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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Castle built by Saladin – a picture gallery

I have just returned from a ten day visit to Jordan – a country with an amazing history sandwiched between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to share the incredible places I visited.

Here is Ajlun castle built in 1184 by a nephew of Saladin to see of the crusaders and protect local iron mines from the crusaders. A jewel in Ayyubid history – that’s the dynasty founded by Saladin. As you know, Saladin would go on to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and put many Templar knights to the sword.

One special plea to the Jordanian authorities – please remove the rubbish piling up near the castle. It’s such a beautiful monument and I’m sure those large bins can be put elsewhere! Don’t let that put you off a visit.

Ajlun castle
Looking out over the countryside
Ajlun castle
On top of the fort
Ajlun castle
Boiling oil was poured down here on to invaders
An atmospheric stairway
An atmospheric stairway
The main entrance
The main entrance
The imposing walls
The imposing walls
Please get rid of that rubbish!!
Please get rid of that rubbish!!

The mummified heart of Richard the Lionheart

English: Effigy of Richard I of England in the...
English: Effigy of Richard I of England in the church of Fontevraud Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King Richard the first of England – better known as Lionheart – was killed by a boy using a crossbow during a siege in France, defending his ancestral holdings. Richard was not only king in England but duke of both Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou.  So when he wasn’t in the Holy Land fighting Saracens, he was in what’s now France fighting the French. In fact, he hardly spent any time in England itself during his entire reign.

During a siege in France, he was inspecting the battlements of the castle he was trying to break into when a crossbow bolt hit his shoulder. The resultant medical procedure to remove it – or butchery if you prefer – probably infected the wound and from the description of the time, gangrene set in. The boy who had shot the crossbow was famously pardoned by Richard but when the king succumbed and died, the poor lad was flayed alive in a particularly brutal execution.

The king’s body was then divided with most of it going to Fontevraud Abbey, his entrails being interred at Chalus while his heart was sent to the cathedral in Rouen. The heart re-emerged in the 19th century, still encased in a lead box but pretty much turned to powder. So I’m not sure that the term ‘mummified’ really stands up to the reality. However, there’s clearly enough left for medical staff to have just carried out a toxicological analysis. The reason was to prove or disprove a theory going back to the medieval period that Richard was killed by a poisoned arrow.

The evidence seems to suggest not. But the heart was covered in spices meant to give it a saintly odour after death. Its owner though was not killed by poison. He was brought down by a boy whose father had been killed by the king and was simply seeking revenge.

Who was Jacques de Molay – last Templar Grand Master?

Jacques de Molay, nineteenth-century color lit...
Jacques de Molay, nineteenth-century color lithograph by Chevauchet

Everybody knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky because it was the day that Jacques de Molay and the last Knights Templar were rounded up and imprisoned by King Philip of France. De Molay would eventually be burnt to death in front of Notre Dame in Paris and with his demise, the order was crushed. But who was Jacques de Molay?

He was born in 1244 in Franche-Comte – in the region of Burgundy, where the first Templars had originated. Aged just over twenty, in around 1265, he became a Templar knight. De Molay came from a noble background, as did most knights in the order, and once initiated, he made his way to the Holy Land.

From 1273 to 1291, the Grand Master was William (or Guillaume) de Beaujeu. Some accounts say that De Molay disliked De Beaujeu and felt his posture towards the Saracens was far too passive and peaceable. Even that the Grand Master was guilty of treachery, betraying the order’s interests in outremer (the term used to describe the Christian crusader kingdoms established along the eastern Mediterranean coastline). De Molay reportedly spoke out against De Beaujeu, making it known that he’d make a far better job of running things if he ever got the chance.

That opportunity presented itself when Acre fell to the Saracens in 1291. De Molay may have been at the siege where De Beaujeu was killed. Reportedly, the old Grand Master was found staggering from the walls of the city. He revealed a fatal wound saying: “I am not running away. I am dead. Here is the blow.” His death led to the short reign of Tibald Gaudin. In 1293, at Gaudin’s death, De Molay was finally proclaimed as the new Grand Master. Things – he declared from Cyprus – were going to change. Not, however, as he intended.

