Were the Knights Templar really the guardians of the Holy Grail?

500px-Galahad_grailFor 800 years, people have been thrilled by the idea that the Knights Templar were the brave guardians of the Holy Grail. But is it actually true?

The Templars were formed in 1118 ostensibly to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But, many believe, that wasn’t their real mission. It was no accident that they chose to be based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in what we now call the Al Aqsa mosque. When the holy city was under crusader control, the mosque was taken over by the Templars and renamed the Temple of Solomon. Because that’s what they believed it actually was – the site of the biblical king’s palace.

grail2The knights called themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short. They began digging furiously under the temple to find sacred treasure. It’s widely assumed they discovered the Holy Grail and became its guardians. Their mission had then been accomplished and they were to be the eternal keepers of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.

When the Templar order was crushed in 1307 by the King of France and his puppet Pope Clement, the Grail was believed to have been spirited away. Did it end up in Paris and then on to Scotland and even the United States where one rather far-fetched theory has the sacred chalice being melted down into the torch of the Statue of Liberty? Or was it whisked off to Portugal where the Templars were protected by the king? Could it be located at the Templar bastion of Tomar in central Portugal?

In the period that the Knights Templar existed – 1118 to 1307 – there was an explosion of Grail related stories. They often involved the Court of King Arthur and extolled the virtues of chivalry and risking all for divine glory. The association of the Grail with the Knights Templar wasn’t established at first – it evolved even into our own time.

The idea of the Grail may be rooted in pre-Christian folklore, particularly Celtic references to magic cauldrons – much loved by witches as you know.  The cauldron became a cup with magical powers.

holy-grail-2A 12th century poet Robert de Boron made the link between a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have used the same cup to collect blood from Christ’s body on the cross. Joseph then takes the cup to Britain where it ended up at Glastonbury. Joseph is a character who pops up in the gospels as a wealthy Jewish merchant and maybe a relative of Jesus who arranges for his burial. Successive early Christian writers developed him further and Robert de Boron stuck him firmly in the Arthurian legend.

The Grail had its theological uses for the medieval church.  As a cup of Christ’s blood it reinforced the central act of the Catholic mass where the wine in the chalice becomes, literally, the blood of Christ. This would explain the symbolism of Christ sharing the cup at the last supper and then the same vessel being used to collect his blood at the crucifixion. Wine + turning to blood + chalice = Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the turning of wine to blood in the mass.

goodfriday-neuschSo how do the Templars come to be its guardians? Step forward German medieval teller of chivalrous tales Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first decade of the 13th century he wrote Parzival – effectively a new take on the already existing legend of King Arthur. Parzival arrives at Arthur’s court, goes off on a quest to find the Grail, which he discovers in a castle owned by the Fisher King and guarded by…the Templeise.

This brotherhood of knights is indeed chaste and prayerful, like the Templars. They do battle with heathens to protect the Grail, though it’s a stone and not a cup. The stone, incidentally, confers eternal youth and heals people of ailments.  But there is no mention in the Parzival tale of these knights being in any way monastic in nature and their symbol is a turtle dove and not the Templar cross.

However, the die was cast. Templars. Guardians. Holy Grail. There was no going back now. Templar historian Helen Nicholson believes that this story and others that arose afterwards gave the Templars some very good PR in German speaking medieval Europe.

Wolfram von Eschenbach is an interesting fellow. He seems to have been influenced by French literature and knowledge coming from the Muslim world. Wolfram’s aristocratic patron – Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – had been on crusade in the Middle East and both men seem to have been unusually fascinated and sympathetic to the Islamic world.

Wolfram also gained knowledge, he claims, from the Moorish libraries of Toledo in Spain. Toledo had been conquered from the Muslims by Christian armies in 1105. Scholars from all over western Europe descended on its famous libraries translating texts from Arabic that included long lost ancient Greek works and studies on everything from geometry to music and astrology. Like the Templars, Wolfram was somebody who imbibed the wisdom and philosophy of the medieval Muslim world via different routes.

