Newark Castle – where Templar knights were imprisoned

I must confess to having known little to nothing about Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire until the announcement this month that it will be hosting an exhibition on the Knights Templar.

Why an exhibition here? Well, several knights were imprisoned down below in the dungeons of the castle after the order was crushed by order of Pope Clement. The English dragged their feet initially in suppressing the Templars but then got on with the job. The poor knights were rounded up, locked away and tortured to confess to various trumped up charges.

Knights-Templar-Grafitti-225x300Intriguingly, the imprisoned Templars scrawled religious symbols on the walls – something they seemed to have done wherever they were imprisoned. For example, Gisors in France.

The dungeons were incredibly grim and disease ridden. Many of those incarcerated would have survived a matter of days and death might have been a sweet release. Food was basic and disgusting while the only drink would have been ale brewed in the castle. That at least might have eased your suffering.

Like many Norman castles, it started out as a wooden construction commissioned by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln. Later on, a stone fortress replaced the wood. As happened to quite a few medieval castles,  it was partially demolished after the English Civil War in the 17th century to stop royalists threatening the newly founded republic  of Oliver Cromwell.



Medieval waterboarding and other tortures

Medieval use of water to extract confessions

As we know, the Templar leaders were tortured in to confessions after being arrested in Paris and elsewhere when the Order was suppressed in the early fourteenth century.  One unfortunate Templar carried the charred remains of his toes in a box after having his feet severely burnt under torture.  Burning with hot irons was a fairly common and straight forward form of interrogative torture – just branding the torso repeatedly until the victim confessed all.

It was often enough to be shown the instruments of torture for many to decide they’d rather give in and sign a confession – even if that meant death on the scaffold.  And death on the scaffold was not guaranteed to be a slow affair.  Hanging was by strangulation and treason was punished by being hung till you were ‘half dead’ (which is why ‘hung till you are dead’ is specified in judicial death sentences as opposed to being cut down while still alive) and then disemboweled and castrated before your body was then cut in to quarters.

If somebody decided not to sign a confession and underwent torture, then an increasingly ghoulish array of devices was developed in the Middle Ages to encourage victims to condemn themselves.  If fingernails and teeth being pulled didn’t do the trick, it was time to move on to head vice type contraptions – slowly squeezing the skull.  Or the notorious thumbscrews, breaking your digits and rendering them quite useless.

Torture devices were often intended to match the crime.  So the ‘pear of anguish’ was a rather bizarre contraption which might be inserted in to the mouth of a blasphemer or the anus of a ‘sodomite’ and by turning a screw, four flaps would extend outwards stretching the orifice to breaking point.  Makes me shuffle in my seat I can tell you!

The mutilation of crime suspects was often a public affair.  The individual had not been found guilty yet of their crime but to prove their innocence had to undergo a ‘trial by ordeal’.  This normally involved fire or water.  The fire test had different variants but at its simplest, an accused person would be ordered to pick up a red hot iron bar and walk several paces.  This might be down the aisle of a church in front of the person’s neighbours.  The bar would be dropped, the hand wrapped in bandages and then examined after, typically, three days.  Failure to heal was a good sign of guilt and the accused might be led away to be hung or exiled from the village, which could be a death sentence in of itself.

Grim executions included boiling – not a common form of execution to my knowledge.  One used I believe against cooks who tried to poison their patrons – kind of appropriate.  With advanced warning for those of you who are sensitive – here is a dramatisation (from The Tudors) of death by boiling.



Sun Worship and the Templars

English: Sol Invictus and Jupiter Dolichenus. ...
English: Sol Invictus and Jupiter Dolichenus. 2nd century. Museum of Dioclecian Baths (Rome) Español: Sol Invicto y Júpiter Doliqueno. 2ª mitad siglo II. Museo de las Termas de Diocleciano (Roma) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Antoninianus of Probus minted in 280. Depicts ...
Antoninianus of Probus minted in 280. Depicts the solar divinity Sol Invictus riding a quadriga. Probus issued many different coins during his six years of rule. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Christmas I was given a book that I’ve been dying to read.  It’s a new offering from publishers Simon & Schuster called ‘Chasing The Sun’ by Richard Cohen.  From what I’ve flicked through and read so far, over a glass of wine on Boxing Day, I can see that me and this book are going to be good buddies.