The fall of Acre may have opened up the Templar leadership to De Molay but it also dealt a heavy blow to the image of the Templars. Some argue that the crusader mission in the Holy Land was already of diminishing interest in the west. The world was changing. Old feudal values were being eroded. Increasingly powerful kings were less willing to bow their knee to papal power. Ideas of nationhood were, it’s said, starting to emerge. This not only threatened the universal Catholic church but also an order like the Templars that operated like a state within a state, a church within a church. What late medieval monarch could tolerate such an uncontrolled power within his realm?

De Molay, presumably oblivious to these trends, went on a long journey round Europe drumming up interest in a renewed crusade. Templar chapter meetings were convened in Montpellier (1293), Paris (1295/6) and Arles (1296). He pleaded the Templar cause to the kings of Aragon and England. And De Molay was present at the election of pope Boniface VIII in December, 1294.  This was the pope that the writer Dante would portray in hell in his book The Divine Comedy and it was this pontiff who would clash bitterly with king Philip IV of France – the ruler who would prove to be the nemesis of the Templars. Boniface demanded that Philip acknowledge papal supremacy and the king responded by arrested his legate and sending an army to spell things out to the pope.

De Molay discovered that Europe’s rulers were thoroughly preoccupied with fighting each other – pouring money into the Holy Land was not a priority. Back in 1095, Pope Urban had been able to galvanise Europe to defend the holy places in response to an appeal from the embattled Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Things had changed though. Byzantium was an obviously declining force. Jerusalem had long been lost to the Saracens. Italians, French and English had their swords drawn at each other’s throats while rulers of what would become Spain were rolling back the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba and Seville. Muslims were being driven back in western Europe – so why waste time on a lost battle in the east?

The Hospitallers, some believe, took the temperature and began to re-invent themselves as a kind of anti-piracy maritime police force in the Mediterranean based in Rhodes. This, however, was not something De Molay was prepared to countenance. The Templars were about conquering the Holy Land for Christ or they were nothing. And so, De Molay persisted with attacks on the Saracens from his island base in Cyprus, which incongruously called itself the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This only reinforced the sad fact that the Templars had no territory on the mainland – they had lost everything.

No money and no support from the west did not seem to daunt De Molay who flung his men into battle with the Saracens. Some say that the Grand Master was pigheaded and even stupid. It’s argued that he was impervious to the changing times and not too bright. But, De Molay clearly felt that his order was not about to go through some re-branding exercise, a cynical change in its mission statement. No – De Molay was going to go down fighting. To hell with reality – there were Saracens to fight!

His one hope in the Middle East was the presence of Mongol armies. They had arrived from faraway China and fanned out over the region terrorizing Muslim armies and wreaking havoc. To the Templars, they seemed to be a godsend. De Molay sent a force of Templars (and Hospitallers joined them) to try and retake Tortosa (in modern Syria) linking up with a Mongol force. The Christian force made their way to the island of Ruad, just off the Syrian shore, and prepared to attack. But the Mongols failed to show on time and the crusaders drifted back to Cyprus leaving a small force behind on the island. In the meantime, the Mamluks – Egypt’s rulers – drove the Mongols back and launched a devastating attack on Ruad. The Templars remaining there were either killed or ended up in Cairo prisons.

This would be the Templars’ last and pretty ignominious battle – hardly a glorious swansong. De Molay was summoned back to Europe by a new pope, Clement V. En route to the pontiff, De Molay went to Paris and met the king. It’s possible he had no idea that something was afoot. But Philip of France was constantly short of money and had not been shy when it came to imposing new taxes, expelling the Jews and confiscating property. Maybe De Molay thought the king would show deference to this great military order with its impressive fortified Temple in the middle of Paris. The Treasurer of the Temple, Hugh de Pairaud, was – after all –  the king’s warden of the royal revenues – so why shouldn’t De Molay believe the cash strapped monarch was on the order’s side?

