So – where was Jesus really crucified? An Easter mystery!

Back in 2012, I visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – a real hotch-potch of a church on different levels and sprawling over a large area. Within its ancient walls dating back to the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine is the reputed site of the crucifixion.

But not everybody agrees.

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The crypt of the Holy Sepulchre

Every year, thousands of pilgrims trudge up the Via Dolorosa – as I did – following the last footsteps of Jesus to his place of death. The cobbled road is punctuated with all those familiar sites – such as the point at which he fell and where his face was wiped.

And it all ends up in the Holy Sepulchre. Within the church you can venerate the spot at which the cross was erected and also the tomb of Jesus.

It’s all rather convenient, a sceptic might think. What a happy accident to have both these sacred places under one roof. And the discovery of the location of the crucifixion and the tomb were made by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, on a state visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century AD. In fact, Helena just found one miraculous biblical item after another during her stay.

But there are problems. Was the crucifixion really carried out within the city walls? Wouldn’t it have been more likely for grim executions to be conducted outside the gates, by the local rubbish tip for example, away from the houses of local citizens? You have to consider that the bodies were normally left to rot and be picked at by animals for days afterwards. Did people really want to see that outside of their window?

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The  Garden Tomb – the real site of Jesus’ burial?

Also, where is the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha?

This question led some Christians in the nineteenth century, mainly Protestants, to pick a spot for the crucifixion outside the city walls near a tall mound that does appear to have a skull-like appearance. It’s just north of the Damascus gate. They also alighted on an old tomb nearby as the final resting place of the Messiah – the so-called Garden Tomb.

Now, some critics have argued that this theory has more to do with Protestants having no control over any part of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even today, that church is divided between the Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian and Greek orthodox churches. They occasionally fight each other in turf wars over who controls which bit of the church – and they’re certainly not letting the Protestants get a look in.

All I can say is that while I adore the Holy Sepulchre, it’s not a convincing site for the crucifixion. However, the Knights Templar thought it was and their churches all over Europe replicated the circular design of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m sure many of you will feel that the symbolic significance is more important than the reality. But some of you may not. So what is the truth?

When you approach the site of the crucifixion at the Holy Sepulchre, there can sometimes be scenes of deep religious ecstasy. You may think I was a bit naughty doing this but on my old iPhone (so apologies for the grainy quality), I filmed some Russian nuns showing their devotion in 2012 before the place where Jesus was executed by the Romans.

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Templar hero: Gerard de Ridefort

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Templar hothead De Ridefort – as depicted in the movie Arn

Any of you who watched the Swedish Templar movie Arn will know all about Gerard de Ridefort – or at least be familiar with the name.

Gerard was a Grand Master of the Templars who was either a crazed, over-zealous hothead leading the crusader project in the Holy Land to bloody defeat or a brave knight undermined by intrigue within the Christian court of Jerusalem. All depending who you want to believe.

It was nearly a hundred years since Jerusalem had been taken from Muslim control to be ruled by a succession of Christian crusader rulers. Their Kingdom of Jerusalem was one of several states carved out by the crusaders in the Levant (modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel basically).

The first half of the twelfth century had been all about expansion, pushing back Muslim opponents who were divided among themselves. But a leader had emerged on the Muslim side bringing both a new unity and a strength of purpose. His name was Saladin. Pragmatic genius or proto-jihadi? Historians differ in their view of the man.

He was the formidable enemy that Gerard had to face in the 1180s as Grand Master. The crusaders had managed to survive thus far through a combination of military organisation but also a degree of diplomacy and finding ways to co-exist with notionally hostile neighbours. But Saladin, having united Syria and Egypt, was in no mood to continue with crusaders sitting on his doorstep. They were going to be driven into the sea – back to the lands from whence they had come.

The Templars had emerged as the elite fighting force in the vanguard of the Christian Middle East. But Gerard had to contend with some very poisonous politics in Jerusalem. On one side of the scheming was Raymond of Tripoli, a local Christian magnate. Gerard is said to have hated him for very personal reasons.

Gerard had arrived in the Holy Land as just an ordinary knight – not a Knight Templar. He had hoped to marry a very eligible heiress called Lucia of Botrun, a daughter of one of Raymond’s vassals.

Raymond had agreed to this match but was then offered Lucia’s weight in gold if he would hand her over to a very wealthy Italian merchant. Well, Raymond wasn’t going to turn that offer down. So, Lucia was given to the merchant and Gerard had to remain a very disgruntled bachelor.

