In 1307, the Knights Templar were rounded up, imprisoned and tortured under secret orders issued by the King of France. The trials of top Templars would last for years and lead to many being burnt at the stake including the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. He was incinerated in public in front of Notre Dame cathedral.
A string of scandalous accusations were made against the Knights Templar to justify smashing the order. I recommend Malcom Barber’s detailed account of The Trial of the Templars if you want to learn a lot more.
Here were some of the most noteworthy charges:
New entrants to the Templar order had to deny Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints
Templars were told that Christ was a false prophet and there was no hope of receiving salvation through belief in him
Knights were ordered to spit on a crucifix and even urinate or trample on it
The order worshipped a head of some description, possibly that of a cat or with three faces or an idol called Baphomet
This idol was encircled with cords, which the Templars then wore around their waists
The Knights Templar rejected the sacraments of the Catholic church
It was thought that the Grand Master and other leading Templars could absolve sins even though they were laymen and not priests
New entrants were kissed on the mouth, the navel, the stomach, the buttocks and the spine and homosexuality was encouraged
The Templars were only interested in financial gain and pocketed donations for their own use
Chapter meetings and initiations were held in strictest secret with only Templars present and those that revealed any details to people outside of the order would be punished with imprisonment or death
A short film from the Smithsonian includes a reenactment of what the alleged initiation ritual looked like.
If you have never seen The Seventh Seal – then watch it. A tortured medieval knight is played by a very young Max von Sydow, who you may have seen in The Minority Report and other movies. In this scene, he plays a game of chess with Death in order to remain alive. It’s a Swedish movie with subtitles but don’t let that put you off.
New evidence unearthed in England has revealed that medieval villagers in the county of Yorkshire were genuinely terrified of the dead coming back to life. So much so that they mutilated their bones, chopped up bodies and burned them. The University of Southampton and Historic England have just released their findings and it makes gruesome reading.
The bones were found in Wharram Percy, north Yorkshire. They were covered in knife marks and very obvious attempts to break up the skeletal remains. Heads were cut off and thigh bones snapped before being thrown into a bonfire. The bodies were of people aged between four years old and fifty.
From the 11th century onwards, there are writings on so-called ‘revenants’ who would come back from the grave – often wicked people who could not rest at ease after death. Possibly brought back to life by the devil himself, they were believed to be capable of attacking the living.
The archaeologists toyed with the possibility that the bodies may have been cannibalised at a time of famine. But the knife marks didn’t suggest de-fleshing and were concentrated in areas like the head and neck. This horrific practice seems to have endured from the 11th to the 14th century.
Needless to say this covers the period of our very own Knights Templar.
Of course we are still obsessed with the subject of zombies – witness the success of The Walking Dead. I’ve also just discovered a Twitter site called Medieval Death Bot where real stories of curious deaths in the Middle Ages are tweeted every day.
Hallow came from an Old English word for holy or sanctified. The day was a liturgical vigil where the faithful were required to attend church, fast and pray. But there was always a hangover from pre-Christian practices. This was the transition from summer to winter – a time when peasants gathered in the harvest and into November, the ‘blood month’, where animals were killed and salted. Having an abundance of food – hopefully, famine permitting – there was a perfect excuse to feast and drink.
From the moment Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church had to deal with pagan rituals that involved dancing, singing, drinking and gorging on food. What to do? Ban them – which the church attempted – or co-opt them into the church calendar, trying to draw out the pagan sting. That was the route the church gradually adopted.
So, around October 31st the Christian community was faced with a festivity where bonfires were lit to propitiate the sun god – who was now in retreat to the darkness. The sun was thanked for its good work, nourishing the fruits of the earth. Peasants hoped for its glowing return in the spring.
Some believe that in ancient Britain, the people at this time hailed a deity called Samhain, the lord of death, who gathered up the souls of the evil imprisoned within the bodies of animals. It’s said that this was altered by Christians to create a day in the Middle Ages where the souls of those in purgatory were prayed for. The bonfires continued and people would go to their neighbours’ houses in the village offering condolences to the bereaved – did this morph into trick or treat?
Dressing up in outlandish costumes had always been a part of pagan festivities and this element of Samhain worship could have trickled into All Hallows Eve. One idea is that the souls of the Christian dead wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November 1st. So, Halloween was their last chance to exact mischief on the living. Those not wishing to be recognised by the dead as they committed their last wicked deeds would wear masks and disguises – hence dressing up on this day.
Comparisons are also made to the Roman festival around the goddess Pomona. Her symbol was an apple and it’s been posited that the origin of apple bobbing at Halloween comes from Pomona related rites. It’s hard to deny that Christians reworked Roman festivals into the new religion, giving them new meaning. There’s evidence that the church actively discussed the dilemma of winning over converts who were attached to the old pagan ways. The solution seems to have been to let the common people carry on with their superstitions but direct their gaze to the Christian god instead.
The 31st October comes right before All Saints Day – November 1st – a feast called Hallowmas. Therefore Halloween was the eve before this important event in the liturgical calendar. It’s a Christian feast day believed to date back to the seventh century AD when the Pantheon, a vast and still standing temple built by the emperor Hadrian, was re-dedicated to all the saints. It had previously been dedicated to all the gods – but there was only one god now!
That was followed in the eleventh century with the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2nd. In case you’re confused – All Saints Day celebrated those who had succeeded in entering heaven while All Souls Day involved lots of praying for those who had not – lingering instead in purgatory (God’s waiting room). So a lot of attention was paid to the fate of the dead at this time of year, which has obviously informed the modern Halloween. Even our use of scary spiders, toads and bats reflects creatures within whom the souls of those in purgatory were sometimes thought to inhabit while they waited for their ticket into heaven.
I realise there is a terrific amount of soul searching – pardon the pun – over the Christian meaning of Halloween. I’m happy to hear your views and have some discussion about this ahead of the big day!
Edward I – the king who defeated Braveheart – could never be regarded as a particularly sentimental man but when it came to his wife, he was a clearly a very devoted husband. Eleanor of Castile was the great great granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the feisty queen of Henry II. She was also the great grandaughter of Eleanor of England, a daughter of that same king. Medieval England certainly spawned a surfeit of Eleanors!
Castile was an emerging European power as it pushed back the Islamic realm of southern Spain and originally, Eleanor was intended to be married in to the royal family of the neighbouring Christian kingdom of Navarre. However, Edward I’s father – King Henry III – was troubled by the claims Castile was making to the duchy of Aquitaine, then still under English control, and decided the best way to deal with that problem was to marry his son to the Castilian princess.
Eleanor was no shrinking violet and in the wars that her husband, as king, would have to fight against the English barons and external foes – she proved to be a very strong support for him. However, her life would be cut short – though not at a remarkably young age by the standards of the time. Journeying with Edward towards Lincoln, she caught a fever and died at the age of 49.
This clearly devastated the king who erected twelve ‘Eleanor Crosses‘ at the staging points on her slow procession back to London. This included crosses – initially in wood and later in stone – at Lincoln, Northamption, St Albans, Waltham and Westcheap and then finally at Charing. The last cross was in a small hamlet near the city of Westminster, the centre of royal power.
The cross was in place there from the 1290s to the Cromwellian period in the mid-17th century but was then demolished as part of another wave of anti-idolatrous as well as anti-monarchist sentiment. It stood more or less where the statue of king Charles I now stands at the end of Trafalgar Square, by Admiralty Arch. The cross you can now see outside Charing Cross station is a Victorian confection.
Inside Charing Cross underground station, there are murals depicting the construction of the original cross which I’ve taken a few photos of: