Friday 13th and the end of the Knights Templar

dayIt’s one of those weeks again when a Friday 13th occurs and our thoughts turn to the Knights Templar. So why is the 13th so significant?

On the morning of Friday 13th October 1307, a huge dawn raid saw Templars all over France rounded up and imprisoned. Orders to conduct this raid had been secretly circulated to law enforcement officers – bailiffs as they were termed – from the King of France.

King Philip the Fair had resolved to destroy the order with one devastating blow. Each bailiff would have read the king’s words with trepidation:

A bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an execrable evil, an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from humanity.

The king claimed that while the Templars said they were Christian, they were in effect nothing of the sort. Honest men had informed the royal authorities that these knights were spitting and urinating on crucifixes and worshipping devilish idols. Worse, the Templars were giving each other illicit kisses all over their bodies including the “base of the spine”.

Every member of the Knights Templar was to be held for trial by the church while the King of France would take over all the assets of the Templars – buildings, gold, farms, etc.

Some knights managed to escape including the Preceptor of France, Gerard de Villiers. One has to feel rather sorry for another terrified knight who ditched his white mantle, shaved his beard and got into disguise but was still apprehended by the king’s men.

Templars: once revered, now hated

The evidence suggests that nearly all the Templars had no idea what was about to happen. As the bailiffs kicked down their doors, the knights surrendered to their doom.

They were carted off to grim dungeons where many experienced a range of tortures to extract confessions. The king was determined that they would admit their guilt to the charges of sodomy and heresy.

Many of those taken away to have their feet roasted or hung up with their arms tied behind their back – two common forms of torture – were old men by the standard of the day. They were retired warriors or members of the order who had always been farm managers or administrators.

Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master, was probably the most surprised victim of the Friday 13th arrests. Only the day before, he had been an honoured guest at the funeral of the king’s sister-in-law.

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.


Sun Worship and the Templars

English: Sol Invictus and Jupiter Dolichenus. ...
Sol Invictus and Jupiter Dolichenus

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.

Knights Templar – why they were formed

Templar artworkBack 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.


Battle of Montgisard – leper king anniversary

Big anniversary today for the Knights Templar.

1ccf4207629acadcaba12953b3dbd2ff.jpgIt was on the 25th November in 1177 that a crusader army led by the teenage leper king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV routed a much larger army led by Saladin.   The victory was nothing short of amazing – dare one even say miraculous.

It had been preceded by plans by the crusaders to invade Egypt which had been beset by quarrels between different camps.   The agents of the Byzantine emperor constantly intrigued in the city of Jerusalem, Philip of Alsace had arrived on a notional pilgrimage but was playing a bigger political game and different candidates were lining up to succeed the leper on the throne.

Add to that the mercurial, bloodthirsty and possibly downright bonkers Raynald of Chatillon whose military adventures had led to a long stretch in a Saracen dungeon – which had left him with a murderous hatred of Saladin.  His treatment of Christian opponents could be sadistic in the extreme.  He had seized the Patriarch of Antioch, coated his naked body with honey and left in the heat of the midday sun on account of some or other infraction.

Saladin’s march on Jerusalem was largely a counter-measure against the well leaked plans of the “Franks” to move on Egypt.  But it backfired very badly.  In spite of superior numbers, a crusader force – including several hundred Templars – ripped in to the Saracens and Saladin only narrowly escaped with his life.   This proved to be a major lesson for the otherwise brilliant ruler.