Were the Knights Templar really the guardians of the Holy Grail?

500px-Galahad_grailFor 800 years, people have been thrilled by the idea that the Knights Templar were the brave guardians of the Holy Grail. But is it actually true?

The Templars were formed in 1118 ostensibly to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. But, many believe, that wasn’t their real mission. It was no accident that they chose to be based on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in what we now call the Al Aqsa mosque. When the holy city was under crusader control, the mosque was taken over by the Templars and renamed the Temple of Solomon. Because that’s what they believed it actually was – the site of the biblical king’s palace.

grail2The knights called themselves the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short. They began digging furiously under the temple to find sacred treasure. It’s widely assumed they discovered the Holy Grail and became its guardians. Their mission had then been accomplished and they were to be the eternal keepers of the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper.

When the Templar order was crushed in 1307 by the King of France and his puppet Pope Clement, the Grail was believed to have been spirited away. Did it end up in Paris and then on to Scotland and even the United States where one rather far-fetched theory has the sacred chalice being melted down into the torch of the Statue of Liberty? Or was it whisked off to Portugal where the Templars were protected by the king? Could it be located at the Templar bastion of Tomar in central Portugal?

In the period that the Knights Templar existed – 1118 to 1307 – there was an explosion of Grail related stories. They often involved the Court of King Arthur and extolled the virtues of chivalry and risking all for divine glory. The association of the Grail with the Knights Templar wasn’t established at first – it evolved even into our own time.

The idea of the Grail may be rooted in pre-Christian folklore, particularly Celtic references to magic cauldrons – much loved by witches as you know.  The cauldron became a cup with magical powers.

holy-grail-2A 12th century poet Robert de Boron made the link between a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea who was said to have used the same cup to collect blood from Christ’s body on the cross. Joseph then takes the cup to Britain where it ended up at Glastonbury. Joseph is a character who pops up in the gospels as a wealthy Jewish merchant and maybe a relative of Jesus who arranges for his burial. Successive early Christian writers developed him further and Robert de Boron stuck him firmly in the Arthurian legend.

The Grail had its theological uses for the medieval church.  As a cup of Christ’s blood it reinforced the central act of the Catholic mass where the wine in the chalice becomes, literally, the blood of Christ. This would explain the symbolism of Christ sharing the cup at the last supper and then the same vessel being used to collect his blood at the crucifixion. Wine + turning to blood + chalice = Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the turning of wine to blood in the mass.

goodfriday-neuschSo how do the Templars come to be its guardians? Step forward German medieval teller of chivalrous tales Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the first decade of the 13th century he wrote Parzival – effectively a new take on the already existing legend of King Arthur. Parzival arrives at Arthur’s court, goes off on a quest to find the Grail, which he discovers in a castle owned by the Fisher King and guarded by…the Templeise.

This brotherhood of knights is indeed chaste and prayerful, like the Templars. They do battle with heathens to protect the Grail, though it’s a stone and not a cup. The stone, incidentally, confers eternal youth and heals people of ailments.  But there is no mention in the Parzival tale of these knights being in any way monastic in nature and their symbol is a turtle dove and not the Templar cross.

However, the die was cast. Templars. Guardians. Holy Grail. There was no going back now. Templar historian Helen Nicholson believes that this story and others that arose afterwards gave the Templars some very good PR in German speaking medieval Europe.

Wolfram von Eschenbach is an interesting fellow. He seems to have been influenced by French literature and knowledge coming from the Muslim world. Wolfram’s aristocratic patron – Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – had been on crusade in the Middle East and both men seem to have been unusually fascinated and sympathetic to the Islamic world.

Wolfram also gained knowledge, he claims, from the Moorish libraries of Toledo in Spain. Toledo had been conquered from the Muslims by Christian armies in 1105. Scholars from all over western Europe descended on its famous libraries translating texts from Arabic that included long lost ancient Greek works and studies on everything from geometry to music and astrology. Like the Templars, Wolfram was somebody who imbibed the wisdom and philosophy of the medieval Muslim world via different routes.

To shore up his claim that the Templars were the guardians of the Grail, Wolfram also mentions an elusive character called Kyot of Provence as a cast iron source for his tale. Chrétien of Troyes got the Grail legend details wrong in his King Arthur story, Wolfram alleges, whereas Kyot of Provence is spot on. And the Templar connection is completely true. Problem is, nobody can find any shred of evidence for the existence of this chap Kyot of Provence.