Cohen covers all aspects of sun worship pointing out that across the globe there are something like three thousand stone structures directed to the big yellow ball in the sky.  Over the millennia, there have obviously far more temples and stones erected but this is what survives and is identifiable.  Of these, 900 are Neolithic tombs in Britain that capture the sun’s rays at a particular time.

Top of the solar sites in Britain is Stonehenge which, Cohen notes, impressed the hell out of seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys though he noted ‘God know what their use was’.   The main European rival to Stonehenge is the vast mass of stones all over Brittany, in France, where one site has thousands of megaliths scattered around.  Once part of a huge structure with a local legend that has developed over the last two thousand years asserting that they are Roman soldiers petrified by Pope Cornelius during the persecutions of the Emperor Trajan Decius (AD251-253).

These structures would have existed to impress any passing Templar.  And there have always been suggestions that the Order of the Temple dabbled in a bit of sun worship – along with everything else they are supposed to have dabbled in.  The reasons given for this connection tend to vary dramatically.

One theory puts it that the Templars came from a region of France that had strong Druidic traditions that were transmitted down to the nine founding knights of the Order.  Another that Jesus himself was the continuation of previous sun deities – ‘I am the light’, all that kind of thing….you can find plenty of light and darkness references in the New Testament to construct a plausible theory along these lines.  Add in that early representations of Jesus look rather like the solar god Apollo and you’re really on a roll.

So the Templars decided to worship Jesus as a sun god. Evidence?  None at all.  Yet all over the web are creaky and unstable bridges linking far fetched premises to hopelessly unlinked conclusions.  Normally prefaced with phrases like “it’s known that” and “they would have been aware of”.   It’s best to retain a healthy scepticism with regards to the Templars bowing down before an all powerful rising sun.

But in terms of links between early Christianity and solar worship, then you’re on firmer ground.  Constantine, the first emperor to tolerate Christianity and then slowly adopt it, was also an adherent to the cult of Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun).  You can see him gazing upwards to the Sun on some of his coins.

Emperors immediately prior to Constantine had been followers of Sol Invictus and Aurelian had even built a huge temple to Sol on what is now the Via del Corso in Rome – some sixteenth century pope demolished the last remnants of it.

Jesus is represented early on with solar imagery, as is God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Light is always associated with good and power.  The appearance of golden halos behind the heads of saints can probably be traced back to solar worship as well.

In the Middle Ages, it’s hard not to see the large rose windows of the cathedrals of the High Gothic style not being solar representations.

As the sun gives us life, we still look to it.  Though I suspect we see it as equal life giver and life taker these days.  We know what the upside is of having a sun, as did our ancestors, but we also know about skin cancer, global warming and the fact that the sun will ultimately consume this planet with a flick of its tail, so to speak.

The Knights Templar in America – part one

The History Channel has been running a programme which puts forward a theory that runs something like this:  The Templars were supressed.  They fled to Scotland.  They sailed to America with the Holy Grail they had found in the Temple at Jerusalem.  They mutated/bonded/merged with the Freemasons.  Their descendants were the Founding Fathers.  The Holy Grail is hidden in the United States.

OK – take issue if you think that’s a crude synopsis but it’ll do for me.  So – let’s go through this theory in two or three blog installments because it’s a humdinger to get through.

This theory has been around for a while and it often starts by denying that the Templars were set up as faithful servants of the church to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.  No, runs this counter-argument, they were set up by descendants of the priests from the Temple of Jerusalem scattered throughout the Roman Empire and beyond after the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus put down the Jewish rebellion in CE 70.

Nursing their grievances for hundreds of years and intent on reclaiming what they had lost in Jerusalem, they formed the Knights Templar and successfully retook the Temple in the holy city as their headquarters.  I think it’s fair to say that those who advocate this view are a little sketchy on the evidence front.  Is there anything that proves the original founding knights thought they were descended from Jewish high priests?  No.  And why would Pope Eugenius and Saint Bernard have so enthusiastically backed the Order if its intent ran counter to their interests?   All explanations welcome.

The theory tends to accept at face value that the Templars were heretics as charged during the trials of the Templar leaders in Paris at the start of the fourteenth century.  The French king dragged up the familiar charge of ‘sodomy’ used to discredit any enemy in those days – as I described in another blog.  But in this theory, the Templars were gnostic heretics and, as famously accepted by Dan Brown, they knew that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had got down to it and the descendants of Jesus lived amongst us.