Things – however – were not as they seemed. De Pairaud might have been closer to the king than De Molay realised. The treasurer had run against De Molay to become Grand Master and failed. He had sided with king Philip against Boniface. As for pope Clement V – unlike Boniface, he was a compliant tool of the French king. There were no more demands for papal supremacy and Clement would move the papal court from Rome to Avignon, beginning a period of total French dominance over the popes (though Rome would have rival so-called “anti-popes”).

Poor Clement. No matter how much he tried to appease his French overlord, the king just kept demanding more. Occasionally, the pope would summon up the dignity of his office and try to express his own view but Philip IV was by far the stronger figure. As De Molay – it seems rather innocently and naively – made his way round France, the king was already dripping poison into the pope’s ear. He’d heard some very choice rumours about those Templars – De Molay included. Their secret rituals and initiation ceremonies. Talk of them leaving Cyprus and outremer altogether and moving all their forces and wealth to the west – maybe trying to overthrow kings like….Philip! The Templars were treacherous – the Templars were a law to themselves – the Templars….had to be crushed.

Clement VClement, who comes across as a timid bureaucrat, seems to be have been paralyzed by indecision as the king bullied and cajoled him. He probably suspected that Philip just wanted the order’s fabulous wealth. As pope, he might have felt a little conflicted. On the one hand, the Templars had always been answerable directly to him and he should have protected them. But on the other hand, his election to the papacy had been largely thanks to Philip – who could destroy him as easily as he had raised him. What was a pope to do?

In the end, it was De Molay who may have precipitated the decisive move to official trials. A bluff soldier and not well versed in courtly politics, the Grand Master lost his cool and demanded that all the whisperings about the order be brought out in the open. On the 12th October, De Molay and others carried the coffin of king Philip’s sister-in-law, Catherine of Valois. To the old warrior, he must have felt that two centuries of fighting for Christ must count for something.

The very next day – he and five thousand French Templars were arrested.

German Templars, Haifa and the Nazis

Haifa, Palestine 1875.
Haifa, Palestine 1875. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During my visit to Israel in March this year, I went to Haifa and came across the most extraordinary story…that of a group of nineteenth century Germans who called themselves Templars, built a town in Ottoman controlled Palestine and fell foul of the British decades later when many of them were entranced by the doctrine of National Socialism.

Georg David Hardegg arrived in a small town called Haifa in 1868 and began to build a community of Germans. They were members of an organisation called the Templar Society. This seems to have been a rather eccentric Lutheran split-off believing that the Jews were no longer entitled to inhabit the Holy Land as they had rejected Jesus – therefore, these latter day Templars decided they had to take over the holy places and rebuild the great Temple.

Truthfully, they had nothing to do with the original Knights Templar. They were industrious settlers and seem to have made a determined attempt to settle in what is now Israel, constructing houses, schools, farming, opening shops, etc. The houses they built can still be seen in Haifa and form part of what is now called Ben Gurion Boulevard.

There has been growing interest in Israel about these German settlers and an exhibition about them was organised in Tel Aviv back in 2006. The Templars arrived at the same time that the Zionist movement was taking off and idealistic Jews were arriving in the same region from Europe. But by the 1930s, the Templars began to fall out quite dramatically with their Jewish neighbours.

About 20% to 30%, according to different estimates, joined the Nazi party. The leader of the community at that time, Cornelius Schwartz, was allegedly a signed up Nazi. And rather provocatively, some decided to rally in full Hitler regalia in the streets of Jerusalem.

In faraway Brussels, a Jewish man was interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters and was astounded to find the officer asking him questions in Hebrew. It turned out he was a German Templar! The Jewish man was sent to Auschwitz but fortunately survived to tell this very odd story.