It’s almost like he never existed.

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The man behind the theory of the Da Vinci Code

cryptexThe whole fascination with the alleged bloodline of Jesus and the Templar association with the Holy Grail goes back hundreds of years. But in relatively recent times, the 1970s to be exact, there was a huge surge of interest in this subject. It was a decade obsessed with the occult and the esoteric.

Henry Lincoln was a charismatic individual who satisfied the insatiable curiosity of the public in these areas. He was convinced that stories about a shadowy organisation called the Priory of Sion dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Christ were true. So, he changed tack in his broadcast career from writing scripts for the BBC television series Doctor Who in the 1960s to presenting programmes about the Templars in the 1970s.

In a book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, published in 1982, Lincoln and his co-authors promoted the hypothesis that the Priory’s main aim was to re-instal the Merovingian dynasty that had once ruled France. These kings had allegedly intermarried with the descendants of Christ. The Messiah, it turned out, had been the husband of Mary Magdalene and she had borne him children.

The popes in Rome have always known that a bloodline of Jesus exists and the role of the Knights Templar, called into existence by the Priory of Sion, has been to protect those descended from Christ. The idea being that it’s the intention of the Vatican to snuff out the bloodline because it poses a threat to papal power. It also reveals that Jesus was very different to the biblical portrayal.

Academics and professional historians are almost 100% united against this account of the Knights Templar as a brainchild of the Priory of Sion, an organisation protecting the bloodline of Jesus. But the book written by Henry Lincoln was an undeniable influence on the Da Vinci Code though I should point out that an attempt by Lincoln’s co-authors to sue Dan Brown failed.

It would also be dishonest of me not to mention that the originator of the Priory of Sion theory was a Frenchman called Pierre Plantard in 1956 who claimed that he himself was in the bloodline of Jesus and descended from the Merovingian kings. He is widely regarded as having perpetrated an elaborate hoax.

Here is Henry Lincoln in 1979 on the BBC explaining his theory.

Henry Lincoln has developed his theories further since the Da Vinci Code was published and you can see a later documentary here:

 

Winter is coming! But it’s a Templar winter, not a Targaryan one!

Winter is coming – but courtesy of the History Channel, it will be a Templar winter. Forget the dragons and white walkers, give me the Knights Templar any day of the week. Here is the trailer for the series you must not miss this fall. Or autumn for my British followers!

Joseph of Arimathea and the Knights Templar

To understand why the Knights Templar based themselves in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the mysterious biblical figure of Joseph of Arimathea is worth knowing. He was, according to the Gospel of John, a secret disciple of Jesus – a rich Jewish merchant who may even have been the great uncle of Jesus.

JOSEPH-TAKES-BODY
Did Joseph of Arimathea possess relics sacred to the Knights Templar?

One blogger has noted that he would have to be the great uncle as being uncle would have meant he had the same name as Jesus’ father. Hardly likely two brothers would both be called Joseph. Another source stipulates that he was Mary’s uncle and so that problem is solved.

Joseph was an unusual choice for a disciple given that apparently, he was a Pharisee – the class of priest that gets a particularly bad write-up in the New Testament. You’ll perhaps remember that the Pharisees were deemed to be total hypocrites – moral on the outside, but corruption within.

It was Joseph who would provide a tomb for the body of the crucified messiah and also the shroud in which he was wrapped. The gospels claim he got permission from the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to take the body away. This begs the question how exactly he got in front of the governor to put forward this request and why it was accepted. Was he a very senior figure in local Jewish society? Did he bribe the governor?

Some have poured scorn on the idea of Jesus being removed so quickly noting that it was far more likely the Romans would have left the body of a trouble maker like Jesus to rot in public for a while on the cross and not allowed something as civilised as a tomb burial. But of course he had to be buried in order to be resurrected. And given that resurrection was supposed to be bodily – not just the soul – the idea of Christ’s body being pecked to bits by crows was never going to be very palatable.