To shore up his claim that the Templars were the guardians of the Grail, Wolfram also mentions an elusive character called Kyot of Provence as a cast iron source for his tale. Chrétien of Troyes got the Grail legend details wrong in his King Arthur story, Wolfram alleges, whereas Kyot of Provence is spot on. And the Templar connection is completely true. Problem is, nobody can find any shred of evidence for the existence of this chap Kyot of Provence.

It’s almost like he never existed.

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How the Templars became the Order of Christ in Portugal

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From my trip to the Viagem Medieval in Portugal in 2017

In 1312, Pope Clement V ordered all Christian rulers to seize the assets of the Knights Templar and hand them over to the rival Knights Hospitaller. One king refused to obey. In Portugal, King Dinis took over the Templar assets himself.  In effect, he used his royal power to protect and reshape the order so that it could continue. The result was the formation of the Order of Christ.

By 1319, King Dinis had convinced Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to recognise his new order. Dinis argued that Portugal still faced a significant threat from Muslim armies to the south. 150 years before, the Templars had helped the first kings of Portugal to create their country. This had involved conquering cities like Lisbon and Santarem from Muslim control to forge a new Christian nation.

The Templars had always been in the front line pushing the frontier ever further southwards. They had done so at considerable risk to their own safety. For this, Portugal was grateful. And so when the king was asked to suppress the Templars, he recoiled. Dinis came up with a novel and unique solution. Today, we would call it rebranding. He took brand Templar and relaunched it as brand Order of Christ.

As with the Templars, the new order followed the Cistercian rule – the code by which those monks led their daily lives. The Cistercians and Templars had always been closely interconnected. From 1357, the Order of Christ was moved to the same headquarters the Templars had used and built – the castle at Tomar.

FullSizeRender (2)King Dinis was a complex character. A poet who resisted church power and did more than any king before him to promote a strong Portuguese identity.

His son Afonso IV continued his father’s legacy nurturing the Order of Christ which was soon to play a leading role in the age of discoveries, which would see navigators from Portugal sail around Africa and discover Brazil.

This year, I went to a historical reenactment festival in northern Portugal called the Medieval Journey – Viagem Medieval. Every year, huge crowds turn out to see battles and short plays about a particular monarch. This year, it was the turn of King Afonso IV.

The festival slogan was a bit grim: Hunger, Plague and War. But Afonso IV reigned during a stormy period that included the ravages of the Black Death, a bubonic plague that decimated populations across Europe. He also had to see off attacks from both Muslim armies and those of neighbouring Castile, another Christian kingdom that would evolve in future centuries into modern Spain.

Here are some images from my visit and a video of the battle scene – enjoy!

Who was Jacques de Molay – last Templar Grand Master?

Jacques de Molay, nineteenth-century color lit...
Jacques de Molay, nineteenth-century color lithograph by Chevauchet

Everybody knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky because it was the day that Jacques de Molay and the last Knights Templar were rounded up and imprisoned by King Philip of France. De Molay would eventually be burnt to death in front of Notre Dame in Paris and with his demise, the order was crushed. But who was Jacques de Molay?

He was born in 1244 in Franche-Comte – in the region of Burgundy, where the first Templars had originated. Aged just over twenty, in around 1265, he became a Templar knight. De Molay came from a noble background, as did most knights in the order, and once initiated, he made his way to the Holy Land.

From 1273 to 1291, the Grand Master was William (or Guillaume) de Beaujeu. Some accounts say that De Molay disliked De Beaujeu and felt his posture towards the Saracens was far too passive and peaceable. Even that the Grand Master was guilty of treachery, betraying the order’s interests in outremer (the term used to describe the Christian crusader kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coastline). De Molay reportedly spoke out against De Beaujeu, making it known that he’d make a far better job of running things if he ever got the chance.

That opportunity presented itself when Acre fell to the Saracens in 1291. De Molay may have been at the siege where De Beaujeu was killed. Reportedly, the old Grand Master was found staggering from the walls of the city. He revealed a fatal wound saying: “I am not running away. I am dead. Here is the blow.” His death led to the short reign of Tibald Gaudin. In 1293, at Gaudin’s death, De Molay was finally proclaimed as the new Grand Master. Things – he declared from Cyprus – were going to change. Not, however, as he intended.

