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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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.

 

 

 

Glastonbury, the Isle of Avalon and the Holy Grail

The Round Table experience a vision of the Hol...
The Round Table experience a vision of the Holy Grail. From a 15th century French manuscript. 

In 1976 when I was only 12 years old, my parents took me to the English county of Somerset.  We passed through the Roman town of Bath with its ancient ruins and eighteenth century additions.  Then to Wells with its impressive cathedral.  But it was Glastonbury that really fired my imagination.

The Isle of Avalon was surrounded by sea at the end of the Ice Age but that gave way to reedy swamps that could be navigated with small boats or crude wooden walkways.  Rising above the mists and fetid water was a hill called Glastonbury Tor.  It can be taken as read that for pagan Britons this would have already had a magical or mystical significance.  And not surprisingly, the sites that were venerated by pagans were appropriated by the later Christians.

holy-grail-2In the villages of Somerset, the talk went round that Jesus – the son of God – had worked in the county as a boy together with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea.  They had built a wattle and daub church (though it’s sometimes claimed that Joseph did this on his own after the death of Jesus).  It was even claimed that Jesus had toiled in a specific village called Priddy, where there was open cast mining.  Jesus of course went on to be crucified in the Holy Land but his uncle returned to Somerset with a cup used by his nephew at the Last Supper and containing some of the blood of Jesus after being speared by a Roman soldier.  The cup is best known to us as – the Holy Grail.

Resting on Wearyall Hill, near the Tor, for the night – Joseph stuck his walking staff in the ground and dozed off.  When he woke up, it had taken root and was sprouting leaves.  This became the Glastonbury Thorn.  A cutting from the Thorn would later be planted in the grounds of the medieval abbey that would be built nearby and this tree can still be seen.  Indeed a cutting is sent to the Queen every Christmas.  What she does with it – I have no idea!

The Holy Grail was buried by Joseph at the entrance to the kingdom of the dead near the Tor.  From that spot gushed a spring still called Chalice Well and it was said that this was the real fountain of eternal youth.  You may test the veracity of this claim should you wish – take a cup and try it.  The original wattle church was held very sacred by the early Christian church in England and over time became encased in a larger structure – and over the centuries, a monastic complex sprang up around it.  King Ine of Wessex in the eight century, seeing how many pilgrims were coming to worship there, promoted a new stone building to cover the ‘old church’.

Indeed, Glastonbury really became the most holy place in England during the Dark Ages.  As abbot of the monastery in the tenth century, St Dunstan enlarged and enriched it still further and though the Norman invasion brought some disruption, the Domesday Book recorded it as the richest monastery in England.  But disaster would eventually strike – and strike hard.  In 1184, fire destroyed the Norman buildings and the wattle church.

The monks not only lost their home and place of worship but – and let’s be frank about it – they lost a wealth creating machine.  But medieval monks were an industrious bunch.  Possibly a little unscrupulous too.  So, after a handful of years, they announced to the world that while clearing the site and digging around a bit – they’d found the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere.  This was in the year 1191.  And why wouldn’t Arthur have been there – after all, he’d have been looking for the Holy Grail which had been buried by Joseph of Arimathea.

Arthur’s tombstone was handily available and in latin was inscribed his name and last resting place on the Isle of Avalon:  “Hic iacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in insula Avalonia”.  The remains were put in pride of place and King Edward I built a black marble tomb over them.  All this was smashed up during the Reformation of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and only a marker in the grass shows you were the tomb was once situated.

By 1278, when Arthur’s new improved tomb was unveiled, the abbey was simply vast.  St Mary’s Chapel had been built on the site of the Old Church and was relatively modest structure.  It was now linked by the Galilee Porch to a cathedral which rivalled Canterbury and St Paul’s in London for size.  A behemoth of a church stretching 580 feet.

One of the last additions was the crypt built by Abbot Richard Beere in 1500 which you can still lower yourself down in to.  A really atmospheric space and well worth seeing.  The abbot served guests sumptuous meals cooked in the octagonal pyramid shaped kitchen which is one of the few buildings still surviving.  Unbelievably, the abbot’s palace was demolished as late as the eighteenth century.

In this palace, kings were entertained.  One king entertained there was Henry VIII.  A monarch who started out as the staunchest defender of the Pope and the Catholic church against the heresies of Luther in the early sixteenth century.  But one divorced wife later, Henry turned on the monasteries and their enormous wealth.  Though never a Lutheran, he established himself as head of the church and set above the dissolution of the monasteries – including and especially Glastonbury.

Even though Abbot Richard Whiting took the oath of allegiance to the king when he broke with Rome – keen to keep his head – it didn’t work.  He was tried and hung, drawn and quartered before a crowd up on the Tor.  In case any of the monks were thinking of returning to the abbey, his head was stuck on a pole over the gateway.  Other limbs found their way to Wells and Bath to deliver a similar warning.

Over the next three hundred years, the mighty abbey became a source of stone for the local town as it expanded.  These were days before a tourism industry and a society where resources were scarce.  You could say, everything was recycled including the abbey.  So with little sentimentality, it was stripped down until the ruins that can been today.  But they are still incredible ruins that dwarf you and a visit is thoroughly recommended.

Here is a visitor’s video:

Saint James – patron saint of crusaders

MatamorosJames, often known as Saint James the Greater, was a fisherman from Capernaum. He needs to be distinguished from James the Just, the brother of Jesus, who was another apostle. This James came from a well-to-do family. He had a burning hatred of the Samaritan community and when they failed to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, he suggested raining fire down on them from heaven. This suggestion was firmly turned down by Jesus.

The martyrdom of James is recorded in the New Testament. He was killed at the orders of Herod Agrippa. In the centuries that followed, stories began to emerge that James had found his way to what is now the province of Galicia in Spain, in the north-western corner. Opinions are divided whether he was alive or dead. Either his body was taken there for burial or he preached the gospel there.

Why did such a story develop? Well, what is now modern Spain and Portugal had been invaded by Muslim armies in 711CE. But slowly, small Christian kingdoms developed in the north of the Iberian Peninsula initiating a 700-year process of military re-conquest called the “Reconquista”. At the outset, these kingdoms came under relentless attack from the caliphate to the south, which was richer and better resourced. But slowly they pushed forward. Being the Middle Ages, these crusaders needed divine inspiration and they got it by adopting Saint James as THEIR apostle.

The town of Santiago de Compostela was designated as the true burial place of James. The saint appeared as a vision to armies before battle. Miracles were attributed to him. And slowly but surely a basilica complex developed over his grave and the pilgrims began to swarm in from all over Europe. In fact, the cult of Saint James was second only to Jerusalem in the Templar period.

I’ve been twice to Santiago and the pilgrims are still coming journeying along the Camino de Santiago. They climb the stairs behind an enormous statue of the apostle to kiss his gold and jewel encrusted shoulders. They worship before statues of him trampling on the enemy Moor.

He’s not the only biblical figure believed to have journeyed very far after the death of Jesus. There’s also:

  • Joseph of Arimathea went to Glastonbury to convert the ancient Britons
  • Thomas the apostle went to India to spread by the Christian faith
  • Mary Magdalene fled to France with the child of Jesus