More importantly for the Templars, Joseph was believed to be the man who collected some of Christ’s blood in a chalice as he hung on the crucifix. That chalice we know as the Holy Grail. It’s then claimed that Joseph travelled to England to spread the gospel. He arrived in Glastonbury – known as Avalon at that time – and baptised 18,000 people in one day at the nearby town of Wells. The Holy Grail was hidden away, maybe placed in a well that to this day is known at Glastonbury as the Chalice Well.

At this point I should also point out that it was widely believed in the Middle Ages that Joseph had brought Jesus as a youth to England before returning to the east. It’s even asserted that Jesus worked as a farm hand or a miner during his stay.

So with Joseph you have a lot of associations with important and sacred relics:

  • The holy shroud in which Jesus was buried
  • A chalice used to collect his blood that may also have been held by Christ at the Last Supper
  • The tomb of Jesus
  • Joseph also possessed the lance that pierced Christ’s side according to some accounts

Were the Knights Templar established to protect these relics from being found or stolen? Or they were lost for centuries and the Templars were desperately looking for them under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem? If they found these relics, did that account for the Templars’ sudden wealth and power? These and many more theories have circulated for centuries and at the centre of it all is a rather enigmatic figure of whom we really know very little: Joseph of Arimathea.

 

 

 

Did the Templars find anything under the Temple of Solomon?

The nine knights who founded the Knights Templar petitioned the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1119 to establish their headquarters in what had been the Al Aqsa mosque – before the crusaders seized the city in 1099, putting an end to four hundred years of Muslim rule. The knights believed that the Al Aqsa was actually the Temple of Solomon. It stood, as it does today, on the Temple Mount – which had previously been home to the vast temple of the Jews of the Old Testament. The Babylonians and later the Romans had destroyed that temple and any vestige of its magnificent past.

This does beg the question why the Knights Templar, who derived their name from this holy site, were so keen to be based there? The answer many have advanced is that the Templars were not so much interested in the mosque above ground as the treasure they thought might lurk below. Those who give credence to this argument point to the warren of tunnels underneath the Temple Mount – or Haram al-Sharif as Muslims call it. Surely, they argue, the Templars were scrabbling around for something down there?

Could it have been thTemplare fabled wealth of king Solomon? If they had discovered those riches, that could account for the very rapid financial growth of the Templar order and its position as a major banking power as well as military force. Or did they uncover sacred relics under the temple of Solomon? Some minds have raced in the direction of the Ark of the Covenant, the shroud of Jesus and the head of John the Baptist. Note that during the trials that ended the Templar order in 1307, they were accused of worshipping a head – some say that of a cat, others a three-faced god and yet others – John the Baptist.

There is a theory that when the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they discovered ancient secrets that had to be guarded – kept secret maybe. The Templars were specifically founded to keep these secrets under lock and key – away from the eyes of the faithful. What could be so terrifying to the church that it needed to set up an order of military monks? Some allege it was the Holy Grail – which was neither a platter nor a cup but the relics of Mary Magdalene who had married Jesus and borne him a child after his crucifixion. Those of you who have read the Da Vinci Code will know that the child was a girl and established a divine blood line to the present day.

And if – just if – the Templars really had found great treasures under the Temple of Solomon and spirited them away – what happened to this treasure? Well, in 1307 when the king of France decided to shut down the Templars and seize their money to clear his debts, knights were seen scurrying out of the great Temple building in Paris with carts groaning under the weight of large sacks. They made their way to the port of La Rochelle and the treasure, Templar knights and the Templar fleet of ships were never seen again.

 

Spain and Portugal – battle ground between Islam and Christianity

Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.

Cordoba
The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century – Muslim ruler of modern Spain and Portugal

Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.

So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?

Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.

Cathedral
The medieval cathedral in Porto from where a crusade was launched to take modern Lisbon from its Muslim rulers – an undertaking covered in my book Quest for the True Cross

This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.

For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.

Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.

In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four  hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.

spanish-unification.jpg

 

Templars, Indiana Jones and Petra

As you will recall from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the Nazi baddy is asked by an ancient Templar knight in the closing scene to choose what he believes is the Holy Grail in order to have eternal life. But there’s an array of goblets to choose from and he gets the wrong one – with disastrous consequences.  This scene is set in a huge tomb in the ruined city of Petra in modern Jordan.  Last month, I had the privilege to go there and here are some amazing photos.