The fall of Acre may have opened up the Templar leadership to De Molay but it also dealt a heavy blow to the image of the Templars. Some argue that the crusader mission in the Holy Land was already of diminishing interest in the west. The world was changing. Old feudal values were being eroded. Increasingly powerful kings were less willing to bow their knee to papal power. Ideas of nationhood were, it’s said, starting to emerge. This not only threatened the universal Catholic church but also an order like the Templars that operated like a state within a state, a church within a church. What late medieval monarch could tolerate such an uncontrolled power within his realm?

De Molay, presumably oblivious to these trends, went on a long journey round Europe drumming up interest in a renewed crusade. Templar chapter meetings were convened in Montpellier (1293), Paris (1295/6) and Arles (1296). He pleaded the Templar cause to the kings of Aragon and England. And De Molay was present at the election of pope Boniface VIII in December, 1294.  This was the pope that the writer Dante would portray in hell in his book The Divine Comedy and it was this pontiff who would clash bitterly with king Philip IV of France – the ruler who would prove to be the nemesis of the Templars. Boniface demanded that Philip acknowledge papal supremacy and the king responded by arrested his legate and sending an army to spell things out to the pope.

De Molay discovered that Europe’s rulers were thoroughly preoccupied with fighting each other – pouring money into the Holy Land was not a priority. Back in 1095, Pope Urban had been able to galvanise Europe to defend the holy places in response to an appeal from the embattled Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Things had changed though. Byzantium was an obviously declining force. Jerusalem had long been lost to the Saracens. Italians, French and English had their swords drawn at each other’s throats while rulers of what would become Spain were rolling back the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba and Seville. Muslims were being driven back in western Europe – so why waste time on a lost battle in the east?

The Hospitallers, some believe, took the temperature and began to re-invent themselves as a kind of anti-piracy maritime police force in the Mediterranean based in Rhodes. This, however, was not something De Molay was prepared to countenance. The Templars were about conquering the Holy Land for Christ or they were nothing. And so, De Molay persisted with attacks on the Saracens from his island base in Cyprus, which incongruously called itself the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This only reinforced the sad fact that the Templars had no territory on the mainland – they had lost everything.

No money and no support from the west did not seem to daunt De Molay who flung his men into battle with the Saracens. Some say that the Grand Master was pigheaded and even stupid. It’s argued that he was impervious to the changing times and not too bright. But, De Molay clearly felt that his order was not about to go through some re-branding exercise, a cynical change in its mission statement. No – De Molay was going to go down fighting. To hell with reality – there were Saracens to fight!

His one hope in the Middle East was the presence of Mongol armies. They had arrived from faraway China and fanned out over the region terrorizing Muslim armies and wreaking havoc. To the Templars, they seemed to be a godsend. De Molay sent a force of Templars (and Hospitallers joined them) to try and retake Tortosa (in modern Syria) linking up with a Mongol force. The Christian force made their way to the island of Ruad, just off the Syrian shore, and prepared to attack. But the Mongols failed to show on time and the crusaders drifted back to Cyprus leaving a small force behind on the island. In the meantime, the Mamluks – Egypt’s rulers – drove the Mongols back and launched a devastating attack on Ruad. The Templars remaining there were either killed or ended up in Cairo prisons.

This would be the Templars’ last and pretty ignominious battle – hardly a glorious swansong. De Molay was summoned back to Europe by a new pope, Clement V. En route to the pontiff, De Molay went to Paris and met the king. It’s possible he had no idea that something was afoot. But Philip of France was constantly short of money and had not been shy when it came to imposing new taxes, expelling the Jews and confiscating property. Maybe De Molay thought the king would show deference to this great military order with its impressive fortified Temple in the middle of Paris. The Treasurer of the Temple, Hugh de Pairaud, was – after all –  the king’s warden of the royal revenues – so why shouldn’t De Molay believe the cash strapped monarch was on the order’s side?

