are covered in carved medieval crosses.
Up until the 19th century, you could have seen the tombs of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first rulers of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. But they were removed by Greek monks doing repairs. I assume that the ill feeling of the Greek church towards the Latin crusaders had continued from the 12th century to the 19th!
The tomb of Jesus was excavated in 2016 and it revealed the existence of an older tomb under a marble slab placed on the spot where Jesus was said to have been buried. The slab dated to 1555 when the Franciscans carried out major renovation work.
One oddity of the Holy Sepulchre is that the church is divided up between different Christian denominations. Since the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic have been custodians. In the 19th century, the church was divided up again to include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. The relationship between these different groups is often competitive and unfriendly.
Things got ludicrous in 2011 when priests rioted and beat each other with broom handles in a vicious row over who controlled which bit of the church. When I visited, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest sitting on the roof. Apparently, there is always a Coptic at that spot staking a claim against the Ethiopians. There is also a ladder that has been propped up against a window since 1852 and nobody has moved it because of similar aggro about who can go where and do what.
I have visited Tomar three or four times now and I just never get tired of going back again – always staying at the Hotel Dos Templarios of course. The town was located in a kind of no-mans land between the Islamic realm of Al-Andalus and the Christian crusader kingdom of Portugal to the north.
In the twelfth century, the Islamic caliphate that had ruled most of the Iberian peninsula from the year 711CE, was being rolled back by new Christian kingdoms like Aragon, Castile, Leon, Navarre and Portugal. The king of Portugal was a plucky chap called Dom Afonso Henriques and he relied heavily on the Templars as a kind of shock troops to soften up the Moors (the Muslims to the south) before the Portuguese then conquered another town for Christ.
In their role as shock troops, the Templars were the advance guard in to what was termed ‘nullis diocesis’ – the land in central Portugal where no prince or bishop ruled as it was still actively contested between Christians and Muslims. Tomar was part of this unruly domain.
The Templars built a many sided fortress like church termed a ‘charola’ that still stands today. It was circular in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (though having been there, I can say the resemblance is rather slight) and they could also hear mass on horseback – ready to charge out and do battle at short notice.
Once the Templars were suppressed, the Portuguese hit on the novel idea of sort of nationalising them as the Order of Christ. And Tomar became headquarters to this new royal order. The Convent of Christ was bolted on to the old charola, built in the sixteenth century Manueline style.
The clerical occupants have now gone but what is left – is a magnificent historical site. There was a lot of cement being laid all over the hilltop approach last time I was there and I hope that the cement obsessed Portuguese don’t ruin the tranquility of the site by turning it in to a theme park (I’m half-Portuguese and can say these things!). Here are my photos from my last visits.
Tomar features in my latest book Quest for the True Cross – which you can buy on Amazon in paperback and kindle. And watch the book promo trailer on YouTube.
As is often said, the Templars were the first multinational corporation – through a network of preceptories across Europe and the Middle East, engaged in farming, shipping and finance to fund their crusading activities.
The Templar Timeline
1118 – Foundation of the Knights Templar by nine knights
1118 – Hugh de Payens becomes first Grand Master
1127 – First Templar church and preceptory in London
1129 – Council of Troyes establishes the rules that will govern the Templars
1139 – Omne datum Optimum – a papal bull makes the Templars answerable only to the pope
1147 – the Second Crusade with the fall of Edessa and its aftermath brings the Templars centre stage in the Holy Land
1174 – the rise of Saladin
1187 – disaster at the Battle of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem
1192 – Templars in Acre
1204 – the Fourth Crusade ends with the plundering of Constantinople
1248 – the crusade of King Louis
1291 – Acre falls to the Mamluks and the Templars edged out of the Holy Land
1302 – Ruad falls and Templars massacred
1307 – Templars arrested under orders of the King of France and Pope Clement V
Here’s an interesting video on the origins of the Knights Templar:
A new series on Channel Four in the United Kingdom – Gods and Monsters – covers the history of belief in evil spirits in England. Spirits who could disguise themselves as humans, take other people’s forms, angels cast out of heaven, spirits who possessed you and made you ill, etc.
Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven. They rebelled against God and were cast out. They became ugly and hideous. But they did not lose their power. Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell. And forever, they are trying to escape from hell.
Beneath the earth these demons were trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels were trying to guide you to God.
Demons could enter your body as a vapor through any opening. They could possess you through your open mouth, for example. Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud. She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.
People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf. Bad case of food poisoning? Maybe. Very probably. But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.
So how to get rid of a demon? How to treat a ‘demoniac’? Well, an exorcism of course. In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism. Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed. She could not cross herself. She behaved strangely. Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking. So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie ‘The Exorcist’, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of lovely words.
If there was no sign of improvement – the treatment moved up a level. A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession! Next step, cram the bones of a revered saint in to her mouth! And touch the victim over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet. And incant the rite of baptism or other prayers. After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.
Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells. A crime punishable by death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer. She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness. For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave. This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up! The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.
Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her. So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.
Aaaah…but fairies you say. They’re nice spirits aren’t they? Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages. The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney. To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.
Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs. They were only invisible when they wanted to be. Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head. Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.
If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place. A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling. A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child. They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.
So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then? Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby. Unfortunately, as the Channel Four programme explains, babies did die. As late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his wife to be a fairy changeling.