I do think the Templars came in to contact with the heresies that continued to circulate in the east.  Remember, Christianity was nowhere hammered in to an orthodox doctrine for five hundred years after the death of Christ.  And when the Templars were in Jerusalem, there would still have been followers of Nestorianism, gnosticism and those who believed John the Baptist was the messiah.  Unlike the west which bowed to the diktat of Rome, the east was a mess of conflicting views over the nature of Christ and the Trinity.  Even Islam was seen as essentially a heresy of Christianity or Judaism.

Anyway, one of the families that claimed descent from the priests of Jerusalem and had joined the Templars were the St Clairs or Sinclairs.  In their book – Templars in America: From the Crusades to the New World – Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins claim that Earl Henry Sinclair (also descended from the Vikings, who got to America as you know) made the journey to the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States.  With that, he was the first Knight Templar to set foot in the New World.

The power of saints relics in the Middle Ages

For the Knights Templar – saints’ relics were very important.  And the ordinary people had a great deal of faith in the leg bone or skull of a dead holy person.  Various stories circulated at the time about the power of these relics.

Two beggars had the misfortune to get a little too close to the relics of Saint Martin.  They were desperate not to be healed as nobody would ever give them money again.  And they certainly didn’t want to do an honest day’s work.  But the sweep of the crowd edging forward to touch the body of the saint caught them up and before they knew it, their blindness was cured.  The chronicler says the two men were hugely pissed off by this – rather like the character unwillingly healed in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

One story that shows how everybody was a sucker for a good relic in the Middle Ages was the claim by monks at the abbey of Saint Jean in Aquitaine, south west France, that they had discovered the head of John the Baptist.  This would have come as something of a surprise to a church in far off Antioch – modern Turkey – where they quite sure that the head of John the Baptist had been sitting above their altar for centuries.

But nothing was to stop the French monks who were a bit hazy on the small details of where and how they’d found this head so far from where it had been chopped off a thousand years before.   Needless to say plenty of French peasants began claiming that their ailments were cured by the head in their midst.  And as relics seem to need the company of other relics, John the Baptist was soon joined by the remains of Saint Eparchius.

Saint Eparchius had died in the sixth century and his good deeds in life had centered on rescuing condemned criminals.  Bit soft on crime you could say.  One man hung at the gallows was brought back to life by the saint whose head now joined John the Baptist.  The sky burned with fire when the two relics were put together.

Another relic that showed off its power was that of Saint Junianus whose bits and pieces were being transported in a sack by some monks and one night they stopped off at a village to sleep.  After they left, the villagers erected a wicker fence around the place where the relics had been set down.  Later that very day, an angry bull charged in to the fence and died instantly.

Bishop Gregory of Tours, who was writing in the very early medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire, was sure that Saint Martin – mentioned above – had cured him of all sorts of things.  One was a massive attack of dysentery that left him vomiting and on the toilet constantly.  His physician couldn’t cure him but lo and behold, some dust taken from Saint Martin’s tomb and mixed in to an elixir, did the trick.

Touching Saint Martin’s tomb also sorted out Gregory’s recurring headaches, removed a fishbone from his throat, cured what sounds like chickenpox or shingles and when his tongue swelled up, he took to licking part of the tomb.  Yuck!

Most incredibly to Gregory, a woman who had been beaten up and rendered speechless by a ghost (I’m not making this up!) recovered her speech and was able to tell Gregory all about what had happened after she visited Martin’s tomb.  I’m hoping she didn’t have to lick it as well.

Are the Freemasons really the Knights Templar?

In essence, did the Knights Templar not die and disappear in the flames before Notre Dame – but continue to the present day within the Masonic lodges?

It’s a testament to the Freemasons that many people automatically assume that the Masons and Knights Templar have always been one and the same thing.  It’s impossible to find anything from the Middle Ages that identifies such a link.

The Templars were an order of monks who took up the sword to fight in the Holy Land (and other places) against the Saracens/Moors….basically, Islam.  The Masons – on the other hand –  were people who carved stones in to different shapes for high status buildings – particularly cathedrals and had their own guilds and restrictive practices one might associate with 20th century trades unions – say the print unions for example.

So how do these two bodies of men (mainly men) get conflated together?  As I’ve said before, there’s not much evidence that Templars were involved in any cathedral building….unless you can tell me otherwise.  And there was no obligation on the part of master masons to go off on crusade unless they voluntarily took the cross.  Masons were not bound to the Rule laid down in the main by Saint Bernard for the Templars – as the masons were not monks.