Things – however – were not as they seemed. De Pairaud might have been closer to the king than De Molay realised. The treasurer had run against De Molay to become Grand Master and failed. He had sided with king Philip against Boniface. As for pope Clement V – unlike Boniface, he was a compliant tool of the French king. There were no more demands for papal supremacy and Clement would move the papal court from Rome to Avignon, beginning a period of total French dominance over the popes (though Rome would have rival so-called “anti-popes”).

Poor Clement. No matter how much he tried to appease his French overlord, the king just kept demanding more. Occasionally, the pope would summon up the dignity of his office and try to express his own view but Philip IV was by far the stronger figure. As De Molay – it seems rather innocently and naively – made his way round France, the king was already dripping poison into the pope’s ear. He’d heard some very choice rumours about those Templars – De Molay included. Their secret rituals and initiation ceremonies. Talk of them leaving Cyprus and outremer altogether and moving all their forces and wealth to the west – maybe trying to overthrow kings like….Philip! The Templars were treacherous – the Templars were a law to themselves – the Templars….had to be crushed.

Clement VClement, who comes across as a timid bureaucrat, seems to be have been paralyzed by indecision as the king bullied and cajoled him. He probably suspected that Philip just wanted the order’s fabulous wealth. As pope, he might have felt a little conflicted. On the one hand, the Templars had always been answerable directly to him and he should have protected them. But on the other hand, his election to the papacy had been largely thanks to Philip – who could destroy him as easily as he had raised him. What was a pope to do?

In the end, it was De Molay who may have precipitated the decisive move to official trials. A bluff soldier and not well versed in courtly politics, the Grand Master lost his cool and demanded that all the whisperings about the order be brought out in the open. On the 12th October, De Molay and others carried the coffin of king Philip’s sister-in-law, Catherine of Valois. To the old warrior, he must have felt that two centuries of fighting for Christ must count for something.

The very next day – he and five thousand French Templars were arrested.

Templars – timeline to termination!

templar2In 1307, the King of France issued orders to arrest all Templar knights in his kingdom. They were summarily rounded up, tortured in dungeons and confessions extracted. So what was the timeline to termination?

  • 14 September 1307 – King Philip of France issues secret orders to the bailiffs and seneschals in his kingdom to round up the Templars and arrest them when given the signal
  • 13 October 1307 – the signal is given and France’s Templars find themselves clapped in irons
  • 19 October to 24 November 1307 – first round of trials with 138 Templars, most of them confessing to their alleged guilt
  • 24 October 1307 – Grand Master Jacques de Molay makes his first confession of guilt
  • 25 October 1307 – De Molay goes before the University of Paris to restate his confession of guilt
  • 22 November 1307 – De Molay retracts his confessions to cardinals sent to interview him by Pope Clement V
  • 22 November 1307 – Pope Clement V gives up trying to resist the French king and demands that all Christian rulers in Europe follow the French example and arrest their Templars as well as confiscating their property
  • May 1308 – a letter arrives at Cyprus from Pope Clement V calling for the arrest of Templars on the island
  • 28 June to 2 July 1308 – about 54 Templars tried at Poitiers where the pope was in residence
  • August 1308 – the Chinon Parchment, revealed in recent times, appears to show the pope absolving the Templars but as a puppet of the French king there was little he could realistically do
  • 13 September 1309 – Two inquisitors arrive in England to question Templars there
  • December 1309 – Pope Clement V authorises the use of torture to gain rapid confessions
  • 1310 – papal commission into the trials of the Templars
  • 12 May 1310 – 54 Templars are burnt at the stake
  • May 1310 – the Archbishop of Sens takes control of the trial process until 1316
  • 22 March 1312 – Pope Clement V issues the papal bull Vox In Excelso suppressing the Knights Templar
  • May 1312 – Pope Clement V issues the papal bull Ad Providam transferring the assets of the Knights Templar to the Knights Hospitaller
  • 21 March 1313 – the Knights Hospitaller pay enormous compensation to the king of France most likely saving their order from the same fate as the Templars
  • 18 March 1314 – Jacques de Molay and the preceptor of Normandy Geoffroi de Charney retract their confessions saying they were extracted under torture. They are burnt at the stake before Notre Dame as heretics