This Nazi activity came to the attention of the British, who ran what is now Israel from the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War – and a large influx of Jews in the wake of the Nazi holocaust – the British authorities came to the conclusion that the German Templars needed to be kicked out. So, after nearly a century in Haifa, they were deported en masse to Germany.

Israel achieved independence as a Jewish state in 1948 by which time the Templars had disappeared. Here are some photos I took in Haifa of their houses.

Why were the Templars suppressed?

templar4I almost feel like this is a game of Templar medieval Cluedo – were they killed with the Turkish mace in the banqueting hall or with the lance in the dovecote?  The web is not short of sweeping conclusions so I thought I’d have a go at dissecting some of the theories – briefly of course, in the spirit of blogging!

So, let’s look at some possible reasons.

ULTRA-RICH TEMPLARS:  The Templars did become very wealthy.  Nobles placed their estates/wealth with the Order for safekeeping while on crusade.  The Order developed ingenious ways of transferring wealth from one preceptory to another developing a primitive version of the modern banking system.  They lent money to kings and popes who were not always disposed to paying that money back.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they got way too rich and powerful.

A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES:  Templars operated as an order of monastic warriors with their own command structure headed up by the Grand Master in Jerusalem.  From early on in their history, the papacy gave the Templars an enviable degree of independence.  They did not have to answer to local bishops, they ran their own estates as semi-independent fiefdoms, they could even recruit former excommunicates…only the pope could take them to task.

Conclusion: They were suppressed because they were just too big for their crusading boots.

templar5TEMPLAR FAILURE:  The Templars were formed to protect pilgrims being attacked as they journeyed to the holy places in outremer.  However, the order evolved in to a well-oiled military machine.  Their estates around Europe funded their military exploits in the Holy Land.  Together with the rival order of warrior monks, the Hospitallers, they put some backbone in to the crusades.  But from as early as the 1180s – just over 60 years from the order’s formation – things started to go wrong. The defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 wiped out the Templar success against Saladin at Montgisard. Now the brave knights were on the back foot.  Barring a few outstanding moments, it was the Saracens who were now notching up victories – Battle of Jaffa, Battle of Al-Mansurah, Siege of Safad, etc.  In 1300, together with the Hospitallers, the Templars tried to take Tortosa and failed dismally.  The crusades were over.

Conclusion: With the veneer of invincibility wearing off and the crusades unraveling completely by the early 14th century, the Templars were well past their prime and a force no longer needed.

HOSPITALLER DEVIOUSNESS:  There were two main orders of warrior monks in the Holy Land – the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.  Both were engaged in the last attempt to establish a Christian foothold in the Holy Land in 1300.  The Hospitallers were as wealthy as the Templars.  After the suppression of the Templars, the Hospitallers acquired much of their property.

Conclusion: The Hospitallers wanted to preserve their wealth and position – so they were complicit in destroying the Templars.

EVIL FRENCH KING:  Phillippe the Bel – or king Philip IV of France – fought wars on several fronts against the English and in Flanders.  Wars cost money and he ran up impressive debts.  To raise money, the king expelled French Jews in 1306 – the year before the Templars were outlawed.  He attacked the church and even sent a party of knights to arrest the pope who died as a result of his captivity.  Phillippe then got a more compliant pope – Clement V – based in Avignon and not Rome, who was far more compliant (if he knew what was good for him).  Phillippe also raided Lombard merchants for money to try and erase his debts.  The king owed the Templars a great deal of money and they had turned him down for another substantial loan.

Conclusion: Closing down and expropriating Templar assets fitted in to a pattern of grabbing assets that was a hallmark of Phillipe’s reign.

There are plenty of other factors to consider.

France had been divided by the Cathar heresy in the 12th and 13th centuries – a Gnostic variant on Christianity that exposed a deep well of resentment against papal interference in all aspects of political life.  The result of the crusade against the Cathars was the emergence of the Dominican order and the inquisition.  Possibly this created a climate where allegations of heresy against the Templars were more readily accepted.