One account of how the link got made suggests that in the late seventeenth century, a chap called Chevalier Ramsay began lecturing to the Grand Lodge of France on the links between their organisation and the Templars of old.  At this time, the great fortress of the Templars in Paris was still standing – as I mentioned in another blog.  So their physical presence was still very strong in that city.  The forbidding building, used to imprison Louis XVI, jutted skywards in the Marais district.

Masons were of growing important in France at this time – they were allegedly at the forefront of the bourgeois movement that would sweep away the Bourbon Monarchy in the 1780s.   They had no reason to feel any affection for a Catholic monarchy that had oppressed France’s protestants and sceptics.  No doubt many Freemasons were ardent supporters of what we now call The Enlightenment.  But why bother forge a link with the Templars?

Well, every movement and every nation needs its creation myths.  To be more weighty and credible, how much better to show that your secret order has been around five or six hundred years longer than it actually has.  And how butch to say that your forebears were knights in shining armour fighting valiantly for the truth.

I do wonder that as the Catholic church was hostile to the Masons until recent times – and vice versa – that there was some appeal in identifying with an order of monks who fell out so badly with the pope at the beginning of the fourteenth century.  But one should note that relations with the papacy were famously cordial for most of the Templars’ existence.  Pope Eugenius III was the midwife of the Order and granted it all its privileges.

The attraction for the Freemasons must be that of the outsider – the Templars were outsiders and so are they.  And also the Templars’ alleged secret rituals – much like the Freemasons again.  Though note that much of what the Templars were supposed to do in secret was scurrilous stuff raked up during the trials of Jacques De Molay and others.  And of course the Masons disappeared – like a puff of smoke.  So where did they go?  Fleeing to Scotland, Switzerland, China or the Americas….as I’ve read.  Being effectively nationalised by the Portuguese monarchy.  Or subsumed in to the Hospitallers.

Or….they went underground and….they’re down at your local Freemason lodge!

Knights Templar – why they were formed

Back in 1842, Charles G Addison wrote his book “The History of the Knights Templars” – the plural on both words is his decision, not mine.  He explains how nearly three centuries after the death of Christ, the Empress Helena – mother of the Roman emperor Constantine – “discovered” the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  One of several very convenient discoveries by this intrepid woman.  Seems she couldn’t move for kicking up another relic of Our Lord.

That set in train wave after wave of pilgrims who flooded to the Holy Land until the eastern Roman Empire lost control of Jerusalem and most of what had been the province of Syria – to the armies of Islam.  Or the “Arabians” as Addison puts it.

But in 637CE – Caliph Omar, the new Islamic ruler, seems to have been remarkably generous and agreed to protect Christian churches and allow pilgrims to continue to worship, Addison notes.  A decision which made plenty of sense.  Pilgrims brought business and early Islam was acutely aware of its theological relationship with Judaism and Christianity.

In fact, the waves of pilgrims actually increased in size over the next four centuries until in 1064, Addison points out that seven thousand arrived headed up by the Archbishop of “Mentz” and Bishops of Utrecht, Bamberg and Ratisbon.  But things were about to go horribly wrong.

The next year, Jerusalem was conquered by the “wild Turcomans” and three thousand citizens slaughtered.  By “wild Turcomans”, Addison is referring to the Seljuk Turks whose impressive empire extended from India to the walls of Constantinople – an achievement only matched by Alexander the Great.  But when Addison wrote, the Turks were still demonised in European history books as alien, blood thirsty invaders.  Not that I’m sure they didn’t have their moments – but the Seljuks get a slightly better write up these days.

Addison recounts one story that might be true – or could be crusader propaganda: “The patriarch of the Holy City was dragged by the hair of his head over the sacred pavement of the church of the Resurrection and cast in to a dungeon”.  Pilgrims were massacred or robbed and access to the Holy Sepulchre now came at an extortionate fee.

Needless to say the actions of the “wild Turcomans” sparked off the First Crusade.  The events that prompted nine crusader knights to form the Order of the Temple was the continued harassing of pilgrims by Bedouin horseman, Addison claims.  Pilgrims, whether coming by land or sea, had to put up with “daily hostility” and even death – he says.

So in 1118 – because of the breakdown of tolerance instituted by Caliph Omar and the wickedness of the “wild Turcomans”, our friends the Templars came in to being.