It almost looks like Gerard joined the Templars in a fit of pique. But he took to his new role. Rapidly, he rose to be Seneschal and was then elected Grand Master. His ascension to the top job came as Saladin massed his armies on the crusader borders while Christian kings in Europe had too much trouble at home to spare more resources for the war against Islam in the east.

And then the leper king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, died. He was succeeded by the seven year old son of his sister Sybilla – not exactly what the crusaders needed at that moment. Here was a child monarch, crowned as Baldwin V, who couldn’t even raise a sword let alone make any strategic decisions. And over his head, two men – Raymond of Tripoli and Guy de Lusignan – battled for real control.

Gerard backed Guy, the husband of Sybilla. And his support for Guy became even more essential when the child king suddenly died aged only eight. Gerard and Guy raced to crown Sybilla queen before Raymond could intervene. In an almost comical twist, the three keys to the chest containing the crown jewels of Jerusalem were held by the patriarch of the city, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.

The master of the Hospitallers, Roger de Moulins, didn’t want to hand over his key but a bit of roughing up by Gerard and others convinced him to play along with the plan. Though he did petulantly throw his key out of the window, which probably earned him another punch in the face. Sybilla was duly crowned and although she had promised to divorce Guy, as a condition of becoming queen, she then stuck a crown on his head too – and dared anybody to dissent. Gerard looked on approvingly.

Down the road in his castle, Raymond was horrified. So full of anger that he made a truce with Saladin. Worse, he then gave permission for one of Saladin’s commanders to march his forces through territory under Raymond’s control, right past the biblical town of Nazareth.

Gerard got wind off this while on his way to Raymond to negotiate peace terms between him and Sybilla. In truth, Gerard would rather have been heading towards Raymond to cut his head off and stick it on a pole. But he was under orders to patch things up between the rival factions. Instead, he ran into a seven thousand strong Muslim army.

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Disaster at Cresson

The Templar grand master was accompanied by the leader of the Hospitallers – he of the key thrown out of the window.  Together they were followed by about 140 knights dedicated to fighting for Christ.

So, let’s so the maths. 140 as a percentage of 7,000. My calculator says that’s fifty Muslims on Saladin’s side to every one crusader knight. Everybody agreed it was probably a good idea to retreat – except Gerard. He demanded they honour the Templar code and charge towards the opposing force.

They did and were cut down in a bloody massacre. Gerard narrowly escaped. Roger de Moulins wasn’t so lucky. This was seen by some chroniclers as typical of Gerard’s emotional approach to decision making. Whereas previous Templar masters had been cool and calculating, Gerard de Ridefort just ploughed in and hoped God was smiling on his endeavour. Evidently not at Cresson.

That engagement would be a rehearsal for the even bigger catastrophe at Hattin, which I’ve blogged about before and I’m returning to very shortly – so keep following!

Gerard would be taken prisoner by Saladin after the massive crusader defeat at Hattin but then negotiated his own release – showing he could do diplomacy when he had to. However, he was captured again by Saladin after the siege of Acre and this time, his head was struck off his shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Templar hero: André de Montbard

Right at the beginning of the Templar story, nine knights gathered to found a new order of warriors who would take monastic vows. One of them was a man called André de Montbard. So, what do we know about him?

montbardWell, he was the uncle of a very influential religious figure called Bernard of Clairvaux – later to be made a saint. Bernard was a really unusual individual. He was constantly plagued by illness including what appear to have been severe migraine attacks and high blood pressure. But far from adopting a healthy regime, Bernard tortured his own body with punishing routines of fasting, sleep deprivation and intense prayer. The sort of thing that impressed people in the Middle Ages!

Bernard had joined an order of monks called the Cistercians who wanted to bring back some discipline and modesty to medieval monasticism. He hated twiddly ornamentation in churches and illuminated bibles and believed monks should eat very plain food. So not much fun to be holed up in a monastery with Bernard – unless you shared his point of view.

Crucially, he also believed that killing in the name of Christ was OK. You weren’t committing homicide – killing a human in other words – you were killing evil. And that was just fine. So when Bernard got a visit from his uncle André de Montbard in 1126, who wanted to tell him all about the new order of Templars, it was a marvellous meeting of minds. Bernard didn’t need much convincing to swing his support behind his uncle’s friends.

Uncle and nephew wrote to each other over the years exchanging very touching thoughts. Uncle André was busy with the Second Crusade in the Holy Land while Bernard made rousing speeches to huge throngs of peasants urging them to go and fight. The future saint also found time to write the rule book for the Templars and promote the order to the pope as a jolly good idea.

Towards the end of his life, a chronically sick Bernard begged André to come and see him again. Though he also acknowledged that the crusades were in trouble and needed André’s undivided attention:

…I wish even more strongly to see you. I find the same wish in your letters, but also your fears for the land that Our Lord honoured with His presence and consecrated with His blood…

Bernard began to realise he might never see his uncle again and their conversations would have to continue beyond the grave.

But let us mount above the sun, and may our conversation continue in the heavens. There, my Andre, will be the fruits of your labours, and there your reward…

The two never met again. André de Montbard had his work cut out as Muslim armies put huge pressure on the Christian kingdoms in the Middle East. This took its toll on the Templar Grand Masters. Everard des Barres, third master of the Templars, resigned and went to join Bernard as a monk in his abbey.

Des Barres had already been absent from the Holy Land for a while and this clearly annoyed André de Montbard. He was effectively his second in command as Seneschal and wrote a rather testy letter to his boss asking him to come back and show some leadership:

Never has your presence been more necessary to your brothers. And however Providence may dispose of us, do not hesitate to start your journey back.

But Des Barres decided he’d had his fill of dangerous battles in far off lands. Instead, he tonsured his head, put on a plain monks’ habit and went off to pray with Bernard for the rest of his life. The Templars then elected Bernard de Tremelay as Grand Master number four.

But De Tremelay was killed during the siege of Ascalon – controlled by Egyptian forces. A breach in the wall of the city was created and Bernard unwisely rushed in with a band of Templars. This act reflected the first in/last out mentality of the Knights Templar – depicted as courage by their supporters and vainglorious rashness by their detractors. All of these Templars were cut to pieces and their bodies displayed, hanging headless from the walls.

André found himself elected the fifth Grand Master. Unfortunately, he didn’t have long to enjoy his time in that position. Less than three years later he passed away in Jerusalem – the last of the original nine knights who had founded the Knights Templar.

 

Templar hero: Hugh de Payens

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King Baldwin and Hugh de Payens

Transport yourself back nine hundred years to what is now Israel…

The city of Jerusalem was like a magnet to Christians at that time. It was the ultimate pilgrimage. If you were a devout Christian in England, France or any other kingdom of the time, you would have yearned to make that long journey to the Holy Land and see for yourself where Christ was born, preached, died and rose again.

It was a dangerous trip. And it took many months. There was a strong likelihood you would never return home again. Add to that the uncomfortable fact that Jerusalem was no longer under Christian control. In 1118, when the Templars appeared, the city had been in Muslim hands for 450 years.

Now that hadn’t been an insurmountable problem. Pilgrims were still able to get to Jerusalem and the sacred sites were normally protected. But there had been outbreaks of hostility towards the Christians and the roads into the city were plagued by bandits, thieves and murderers. As you completed your long trek, you might have trudged past the skeletons of those killed for their money and belongings.

Horror stories like these were used to raise a crusader army in Europe to take Jerusalem back from Muslim control. There had also been desperate pleas from the Christian emperor in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) whose Greek speaking empire was being eaten away by Seljuk Turkish invaders. The pope and many priests, most notably Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, told their congregations to take up the sword and wield it in the name of their faith.

In 1099, the first crusade seized Jerusalem in an orgy of bloodshed. A few years later, a band of nine knights emerged with a novel proposition. They went to the king of Jerusalem – now a Christian – and submitted an idea for a new religious order. It would protect the pilgrimage routes and see off the bandits. And it would be based in what these knights believed to have been the Temple of Solomon in biblical times – a building that is now the Al Aqsa mosque.

Their leader was Hugh de Payens. Like Saint Bernard and many of the early Templars, he came from the Champagne region of France, near the important market town of Troyes. Exact details of how he came to create the Knights Templar and become its first Grand Master are very scant. Hugh probably joined the first crusade and when his liege lord, the Count of Champagne, returned to France – he stayed behind.

How did he come up with the idea for the Templars? Why was King Baldwin of Jerusalem so cooperative? What compelled Hugh to insist the order had to be based in the Temple of Solomon, from which it took its name? We don’t know for certain. But in a very short period, Hugh had established the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or Templars for short.