Some argue that the Templars themselves were heretics and the church was forced to wipe them out to protect its position.  This view comes in different variants but the recurring themes are that the Templars had either picked up heretical ideas in the East or even discovered ‘secrets’ (often dug up under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, now the Al Aqsa mosque).  Those secrets of course include the Holy Grail.  Evidence is thin on the ground though some of the symbols much beloved of the Templars raise eyebrows – for example the demi-god Abraxas.

There is also the theory that having failed in the Holy Land, the Templars now consisted of a large army, well funded and organised, with not much to do.  Where was it going to go?  How would its hunger for power be sated?  Were the Templars even contemplating some kind of coup d’etat against the French king?

And of course – were the Templars engaging in those practices that caused so much abhorrence to the medieval mind?  The charge of sodomy was of course leveled against them by a bishop, incidentally, who went on to level the same charge against the English king, Edward II.  His charges stuck in both cases.

The jury is still out and this is one game of Cluedo that hasn’t drawn to a conclusion after seven hundred years of being played.

“Good” King Richard? Re-appraising the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during...
Richard the Lionheart being anointed during his coronation 

We all know from the story of Robin Hood that Richard the Lionheart – the first king of England called Richard – was a thoroughly good egg who went off to fight the wicked Saracens in the Holy Land.  The moment he was out of his country, the kingdom of England, his wicked brother John would seize power and begin a reign of tyranny.  Then Richard would have to come back – three lions emblazoned on his tunic – and put everything right again.

Hmmm. Is there any truth in this at all? Let’s go through a little list:

1) Richard was more a Coeur de Lion than a Lionheart – he was thoroughly French in background and outlook.  His ancestry was in the county of Anjou and from his father he inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and was also Duke of Normandy. Together, these domains were bigger than the kingdom of France – of which they are now a part.  And more often than not, the ‘Angevin’ monarchs of England were more powerful than the kings of France.  For Richard, Aquitaine was arguably more important than England – he certainly spent more time there – even though he was a mere Duke in Aquitaine compared to a King in England.

2) Richard’s coronation in England was marred by a massacre of the Jewish population – hardly an auspicious start to a reign.  The Jews had previously enjoyed the protection of the Norman kings but clearly no longer.  After being crowned king of England, Richard spent about three months in his new kingdom. And it wasn’t for love of the place.  His energies were entirely devoted to raising money by selling as much of the kingdom off as he could.  Richard even boasted that he would sell London if he could find a buyer. The reason for this fire sale of bishoprics and castles was to raise money to go on crusade – which is all he really wanted to do.

3) Richard was a crushing tax gatherer. Poor king John gets roundly blamed for the crisis that led up to Magna Carta but it’s actually Richard who imposed the most eye watering levels of taxation to raise money for his crusading activity.  If he’d lived long enough – he’d have probably faced a baronial revolt and not his hapless brother.

4) Once he got on crusade, was Richard all about chivalry? Certainly not. When it came to the Muslim Saracens, this king was super-bloodthirsty. In one sitting, he watched the execution – beheading to be precise – of an estimated 3,000 Saracen prisoners.

Here is a description of that massacre from the time: “They numbered more than three thousand and were all bound with ropes. The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy’s movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Musulmans, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Musulmans stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.”

5) On his way back from crusade, Richard got himself captured by a political rival – the Duke of Austria – who demanded the astonishingly enormous sum of 150,000 Marks if anybody wanted to see him free again.  England was squeezed to pay the ransom.

Once free, Richard decided to go and take out his anger against the French – who had tried to keep him imprisoned. He embarked on a murderous five year campaign of town destroying and village burning paid for by…..the English.  So exacting was this new round of taxes that a man called “William the Beard” led the citizens of London in open revolt.  William was caught and hung at Tyburn by a chain.  Clearly William was a popular figure because people in London touched the chain for years after to effect cures for various ailments.