Set your record buttons for Jamie Theakston and Forbidden History!

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Jamie Theakston and the Forbidden History team in my study

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!

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

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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.

The mysterious Templar attack on the Assassins

Français : Bohémond III et Raymond III à Jérusalem
Français : Bohémond III et Raymond III à Jérusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Crusades and one to ponder if you get bored with your family’s company over the Christmas dinner – which I am sure you will not. But just in case!

The story unfolds in the 1160s. Jerusalem had been in crusader hands since 1099 and a string of Christian states had been formed encompassing such cities as Antioch, Tripoli and Gaza. There was both a constant fear of attack by the Muslim caliphate but also a curious if uneasy co-existence with the enemy.

When King Baldwin III of Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly died, it was said that the Muslim governor of Aleppo – Nur ed-Din – publicly grieved for the young man. His brother, Almaric, took the kingdom as there were no children to inherit and set about planning an attack on Egypt. The Fatimid rulers of that country were divided and weakened and Almaric calculated that if he didn’t try and seize the Nile with its huge bread basket, then Nur ed-Din would certainly have a go. Either the crusaders or the Turks would rule in Egypt.

Almaric’s subsequent campaign in Egypt relied on Templar support and it didn’t go well. While Almaric was occupied in the Nile delta, Nur ed-Din attacked Antioch to the north. The ruler of that crusader domain, Bohemond III, was lured into a familiar Saracen retreat and then attack trap, which killed many Templars. The experience of Almaric’s activities in Egypt and Bohemond in Antioch made the Templars think that in future they might rely on their own knowledge of battlefield tactics instead of the more impetuous Latin princes.

The Templars were able to act with some independence as the Papal bull Omne Datum Optimum meant they answered only to the Pope and not to any king or prince. However, somebody must have failed to give a copy of that document to Almaric because when he discovered a band of twelve Templar knights who had decided to abandon a castle in TransJordan to Nur ed-Din rather than face heavy losses, he hanged all of them. This completely poisoned relations between Almaric and the Templar Grand Master, Bertrand of Blanquefort.

So when Almaric announced he wanted to have another go at Egypt, the Templars stayed put – even though the Hospitallers, rivals to the Templars, agreed to go. This bad atmosphere continued into 1173 when Almaric began talks with the leader of the notorious Assassins, a messianic group based in Syria. They were fanatical Ismailis who attacked Christians and Sunni Muslims alike, taking out senior figures whenever the opportunity presented itself. But they were shy of attacking the Templars – and maybe rightly understood these knights were made of sterner stuff.

Instead – and incredible as it might seem – the Assassins paid the Templars an annual tribute of 2,000 Bezants (high value coins) to be left alone by the knights! In the 1160s, Sinan – leader of the Assassins and known as the Old Man of the Mountain – announced that the end of the world and the resurrection of the flesh had arrived. This was heretical to Christians and Muslims but led the Assassins into a constant orgy – by all accounts – where hedonism ruled.

Breaking off from one of these orgies, Sinan sent out feelers to Almaric saying that he was up for converting to Christianity. The king of Jerusalem was overjoyed and guaranteed safe passage to an envoy from Sinan to visit him. But en route, a group of Templar knights attacked the messenger from Sinan sending the traveling party of Assassins scurrying back to their leader.

Almaric was incandescent with rage. It was bad enough that the Templars were acting in an increasingly independent spirit but to attack the Assassins when they were offering to convert to Christ seemed outrageous and nonsensical. He ordered the arrest of the Templar who had led the attack, Walter de Mesnil.

The Templar Grand Master was noticeably circumspect about the whole incident though it’s hard to believe Walter acted in isolation like some kind of rogue Templar – most analysts believe he must have been ordered to undertake the attack. The chronicler William of Tyre, who despised the Templars, wrote very cattily that the order was just worried about losing its 2,000 Bezants a year if peace were made with the Assassins. Walter Mapp scribbled that the Templars didn’t want peace – because it would destroy their whole reason for being. The order craved war and destruction, he wrote.

But others have been kinder. It just might be that the Templars understood the Assassins better than Almaric. They knew that the crafty Sinan was up to no good. He was an unscrupulous murderer who had dipped his hands in Muslim and Christian blood. When Almaric died, he was succeeded by Raymond III. His father had been slain by the Assassins and so all talks were Sinan were abandoned.

Nevertheless, down the years the opinions on the Templar attack on the Assassins have remained divided. Was it naked self interest or the advancement of the crusades that lay behind their act?

Turcopoles – a Crusader’s best friend?

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

From the Roman empire onwards, armies have always vexed over how to get hold of the necessary manpower. This is particularly an acute problem when an empire is expanding far from home. Supply lines have always needed to be maintained and recruits found to replace the dead and wounded. It’s also been a trick of every conqueror to absorb the fighting tactics of their enemies and the closest available manpower. The Romans never let a good enemy tactic go unnoticed and adopted – and they would cheerfully enlist the sons of the conquered.

