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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How would a Knight Templar celebrate Christmas?

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A Victorian take on the medieval Christmas

Christmas. What’s not to like? The decorations, pudding, cake, fir tree decked with lights, Santa Claus and his little elves.

Now imagine a Christmas without any of these things. Then you’re getting closer to Yuletide at the time of the Knights Templar!

So – key points for celebrating Christmas medieval style:

  • Advent is not about calendars popping open a day at a time with a chocolate sweet behind each little door. No – Advent is about fasting before Christmas. Oh yes – no goodies and plenty of hunger pangs. You’re preparing yourself for Christ’s arrival on earth so no binge eating and lots of prayer.
  • Christmas in pagan Roman times was the festival of Saturnalia where slaves and masters swapped roles for a day. This tradition mutated under Christianity into a curious practice where boys were made bishops for a day. The boy-bishops would deliver silly sermons – in one recorded instance saying that all school teachers should be hanged!
  • Deck your cottage or halls with holly and ivy but you won’t find a single Christmas tree in medieval Europe. And certainly not one covered in lights with a fairy on top.
  • No turkey on the table because these birds only arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered America. So, you had goose, beef, lamb and….the king might have enjoyed a peacock (Richard II of England certainly did). An aristocratic feast would most likely have featured a boar’s head as the centrepiece.
  • Thanks to the crusades, spices from the Middle East began to appear on medieval tables. We’re used to cinnamon flavouring but this was a newcomer. Ditto marzipan – another import from the exotic lands where the Knights Templar were doing battle.
  • Mince pies were made with mince – and flavoured with the aforementioned spices from the East.
  • Spices also featured in a drink called Wassail – drunk from a huge wassailing bowl. The bowl might be taken door to door for villagers to have a glug. Wassail was a very spicy form of cider that would have appeared like stewed apple. Should you wish to make some – HERE is a recipe.  The word Wassail comes from the Saxon/Old English for “good health” – in case you were wondering.
  • Christmas was first recorded as a word around 1038 and meant a religious mass to celebrate the birth of Christ. That meant going to church. It was obligatory. But singing carols was regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the church authorities – too much rowdiness it seems.

Carols were sung by singers standing in a circle. And they’re quite different to the jolly tunes we’re familiar with. Here’s a group re-enacting what they probably sounded like.

 

Filming for Forbidden History (UKTV) – series five – with Jamie Theakston

This week I found myself at the Gore Hotel in London filming for series five of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston and to be broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday in the Spring of 2018.

There are six episodes and I’ll be in all of them talking about a wide range of topics from who was the real historical Jesus, the man behind James Bond and the treasure looted and stolen by the Nazis. Looks like it’s going to be a great series!

On 20 November 2017, I’ll be appearing in Private Live of the Monarchs, also on UKTV/Yesterday talking about Queen Victoria. I’ll be in every episode of that series as well, presented by Tracy Borman.

Here I am filming at the Gore Hotel for Forbidden History.

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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.

Sacred statues without hair and clothes

2017-08-05 14.28.56I was in Lisbon in August of this year and made an interesting discovery…

This year, I was walking up a steep hill in Lisbon to visit the medieval cathedral. This austere fortress-like edifice was built after the city was taken from its Muslim rulers by the Templars and the Portuguese army – assisted by many foreign crusaders – in the year 1147.

What the Christians found when they entered the city was a huge mosque at its centre. This was torn down and the cathedral erected in its place.

It’s not the most attractive medieval building in Europe and with its thick walls and arrow slit windows, you get the impression that the citizenry were expecting their former rulers to try and return and recapture the place.

It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a Muslim city here, at the westernmost end of a global medieval caliphate stretching from India to the Algarve in southern Portugal. Algarve, by the way, is from the Arabic “Al-Gharb” meaning the west. The city had been in Muslim hands for over four hundred years. It’s been the capital of Catholic Portugal for the last eight hundred years. So the Islamic heritage has been largely erased.

2017-08-05 14.28.27-1Half way up the hill, I found an antique shop selling statues from the 17th to 19th centuries that had once adorned churches in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Curiously, many of items had lost their clothes and hair at some point. So pictured here is Jesus Christ with the bloodied wounds from his crown of thorns but the crown, his hair and robes have gone.

What you’re left with is the puppet-like body that was always underneath to be manipulated as the church saw fit. His arms could be extended, his legs crossed, his head bowed, whatever was required.

This would have been little different to statues of the medieval period and today, as in those times, these are often carried in processions around the streets on special feast days.

Quite a morbid shop I must say, but completely fascinating.

 

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!