He went on a kind of fund raising and brand visibility tour of Europe. In 1128, he even made his way to London and then up north to Edinburgh setting up Templar houses. These were economic engines to create the riches to fund the order’s crusading activity. Donations started to flood in from the aristocracy proving that Hugh de Payens and his fellow knights had really tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist.

In 1129, he went before Pope Honorius at the Council of Troyes. Doing a double act with Saint Bernard, they sold the notion of the Templars to a very receptive church audience. He assured them that his knights lived according to monastic vows. They prayed regularly. They took no wives. They lives modestly. Pope Honorius was convinced and the Templars would enjoy papal protection for nearly two centuries until their downfall.

For twenty  years, Hugh tirelessly built the Knights Templar until his death in the Holy Land in 1136. Then the order was led by its second Grand Master Robert de Craon. Its richest and most glorious days were still ahead of it. But Hugh must be credited with developing the concept of an order of monastic knights and turning into into a bright and shining reality.

Discovering the treasure of the Knights Templar – “Buried” on the History channel

Get read to find out where the treasure of the Knights Templar is buried – when the History channel airs Buried on 31 January, 2018. And guess who appears as an expert when they arrive in Portugal? Yes – me!

I’ll be seen clambering around tunnels in Tomar, once the nerve centre of Templar operations in Portugal. This is where the knights fought off repeated invasions of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim forces in the south. It’s also where the Templars transformed into the Order of Christ after they were banned in 1307.

Buried is accompanying the History channel drama series Knightfall – which you will know all about if you follow this blog! So….look out for me on screen soon!

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The most horrific disease at the time of the Knights Templar

Imagine a disease that results in you losing your fingers and toes, your nose collapsing and going blind – just because somebody sneezed over you. By the time the Knights Templar were formed in the early 1100s, Europe was in the grip of a leprosy epidemic. Villages all over England saw poor unfortunates excluded and shunned for bearing the tell-tale signs of Hansen’s disease.

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A bishop confronted by several monks in the 1300s who have got leprosy

You had to come into close contact with an untreated leper and be exposed to their nasal droplets but clearly this happened as more and more people succumbed. In the period in which the Templar order existed – 1118 to 1314 – over 300 leper houses were established across England. Some believed that if they were kind to lepers, then God would shorten their time in purgatory after they died for their acts of charity to the afflicted.

But many more medieval folk simply wanted lepers shunted away and unseen. They even insisted that they carry a bell around their neck to announce that they were in the vicinity. You can imagine the terror that some superstitious and ignorant peasants felt when they heard that bell coming towards them. They might have hidden behind a bush until the sad, bedraggled figure limped past.

The bacteria that causes leprosy – Mycobacterium leprae – is slow growing and today very treatable. But of course with no modern medicine in the medieval period, an infected person could expect a long period of painful suffering before death. And I’m talking years here.

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The leper squint at Greenstead

So in my book Quest For The True Cross – I have a village leper called Jake, once a respected member of the community and now an outcast. Somebody like him would have been a familiar figure. Villagers might have remembered him as a fixture down the local tavern but now reduced to being treated like a dog with scraps thrown to him while he watched holy mass through a hole in the church wall – called a “leper squint”. There is one such squint in a Saxon church at Greenstead near where I grew up.

When somebody was identified as having succumbed to leprosy, they had to undergo an unusual religious ritual where they were officially excluded from the community. The priest would lead the leper to the local church telling him or her on the way that while they were sick in body, their immortal soul might still be pure. In life the leper would endure pain but in death, the invalid could ascend to heaven with a body free of disease.

Once inside the church, the leper had to kneel under a black cloth – almost as if he was dead already – while the priest set out the rules by which he or she would now have to live:

I forbid you ever to wash your hands or even any of your belongings in spring or stream of water of any kind and if you are thirsty, you must drink water from your cup or some other vessel.

The leper was told by the priest, in no uncertain terms, to wear the designated clothes, carry the bell; never to touch things they wanted to buy but point; never to enter taverns again; to only have intercourse with their own husband or wife; never go down a narrow alley in case they infected somebody; not to touch fences or posts; avoid infants and to only eat and drink in the company of other lepers.

And know that when you die you will be buried in your own house unless it be by favour obtained beforehand in the church.

The most famous leper known to the Knights Templar was the young King of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV – featured with a silvery mask in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. In spite of the debilitating condition and the appalling attitudes towards leprosy in the Middle Ages, Baldwin was able to rule for eleven years and fought the Saracens bravely in the Holy Land.

Here is a tribute to the leper king of Jerusalem: