Evidence of the Knights Templar fleeing the Holy Land with their loot?

Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

The former Templar stronghold of Acre in modern Israel has been throwing up some interesting discoveries of late.

A team from Haifa University found the wreck of a long lost crusader ship in the bay with a horde of golden coins lying next to it on the seabed. The gold is dated with certainty to the latter half of the 13th century and that fits with the fall of Acre to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt in 1291. It seems that Christian soldiers, faced with certain defeat, gathered up their wealth and tried to make a getaway.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports on the story HERE. There has always been a great deal of speculation as to what happened to the treasure amassed by the Templars in the Holy Land. This will fuel the suspicion that they spirited a good deal of it back to their preceptories in Europe – making them a target for resentment later on.

Templar tunnel
Secret Templar tunnel in Acre – from my visit in 2012

Another team from Haifa University has made yet another incredible discovery outside the Ottoman walls of the city. They have found the headquarters of the Teutonic Order, another militarised monastic warrior elite force during the crusades.

After the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, Acre became the centre of crusader operations in the Holy Land. The Christian territories were much diminished by 1291 and looking back, it does seem that defeat was inevitable.

When it came though, the clock began ticking against the Knights Templar. Driven out of all their mainland fortresses in the Holy Land – what was their raison d’etre? How could they claim to have God on their side when defeat after defeat suggested otherwise? Within 20 years after the fall of Acre, the Templar order would be wiped out by the French monarchy and the papacy acting in concert.


How the Second Crusade was diverted to Portugal

This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…

Pope Urban calls for a crusade!

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.

But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.

Dom Afonso of the new Christian kingdom of Portugal

In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.

The crafty bishop of Porto diverted a crusader army 

It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.

The huge multi-national crusader army arrives to besiege the Muslim city of Al-Usbuna (later to be renamed Lisbon)

Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.

The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.

I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.



Some more movies set in the Middle Ages

With an emphasis on some non-Hollywood movies this time – you may recall I did a top ten of medieval flicks before. I named some obvious classics but here’s some you may not have heard of. For example, the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein made an epic about the Russian hero Alexander Nevsky, telling the story of how he repelled the Teutonic Knights – an order similar in many ways to the Templars. The film was released in 1938 and students of history will appreciate that Nevsky, the Russian hero, might have been intended to be Stalin while the evil Teutonic Knights could have been Nazi Germany.

You may have seen later versions of the story of Joan of Arc – the French heroine – but this 1928 silent French film is extremely potent and strangely modern. The actress has an incredibly expressive face.

Turning to Hollywood for a moment, there is a movie you may be unfamiliar with by Cecil B Demille whose movies were always on an epic scale and The Crusades was no different. The only problem – it was about as factual as Fox News. The Crusades invents some bunkum about Richard the Lionheart going on crusade to avoid an unwanted marriage and the woman he does get hitched to ends up being kidnapped by Saladin. None of that happened. Here is the Siege of Acre (which did happen).

Here’s a crusade you may not know much about – the attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor to stamp out the Hussite heresy in what’s now the Czech Republic. At the Battle of Vitkov Hill, a crusader army was beaten by the Hussites in a surprise defeat. This 1956 communist era movie captures that moment in technicolor.

Rutger Hauer playing the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, may not have lived up to its promise. Barbarossa was a Christian king who took a vast German army across what is now Turkey and posed a fatal threat to Saladin. Unfortunately and pretty inexplicably – he managed to get himself drowned in a river. His army then melted away – only 5,000 men making it to Acre. Here is Rutger trying on the role.


The Forgotten Crusade

Victory and Defeat – part III of the BBC series ‘The Crusades‘ aired tonight in the UK.  Jerusalem had fallen once more to Islam while three Christian kingdoms – Antioch, Tripoli and (confusingly) Jerusalem – clung on to the coastline.  Their survival was more and more thanks to the Knights Templar and Hospitallers as well as the Teutonic Knights.  The Templars in particular built impressive castles across the Holy Land and were the elite fighting units of the remaining Frankish territories.

By the turn of the thirteenth century – these warrior monks, dripping in wealth, were at the forefront of keeping the Saracens at bay.  The programme shows the recently excavated Hospitaller headquarters in Acre, which are stunning.  Acre was – in spite of the loss of Jerusalem – a thriving trading city minting its own currency in the millions.  The gold coins made by the crusaders bore Arabic script revealing that even though Muslims and Christians were at each other’s throats, they were also transacting business and getting rich.

So opulent was Acre under the Christians that one visiting bishop likened it to a second Babylon.  Jacques de Vitry was scandalised to find murder and prostitution were rife with clerics even renting out their rooms for whores to use.

The crusades in the east had faltered.  Popes had become pre-occupied with more successful crusades against the Baltic pagans in north eastern Europe and the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus, modern southern Spain and Portugal.  But then along came king Louis of France.  A man imbued with spiritual fervour who acquired the crown of thorns in 1238, which he housed in an impressive chapel in central Paris.  After an illness, he resolved to go east on crusade.  His life would be dedicated completely to fighting the Saracens – in spite of his less than impressive physical build.  Louis was going to get Jerusalem back in to Christian hands no matter what it took.

Jean de Joinville chronicled the holy war that Louis now set about planning.  The French king more or less mortgaged France to pay for the crusade.  He rounded up the nobility and over four years made huge preparations for the fight.  So concerned was Louis that God would bless this endeavour that he even set out to root out corruption in all branches of royal government in France.  His soul had to be spotless if Islam was to be driven out of Jerusalem.

Joinville said the sea was covered in sails as 1800 ships departed for outremer.  25,000 well equipped professional troops left…but not for Palestine.  Louis decided that it was Egypt which had to be attacked – the heartland of Islamic strength. In the year 1249 they arrived at the mouth of the Nile, Damietta, and the Sultan was waiting for them.  But the sight of the Saracens did not deter the crusaders whose landing craft hit the beaches and out poured the soldiers – eager to taste blood.  And they got their wish.  Arrows and spears rained down on the invaders.

Louis saw his standard planted in Egyptian soil and was so excited he plunged in to the water at chest level.  He  had to be restrained by his men so keen was the king to slash and cut down his enemies.  The crusaders were victorious.  Muslim casualties were about 500 while the Franks hardly suffered a scrape.  Louis now decided to cut off the serpent’s head and head straight for Cairo.  But unfortunately for the king, a vast Saracen army was in his way.

The Egyptians had no doubt they faced a grave threat.  Louis headed for the river Tanis and the fortified town of Mansourah.  An informer led the crusaders across the river, which had seemed unfordable.  The king’s brother and a Templar force took a Muslim camp and cut down one of the sultan’s right hand men.  Blood was shed in all directions.  But now the force made a terrible mistake.  They headed straight in to Mansourah and were trapped.  Horrifically, they now faced a taste of their own medicine.  Louis’ brother was killed and many of the Templars.

The tide of war turned.  A once confident crusader force limped back to Damietta and they were picked off and set upon by Egyptian soldiers.  Joinville watched as Saracens broke in to the crusader camp and slaughtered already sick or wounded troops.  The king himself had dysentery.  He was hiding in a run down hut with a hole cut in his breeches when he was captured.  A huge ransom had to be paid but Louis returned to France largely in disgrace – having never seen Jerusalem.

And who were these Egyptians who defeated Louis?  The Mamlukes – once slaves but now masters in the Islamic world.   And for how long did they enjoy their victory?  Not very long – because now, Islam had to face an enemy far worse than the king of France….because crashing in to the Middle East came a force nobody could have anticipated – the Mongols!

Crusade and Jihad – Christian and Muslim wars

Is the Christian ‘Crusade’ and the Muslim ‘Jihad’ more or less the same thing – simply for a different religion?  Or is the concept of jihad fundamentally different from crusade?   One argument advanced to me in the last few days is that Jihad is different because it’s enshrined in the theology of Islam, evidenced by the Prophet’s many wars against rival tribes, whereas the concept of crusade has no theological foundation in the New Testament.  Jesus never took up a sword against his enemies – whereas Mohammed most certainly did.

This argument then runs that Islam was spread on the tip of a sword from Mecca and Medina through the Levant, Persia, Asia Minor and the Maghreb up in to the Iberian peninsula.   It was always a warlike creed that used war and subjugation to spread its faith.  Those adhering to this view also like to say that the crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that brought in to being the Knights Templar were not an act of colonialism by Christians aimed against Muslims but a belated response to the offensive Islamic takeover of the Levant, with its holy places, four hundred years before.

It is true that the Middle East had been Christian for almost as long as it had been Muslim by the time the Crusades of the Middle Ages were launched.  There was nothing inherently Islamic about Egypt or Syria from the early medieval point of view.  Christianity had an equal if not superior right to be the dominant religion in that part of the world.  With large Christian populations still present in the Middle East at that time, this was not a tiny Christian force from the west landing in a Muslim sea but a western Christian force pushing back the more recently arrived religion.  After all, Christian Byzantium was still a might power in Asia Minor and had only been pushed back towards Constantinople by the Seljuk Turks in the decades before the First Crusade.

So why have the Crusades received such a resoundingly bad press?   Why indeed, has the Islamic jihad of the seventh and eighth centuries not been seen as an equally provocative act – performed on a far grander and bloodier scale?   Well, one reason has to be the suspicion that the Christian crusades were not the noble venture they were portrayed as – but more of a land grab by some of the less savory elements of Christian Europe.  That the crusaders were not men of Christ but barbarous ‘Franks’.  In comparison to the people they were cutting down in cold blood, they were uncouth and unlettered.

It’s certainly true that Islamic culture in the so-called Dark Ages of western Europe compares very favorably in the four hundred years up to the crusades – it was a time of great learning and receptiveness to the heritage of the Greek Roman and Persian worlds.  Ironically it was in part the crusades that would lead to a gradual closing of the Islamic mind as many came to believe their laxity of belief and practice had incurred the displeasure of Allah and therefore the loss of land to the crusaders.  Saladin was very much a product of this view.   As were the Almohads in Morocco and Iberia.

The crusaders were so brutal in their conquest of Jerusalem itself that their own chroniclers boasted of the blood of the city’s citizens splashing their stirrups as it flowed through the streets.   One story has it that more many years, Arabs would paint their doors blue to ward off the ‘evil eye’.   The evil eye in question being the blue eyes of the Frankish invaders.  Crusade was a far more mindlessly aggressive act than Jihad – many Muslims would argue.

Another argument from the Muslim side would be that Jihad is a moral and personal journey and not a military struggle.  But I would have to counter that even the most cursory reading of the Koran and of the life of Mohammed is enough to show that he certainly intended the struggle of Muslims to involve, on occasion, wielding a sword.  Even if, strictly speaking, Ghandi’s peaceful struggle for independence in India can be described by Muslims as a jihad – most jihads in history have involved a warlike stance.    And as this website points out, jihad is an obligation to all believers to go out and convert or rule over the non-believers.

A look around online will show you that this discussion arouses great passions and I’d be curious to hear any views on this blog.

And here’s some medieval Jihad/Crusades to entertain in the meantime:

Discipline in a Knight Templar squadron

It’s almost amusing to read the Templar Rule on how a Templar squadron should behave on crusade.  Basically, the Templars were required to ride in silence and not break rank unless given explicit permission to do so.  No bawdy songs or idle chatter – the Templars really were boy scouts.  What a contrast they must have been to the secular knights.

Even if a Templar saw somebody being attacked by a Saracen, there was a strict procedure to follow in how he conducted himself.  Just read this from the Rule:

“And if it happens by chance that any Christian acts foolishly, and any Turk attacks him in order to kill him, and he is in peril of death, and anyone who is in that area wishes to leave his squadron to help him, and his conscience tells him that he can assist him, he may do so without permission, and then return to his squadron quietly and in silence.”

So having stuck his sword in to a Saracen’s head, a Templar couldn’t come back panting and whooping shouting ‘ya see what I did there!’.   No – he had to be calm and stoic and continue riding in silence.  If he did charge off from his squadron “justice will be done even as far as going on foot to the camp and taking from him all that may be taken from him except his habit”.