Equally with the crusader states that sprang up in the Middle East after the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, there was a need to soak up some of the local fighting talent. The Christian invaders were never going to hold on to the kingdoms and principalities they had created without some of the locals coming on side. There were, of course, plenty of Christians living all around them. The religion had, after all, begun in the Middle East. Every shade of Christianity could be found in the crusader states and to the north was the ancient and still very active eastern orthodox Christian empire of Byzantium.

It couldn’t be automatically assumed that any of these Christians would wield a sword for their new masters – who often regarded them as heretical.  In appearance, they looked a little too much like their Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their church services were distinctly lacking in any Latin. But some were prepared to take up arms with the crusaders – and especially the Knights Templar. These obliging eastern warriors were known as  ‘Turcopoles‘.

I’m told this word derives from old Greek meaning ‘sons of Turks’ – but as my Greek is non-existent, one of you can put me right. It’s certain that these lightly armed auxiliaries weren’t necessary Turkish by ethnicity, though many may have been. They were easterners for sure and in the Templar order, they formed a useful fighting force. However, any hope they might have had of rising to be a full blown knight – let alone a brother serjeant – they could forget.  Not that racism as we understand it was prevalent – but they were never to be admitted to the Frankish noble inner circles of the crusader states.

In my book Quest For The True Cross (click on title to go to Amazon) – I have a turcopole main character called Pathros. I made him a man from Aleppo whose family had fallen on hard times due to political changes in Syrian society – not least the arrival of the Seljuk Turks.  A removal of Christians from the bureaucracy of the Islamic caliphate reduces his father to poverty and Pathros goes to find his fortune in the nearby enemy kingdom of Jerusalem. He meets my main Templar hero, Sir William de Mandeville, and becomes his trusty servant. What I show is that Pathros is an educated, literate easterner who, nevertheless, cannot rise up in the Templar order – a fact that frustrates and embitters him. He is lost between two cultures – the Frankish Christian world of the crusaders and the Muslim caliphate. Pathros belongs to neither.

Interestingly – and bringing things to the modern day – I chanced upon THIS blog post from an Islamic blogger arguing for the existence of what he called “Neo-Turcopoles” – Muslims who, as he put it, co-operate with American Neo-Cons and even the Tea Party. I must hasten to point out that this blogger is ultimately arguing for inter-faith unity between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He claims these Neo-Turcopoles are Muslims allying themselves with the most right wing commentators in the US – part of what he calls the Islamophobia “industry”.

I’ve no doubt that in the twelfth century, plenty of easterners living under crusader rule probably took an equally dim view of those who fought alongside the Templars. Plus ca change!

Siege of Tiberias and disaster at Hattin

Tiberias today is a pretty small place in an area where Israel is incredibly narrow. I visited the town and there is surprisingly little of the crusader presence left, compared to Acre for example. But some very significant history is embedded in this place.

Very near to Tiberias, an appalling battle occurred at the Horns of Hattin. This was a decisive defeat for the Templars and the crusaders at the hands of Saladin. He massed about 30,000 troops to besiege the Christian forces at Tiberias. The crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was riven with internal disputes in the wake of the death of Baldwin V with Raymond of Tripoli in open revolt against Baldwin’s successor Guy of Lusignan.

While the crusaders were disunited, Saladin – an ethnic Kurd – had united Egypt and Syria and solidified the Muslim polity. Saladin was determined to take back Jerusalem and any hope of peace overtures were snuffed out when the volatile Reynald of Chatillon raided a Muslim caravan that included Saladin’s sister. She was allegedly raped.

Saladin laid siege to Tiberias but Raymond of Tripoli was strangely reticent to join battle even though his own wife was in the city. This has led to speculation that he had reached a deal with the Saracen leader that he would help Raymond overthrow Guy and become king of Jerusalem.

The Knights Hospitaller were also cagey about taking on Saladin but the Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort urged Guy on to attack the Saracens. And so he left Jerusalem with an army two thirds the size of that commanded by Saladin – a move that has rightly been described as suicidal. The intention was to relieve Tiberias but they never got there. Instead, they struck camp at Hattin where Saladin could not believe his luck. Far better to battle the crusaders in the open than when they were behind thick walls.

The rest, as they say, is history!

 

So…here are some pictures from medieval Tiberias that I took three weeks ago.

The Holy Sepulchre – sacred to the Knights Templar

Crucifixion site
Site of the crucifixion – photo I took during my visit

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.

Holy Sepulchre
Photo I took in the crypt 

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.

Ethiopian monkOne 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.

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Priests riot in 2011

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.

The tomb of Jesus
Photo I took within the chapel covering the tomb of Jesus

 

Exorcism, fairies, devils and how to turn a maiden in to a love slave

feat_demonsA 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.