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.

leper monks
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.

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:

Top ten medieval battles – in the movies

Here are ten movies with great medieval battles!

The first is the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 where the leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV managed to defeat a numerically superior Saracen force. Here’s how the movie Arn portrayed it. An incredible crusader victory!

Ten years later and Saladin turned the tables on the crusaders defeating them at the Horns of Hattin – depicted in the movie Kingdom of Heaven. A miserable crusader defeat!

This is a mythical medieval battle from Game of Thrones but really brings the sights and smells plus unmitigated horror of conflict to your screen. The Battle of the Bastards!


Scotland and England were forever at war with each other in the Middle Ages and some believe the Knights Templar helped the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. Here’s Mel Gibson and a lot of men in kilts killing the English.

The 13th Warrior is about a Muslim young man forced to live among the Vikings in the Dark Ages. This movie has its fans and detractors in equal measure. I loved it. It’s trashy and confused but I come back to it again and again.

More Vikings – why not? This time from the History Channel.

This takes us 100 years after the Templars were suppressed to the life of Joan of Arc leading her French army to defeat at the hands of the English. She would later be burnt at the stake.

Before Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings was giving us a mythical take on the Middle Ages.

Maleficent – another fantasy set in an imaginary medieval kind of landscape. Didn’t happen of course but the battle scene is interesting nevertheless.

And finally – a battle that really happened between the Russians and the Teutonic Knights – on ice! This is an old black and white movie but a fantastic music score, amazing atmosphere and released shortly before the Russians went to war for real with Nazi Germany.  So just imagine how terrified audiences in Moscow felt.



Cyprus and the Knights Templar – a grim Easter anniversary!

coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus
Coin of Guy of Lusignan, Cyprus 

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is now racked by a financial crisis.  Demonstrators have taken to the streets in their thousands as savers have been forced to hand up to as much as 10% of their savings to bail out the bankers. Little wonder that bankers are extremely unpopular.

But it won’t be the first time that Cypriots have raged against bankers on the island. Back in 1192, the Knights Templar were in control of Cyprus having bought it a year earlier from Richard the Lionheart.  He in turn had taken it from the Byzantine empire, the eastern Christian remnant of the Roman empire that was notionally, though not always, on the crusader side against the Muslim Saracens.

King Richard was busy trying to defend the mainland crusader states and so when the Templars offered to buy it off him, he seized the chance. And of course the Templars had the money to make good on the deal. They were not only first class soldiers – but also first class bankers. It may have been a primitive form of finance that they operated, but it was advanced for the age. The Templars issued an early form of travellers’ cheque to their customers allowing them to go on crusade without having to take all their bullion around with them. Templar preceptories operated a bit like high street banks where nobles could pop in and cash a cheque to keep them going far from home.

But bankers have never been loved. And the locals soon got weary of these warrior monks – cum – bankers running their island. There weren’t many Templars present, as few as twenty according to some accounts. The islanders had spent centuries staving off Saracen attacks plus they were religiously and culturally more affiliated to Constantinople than Rome. Add to that the Templars would have been trying to recoup their investment quite aggressively by extracting whatever wealth they could from Cyprus. Templar books needed to be balanced in order to pay for crusading in outremer.  Needless to say, these Latin Christian crusaders  soon outstayed their welcome.

Concerned at rumblings of revolt, the Templars retreated within their garrison. There were reports that the Cypriots were planning to massacre the knights on Easter Day, 1192.  So, after regaining their courage, the Templars stormed out of their castle and embarked on a wholesale massacre of anybody they met. This isn’t exactly the finest hour in the history of the Knights Templar – but it happened. The killing quelled the rebellion and an uneasy peace returned. But shortly afterwards, the Templars sold Cyprus on to Guy de Lusignan – who you will recall from the movie Kingdom of Heaven – had just lost the kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin and his Saracen armies. So he needed somewhere to rule.

Here is Guy de Lusignan fighting Balian in the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.

The grave of the Prophet to be destroyed – but not by crusaders

medinaDuring the crusades, there were numerous plans to try and invade Mecca and Medina to dig up the Prophet Mohammed and despoil the holy places.

The view of Templars and all crusaders was that Islam had been a terrible heresy, a theological aberration, that could be crushed by attacking its most revered site. If only the tomb of its founder could be destroyed, then the Muslim world would implode in on itself.

Most notoriously, Reynald de Chatillon (portrayed in the movie Kingdom of Heaven as something of a monster) menaced Mecca and Medina until the Saracens managed to get hold of him and end his life. It’s even said that he managed to capture Saladin’s sister (or some accounts say his aunt or mother) as she returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Over three hundred years later and Christians still dreamed of getting the Prophet’s body. The Portuguese adventurer and governor of Goa – Afonso de Albuquerque – set out in 1513 to secure the Red Sea for Portuguese ships on route to India. In the process, he hatched a plot to seize the corpse of Mohammed and wouldn’t return it until all Muslims had left the Holy Land. In the end, however, much like the crusaders before him – all his attempts to attack Mecca and Medina came to nothing.

And so – the original mosques built in the seventh century AD by Mohammed and his immediate followers survived. Until the last few years. Incredibly, the Saudi authorities have been busy demolishing buildings that the Prophet himself would have known. And their enthusiasm for the task goes beyond anything that Chatillon or Albuquerque could have possibly imagined.

The Wahhabi variant of Islam in Saudi Arabia is against any whiff of idol worship or veneration of sites not directly associated with the Prophet. As early as 1806, when the first Wahhabi state was formed in Arabia, gouged out of the Ottoman Empire, there was an attempt to destroy Mohammed’s tomb. This caused outrage across the Muslim world and was stopped. The Ottomans reasserted control but when the Saudis achieved full independence after the First World War, then the destruction began in earnest.

Ironically, as the number of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina has increased hugely in recent years – so has the pace of demolition. In effect, those going to Saudi Arabia are contributing to the leveling of the tombs and mosques dating back to the life of Mohammed.

In 1998, the grave of Mohammed’s mother was burnt down and his father’s tomb has also gone in recent years. The reason, apart from Wahhabi purity, is the massive expansion in modern religious complexes to house and channel all these pilgrims. New buildings are simply being slapped on top of seventh century structures. It would be rather like demolishing Westminster Abbey to make way for a hotel for worshipers – if that makes any sense.

And now in Medina, the biggest building in the world (the Masjid al-Nabawi) is about to shoot up sweeping away another three mosques from the century of the prophet. Unbelievably, these mosques contain the tombs – you guessed it – of the Prophet himself as well as Abu Bakr and Umar, his two closest associates. Reynald de Chatillon must be laughing in his grave.


The Battle of Hattin – from the Saracen point of view

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

For eight centuries, fans of the crusades have rightly held their heads in shame at the memory of the battle known as the Horns of Hattin. It was here that Saladin brilliantly ran rings round the Templar and Christian forces achieving a stunning victory. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the turning point for the crusader states – where the forward momentum was lost and their future became one of pursuing defensive strategies as opposed to pushing on to Aleppo or Damascus – as had once seemed very viable.

I have seen Hattin with my own eyes and it’s a plain near the Sea of Galilee which I took a boat trip across to get an idea of what it would have been like to approach this battle ground from water as well as land. The crusaders should never have found themselves in this unfavourable terrain but Saladin pushed and prodded them in that direction, taking advantage of the splits he knew had developed among the crusader leaders.

As all of you who have watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven know, Saladin celebrated victory by humiliating King Guy and Reynald of Chatillon – the latter was a particular object of hatred to Saladin because he had tried to attack Mecca and Medina (the plan was to dig up the grave of the Prophet), plundered a caravan train that included Saladin’s sister and broken every treaty he had signed. Saladin beheaded Reynald himself.

The account of the battle by the Saracen Ibn al-Athir makes grim reading from a crusader point of view:

The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way towards Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realized their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way. He himself rode up and down the Muslim lines encouraging and restraining his troops when necessary. The whole army obeyed his command and respected his prohibitions. One of his young Mamluks led a terrifying charge on the Franks and performed prodigious feats of valour until he was overwhelmed by numbers and killed, when all the Muslims charged the enemy lines and almost broke through, slaying many Franks in the process… One of the volunteers set fire to the dry grass that covered the ground; it took fire and the wind carried the heat and smoke down on the enemy.

It’s worth noting that the crusaders were by no means outnumbered – in fact, the armies were possibly of the same size. But Saladin had learned from previous defeats and had unified his side. After the battle, Saladin offered the Knights of the Temple and of the Hospital the option to convert or die. Two hundred refused to convert and were beheaded.

And of course – here’s the Battle of Hattin as depicted in Kingdom of Heaven (how I wish Orlando Bloom had not been in the film but hey ho)

Siege of Tiberias and disaster at Hattin

Tiberias today is a pretty small place in an area where Israel is incredibly narrow. I visited the town and there is surprisingly little of the crusader presence left, compared to Acre for example. But some very significant history is embedded in this place.

Very near to Tiberias, an appalling battle occurred at the Horns of Hattin. This was a decisive defeat for the Templars and the crusaders at the hands of Saladin. He massed about 30,000 troops to besiege the Christian forces at Tiberias. The crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was riven with internal disputes in the wake of the death of Baldwin V with Raymond of Tripoli in open revolt against Baldwin’s successor Guy of Lusignan.

While the crusaders were disunited, Saladin – an ethnic Kurd – had united Egypt and Syria and solidified the Muslim polity. Saladin was determined to take back Jerusalem and any hope of peace overtures were snuffed out when the volatile Reynald of Chatillon raided a Muslim caravan that included Saladin’s sister. She was allegedly raped.

Saladin laid siege to Tiberias but Raymond of Tripoli was strangely reticent to join battle even though his own wife was in the city. This has led to speculation that he had reached a deal with the Saracen leader that he would help Raymond overthrow Guy and become king of Jerusalem.

The Knights Hospitaller were also cagey about taking on Saladin but the Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort urged Guy on to attack the Saracens. And so he left Jerusalem with an army two thirds the size of that commanded by Saladin – a move that has rightly been described as suicidal. The intention was to relieve Tiberias but they never got there. Instead, they struck camp at Hattin where Saladin could not believe his luck. Far better to battle the crusaders in the open than when they were behind thick walls.

The rest, as they say, is history!


So…here are some pictures from medieval Tiberias that I took three weeks ago.